Many new board members expect board participation will be an opportunity for personal faith development only to find a long, parliamentary-ordered, business-as-usual meeting. While asking for bread, they felt they had been given a stone.

“Stonelike” boards are those that do not attend to personal needs and aspirations. Stonelike boards try to make too many decisions. Dr. Tom Savage, president of Rockhurst College, observes that most boards can make only one or two good decisions in a given meeting (perhaps in a year!). Considering this, adequate time and attention should be given to the really big issues over a span of meetings. Stonelike board meetings are repetitious. Stonelike boards are seduced into acting as a committee of the whole in response to incomplete committee reports or half-baked recommendations. Stonelike boards rely upon and are partial to assertive, verbal, and left-brain-oriented people. Stonelike boards rush to judgment, making decisions with inadequate lead and reflection time, with inadequate information, and without prayerful discernment. Stonelike board meetings may be cut and dried, with the real decisions having already been made by the pastor or staff. Board members are left with little power to act or lead.

“Breadlike” boards allow for bonding and trust to build as a community of faith is formed. Breadlike meetings are centered and focused by scripture on images of God and the people of God in community. Breadlike meetings take the time to prayerfully discern God’s leading and call. Breadlike boards have farmed out many operational decisions, entrusting them to other people and groups that have been empowered and commissioned to act. Breadlike boards look at the “whole forest” and to its future. Breadlike meetings integrate inspiration with governance and feel more like “worship” than “meeting.”

One pastor observed that board members, looking toward adjournment, tended to “check off” each report, wondering what time the meeting would be finished. He saw committee chairs animated while making their own reports but lethargic and passive during other reports. Commitment and energy were funneled into long-standing emotional and financial turfs. The structure of the meeting discouraged shared visioning.

Careful consideration in planning the agenda for a meeting is every bit as important as planning for worship. Like the communion table, the board table should be viewed as “holy ground.” If a meeting is to be worshipful work, with great potential for energy and excitement, much care needs to be given to its planning. A casual editing of last month’s agenda makes for more stale bread.

Here are some suggested approaches:

Replace Committee Reports

Replace the litany of committee reports with spiritually rooted practices:

Story telling or history giving. Allow a portion of the meeting to surface these in general or in relation to a specific occasion or issue.

Biblical and theological reflection. The master stories from scripture, when woven with our stories and reflected upon theologically, will produce a center, a basic purpose, and a focused mission for the church.

Prayerful discernment. Decisions are to be “discerned” with a spiritual eye rather than through a rational or deductive process.

Visioning the future. Take the long, unhurried look. Anticipate the fulfillment of trends as well as the intervention of God through the unexpected.

These four practices create the potential for an integration of spirituality and administration. They do not need to follow the same order in each meeting. Nor do they require an equal proportion of time. Sometimes one practice is more appropriate to extended gatherings or retreats. A committee may feel threatened as these practices are instituted. But that need not be the case if they can see that an agenda can easily be grouped into stories, reflections, decisions, and future planning. This framework can actually save an enormous amount of meeting time. The board is able to focus on what is most pressing, pertinent, and important.

Create an Annual Agenda

If a board or council can make only a few good decisions in a year, ask, “What is the most important decision that we have to make this year?” Pick the two to four major decisions and develop a process for consideration that ensures good communication, lead time, and prayer.

The rhythm of the church and program year lends itself to a planning cycle in which committees may need to report only once or twice a year, certainly not at every meeting. Their reports can include basic policy recommendations or future plans.

Prepare a Consent Agenda

Prepare a consent agenda in which all recommendations are in writing and listed together on a single page (or more). This should be in the hands of board members several days before the meeting. At the meeting separate out any items for which people request discussion or debate. Remaining items can be approved with common consent.

Some churches are more comfortable with an informal agenda that may not be in print. In this case, the presider can use a chalkboard; at the beginning of a meeting, ask members to identify stories, recommendations, or future explorations. List on the chalkboard any action items. Rank them in order of importance for consideration. This ensures that the board will give its best energies to the most significant decisions.

Create an Agenda Tracing Worship Themes

Create an agenda that traces the themes of the Sunday morning worship service. This method ensures that elements of worship including prayers, hymns, affirmations of faith, centering in God’s Word, offering, commitment, and blessing are present.

Incorporate Prayers

Incorporate provisions for a variety of prayers that thread their way throughout the gathering.

Reflect on the Meeting

Make provision for one of the participants to offer concluding reflections on the meeting. Reflections are not a recap of the meeting like oral minutes but a commentary on the process and significance of what has happened. What really happened here, and what is the significance of it for our life together and for the church?

The reflections may be pastoral. Often people stick their necks out in a meeting and risk more than they had planned to. They may feel uneasy and apologize, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” The meeting’s reflections might bless and affirm such a person’s participation by identifying how helpful it was to the process. Naming the tensions, conflicts, or frustrations while affirming the board’s resolve to hang together and be there for each other (as well as trusting God’s sustaining grace) continues the pastoral role.

This reflecting role, which can be rotated through the group, raises awareness of the dynamics of board process and reduces the need for subgroups to conduct their own postmortem in the parking lot afterwards!

Work with a Design Team

Invite a design team of several board members to work with the pastor in framing the agenda. Board members can rotate through the team. This move would further empower the laity and ensure ongoing feedback on whether they are ingesting stones or savoring bread!

Excerpted from Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders, copyright © 1995 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.


Featured Resources

AL158_SMTransforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders by Charles M. Olsen

Olsen presents a bold vision of leadership—one that offers church board work as an integral part of congregational leaders’ faith experience and development. Board or council members’ faith is engaged and informs the way they conduct the church’s business. Discover inspiring, practical ways your board can make its meetings become opportunities for deepening faith, developing leadership, and ultimately renewing your church.

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