Equipping Board Leaders with Behavioral Expectations

How does your congregation prepare new board members for their role? Many congregations offer board member orientation, but often the training has more to do with denominational polity and congregational policy, and less to do with the interpersonal demands of the role. And yet, the thing that most frequently trips up the new board leader is a lack of awareness about behavioral boundaries. What are some of the behavioral expectations we should create for our board leaders?equipping_line_managers_to_communicate

First, a board leader needs to understand a fundamental principle of board leadership: Once on the board, you are always a leader. Whether you are sitting in a board meeting, or whether you are worshiping, in fellowship with others, working on a service project, or just hanging out; you are a board leader. You are a model, and you must act accordingly. Furthermore, when you cease to be an active member of the board you will still be seen as a leader of the congregation, and your behavior will forevermore need to exhibit who the congregation is, when it is at its best.

So, what does this actually mean? It means that:

You are always thinking, acting, deciding and influencing on behalf of the collective whole. You do not represent the best interest of any special groups (e.g. choir, women’s group, senior adults etc.) You may have been selected for board leadership because of your capacity to represent a specific kind of viewpoint in the board meeting, but from the moment that you are elected or appointed, your decision making and communication habits must advance the well-being of the whole.

You should seek to model all of the behaviors that the church or synagogue values in membership. Your presence matters. Your prayer life and spiritual disciplines matter. Your stewardship habits matter. Your attendance and participation in worship and church or synagogue programs matter. Your involvement with the community inside the congregation matters, as does your involvement in the community outside the walls of the church or synagogue. You can’t simply engage your giftedness in strategic thinking, fiduciary leadership, or governance, and ignore the other aspects of good membership.

You must learn to speak your truth in board meetings, and then represent board thinking outside of board meetings. When the board is in dialogue about an agenda item, it is important that you actively engage that dialogue; registering all of your concerns, reservations, passion and viewpoints openly with the whole group. The board will do its best work when all members bring the fullness of their viewpoints to the work. You cannot hold back in the meeting in the interest of maintaining the peace, or hurrying along an agenda item, and then complain later that you disagree with a decision that was made. Furthermore, once a decision is made, you must represent that decision outside the room as your own, even if you personally disagree with the outcome.

Board decision making happens in full meetings of the board. We may think about and discuss issues outside of the board meeting, but all decision making happens when we are together as a full board; not in the parking lot, or in hallways, via email, or within sub-groups of the whole.

You must learn to handle complaints from the congregation with integrity. Congregants love to register their complaints with board members. They assume that it is your job to maintain congregational happiness, and to resovle any feelings of discontent that they may feel. They will particularly enjoy trying to engage you in complaints about staff members and other congregational leaders. It is NOT your job to receive these complaints. Therefore, you need a strategy for responding to complaints. Consider this three-staged process.

1. When someone approaches you with a complaint it is always best to respond, “Have you spoken directly with _________ about your concern? If not, I’d encourage you to do so.” (Note that this option does not apply to situations involving abuse or serious boundary violation. We are talking here about run of the mill complaints.)

2. If the person registering the complaint indicates that they are not comfortable going directly to the person with whom they have a complaint, you may take it to the next level by saying, “May I go with you to help you have the conversation with ________?” And then of course, you need to follow up by scheduling and facilitating the conversation.

3. If the person is not comfortable with this second option, you have two choices. The most logical choice is for you to indicate that there is nothing further that you can do with the complaint, and therefore you are not comfortable continuing any further with the conversation. (And then DO remove yourself from the conversation.)

Or, if you believe that the complaint is serious and should be addressed, and you believe that the person offering the complaint is well-intentioned, and has good reason for not wanting to go directly to the person, you’ve got one final option. You can volunteer to carry the complaint to the person in question, with permission to attach the complainer’s name to the message. Going with the name attached is important. We never pass along anonymous feedback. It is not helpful to anyone to be approached with a complaint with the lead-in, “people are saying…” If the complainer is not willing to have their name attached to the feedback, then the conversation is over! There is nothing further that you can do with the complaint.

What other behavioral norms would you add to this basic list of expectations for board leaders?

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