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Centerboard: Term Limits

January 2008
By: Tom Lothamer

"Yes, I serve on the board of the pregnancy center, but I've been trying to get off for years."

This statement was made in the hearing of "Mary," a pregnancy care center staff member. She was dismayed to think the board member felt unable to express his desires through the proper channels. Maybe he was under pressure to remain on the board, had lost his passion for the ministry, or was suffering from a bad attitude. Whatever the case, he should have spoken up during a board meeting, or at least to the board chairperson.

Since you may have board members who feel this way, what might be the solution? As I talk with center directors and board members around the country, I sense that these and other problems could be alleviated quite simply.

First of all, problems like this can be avoided by board member term limits. This is how our board is structured. Members can serve two consecutive three-year terms and then must take a year off. After their sabbatical, they may serve another two terms, and so on. While it rarely happens, it also creates an opportunity after only one term for members to opt to step down. The board also has the prerogative not to extend individual members an invitation for a second term.

The beauty of this system is that it takes pressure off. There's no more wondering, "How long do they expect me to stay on the board?" or, on the other side, "How do we let such-and-such member go?" It offers a built-in release system, recognizing that while hard work will be expected for a time, it will eventually be rewarded with time off. Other benefits are: 1) the board is regularly infused with new members who offer fresh enthusiasm and ideas, 2) more people will learn about and become involved in the ministry, and 3) continuity is maintained and the status quo banished.

One downside to term limits is the ministry may lose dynamic board members, temporarily or permanently. Those individuals can, however, be encouraged to participate in other aspects of the ministry that may interest him or her more, such as: serving in an advisory capacity, fundraising, organizing special events, speaking, or teaching.

This happened to us. A tremendous board member left our board a few years ago, initially for his sabbatical but then for an extended period. During that time, though, he actually came on staff for a while and later continued to encourage and consult with us on management and fundraising issues. Now he has agreed to come back on the board, upon the board's invitation.

There's another key component at play here: the self-perpetuating board. It is the model I recommend for most non-profit, Christian ministries.

What's great about a self-perpetuating board is that the members can seek out others who will add to its "chemistry." That's an admittedly nebulous term, but it becomes very important to the functionality of successful boards. Only the current members know what has been lacking on the board or what is being lost as members exit. Only they know the mix of personalities and communication styles that exist already. By interviewing candidates beforehand, they can ascertain whether they will make the necessary sacrifices and be the ministry's effective ambassador to the community.

A possible downside of a self-perpetuating board is it becomes a "good old boy" network, made up of cronies who are unwilling to learn from or grow with "outsiders" who will "shake things up." This is why this model goes hand-in-hand with term limiting. Term limits eliminate cronyism.

I don't mean to say that a membership-elected board can't hit upon candidates who will have passion for the ministry and prayerfully and financially support it, but extra work by the board will be required to ensure new trustees are up to speed. In this case, it would be beneficial for board members to meet with candidates before the election in order to make them aware of how the board functions and what will be expected of them.

Other components that assure boards will avoid pitfalls include: 1) a clear statement of faith, 2) concise mission and vision statements, 3) firm principles of operation, and 4) a written board member job description. The board must also have in place policies addressing conflicts of interest, financial integrity, fundraising ethics, and a trustee code of conduct.

But here's the real bottom line. A successful board will be made up of people who are dedicated to:

•Christ as the Lord of the ministry

•the mission and vision of the organization

•board governance that promotes unity

•developing strong relationships among the ministry's board and staff

•humble leadership and service

•operating the ministry with integrity and Christian ethics

•prayer and the glory of God

Tom Lothamer is President of Life Matters Worldwide in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

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