Ask Alban: Thinking About Board Size

Q. Everyone knows that our governing board is too large for effective decision making, and yet every time we talk about reducing the size of our board people grow anxious. The conversation gets stuck when leaders assert that we must have a large board to insure good representation.  How can we engage a productive conversation about board size that explores new ground and doesn’t provoke anxiety?

A. A good place to begin the dialogue is by asking board members, “What is the fundamental work of the board?” You may want to begin with the assertion that the primary work of the board is governance, and then go on to ask board members how they understand that term.

Once board members build a shared definition of their work, you can introduce the next important question, “Why is having a large board important to you?” A first round response is likely to include vague assertions about the importance of representation and good democratic process. If you stick with this question long enough (by repeatedly asking, “And why is that important?”) you will eventually surface the heart of resistance. Congregations with large boards are often protecting or promoting some core value that is widely shared but not fully articulated. Let me offer a few examples from my consulting practice.

The board of a Baptist church recently spoke to me about their belief in soul liberty and soul freedom, and the need to protect individual voice from the unchecked authority of a pastor. In their thinking, a large board is the best way to insure the individual right of self-expression.

The board of a Unitarian Universalist congregation spoke to me about the importance of hearing the underrepresented, or the voice on the margins. For this particular group, a large board is important to insure that a mainstream voice doesn’t silence the margin.

A group of Mennonite pastors recently spoke to me of their congregations’ deeply held values of humility and being a “plain people”. A large board signifies that no individual voice is more important than another.

A Jewish rabbi explained that for a people who have suffered near extinction, the notion that every person matters finds its way into board life, where the presence of many voices around the table is an end unto itself.

If we listen carefully to these examples we see that “representation” is the expressed principle, but the underlying values that drive people to pursue representation are subtly unique. If you want to advance the dialogue around reducing board size, you need to articulate the underlying values that support representation. Then you are ready for the next question.

“Are we really promoting or protecting what is most important to us by operating with a large board?” In the above examples board members recognized that what they cared most deeply about was not actually preserved or promoted by a large body. A large board often results in a few active board members engaging in dialogue and decision making, while the rest of the board looks on, or rubberstamps decisions made outside of the room. Sub-groups within the board often form, creating marginalized clusters whose voices are never fully heard or honored. Board members don’t experience their presence as critical and find it easy to skip meetings or to ignore their responsibilities. The most assertive and frequently heard voices on the board are often not the healthiest leadership voices. In short, large boards don’t actually promote good representation, they often undermine it.

Once the board has identified the fundamental nature of their work, and they have recognized that being large doesn’t necessarily promote effective representation, you are ready to move the dialogue forward. “Where does our understanding of “right” board size come from?”  Somewhere in the history of the congregation a group of leaders decided that this structure was the right structure. Why was that decision made? Was it a good decision for that time? Are the conditions which informed that decision still relevant today? Does denominational polity really require the specific practices that we have adopted?

Finally you are ready to pose the ultimate question, “What is the right board size for who we are and what we seek to accomplish?”

Boards that engage in this type of dialogue rarely come to a decision about reduced board size in a single conversation. It takes a long time to unfreeze the long held assumptions that members cling to, even when they can no longer defend the logic behind their position. Lots of patience and good humor is required. And once the board has changed their thinking, well then there is the rest of the congregation.

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