The best thing a board can do to prepare for a healthy, post-crisis existence, even before the crisis is over, is to give the ministry what it should always give it: the very best governance it can. The surest way to emerge as a healthy board is to be a healthy board in the present troubled circumstances. Here are some ideas to help boards through the pandemic crisis.
The Board’s Posture
When crisis strikes, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed into inaction by everything you don’t know or can’t control. Directors must shake off these feelings and take control of their thinking so they can see opportunities and make good decisions. Here are three ideas to help you regain control:
- Test: Think of the crisis as a test of your board’s governance prowess and your personal skill as a director. It is an opportunity to put every tool you have in your governance toolbox to work and see how well it performs. It is also a test of how complete and effective the board development work has been over the last few years.
- Recommitment: The crisis is also a challenge to recommit to your ministry’s purpose. In this pandemic, what are you trying to preserve? Is it a program? A building? A comfortable routine? A sacred cow? What are you not willing to give up? You will find that ultimately the only thing that really matters is that some form of the organization endures to pursue the mission to which the Lord called it. When you, as directors pursue the mission above all else, your priorities become crystal clear. Your options become easier to assess.
- Opportunity: Henry Cloud says the crisis is an opportunity for innovation. What is the essence of what you do that will never change? What are the old things you will get rid of? What needs to be “invented” to move forward. This is a time to learn from others and find new ways to fulfill mission. A pandemic can provide the opportunity that many boards would not explore otherwise.1
The most productive way for your board to approach a crisis is not to fear it, but to embrace it as a challenge for the board to step up and be its very best. If ever there were a time for excellent governance, this is it. Make “excellence in governance” a shared commitment owned by the directors. By making this commitment, they are saying “This is what we expect of each other. This is what you can expect from me. We’re in this together, giving this board everything we’ve got!”
The board is now ready to approach the crisis resolutely committed to the mission. They have something worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, and they are facing the crisis not in a panic but with a determination to pass the test. They are in control of themselves and confident they will find options from which to choose their own path forward. They are not victims of circumstance but empowered agents of God. They can proceed calmly and firmly.
Foundational Strategy for a Crisis
Your ministry needs to prepare for whatever may come. Since no one knows yet what that may be, all you can really do is make your ministry an organization that has a realistic chance of doing well in any scenario and make decisions based on the best information currently available about the present and the anticipated future.
- Focus on organizational traits. The kind of organization that will do well in all scenarios as the future unfolds is the same kind that has survived over the long-term already: it has corporate traits such as resiliency, a healthy tolerance for risk, nimbleness, and a commitment to the mission that easily throws aside anything that might get in the way of survival.
- Make temporary decisions. Most of the decisions we make in life are really temporary decisions, even when we think they are permanent. We can always change them later when we feel like it or if circumstances change. The same principle holds true in ministry. The way we pursue our mission is a temporary decision. The mission is unchanging; the methods are temporary. Sometimes the methods last for generations and then become sacred cows. When either the board or staff make a decision, treat it as a provisional decision “for now.” When new information arises, the decision can be revisited and another provisional decision will be made at that time. The only exceptions are the irreversible decisions, so they need a lot of thought and prayer. But for the many other decisions that need to be made in a crisis, leading provisionally lowers anxiety over the decision and is the only way we can make room for the Holy Spirit, who blows where he wills and presents new opportunities.
Boards have four primary considerations that continue through times of crisis:
- Oversight of the senior leader,
- Protection of the ministry,
- Guiding the future of the ministry, and
- Deciding how it will do its own work.
The Senior Leader
Since the ministry’s senior leader is likely charged with executing strategy and managing the ministry’s operations, the board should be in conversation with the leader as it considers how it should fulfill its governance responsibilities. Once a plan is agreed upon, the board should do what it can to support the leader’s implementation work.
Conversing with the Leader
The board should work with the senior leader through its usual monitoring role where the leader submits reports to the board and the board discusses them. In this respect, a crisis is no different. Leadership should submit an immediate plan laying out the first few days or weeks, and after some time of reflection, a more detailed plan for the near-term. The board should assess accordingly:
- Review their leader’s plans. Look for blind spots. Probe for and test management’s assumptions. Are they reasonable? Comprehensive? Will they do the job?
- Challenge management’s thinking—probe and help them refine their thinking.
- Ask the tough questions. Ask the really difficult questions. This is how you can help management be clear-eyed and break out of its assumptions.
- Review the current succession plan for the senior leader. In a crisis like a pandemic, the leader could get sick and be unavailable to lead. Review the succession plan and see if it is still up to date and appropriate in the current circumstances.
- Finally, having read the leader’s plans and had the conversation outlined above, discuss these questions in camera (only board members in attendance without the leader): Do we have the right people to handle the crisis? Should we augment our staff with consultants? How can the directors help? The issue is whether the board has confidence in the leader to handle the current crisis on her or his own.
Supporting the Leader
Recognize that your senior leader is likely encountering the effects of this crisis for the first time, just as the board is, and based on the assessment just done in the above conversation questions, consider if any aspects of the board-leader relationship need adjustment.
- No adjustment needed: You might have a leader who doesn’t need much help from the board. She or he has a plan that the board likes and a strong management team. In this case, the board may not have to do much more than simply monitor the situation.
- Minor adjustment needed: It may be that the leader is capable of leading the ministry through the crisis but would benefit from the greater breadth of experience and insights that the directors can provide. Directors are in a unique position to help their leader because they understand their ministry and its challenges and yet bring outside perspectives for the leader to consider. The board has the opportunity to broaden the leader’s thinking and provide additional guidance.
- Major adjustments needed: If the board finds that the leader is not equipped to lead through the crisis alone, it does not mean the leader needs to be replaced. It just means that the board needs to set up some formal supports around the leader. For example, a temporary leadership council could include the leader, directors and staff members, and the council would make group decisions without undermining the leader’s role.
Finally, boards should remember that no matter how great they think their leader is, the leader is still a human being with normal human psychology. Senior leaders will feel the full brunt of responsibility for safely guiding the organization through the crisis and may need emotional and other support from the board. Some attention should be given to how the leader is faring through the crisis.
Protecting the Ministry
The board is responsible for protecting the ministry and its mission. This is its fiduciary role. The board’s role is to assess what leadership is doing in the immediate and near-term against the longer-term welfare of the ministry by asking the questions below:
- Is leadership’s plan too dramatic, jumping the gun? Is it cutting programs or laying off staff too quickly? Is it planning irreversible actions such as selling a building? Or, is it too lethargic, not addressing real risks? Is leadership avoiding the tough decisions?
- In particular, make sure leadership avoids knee-jerk reactions that gut the mission-critical assets of the organization. There must be something that survives to carry on the mission.
- Are crisis communications in place? Is there clarity around who speaks for the organization and what the key messaging will be?
- Has leadership identified which leading indicators to watch? What are the real-time indicators of actual results to watch?
- How is the staff being cared for? Is leadership paying attention to their mental health? How is morale? Is the staff contributing to a solution?
- Is leadership considering all the relevant time periods: immediate, near-term, and long-term? Their focus will shift over time. When the crisis breaks, their attention will most likely be limited to the immediate present. But as the crisis works its way into a temporary new normal, leadership’s focus should shift to the longer-term future.
The Future of the Ministry
This is where the board moves into its generative role and looks into the long-term future.2 In this role, the board questions everything and assumes nothing about the ministry or how it works except its mission. This role is one of maximum creativity.
Once the initial assessments of the leader and the risks posed by the crisis have been made, and when action is underway to minimize risk and the downside scenarios, the board should ensure the leadership gives attention to the upside potential. It can do this through the following questions:
- How could the organization come through the crisis and emerge in better shape than before?
- Where in this crisis are the opportunities for us to advance our mission?
Finally, the board is responsible for deciding how it will do its own work.
- Should the board change how it works—the frequency of meetings and/or adding a helpful ad hoc committee?
- Does the board need to change the leader’s reporting requirements and frequency?
- Is there a need for new policy development to protect the organization better in future crisis scenarios?
Boards that give their very best governance in the uncertainties of a crisis can expect to emerge from the crisis as strong, healthy boards.
An expanded version of this post will be published in the September CCCC Bulletin.
- Henry Cloud, “Thriving in a Time Like This” (delivered online at the Next Normal conference, hosted by Leadership Network, 02 June 2020) [unpublished, https://nextnormal.app.virtualsummits.com/ ↩
- Generative governance is explained in my blog post: “Generative Governance: Purpose & significance in the boardroom” (28 August 2017), online: www.cccc.org/news_blogs/john/2017/08/28/generative-governance-purpose-significance-in-the-boardroom/. ↩