Ask 5 board members and you will get 6 different answers to that question. In my role as a ministry and business coach, it seems like I have to answer this question daily. The trouble is, every board interprets the issue differently and how they perceive their role changes with each situation or question. I have had to build, rebuild, lead, and serve many different boards. I definitely know which model I think works best and my choice comes after careful research and years of experience.
Let’s look at the different options. The first option, and probably the default setting for most boards, is the board led model. Many smaller organizations default to this option because they need the expert assistance of their board members to actually run the day to day operations. This makes all of the sense in the world until the staff can’t figure out who their boss is because they suddenly have 2 or 3 people giving them direction. Or, you have business oriented members who are experts in different arenas giving you part time assistance that does not match your culture or environment.
The board led model may work for a smaller organization who has a special project or need for a set duration of time. But, it has been my experience that part time executive leadership seldom works and frequently results in confused staff and frustrated leadership. In order for an organization or church to be effective, the leadership needs to be engaged full time and able to respond quickly to changing situations. Board members who are one-off and accessible only via phone or once a month for a one-hour meeting will not be truly helpful or effective.
I bet that a few board members just closed this article because they decided that I am completely wrong and don’t know about their particular situation. There is a way that a board can help that doesn’t hurt the staff or operations long term. Let’s talk about the board protected model.
The board protected model is aligned with Biblical examples that are explained in books like “They Smell Like Sheep”. The board protected model empowers board members to fulfill a role that does not require daily interaction in the operations of the organization. Instead of leading significant ministry/programs or staff like in the board led model, they are encouraged to provide wise counsel, expert advice, and serve the leadership and staff by protecting them from member attacks and through prayer. This model promotes the board members as Shepherds who care for and guard the flock and not leaders only who direct the flocks’ jobs.
What is difference between the two models? The board led model features direct interaction with staff and the leadership of significant processes and programming. Board protected promotes the members working through the leadership and staff to get programming and ministry done instead of doing it themselves. In the board protected model the board members rarely or never meet directly with staff and may volunteer in a ministry or program, but not lead it.
One of the possible problems with the board protected model is that some of the board members will need to trust the leadership that they hired. This can be tough for the few who cannot release responsibility or delegate leadership to another person. The need for some board members to be in control at all times is non-negotiable. In order for the board protected model to work, the members must truly be servant leaders who understand their role to be support, encouragement, providing care, protection, and empowerment. Not directly leading the strategic direction of the organization or the staff.
Organizations that successfully leverage the board protected model are not as numerous as you would expect. This sometimes happens because the operational leadership is not prepared to lead in all of the areas of the role they were hired for. Or, the board members only feel comfortable leading and controlling instead of protecting and empowering.
Maybe the best compromise would be to format the board so that they can help lead and also protect and empower? Is that possible? Hopefully. But this side of Heaven it may be the only option that the board will allow. How can we make it work? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Only select board members who truly understand that their role is to be support and not direct organizational leadership. In a support role, the board will do their best to work through the leadership and not around them or for them. This means that setting strategic direction starts with leadership and is refined and supported by the board.
2. The board members should not directly lead ministries, programs, or staff. They can help lead special projects like new buildings, staff handbook creation, or policy creation and tuning. But daily operations are off limits because the board members can’t be there daily. The board members can volunteer to serve in a ministry or program. But they should not meet with the ministry or program leadership to help them lead it.
3. Board members should not meet with staff to help with personal or professional development. But what about board members who are experienced mentors/coaches? Shouldn’t the organization or church take advantage of their expertise to help the staff grow? The answer is no. This type of interaction is problematic because it blurs the reporting lines and causes confusion about priorities and goals. The board is better off outsourcing staff development or holding the leadership accountable to ensure that staff development is happening.
4. Board members need to be the biggest fans of leadership and go way over the top to provide care, encouragement, and support for the leadership and their families. I feel bad adding this suggestion because we shouldn’t need the reminder. But, again, it has been my experience that this is the one area that some boards struggle with. Please care for your leadership and their families. They really need it.
I could go on and describe more specific situations and suggestions. But this blog would end up being 20 pages long instead of two and half. I have a really nifty 60 to 75 minute training session for boards that explains the roles of the board protected model in detail. If that would be helpful to you, please visit my website at www.sharedxp.org and send me a note or call me at 847-867-1662 and we’ll get a date on the calendar.
By: Dr. John C. Mrazek