Last week I attended a conference at Stanford University and met a board member from a relatively high-profile Christian ministry. He told me the executive director had just been fired the previous week. Why? Well two staff members used the Whistleblower policy to tell the board about ethical breaches by the ED. I asked a few questions about how such things could happen without the board being aware of how bad it was and discovered:
- The board didn’t understand its governance model (a policy governance model) and thought they couldn’t ask questions or do anything proactive in monitoring the ED.
- The ED aggressively told the board to stay out of staff affairs and the board accepted his argument.
I thought “Oh no! Not again!!” Another ministry that will be sidelined until the search process ends and a new ED (or pastor) settles in. This happens too often and it is soooo unnecessary. Both the board and the staff leader are at fault. The board did not properly govern and the ED rejected the board’s authority.
The cost of broken board-leader relationships
The reason I find this scenario so upsetting is that the consequences for ministries caught in this situation are substantial, not only for the people involved and the ministry, but also for the whole body of Christ. Here are some of the costs of bad board-leader relationships:
- Bad leadership. Ideally, the board and senior staff function together as a single leadership team composed of two parts with different responsibilities: governance and management. They are not, and should never be allowed to be, in opposition to each other. Within a hierarchical relationship they work side-by-side, each respecting the boundaries between their roles, to get the mission accomplished. When communication between them is broken, mutual understanding is lost and overall leadership suffers badly. Everyone focuses on internal issues rather than the mission.
- Checks and balances are destroyed. Good leaders appreciate accountability as a way of ensuring they stay at the top of their game. Board oversight helps keep leaders from becoming arbitrary or overly confident, as they fulfill their accountability requirements to the board.
- The ministry no longer is a good witness to life in the kingdom of God. Gone is any witness to voluntary mutual submission, loving your neighbour, and Christian unity. God’s blessing may be lost as a result.
Unfortunately, I hear too many stories like this one.
I grieve every time as I think of the unnecessary waste of a leader’s potential, of the loss in terms of mission accomplishment, and of the pain the board suffers as it goes first through a remedial process with the leader and then, if necessary, a termination and search process. The staff, volunteers, and donors are also affected to one degree or another through the process. In ministries where the beneficiaries feel a connection with the leader, they suffer too.
All of this could be avoided if boards and leaders could just understand and accept their roles and responsibilities for organizational leadership better. “Why don’t people get it?” I wonder.
What I’m doing about it
So, last spring as I thought about what I am most passionate about that I want boards and staff leaders to hear, the Spirit brought the quality of the board-leader relationship to mind, and I wrote a seminar about it. Starting this week, I’m visiting 14 cities across Canada to present “The Board’s Most Important Relationship DVD.”
While the seminar covers lots of practical how-to’s, I think having a good board-leader relationship really boils down to two things (as do all relationships): empathy and respect for the other party.
I really encourage you to come with your board and leader.
If the relationship is good, the seminar will help define and cement the good practices and attitudes you already have, and may give you some additional tips. If the relationship is strained, the seminar will provide lots of ideas for how to redeem the relationship.
I can’t overstate how important I believe the board-leader relationship topic is. It’s hugely important and worthy of a small investment of your time and money to attend.
May God bless your ministry through its leadership team!