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How does a ministry board become a great board? The same way a ministry staff becomes a great staff! Great recruitment, great leadership, and – the topic for discussion – great development.

Board Development’s Goal

The goal is to have a stronger, more creative, more capable, high-functioning governance team that is a blessing to the ministry, its staff, and its volunteers; one that creates the environment in which everyone serving the ministry can be fully who God made them to be to maximize their part in fulfilling its purpose. All board development is ultimately directed toward achieving that end result.

Every board should set a goal to be the very best board possible; to be an exemplary model of excellent governance that, as a microcosm of God’s realm, witnesses to God’s perfect, holistic final state for the world – shalom.

Development is Broad

It is natural to think of board development as group study, a few minutes out of a board meeting, but it is much broader than that. Anything that strengthens the board’s capacity to govern is board development. So think big. The question to ask is, “What will it take to get us closer to being the board we aspire to be?” The answer will be your board development plan.

Board development includes learning in its traditional formal and informal forms (books, courses, seminars), but it also encompasses shared experiences (visiting your ministry’s programs in action, debriefing and learning from how a board handled a situation or made a decision), activities that draw people closer together (group spiritual discernment, social events), and even infrastructure that supports the board (board website, work processes and committee structure, board directory).

A development plan should include anything that would help the board achieve its goal of being the very best possible board.

Development Needs

While you may already have identified a high priority development need, if you are not in a crisis and have some time, start with a board evaluation that will give you the information you need to do a needs assessment. CCCC (in the member area of our website) has a comprehensive survey your directors can complete that addresses both the individual and the group. We also have a webcast that helps you understand the issues addressed by the survey’s questions.

There are four broad development categories your needs will likely fit into:

1) Knowledge

Types of knowledge that the board may want to explore:

  • Governance (models, legalities)
  • Programs operated by the ministry
  • Operations, risks, and other internal aspects of the ministry
  • Financial literacy
  • The environments you operate in (social, political, etc.)
  • Stakeholder interests
  • Mission-related specialized knowledge
  • Tools and models for developing strategy
  • Christian discernment practices
  • A theology of the ministry’s core issue (eg., a theology of poverty, of disability, of ageing, etc)

2) Skill

Skill can be defined as the practical application of knowledge. It is one thing to know something, quite another to be good at making use of it. Skills a board might want to enhance include:

  • Problem-solving
  • Debate
  • Creative thinking
  • Conflict resolution
  • Collaboration
  • Strategic thinking
  • Thinking theologically
  • Group spiritual discernment

The board can either practice its new skills on real-life decisions it needs to make, or if those are too controversial or emotionally charged to use for practice, the board could develop some hypothetical scenarios to practice on instead. Miriam Carver has co-written a book called The Board Member’s Playbook: Using Policy Governance to Solve Problems, Make Decisions, and Build a Stronger Board. Her book analyzes and answers the scenarios according to policy governance principles, but the scenarios can be applied to any governance model, and the principles are readily transferable as well. The question you ask in each scenario is, “According to the way our board governs, how would we resolve this scenario?”

3) Relationships

Building and maintaining good relationships requires know-how and skill for sure, but it also requires directors who trust each other and are generous towards each other in their relationships. Board development must include lots of time for building strong interpersonal relationships. Having a good social environment increases peoples’ patience with each other and makes it more likely they will assume the best about the other person and cut him or her some slack when discussions get a bit tense. Based on healthy relationships, they will feel a commitment to work through differences together, rather than hardening their positions. Doing spiritual practices together also enhances relationships, and is a key part of demonstrating the Christian nature of the board.

Relationship building activities could include:

  • Social times before or after meetings, such as meals or times in a relaxed environment
  • Sharing of personal experiences to create affinity, such as why they are interested in the ministry, what their hopes are for it, family situations
  • Trust-building exercises, which could include a discussion of life lessons they live by, their values, and their priorities
  • Group devotions and prayer
  • My post How to create a sense of team on a national board has lots of relationship-building ideas

4) Infrastructure

Support structures and processes that could strengthen the board include:

  • Improving the recruiting and orientation processes
  • Adding a committee to dig deeper into an area and develop proposals for discussion
  • Making it easy for directors to communicate with each other
  • Improving the quality and timeliness of information used by the board
  • Technology to support the board’s work
  • Documentation and easy retrieval of board decisions

DIY or Hire a Consultant?

The board can do a lot of board development without outside help, especially when there is no pressing issue to address. But if a board needs development to deal with a specific issue, the more urgent the issue is, and the greater the associated risks are, the more likely the board will want to engage a consultant. Hiring a consultant can be very helpful because:

  1. They provide an unbiased, outsider’s perspective on the issue
  2. They probably have dealt with similar issues elsewhere many times, and can help you get through the issue faster
  3. They can break a logjam easier than the directors can because they are not subject to groupthink and therefore can spark more creativity than the board can on its own

It’s one thing to hire a consultant to help you through an issue; it is another thing to hire a consultant to help you through an issue while also transferring knowledge to your directors and training them on the tools and methodologies that were used. The transfer of knowledge and skill turns a regular consulting job into a board development exercise.This way, the board uses its own experience as a case study for internalizing the transferred knowledge and skill.

A board may also want to hire a consultant when it has no pressing issues. Instead of the board doing its own self-assessment, it could have the consultant assess the board and suggest a learning plan. The outside perspective is helpful because sometimes we give ourselves high scores on a self-assessment without really knowing what it takes to be worthy of a high score, and then we lose a chance to get better. A consultant would have a better perspective on how close to excellence the board really is.

If you do board development with in-house people leading it, you can easily build board development in to every board meeting. If you meet for two hours every month, perhaps 30 minutes could be devoted to board development. A board that meets a couple of times a year for a day at a time might give 90 minutes per meeting to development. Whatever time is allocated should be enough that learning can take place and skills practiced.

Download discussion guide
Download discussion guide

Development Resources

Resources for board development which don’t involve a consultant include online or live courses, seminars, conferences, books, MP3s, videos, and websites. In addition to resources on CCCC’s website (including this blog, board books and DVDs, and the knowledge bank), BoardSource, Leading From The Sandbox, and ChurchBoardChair.ca have good resources and posts.

Make the Development Stick

One advantage of group learning is that it is far more likely that real change will take place because:

  • Everyone takes the course at the same time and knows what everyone else should be doing (reinforcing the new way of doing things)
  • They all have the same terminology and shared experience (also reinforcing the new way)
  • They are all prepared to discuss new ideas related to what they learned, so that action is taken

After a board development initiative has been completed, decide how you will capture what was learned in a permanent record, such as a board values statement, a policy manual, the orientation program, or a report that becomes a permanent board document.

You can pass what was learned on to new board members through the orientation program. Many boards require all directors to take the orientation program each year, because everyone needs a reminder of how the board wants to work. Seasoned directors may still gain fresh insights and application ideas with the benefit of their board experience. Orienting all directors annually keeps everyone on the same page.

Finally, be sure to practice your new knowledge or skills right away, so board development doesn’t become just an “interesting experience” that doesn’t actually change anything. Board development is of no value unless it is acted upon and makes a difference.

“It is not enough to have knowledge, one must also apply it.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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