Generally speaking humans find comfort in sustaining predictable patterns and tend to avoid actions that require them to create new, untested and previously unknown processes. Church board members default to this human modality more often than they might think or like. When faced with a decision, a common question is: how have we handled this problem before? — rather than considering what creative opportunity does this decision provide to review, revise and thus transform what we are doing?
“Standing operating procedures” usually integrate learned wisdom and shrewd practice. But situations and circumstances constantly change — even more quickly and radically today. Institutional traditions, known structures and processes can become traps, preventing us from injecting new life into our institutions when decisions face board members. Without fresh perspective our institutions gradually become irrelevant and our decisions hinder, rather then enable, our mission. Sometimes it is quite a small thing that can become culture-changing or strategically significant for a church. For example, changing the lead pastor’s role to include being executive director for the organization may seem a small thing to do, but in the end can be transformational for the leader and for the congregation’s mission.
Church boards today face complex decisions, particularly as the congregation grows. There is plenty of anxiety to go around as board members wrestle with things that seem unknowable and beyond their control. Yes, we have God’s Spirit to help us, to give us insight and courage, and to enable us to listen well to one another. It takes skill and the willingness to learn and implement new ways of working together as a board if board members will embrace the possible and not just default to the traditional as they consider options. For example, learning how to ask the right questions when considering proposals generates the opportunity to think differently. One question of this nature might be: what am I not considering or what am I explaining away too quickly? Another might be: what are the core assumptions leading to this recommendation? What happens if we shift one of those assumptions just as an experiment?
One of the traps that limit church board members quest for the possible often lurks in the kinds of proposals they receive. Staff frequently restrict their presentation to a single option, even though in the process of creating the report staff may have considered numerous options and rejected them for various reasons. Such reports tend to pre-empt a board’s ability to consider and evaluate various possibilities. The board members need to know what the options might be and be permitted to determine which of these might be most beneficial. Staff certainly can present the strongest possible case for the option they think is most viable, but the board members need the opportunity to consider more than one possible outcome. For this reason the board should be directing staff to include at least three options when presenting a proposal for a new initiative or some change to current practice, process or policy.
Adopting a desire for the possible requires a certain humility. We have to discern and own our limited perspectives and be willing to learn, be adaptable and develop professionally and personally.