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Centerboard: Silence — Not Always Golden

July 2011
By: Tom Lothamer

Jeff* was recently elected to the board of a pregnancy care center. It didn't take long before he discovered that some previous decisions made by the board seemed contrary to good board policymaking and ministry development. He wondered about the background and rationale for those decisions. 

After quizzing some of the members, Jeff learned that a few had actually harbored misgivings about the decisions but never voiced their opinions or concerns. This disturbed Jeff, and it disturbs me.

People are chosen to serve on boards for a variety of reasons. High on the list is the possession of skills, expertise, or points of view that are considered valuable to the governing body of an organization. Obviously, board members can have an impact only if they're willing to share their thoughts during meetings. All sides must be heard when a vital matter is up for discussion. 

Let me here address the meek board member for a moment: Even if you know your view is unpopular, find the courage to share it, especially if you have strong feelings about it. Your role as a board member doesn't allow you to be shy and demure. And it's not fair for the others to learn later that you kept a serious doubt hidden. You will have robbed them of your wisdom.

That being said, I'd like to examine possible causes of this kind of board dysfunction:

The ministry's mission and vision are unclear or misunderstood. If board members lack clarity about what is and is not the center's mission, they won't be able to properly evaluate an idea or opportunity. Anything goes! The problem may be complacency.

The board chairman has a strong personality with a controlling style of leadership. The tendency here might be to squelch dissent because he or she has preconceived notions of the answers before a question has been thoroughly explored. He or she may entertain the input of members who share his or her views while ignoring those of a differing perspective.

The board chairperson is meek and allows members with strong personalities to monopolize discussion. Perhaps the reason this chairperson has the position is because no one else wanted the job. This situation may be especially intimidating to new members.

The executive director has a strong personality, great vision for the ministry, and operates from a sense of urgency. These are good leadership qualities, but such an executive director could be usurping responsibilities that belong to the board. The situation of board members misunderstanding their role, or failing to fulfill their responsibilities creates a breeding-ground ripe for frustration, misunderstanding, and failure.

Board members are disengaged. Perhaps they no longer care, have been on the board too long, feel unappreciated, or are too busy to give their attention to the center.

What can be done to engage (or re-engage) board members who are hesitant to participate in a discussion?

  1. Cultivate an atmosphere in which it's safe for members to freely express honest disagreement. If members feel their comments will be met with suspicion or hostility, if confidentiality has been breached, or if there have been instances of verbal abuse in the past, it may take time to rebuild trust. Board meetings must be characterized by love, respect, and Christian decorum. Strong feelings can be shared patiently and calmly. Name-calling and other forms of disparagement must not be tolerated. It's understood that whatever is said in the meeting will not be shared outside.
  2. Keep everyone focused. Regularly review the ministry's mission and vision statements — at each meeting, if necessary.
  3. Regularly review the roles and responsibilities of board members. Have a strategy for educating new members and an ongoing training plan for veteran members. All members, not just the board chair, must hold each other accountable to fulfill their role in speaking up.
  4. Pay attention to body language! Is someone fidgeting during a meeting? Is a member sitting with arms crossed and a frown on his or her face? The chairperson may need to directly solicit their input.
  5. Give members time to absorb information and process their thoughts. It takes time for some people to express themselves. The wise board chairman will invite comments more than once, at more than one meeting on the same subject. Board members may need to speak up if only to say, "I can't put my finger on a reason right now, but I feel hesitant about going forward on this issue and wish we could table it until the next meeting. I'll try to articulate my thoughts more fully at that time." If it's the board's practice to have unanimity on decisions — and it should be — then this request should be readily approved.** No one should feel railroaded into a decision.
  6. Appoint the right board chairperson. It must be someone who can preside over meeting agendas, maintain control of members, and motivate them to stay on task. There should be a thorough job description for the board chairman, and the person chosen must have both the gifts and willingness to serve. It is not the executive director's job to keep board members focused and on-task.
  7. Use this article as a discussion-starter at your next meeting.

A board is a unit made of five, seven, eight, ten, or more members. Decisions should be made in an environment of prayer and hearty give-and-take. The goal of a meeting should be for all members to contribute to discussions and to arrive at decisions that can be embraced as being from the Lord (Proverbs 16:33). Afterward, members support the director and staff in carrying out decisions. 

*"Jeff" is a pseudonym, but the situation is real. 

**After non-unanimous votes, board members agree in Christ-like fashion to support measures 100 percent. If you, however, find yourself regularly at odds with the opinions or views of board colleagues, you may need to honestly assess the value of your contribution to the board. You may conclude, as Jeff eventually did, that you could be more effective serving another ministry.

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

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