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27 Jan '11

Signs of a dysfunctional church board

Posted by T.J. Addington in church boards, church leadership, decision making, meetings
It is an unfortunate truth that many church boards are dysfunctional. That lack of health makes board meetings difficult and leadership problematic. Here are some signs of a dysfunctional board.

Confidential discussions don’t stay in the board room. I recently met with a board over a particularly knotty problem they were dealing with (a personnel issue) and discovered that my comments had been passed on to the very one they were discussing. One of the most sacred rules for a board to operate is that confidential discussions are always kept in the board room. Once someone on your board starts to violate that sacred trust, the whole board is compromised because members will be unwilling to be candid because of the fact that their comments may become public domain. Board work 101 is confidentiality.

Issues are rehashed after they have been decided. When board members bring up issues that the board has already decided – wanting to rehash them – what they are really saying is “I don’t agree with the board’s decision and I am unwilling to agree to the board’s direction.” A key principle of board work is that board members must be willing to accept the decision of the board. If they cannot as a matter of conscience, they should leave the board. Needing to get one’s way (which is what this behavior is about) is destructive to healthy boards. Board members may say whatever they want inside the board room (with the exception of personal attacks or hidden agendas) but once a decision is made, they have the obligation to abide by it and support it publicly and privately.

Board meetings are conducted without a clear agenda. When there is not clarity over the agenda the board wanders and the loudest voices end up determining the discussion of the board – often bringing up matters that have more to do with personal agendas than church leadership issues. The board chair and the senior pastor should be crafting careful agendas around the big rocks of the ministry and then it is the boar chair’s job to ensure that the agenda is followed and rabbit trails are not followed.

Board members don’t police their own. Healthy boards have a board covenant of behavior – the rules by which they operate. They also are willing to deal with board members who violate the meeting commitments. This is not easy but it is necessary because it only takes one board member who violates accepted practices to kill the health of the board as a whole. I am constantly amazed at the behaviors that boards allow because they either have not clarified acceptable behavior or simply lack the courage to call board members on their behavior.

The Board does not have a clear and defined path for decision making. Many boards have a naive assumption that they all need to agree (unanimity) before a decision is made. What this actually does is to allow just one board member to hold the rest of the board hostage when they don’t agree. In other cases, the decision making process is simply “murky” and it is often not clear that a decision has been made that everyone needs to support. After adequate dialogue, boards need to make decisions by a majority vote, that decision needs to be recorded, everyone needs to be clear on the implications and must be willing to support it.

The board cannot make a tough decision that impacts the health of the church. There is often a naive assumption that it is possible to keep everyone in the church happy, to never ruffle the waters and to always assume that individuals in the congregation – even who display problematic behaviors – have the best interests of the church in mind. I have watched boards fail to deal with behaviors that are negatively impacting the church as whole in the name of “grace.” Paul did not counsel Timothy in the Pastoral Epistles to extend grace to everyone, especially those whose behavior caused division in the church! Actually he counseled just the opposite. There are times when boards need to make hard calls that not everyone will like or understand – for the health of the ministry they give leadership to. Not doing so when it is necessary is not grace but cowardice.

Dysfunctional boards create dysfunctional churches so the health of the board and the quality of their work matter – a lot.