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CENTERBOARD: Tricky Transitions

July 2008
By: Tom Lothamer
When Ray Paget stepped down as executive director of Baptists for Life to accept a pastorate five years ago, I was appointed in his place. I knew we'd really miss his presence and passion for this ministry, so I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have him on our board?" After all, I'd been his associate at BFL, and we were good friends. Surely, we'd be able to work well together.

Over the years, I've pleaded with him to consider becoming a board member, but he hasn't yet agreed to serve in that capacity. He does, however, provide counsel for me and for the staff in a variety of ways, and he and his wife Debbie remain our dear friends.

You may have faced a similar situation with a former director or other staff member. He or she may have joined your board with great success, but lately I've been hearing negative stories from enough PCC leaders that it gives me pause. Here are a few of the problems that can result:

The new director feels his or her decisions are being questioned by the former director/new board member, or that he or she can't be creative because "that's not the way it used to be done."
Even though the new and former directors have been good friends, now there's a strain in their relationship.
The former director takes too much liberty or assumes too much authority as a 'special' board member and doesn't act in concert with the rest of the board.
Staff members 'run back' to the former director/now board member with complaints about the new director or other needs, bypassing the chain of command and placing the board member in an awkward position. This undermines loyalty to the new director and brings confusion and dysfunction.
A retired director may have been a gifted leader of the PCC but is not necessarily a great board member.

I could cite other problems, but you get the idea. Therefore, as tempting as it is to latch on to the nearest and dearest warm body, generally speaking, I don't recommend appointing a recently retired executive director to the board, even when he or she leaves on good terms. But if you do appoint a former director to the board, consider the following advice:

Wait a year or two after the director retires before making the appointment. This will give the new director time to establish his or her team and develop a style and chemistry that will promote success and blessing.
Make sure the former director will truly make a good addition to the membership, bringing more spiritual depth, knowledge, and passion to the team.
Make sure principles of board governance are already in place. For instance, the former director must understand the role of a board member, which is significantly different from that of the CEO. As such, he or she was obligated to follow parameters set by the board concerning policy, budget, and the strategic plan, but made day-to-day operational decisions alone. Now, as a board member, he or she will work as one of many, since board decisions are made by the board as a whole, not as individuals.
Board members, no matter what their history is with an organization, do not make those day-to-day decisions, nor instruct the staff or assume authority only granted to the executive director.
Make sure the staff understands the role of board members, too. They must be instructed not to accept orders or interference from individual board members—no matter whom that board member is or was.

The bottom line is this: what is best for the organization? Never is this more critical than when new members are added to the board, especially when one of them has played a significant role for the ministry in the past.

So, whatever happened to Ray? While for a long time he wisely declined to join our board, Ray recently agreed to join our Pastoral Advisory Committee. My persistence finally paid off!

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


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