84. The Challenge of “Friendship” for a Church Board Chair

In a recent column on “Governance and Sustainability” in the National Post (July 5,2011) Shaun Francis and John Kelleher reflect on lessons learned ten years after the collapse of Enron Corp. According to Shaun and Kelleher, one of the findings of the U.S. Senate subcommittee lead by  Sen. Carl Levin and expressed in the report “The Role of the Board of Directors in Enron’s Collapse” was that “chairs must see friendly relationships as a danger signal.” They summarize this situation in the Enron board this way: “There were few dissenting votes, few difficult conversations, and many directors with close personal relationships with management teams members.” In their view a board chair exercises some oversight of the internal board relationships and this requires “real distance and real tension.” Presumably the danger arises in corporate board rooms because board members fail to exercise their responsibilities and chairs do not create space in board operations for rigorous debate and overlook implicit and explicit conflicts of interest that arise because personal relationships are allowed to influence judgment.

Enron Corp. was a business and the way a board of directors operates in a business environment will be different from non-profit board operations. However, I think Frances and Kelleher have identified a key challenge with which  church board chairs in particular wrestle. Consider the values that spiritual leaders (usually those appointed as church board members) are expected to demonstrate: love, mutual submission, humility, compassion and peace-making. And mix into this the critical need for the church board to function well as a ministry team, with the lead pastor (and other some other pastoral staff present) involved and all engaged in “worshipful work.” Is it necessary, is it possible, is it even desirable for a church board to incorporate “real distance and real tension” into its dynamics in order to ensure that the board is doing is work well?  Or can a church board chair do his or her job well by encouraging deep spirituality within a board, even if “real distance and real tension” are not part of a church board’s ethos?

What’s are the valuable lessons that a church board chair should learn from this call for “real distance and real tension?”

First, we should affirm that the values and behaviours engendered in believers by the Holy Spirit are good and must be expressed, even within the ethos of a church board. If church board members have to deny the very values that mark them as believers in order to govern the church, then this mode of leadership has to be rejected as inherently sinful. However, I do not think church board members have to deny their life in Christ in order to serve with integrity, commitment to truth, and a clear sense of justice. Rather the presence of the Holy Spirit should be promoting the practice of integrity and urging believers to act justly because these characteristics are  inherent in God’s nature. It is not a question of being either loving and peace-making or acting with integrity and justice. No, all of these must find integration in the wisdom and empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit.

Second, church board members, and this includes the Lead Pastor, must work and minister together with a deep sense of respect for one another. Where true respect and humility are present, there one can engage in “fierce conversations” without rupturing relationships. The biblical mandate is “to speak the truth  in love” which indicates that we can in Christ speak the truth robustly within the framework of loving relationships. This is the challenge of our life in Christ. Within the life of the Christian community we do not try to safeguard objectivity by enforcing relational distance. No, we safeguard objectivity by pursuing transparent truth-telling that occurs within a context of deep care and concern for one another. It is because God loves us to deeply that he has told us the truth about our sinful condition.

Third, within Scripture we read continually about God’s intent to assess and evaluate the work of every human being. While we are not to respond judgmentally towards other believers, i.e. with a critical and harsh spirit, we are to required to test for truthfulness, to evaluate the “spirits,” to provoke one another unto godliness, etc. Christianity is not about niceness, but rather a sincere love that sacrificially gives itself for the good of the other and often this kind of love requires truth-telling in order to avoid the sin of hypocrisy.

Fourth, Christians are human beings and we desire the affection and regard of others. And so we often engage in avoidance mechanisms in order to safeguard affections and not risk the loss of place in the community. The same dangers lurk within a church board with the result that keen discussion and rigorous debate fail to materialize, i.e. there is no “real tension.” The agape love that characterizes believers does not promote avoidance, but rather the “admonishing” and encouragement to holiness that generates faithful life in Christ. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 defines how this Christian vision of love enables personal honesty and sustains healthy relationships in a context of frank and trusted discourse.

How can a church board chair encourage a deep spirituality within board relationships and operations, while promoting and protecting the need for honest, forthright discussion? I think one way forward is to affirm that true spirituality will require, indeed necessitate, truth telling. When discussion briefs are presented, the ideas they propose have to be evaluated rigorously. The health of the congregation and the advancement of its mission require it. However, at the same time, the chair must assure those presenting the discussion brief that rigorous debate does not demonstrate disrespect for anyone, but is in fact the fundamental means by which the church board shows it regard for the ideas. They care enough to engage the ideas carefully and thoroughly. Individuals who are part of the pastoral staff must learn and come to value the fact that not every proposal they bring to the church board will be accepted. Rubber-stamping every proposal will generate hypocrisy and deception.

Secondly, the chair needs to be rehearsing within the board that voting no or asking tough questions is not a rejection of a person or an attack upon their ministry. Church board members need to be reminded, as do pastoral staff and volunteer leaders, that their function is to exercise careful discernment about the major issues facing the congregation and sometimes this will require tough choices. Voting no is not an assessment of the person presenting the idea and may not even be a statement that the idea lacks merit. Rather, it may be saying that as good as the idea may be, it will not serve to advance the congregation’s mission. Or it may be an issue of timing and resources, given current priorities. The chair needs to help the board discern what “no” means.

Thirdly, tensions do arise among church board members as discussions proceed. A chair should regard this a normal. However, such tensions need to be tempered through periods of prayer and worship. Paul’s admonition that the “sun should not go down upon our wrath” also applies to board members and their relationships. Have vigorous, respectful debate, but at the end of the meeting affirm your mutual love and care for one another in Christ. Keep the tone civil and keep the discussion focused.

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