21st Century Boardsmanship
I still remember very vividly my days as a college student in Southern California during the late 1950s, when the board of trustees met on campus. They all dressed in suits or fancy dresses, appearing remote and mysterious. Ironically, within five years I was directing a startup youth ministry, which included the daunting experience of forming a new board. Not surprisingly, I made some bad choices as a young leader, but thanks to God’s grace and some wonderful board members who mentored me, I matured in both the ministry and my understanding of boards.
For the past 15 years my board experience has included working with numerous camp and ministry boards as a consultant, and serving as a trustee for my alma mater. That’s right, I’ve come full-circle. Now I’m one of “them!”
What does it take to ensure effective leadership for these key ministries? I believe it all starts with boards that are mission-driven. Here’s what I mean: the mission-driven organization blends the ministry’s heritage and purpose. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) live in the past, but neither should we worship the past. Someone has said that the seven last words of an organization are, “We’ve never done it this way before!” At the opposite end of the spectrum is a deadly form of organizational amnesia – forgetting your heritage and trampling down what God has accomplished through the pioneers of your ministry, ignoring what they valued and sacrificed in order to build the organization.
Executive directors with their plans and visions will come and go, but the board must keep the mission and purpose. Maintaining a healthy tension between forward movement and respect for the past is the responsibility of the board. Unfortunately, many board members speak only in the past tense, bemoaning the ministry’s present need for vision and growth. “It isn’t like the old days,” they will say, “when we all came for camp work days.” Camp work days are fine – as long as they contribute to the camp’s mission and current direction, not simply to perpetuate an old tradition that only pacifies those who long for a return to the “good old days.”
Which brings me to the second key model for board members: a professional attitude. Because boards can no longer function on the “good ol’ boy” system, we need men and women who are comfortable in a professional environment, and have experience in business, technology, the professions, ministry, human resources, and leadership.
Several years ago, while working in a small community with an education foundation, I discovered that a small group of the “good ol’ boys” pretty much ran the town; nothing happened without their approval. Sadly, I’ve encountered similar situations at Christian camps. Some board structures are such that the same group of individuals or families (in the case of some camps) control the board. In other cases, this type of power structure has developed in boards populated by longtime volunteers who supported giving of time and labor, but little else. In other instances, high-control/low-accountability board members have simply recruited and retained only those who agree to fall in line and rubber-stamp their decisions.
As a result, I have often heard Christian leaders talk possessively about their ministry, their organization, their board. In nearly 40 years in Christian ministry I’ve almost always found board members of these organizations to be yes-men or women who uncritically endorse the executive leader’s plans, visions… and foibles.
In contrast, I believe the best boards of the 21st century are known for their ministry ownership, stewardship, and leadership. Board members are the corporate owners and their behavior – especially as it relates to CEOs who tend to lead in a high-control, unaccountable manner – must reinforce that commitment. This caliber of ownership requires an investment of the board’s individual and corporate time, energy, resources and vision to govern the ministry well.
At one time I consulted an organization whose rubber-stamp board had allowed the president to bring the ministry to the verge of bankruptcy. My task was to give the board courage to function like a board and make the changes necessary to bring the organization into alignment with its mission and core values. Today, this ministry is healthy and thriving, but only because the board became The Board – not the president’s personal facilitators.
The fourth key to an excellent board is organizational health. There are many sick organizations in the world of non-profits and some of them are found in our camps and conference centers. Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel’s book, “The Addictive Organization,” discusses how organizations deny, cover up and avoid problems, resulting in dysfunction and ineffectiveness. We worked with an organization (which no longer exists) in which the CEO and Board Chairman discounted our counsel regarding organizational health. They felt we did not understand their culture and they also kept the report from denominational leaders who could have intervened and restored the organization to health and life. Coincidentally, the denominational leaders felt our analysis was accurate.
Frankly, there are numerous camps and other ministries that are led by dysfunctional individuals who are not held accountable by their boards. At the same time, the ministry landscape is littered with the shattered lives and careers of camping people from organizations where the board is dysfunctional, even destructive. For example, directors who are fired illegally or suddenly evaluated without proper notification or preparation.
As board members, we have a responsibility to be spiritually, emotionally and physically healthy, and to challenge our staff members – especially the CEOs of our organizations – to follow our example. Board members who are mission-driven, good stewards and professional will help create a healthy organization where people like to work, where God is honored, and lives are changed for Jesus Christ.
Next month we’ll tackle four tensions facing board members:
- The policy vs. the operational board
- Vision vs. prudence
- Expansion vs. survival
- Growth vs. financial accountability