Over and over again, I’ve talked to fine and dedicated board members who have left a meeting — or in some cases, a long series of meetings — ready to pack it in. These good people are saddened by what they view as the misuse of their gifts, but more to the point, the failure of the institutions they serve to be true to their own higher set of ideals.

I’ve seen the other side, too. My story is particular to a time and place, but look past some of the more jarring particularities, and a larger truth sits smiling.

It’s hard to remember now the sheer glee with which domestic violence groups began to open shelters in relatively rural areas a couple of decades ago. Before that, there had been networks of safe homes (which were only as safe as the local grapevine allowed) or the entirely unsatisfactory practice of putting abuse victims in motels (not necessarily the safest option, to say nothing of the isolation factor). The move to temporary communities where survivors could begin a healing process with the support of their peers was greeted with deep joy and enthusiastic volunteers.

It also cost a lot. That necessitated the evolution of domestic violence groups from a gritty, brave band of grassroots volunteers to organized nonprofits, with all that entails. Like boards that included somewhat less grassroots types, for example.

I got to be part of the process more than once, and always from the gritty grassroots volunteer perspective. The meeting I best remember I didn’t attend. All I know of that meeting is what Sally, our director/CEO/wonder- worker told me with much slack-jawed head shaking.

We’d been all but given the use of a house that needed nothing more than (considerable) security installations to make it perfect for our purposes. Volunteers were happily painting, assembling the playground, lugging in furniture. The board met, largely to celebrate, but also to approve the house rules into which staff and volunteers had put many hours. And they approved them all, but they had one addition.

“They want to make it smoke free!” Sally just got the words out before she burst into giggles. Well, either you just laughed too, or you didn’t.

If you didn’t, it’s because you see the appropriateness of people starting a new life unencumbered by an expensive and deadly habit and of keeping kids safe from secondhand smoke.

If you did, it’s because you understand that women who leave abusive situations are doing an enormously brave thing, that they’re giving up quite a lot in many cases (sometimes including illegal coping mechanisms that they truly cannot bring to the shelter) and that asking them to give up their smokes their first night is cruel and unusual punishment.

Compromise was reached, of course, although it satisfied the gritty volunteers but only some (a slim majority) of the board members. There was a smoking porch at that shelter. But that’s not entirely the point.

The point has to do with the various cultures that exist in organizations and how to get them talking. The president of the school, the director of an organization, cannot be the sole bridge across which information flows, if for no other reason than regard for that person’s mental health. At the end of the day, the responsibility to learn the culture of a school rests on the board.

It won’t eliminate the sense — or the reality — that sometimes higher goals are being set aside. It will help explain why some goals are unattainable at some times and will at least provide grounding in reality. We can believe with our whole hearts in the communion of saints without necessarily enjoying every minute of what that entails.

The point was made succinctly by a student of mine who asked plaintively, “I am perfectly willing to accept them as my brothers and sisters in Christ. But does that mean I have to talk to them?”

Well, yes, Jonas, it does.


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