The spiritual mission and caring ministries of churches obviously makes them vastly different from a for-profit business. Nonetheless, churches must operate in a businesslike manner in order to have the assets and resources to fulfill their mission with Christian love.
The church board bears primary accountability for making policies, establishing procedures and conducting the church’s affairs in ways that empower and enable it to achieve its mission. And fulfilling that accountability begins with recruiting the right board members with the necessary skills for the right reasons at the right time.
This blog post overviews the six most common mistakes church boards make that can – and virtually always do – impede progress.
(On Being Board, Part 2 reviews the six best practices that church boards can employ to advance their spiritual mission and ministries.)
Mistake #1 – Failing to plan the board’s composition to align with its mission and short- to middle-term plans.
A church with plans to renovate its facilities or build new buildings has different skill needs among its board members compared to a church that plans an expanded youth ministry or enhanced community outreach. For instance, in the first case the board needs members who have skills and experience in real estate, architecture and construction; in the second case the board may need religious educators or helping professionals.
In either case, the board needs to recruit new members who not only live their strong faith but also bring to the board’s business, programmatic and ministry decisions the wisdom and knowledgeability to make sound choices.
Mistake #2 – Recruiting and selecting new board members based on cliques, personal loyalty or simply longevity of church membership.
This mistake is commonplace among non-profit boards generally and church boards specifically. When church leaders, either pastors, ministers, senior staff or board officers, make recruiting and selection decisions based on who is likely to support them, or their positions and plans for the future of the church, bad outcomes virtually always follow. Time and again the result is a board that oversees wearing blinders while the organization pays too little attention to other issues and policy matters.
Mistake #3 – Choosing board member recruits that lack the temperament and judgment to discern wise courses of action and who, even worse, sew discord and disruptive conflicts over petty slights.
Board members make significant decisions, especially at budget time, that require choices among worthy needs based on both short-term situations and long-term financial security. Churches literally never have enough resources to meet all of the needs their ministries address, so church boards have to establish priorities.
More significantly, when the church has to make personnel or policy decisions that could potentially divide the flock, board members need even more grounded temperament, both when they make a decision and as they announce and explain those decisions to their membership.
A frequently repeated pattern often follows when a board combines Mistake #2 (choosing members based on personal loyalty) and seats members who lack the temperament to make wise decisions for the future of the church’s ministries. Too often discord, division and even schisms or financial ruin follow.
Mistake #4 – Failure to set term limits and rotate new members onto the board regularly and periodically.
Church boards make decisions between and among competing priorities and divergent viewpoints. The more practical and faith-based options the board considers, the more likely it is to arrive as a wise decision.
A board with little or no membership turnover from year to year lacks the diversity of experience and innovative thinking to make those wise decisions. Indeed, a culture of we’ve-always-done-it-that-way gets ingrained; innovative ideas die on the vine because they were not invented here.
A peak ahead to Part 2 of this blog, on best practices: do not interpret the last paragraph to mean changing large numbers, even a majority, of board members every year. In fact, a two-year or three-year board term, with staggered overlapping terms (e.g. one third of the board rotates off every year, replaced with new members who serve a three-year term) balances the need for fresh mindsets with the equally important need for continuity.
Mistake #5 – Lack of an onboarding process to inform, orient and prepare new board members.
Serving on a church board, like any non-profit board, is a unique and typically unfamiliar role for new members. Further, they may need to understand documents such as financial statements/ reports, budget proposals, or policy recommendations they lack the background, knowledge and skill to understand or interpret.
Onboarding is a process that brings newly appointed/elected church board members “up to speed,” on their roles and responsibilities, as well as how the board does its work.
Too often new members arrive for their first meeting as a sitting board member and get little more orientation than a copy of the day’s agenda and supporting documents (budgets, financial reports, proposed motions or resolutions…). Within minutes, these new board members may face decisions for which they have little or no context, no familiarity with the history of the situations they face or problems the board needs to resolve.
Mistake #6 – Boring board meetings.
Perhaps you too have been there, in a staff, team or project meeting, or even a board meeting, which rivals watching paint dry or grass grow for the excruciating level of boredom.
At its worst, the meeting is a never-changing list of officers’ reports…old business…new business…all of which consists of someone reading aloud from a document the members have before them. (Treasurer’s Report: “Last month our total fund balances stood at $123,456. We had income from collections of $19,876 and donations of $148. Expenses totaled…,” ad infinitum, ad nauseum… “Leaving us a current total fund balance as of Noremember 31st of $123,458.”)
During the meeting, members daydream even as they appear to attend to the various speakers. Or, they begin side conversations on unrelated or even irrelevant topics. Some may use their laptops or smart devices to check their email, pay their bills online or send texts to their kids or grandchildren.
Such pointless boredom makes board meetings a dreaded event to endure. CorrValues often hears, “…but that’s the way we’ve always done things around here.” Our response is a question intended to respectfully, lovingly evoke a thoughtful response: “However, is that the way you always have to do things around here?”
The best practices to turn this boredom into engaging conversations (as well as avoiding the first five mistakes above) awaits in On Being Board, Part 2 – Best Practices for Church Boards.