Nathan Kirkpatrick: Leadership boards need to be formed as a group before getting to work

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Investing time helping board members get to know each other, learn their roles and define common expectations will pay dividends in the long term, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

New leaders often step into their roles facing an existing to-do list, as well as internal and external pressures to get the work underway and show forward momentum.

This is equally true for the collective leadership of a church board. In every congregation I’ve ever worked with, a new board begins its year of service with a demanding agenda from the first day. Staffing questions must be answered, budget matters need attention, and facility issues simply cannot wait. On top of these, there is the actual ministry of the congregation, which must be reviewed and perhaps renewed or reimagined.

Consider this a plea to press pause on that agenda -- not indefinitely, but more than momentarily -- to care for the other vital work that must happen at the beginning of a new board’s work together. Senior leaders must first invest some time in intentionally forming the board as a group of leaders and disciples. Doing so lays a foundation that will pay dividends later in the year when questions can get more complicated, stakes can get higher and disagreements can intensify.

The first priority for any new group at the beginning of its work together is to get to know one another. This sounds obvious, and yet I am surprised by the number of church boards that are still largely strangers to one another months into their work together. Senior leaders, ordained and lay, can facilitate the process by explicitly acknowledging that group members may be familiar to one another but not well-known and then helping the group become acquainted -- and not by simply leading an icebreaker.

Getting to know one another, as I am envisioning it here, depends on getting to know what each person values. This is the place of real human connection; this is the well that you will want to draw from later on, when the going gets rough.

One way to do this in your first gathering is to ask the individual members to introduce themselves and to describe what brought them to the congregation and what made them stay. Stories about finding welcome for personal conviction and room for lingering questions, about the reputation of the children’s ministries, about the beauty of the music programs or the pageantry of the worship all begin to build camaraderie. Board members see that the things they value about the congregation are similar to what other members value about it as well. Perhaps even better, as the board builds a growing list of what it values most about your congregation, the work begins with a celebration of who you are.

The second priority for a new leadership group is to help the group learn its role. A colleague of mine used to say that people want to know what it looks like when they are doing their work “correctly.” Some of your board members will be experienced with the work and responsibility of this ministry. But with an increasing number of people in the pews who were not raised in the church, the church board can seem like a mysterious body with secret handshakes and unknown customs. Those who are new can use some help discerning the balance of speaking for self yet serving on behalf of the entire congregation. Rather than leaving it to chance (or worse, to the least constructive of your incumbent board members mentoring the new folks into bad behavior), be intentional in taking some time to talk about what this particular ministry looks like when it is alive, thriving and effective.

The third priority in forming a board is to define common expectations. I often hear clergy and lay leaders complain about board members they have decided are underperforming or misbehaving. My question in reply is always, “What did you tell them before they were elected?” If the expectations for the group are not clearly stated, then we cannot fault members who are not living up to them. Early on, define how you will be together. If attendance at board meetings is presumed -- and I cannot imagine that it wouldn’t be -- then state that explicitly. If board members are expected to make a pledge to the church’s budget, state that clearly as well. In addition, set out the expectations for board member behavior: How will you treat each other? How will you disagree? How will you make decisions? Clarity around these matters is just as important as clarity around attendance.

Finally, describe how this service is a way that each person on the board answers Christ’s call to discipleship. Sharing in responsibility for the welfare of the church, stewarding the life of the congregation, is an act of faith. In the hail of revenue-and-expense statements, insurance reviews, denominational funding requests and staff conflict mediation, the work can feel otherwise, but the reason board members serve is because Jesus says, “Follow me,” and they have answered, “Wherever you lead.” To that end, early on, it is important that you talk about and demonstrate how these years of service can be a spiritually enriching experience, how they can nurture (or refresh) a life of prayer, how they can awaken hope and confirm faith, how they can incline members’ hearts to love God and neighbor in new and deeper ways. Why else would they do this?

Before the pre-existing agenda takes hold of your new board’s time and imagination, invest in the gift of one another. Get to know each other. Help the group learn their role. Define mutual expectations. And keep before you the persistent and transforming call of God to serve. Then, properly formed, your board will be ready to get to work.

This article was originally published by and has been adapted from The Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vestry Papers.