284. Getting “On-Board” — Church Board Orientation

Boardsource  recently published on their website the results of a study of nonprofit board leadership completed in collaboration with Wells Fargo (2015). There were 1472 respondents. One of the findings rather surprised me. Nearly half of board members felt their nonprofit did not have a strong orientation process. As a result, many did not fully understand what was expected of them with respect to understanding the organization’s mission, their responsibilities and financial commitment. This created some frustration and dissatisfaction as they reflected on their individual board experiences.
I would suspect that if we surveyed church board members the response to this question about board orientation would be even less enthusiastic. Because highly satisfied board members tend to contribute more overall to the organization, it’s important for nonprofits, including church organizations, to make sure they have a strong orientation program. The survey also found that the average board member dedicated 15 hours per month to board activities. This metric might be helpful to share with prospective church board members.
I do not know when your annual meeting is, but it is good practice for church board chairs to review the board orientation process about 4 months before the election of new board members. This gives you time to revise as necessary the process and seek to make it as helpful as possible. It also gives you opportunity to have coffee with some of the newer board members and get their take on what they appreciated about your current orientation process and suggestions they would have for improvement. Consultation like this is alway motivational for board members.
Usually three different kinds of people will be elected to your church board — those that have little or no board experience, those that have some, limited experience, and those that have a lot of experience with multiple boards. I would suggest that the orientation process has to be tailored in some measure to take account of these various levels of experience. One size will not fit all new board members. However, there will be some commonalities so perhaps consider a general orientation session, followed by more focused one on one interactions. There will probably be only two or three new board members being appointed in any single year.
1. New board members with no experience:   For some newly-appointed board members their term will mark their first exposure to church board work. Although they have agreed to serve, they will have many questions, considerable uncertainty, and perhaps some anxiety. In their minds the “church board” represents the “super-spiritual team” in the congregation and they wonder whether they can measure up to the challenge. The intimidation factor can be significant.
They only know what they have observed from afar regarding board work and some of their perceptions will be wildly askew. So they need to learn the basics, be encouraged, and be mentored. I have found that providing them with a short book about church board work and the role of a board member (e.g. E. Stoesz and C. Raber, Doing Good Better. How to be an Effective Board Member of a Nonprofit Organization (1997) or D. L. Kranendonk, Serving as a Board Member (2002)) can be an excellent resource to cover the bases. Also, consider linking them for a few months in a mentoring relationship with a more experienced board member.
2.  New board members with limited experience: I think the dynamic with this group may be different. Probably their board experience occurred in another church setting and the culture of that board was probably quite different. Further, those with some experience might think they know the board member role well and do not need any coaching. So you might have some attitude and bias issues to work through with such people. For example, the experience under the leadership of another board chair might not have been very positive. So it will take some time for them to gain confidence that you as board chair know what you are doing as board leader and to support and appreciate the values and wisdom that guide your leadership in this role. Or perhaps in their previous board experience they did not develop good habits about personal preparation for board meetings, engaging constructively in discussion, or fully grasping the responsibilities that board member carry individually and collectively. Or it may be that the lead pastor in their previous board situation was a negative factor in board work and the new board member brings some of this baggage into your board. Your focus with such board members will be to help them understand the culture of this board, the commitments and responsibilities that board members possess, and the accountability they have to fulfill these well. Being candid and straightforward at this early stage is important. Grace, transparency, and firmness will be required. The resources mentioned in the previous paragraph will also be helpful for such people and give them a broader framework within which to understand their role.
3. New board members with extensive experience: If one of your new board members comes with a wealth of previous board experience, this can be a tremendous asset to the board. However, such a person will come with some expectations about how boards should work. Sometimes these expectations will be disappointed and frustration can set in. With these board members I would suggest that you invite them to help you to enhance the board’s capacity for effective governance. You know far better than they do the limitations of your current board. However, you also bring a vision to your task for what this board can become. Share some of your vision with them. This type of board person can become a significant ally in your constructive work.
I have used broad categories to suggest some refinements that you might want to consider as you review your board member orientation process. What is critically important is that you develop and implement such an orientation and gradually improve it from year to year. You will in this process build better boards and prepare more satisfied and motivated board members. You will also reduce your own stress.
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