Board practices that protect ministries

We live in a world where leaders need to pay a ton of attention. “The devil is in the details,” as they say, so ministry leaders need to be on the lookout for the nooks and crannies where evil can flourish, even within their own ministry!

We are all familiar with the stories of organizations being rocked by scandal and stories of moral failure and abuse within churches and ministries around the globe.  The fact is the governing board of an organization has more influence on bringing about change and protecting their ministries than they typically realize. Often, we serve on boards without the training or experience in ministry to navigate some of the organizational issues that arise, particularly in the areas of moral failure, abuse of power, and/or sexual abuse allegations. This can leave us feeling disoriented, inadequate, or ill-equipped. Any of these feelings, as a response to sin and brokenness, are appropriate. We were not made to feel at peace when we encounter brokenness, but for those of us who have taken the role of leadership in any area, we must work to overcome our disorientation and inadequacy and equip ourselves to be ready.  It is our hope to equip you to manage the hard things that come across the governing boardroom table. 

Nonprofit boards are charged with directing and protecting, but often there is little in the form of training for this important role.  Boards play an essential role in guarding the organization from all sorts of risks, especially for organizations that serve children and families. Yet, most books and articles focus on risk from strictly a pragmatic, “dollars and cents” approach. Mitigating risk is more than just preventing financial losses and protecting public image. Dealing with risk gets to the heart of a desire to serve our ministries well and protect those entrusted to our care. And managing risk starts with each of us!

Our response to the unexpected matters – building the muscles of differentiated leadership

What happens inside of you when things around you start to go awry? Our response demonstrates our level of differentiation. Leadership expert Edwin Friedman defines a differentiated leader as someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals…someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence” (Friedman, 2007). Differentiation allows us to bring a sense of stability and peace even when we experience storms. Our values and convictions create the foundation for our stability. Like an anchor in a storm, differentiation disconnects us from the need to react emotionally and grounds us in the values and convictions that will drive our best and most mission-aligned responses. 

As members of the Governing board, building muscles of differentiation helps cultivate an environment where we can collectively respond to crises rather than react emotionally. When we are able to measure our responses, we are less likely to miss essential information and more likely to engage in critical conversations necessary for a mission-aligned pathway forward. We have listed below some considerations in preparing yourself to build the muscles of differentiation in the important role you have been given as a governing board member.

Three questions to consider

  1. Are you prepared for the unexpected? Many board members can settle into the common misconception, “This could never happen in our communities,” and thus don’t establish systems of accountability in advance of a problem. In their governing standards, The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability offers a chilling statement for governing board members, “When a ministry encounters failure—or even worse, scandal—its difficulties can almost always be traced to a breakdown in governance. The importance of an active, informed governing body cannot be overemphasized. Left unchecked, even minor board neglect can eventually intrude upon the accountability and effectiveness of the ministry.” (ECFA, 2022). Sometimes this neglect can occur because we lack protocols for disseminating important and relevant information to members of the governing board. As members of the board, we must fight to increase our awareness of risk not only in preparation for issues that will arise in ministry, but also as an act of prevention.  Doing the work to prepare helps us create important guardrails that both protect our ministries and help us respond with wisdom and discernment when issues arise.
  1. Are you prepared to disagree and navigate healthy conflict? As board members, we need to develop a culture that fosters essential conversations and includes a strategy for healthy disagreement.  Many boards, particularly within Christian communities, communicate an unspoken rule of “unity” that doesn’t allow for the healthy conflict required for God-honoring decision-making.  Iron sharpening always requires some sparks. Rather than being conflict averse, we as boards need to cultivate a board culture built on mutual trust that enables members to disagree with respect so that we can see issues more clearly and respond with wisdom.
  1. Do you have clear and written values and convictions to guide you?
    1. Board recruitment and preparation – Most board members are recruited for their connections, expertise, or financial network. It is essential for Christian ministries to recruit spiritually mature board members. We also must pay special attention to orienting new board members to the organization, instilling its unique values and mission. We must also cover topics such as biblical governance and risk management. We are in a world where risk is more than just financial or mission drift. Dealing with risk must also include addressing difficult things like abuse and accountability.
    2. Policies and Procedures – Policies and procedures for preventing abuse, as well as responding to allegations of abuse should be predetermined, reviewed, and approved by the board. Policies should be written to limit situations where there is potential for abuse and to provide accessible ways to report abuse. It’s never wise to create policies in the middle of a crisis. Policies provide an essential roadmap that helps leaders overcome emotion-driven decisions.
    3. Regular cadence of review – Boards should have a regularly scheduled cadence of policy and practice review in order to assess and limit risk. Boards should also be regularly updated about allegations of abuse or when new areas of risk are identified. They should never be caught off guard by allegations of abuse. 

Faithful diligence 

The idea of faithful diligence comes from the knowledge that we serve a God of grace. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”  Therefore, as easy as it is to want to muscle changes we want into place, we can instead rest in Christ, remembering that the ministry ultimately belongs to Christ. It is our job to steward the resources Christ has given us, and people are the most valuable resource. Because of what Christ has done for us, we should pursue with diligence our roles as board members to protect others by using the authority we have been given wisely and prudently.

While it is good to have a plan as we navigate issues, we must continually seek the Lord for His wisdom. We can look to Scripture to remember God’s promise to be with us and to guide us as we lean into His word and His precepts. We can trust with confidence that God promises to guide and direct our steps. As boards, let’s cultivate a culture of compassion and grace for one another, recognizing that as imperfect human beings, we will fall short at times. Instead of sitting in a place of feeling disoriented and inadequate, because of Christ, because of the Good News, we owe it to our ministries to lean into growth and transformation. In all things, let’s look to Christ and move forward with diligence trusting He is with us and will equip us for every good work.

Bios:

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