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Keeping the Boardroom Afloat

Are too many staff causing the boardroom to capsize?

 

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 


At my first board meeting, I remember not being able
to tell board members from senior staff.[1]

The Nonprofit Board Answer Book
 

 

What is the right number of staff to attend church board meetings? This question is not on the radar of most church boards.

Until a balcony is required in the boardroom to accommodate non-voting staff members, the danger of a staff takeover of the governing process may not be evident.

Church boards need input from staff members. Most senior pastors do not feel adequate to report on behalf of all other staff members. So, how does a board get staff input without the boardroom becoming overpopulated by church staff?

For openers, let’s get this question out of the way: Is it possible for the boardroom to capsize? The answer is unequivocally yes. You may not have realized it. In fact, it may be happening at your church right now, and no one recognizes that board imbalance has occurred.

Perhaps the senior pastor is the only staff person who attends your church board meetings. If so, capsizing the boardroom is not a concern.

But at what point does the boardroom capsize? Is there a magic maximum number of staff in the boardroom? Is there a percentage limit of staff members to board members? There is no redline, magic number, or litmus test. But “when deciding who should attend, remember that a board meeting should not be a convention.[2]

Some boards hit stormy seas when only one non-voting staff member is in the room, but capsizing usually requires more than one. Finding the balance requires discretion, wisdom, perception, and seasoned boardroom experience.

There are practical ways to ensure staff do not capsize the church boardroom:

  • Staff do not attend the meeting, submitting only written reports. Using this approach, only the senior pastor attends board meetings. Other church staff members routinely submit their written reports. The only time these staff members are in the boardroom is if and when the board asks them into the boardroom to answer questions raised by the board related to staff reports.
  • Staff attend the meeting to report and then depart. In this scenario, the senior pastor is the only staff member who attends the entire board meeting. Individual staff members are present only when and if they present reports to the board.

A good barometer for whether the staff members are causing too many waves in the boardroom is to observe the dynamic that is created by their presence. Here are a few points of possible sensitivity to watch for when including staff members other than the senior pastor in the boardroom:

  • Is the presence of staff members in the boardroom conducive to good board governance? If a staff member’s presence in the boardroom does not enhance the governance process, it is easy to make the case that the staff member should not be present.
  • Do staff members interject comments into a board session without being called upon for their input? When a staff member feels free to interject unsolicited comments, this is an indication that the staff person is functioning as a board member, not a staff person.
  • Do staff members take a position in opposition to the stance of the senior pastor? If one or more staff members are not in agreement with the position of the senior pastor on a certain matter, objections should be discussed before the board meeting. Then the staff member needs to get on board with the recommendation. Otherwise, the staff member does not belong in the boardroom—period. It is incumbent, however, on the senior pastor to brief staff before the board meeting—so everyone is on the same page. Wise senior pastors will solicit contrarian views in staff meetings so there is staff agreement in board meetings.
  • Do staff members use nonverbal communication to indicate their approval or disapproval of comments made by board members? It may be a furtive glance or smile that immediately sends a message of where the staff member stands on the issue. While nonverbal messaging might be ignored by most board members, this communication could impact the vote of one or more board members and change the outcome of an important decision.
  • Do board members ask questions of non-voting staff, not intending to seek more information but giving the staff member an opportunity to “make a speech” that aligns with the position of the board member? Boardroom etiquette tip: When board members have questions, direct the questions to the board chair or to the senior pastor and let them decide whether to ask for input from another staff member. When board members begin to address questions directly to staff, the senior pastor’s position may be inappropriately diminished.

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, the stage is set for the capsizing of the boardroom by non-voting staff.

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

A senior pastor should have the prerogative
to invite the right non-voting staff members
into the boardroom at the right time
and for the right length of time.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Review: If non-voting staff members are routinely in the boardroom, is this practice helpful to the board processes? The board may not have considered this question.

  2. Evaluate: The board chair can evaluate the inclusion or exclusion of non-voting board members in the boardroom and discuss the issue during the executive session.

  3. Communicate: If the board makes a decision to modify existing practice, clearly communicate the reasons for inclusion and exclusion to the staff. If the board permits staff members in the boardroom, communicate expected behavior.

 

Prayer

Lord, give us wisdom in determining how and when
to utilize the input of staff to the board. Amen.

 


[1] Robert C. Andringa and Ted W. Engstrom, Nonprofit Board Answer Book: Practical Guide for Board Members and Chief Executives, expanded ed. (Washington, DC: BoardSource, 2004), 147.

[2] Ibid., 145.

 

From Lessons From the Church Boardroom: 40 Insights for Exceptional Governance, ECFAPress, 2018, www.ECFA.Church/KnowledgeCenter.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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