Key Board Traits

At the end of June, Board leaders from seven churches participated in the Advanced Best Practices for Church Boards workshop. Dr. Guy Saffold, the Executive Director of Ministries at Power to Change, addressed the role of a Church Board in making good and Godly decisions. The purpose of the workshop was directly connected to the fact that the governing leaders in a congregation form the core community of the church. Their ability to interact as a healthy community strongly influences the quality of the spiritual health of the entire congregation. One of the strongest tests of that ability is the capacity to make decisions as a team.

It’s one thing to make a decision alone. Leaders are often defined through their powers of discernment, vision and certainty. As I was collecting resources for the workshop, I discovered that most of the “how-to” material was directed at the individual. I suppose that most people find it easier to take an issue in hand and make a command decision all alone. Making a group decision is a whole different thing, especially as it relates to the spiritual work of the people of God.

As the result of a Lilly Endowment funded study in the mid-1990’s, Charles Olson began a ministry called Worshipful Work, and wrote the book Transforming Church Boards into Spiritual Communities [Alban, 1995.] His study explored the ways that congregations make decisions. What he discovered was that most boards were guided by a business model of executive, politically efficient and democratically guided decision-making. The deeper work of spiritual discernment was largely absent.

Olson wrote, “Consulting Scripture, waiting in silence, and corporate soul searching are not an easy way out … Efficiency-minded boards are accustomed to controlling the agenda … but Spiritual discernment is sometimes lengthy, sometimes meandering activity of determining what God wants, or from an eternal perspective, what already is.” He pointed to Romans 12:2 as the work of a Board’s decision making process: Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Going back to the June Workshop, the comments made by the leaders on the evaluation form confirmed that it was a “good investment of time” for Church boards to learn how to unite around “vision, mission, and strategy.” The simple strategy of the “OODALoop” presented by Dr. Saffold created a template for Board leaders to make their work a worshipful, spiritual exercise (and eventually the workshop will be available in the same sort of “course” format as the Best Practices for Church Boards Personal Workshop: Now That I Am A Board Member DVD and Workbook.) But, it also became apparent that no matter what decision-making strategy a Board adopts, several fundamental traits need to dominate the relationships of the Board. Let me suggest a few:
Kingdom Vision: When it comes to teamwork, one of the most significant obstacles is the lack of a clearly defined and commonly accepted mission. Very few teams succeed as adversaries. And yet, too often Boards are divided around competitive agendas.

I love the story used by Dr. David Horita to describe an episode from his ministry where he was given an assignment from his Church Board to draft the Church vision statement. Being the clearly defined leader, he accepted the task – but on the condition that the board participate in the work as a team. He made a list of everything that the church could be, and asked the board members to identify their top choice.

It was a humbling discovery when they found that there was no common agreement in their choices. Even more humbling was the discovery of how their choices revealed their own personal agendas, what they personally needed their church to be. David asked them to repeat the exercise again, only this time with a simple addition: What did their church need to be for others?  

Adding those two words made quite a difference. Once they were able to “set themselves aside” they discovered, together, a common vision of what God had in mind for them.

Spiritual Courage: As Larry Osborne writes in his book Growing Your Church Through Training and Motivation: “The mark of a healthy board is courage. When a tough decision has to be made, people aren’t afraid to make it. They realize that’s what they’ve been called to do. In contrast, dysfunctional boards often are dominated by fear. They find it safer to say no and to maintain the status quo.”

In the Gospel of John [6:28,29] Jesus informed the disciples that the work of ministry would be a matter of Faith. What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, “the work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.”

Before Church board members engage in decision-making, there must a heart of courage to boldly accept the challenge of faith. Over this summer, I’ve enjoyed reading the book Heroic Leadership [by Chris Lowney, Loyola Press, 2003.] The subject of the book revolves around the 5 pillar commitments of the Society of Jesus [Jesuits], identified by Chris as the “best practices from a 450-year-old company that changed the world.” Regardless of what you may think of the Jesuits, the one critical feature was that they were utterly commited to “elicit great desires by envisioning heroic objectives” in service to Christ. As Chris writes: “[they] were driven by a restless energy, encapsulated in a simple company motto, magis … more, something more, something greater … magis inspired them to make the first European forays into Tibet, to the headwaters of the Blue Nile, and to the upper reaches of the Mississippi River … regardless of what they were doing, they were rooted in the belief that above-and-beyond performance occurred when teams and individuals aimed high.”

For Church Boards to aim high, there needs to be a predisposition to spiritual courage.

Honest Trust: And, there must be an environment of trust. One of the marks of a healthy board is that people are empowered with freedom to fulfill their ministry. It’s true that trust is a quantity that has to be earned. That’s why there has to be an element of honesty where people can learn to trust each other.

That’s another lesson identified by Larry Osborne: Every board I’ve work with has had a basic bent toward either trust or suspicion. What made the difference? In most cases it was a choice. Dysfunctional boards chose the role of watchdog, making sure no one got by with anything … on the other hand, healthy boards chose trust.”

I am sure that there are more traits that could be used to measure the fitness of church leaders to boldly follow where God is leading. But, these three are a good place to begin. Get them right, and I have to believe that the worshipful work will flourish.