40. ‘Black Swans’ in the Church Board Room

No, this is not about environmental issues! As a metaphor “black swan’ appears as early as the poetry of the ancient Roman poet,  Juvenal. Apparently it was a popular expression in 16th century London to describe something impossible, because the presumption was that swans were white. Then in 1697 a Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh discovered live black swans on the Swan River in Australia. The expression “black swan event” denoted then “a perceived impossibility that later may be found to exist.”

Nicholas Taleb wrote a book in 2007 entitled The Black Swan. In the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/22/books.chapters/0422-1st-tale.html) he characterized “black swan events” as:

1. outliers — outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility;

2. carrying extreme impact;

3. after the fact we concoct explanations for its occurrence, making it explainable and predictable.

The recent financial crisis in 2008-2009 is characterized as a “black swan event” precisely because no one predicted or expected it, it has had immense impact, and after the event various explanations are being given for its occurrence. Organizationally business leaders are wondering how to prepare to deal with such realities. Can leaders help their organizations create significant robustness that such events will not be a threat, but perhaps open new opportunities for positive development? Taleb also observes that what is a “black swan event” to one entity may not be for another. What is a “black swan event” for the chicken is a normal occurrence for the cook.

Church board chairs encounter “black swan events” in the life of a congregation from time to time. For example, one church was hosting a youth musical event. The crowd was loud and energetic. Partway through the event the floor of the church facility collapsed, injuring several. The church board chair could not have predicted this would have happened. Other examples might be moral failure of a trusted and esteemed senior ministry leader and the impact upon a congregation and their board. Or in smaller centres it could be the unexpected decision by the major employer in town to shut the mill or the mine, leaving the church congregation wondering how it will survive into the future.

It is my experience that every one or two years a church board chair will encounter a “black swan event” that challenges the very ability of the board to cope and taxes his or her personal leadership ability to the max.

What can a church board chair do to help himself or herself or a board prepare itself for such unanticipated, unpredicted events that are paradigm changing?

First, a board that has learned how to work well together and to trust one another has greater capacity to weather a “black swan event.” Often when such events occur finger pointing becomes the name of the game as individuals under considerable pressure seek someone or something to blame. However, if the board has developed deep trust in one another, then praying through such events becomes the norm and confidence in the integrity of other board members will be strong. The hard work you as chair do meeting by meeting to develop board trust and mutual integrity will pay dividends when such things occur.

Second, learn the stories of how the board and the congregation have responded previously to “black swan events.” What victories can be celebrated and used to build confidence that when another such event happens God will provide the board with the wisdom necessary? If a previous event was handled poorly with harsh results, then even this can be used as a learning experience to motivate the board to discern how to do it better next time.

Third, keep insisting that the board develop good policies and educate itself so that it knows how to make good decisions, adopt useful processes, and work together to solve difficult issues. Perhaps in one session this year have the board do some brainstorming about potential threats to the congregation’s current vision. And then take one of this threats and do some scenario planning, evaluating to what degree the board and the congregation would be prepared to weather such an event. What can be discerned about the larger community’s future that might require the board to lead the congregation through some drastic change? If leadership changes are on the horizon, plan well for the succession. The more advance preparation you can make as chair, the less of a threat ‘the surprise’ will be because you can pray and plan your way through it.

Four, be discerning in all that you do. If your board is hiring new leadership, make sure the board follows the known procedures so that you learn what you need to know about the candidate before the hiring process is completed. Your chances of changing the person in any fundamental sense after employment begins are nil. If you are dealing with financial risks, exercise the greatest prudence possible. Never let private interests drive a board’s decisions. Try to keep things simple because complexity often carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. As the board approves new ministry plans, try to consider ways to build in some redundancy of systems, resiliency,  so that if one part fails, the whole plan does not implode.

The last thing I will suggest, though other strategies are certainly possible and helpful, is to make sure that the board’s area of responsibility is clearly defined in the church documents. When a church board enters into a season of crisis, it is not the time to try and sort out jurisdictional issues. Emotions are running too strongly for good decisions about such matters in those contexts. As chair you might be well-advised to review these documents and assure yourself that you understand what the lines of authority are, what authority the board has to act, and where the congregation must be brought into the picture. Test your understanding with the rest of the board members. If you discover significant lack of clarity among the board about these matters, this should then become a major issue to resolve in the near future and before the next “black swan event” happens.

Perhaps in the context of the New Testament the response of non-Jews to the Gospel became for the early church a “black swan event.” Did anyone (apart from Jesus) predict that this would happen? And when it did, was any one really prepared to accept the implications of the Gospel regarding Gentile and Jewish relations in the Messiah’s assembly? Who knows what the next “black swan event” will be in your experience as a church board chair. However, you can be certain that it will come. Prepare now so that you are not left with “broken eggs”, but can in fact create a “new omelete.”

This entry was posted in Board, Board Chair, Board Governance, Board Member and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.