The comic strip Kudzu once featured the following correspondence:

"Dear Preacher, How do you define God? --Theologian"
"Dear Theologian, The Holy is greater than the sum of its parts."

No seminary board will confuse itself with the Holy. But in order to effectively carry out the ministry to which they have been called, boards must learn to view themselves as more than a temporarily gathered assortment of experts and learn to act as a unique entity, a whole.

Boards have a life of their own whether or not they understand, acknowledge, or even notice it. They have a culture, a history, a style of interaction. An unexamined board life, though, is often a dysfunctional one. Students of what they describe as "board culture" have some straightforward suggestions to help boards move beyond power struggles between individuals and toward cohesiveness.

Examine Your Assumptions
Many boards are bogged down by an unspoken agreement that things will continue as they always have, and that change is impossible. If board chairs are open to change and willing to trust their boards, however, they can create an atmosphere in which members are encouraged to float new ideas.

Formal board self-study is one beginning point, and a number of instruments exist (see top of left column). Such studies usually bring surprise--including the news that not everyone shares the same assumptions about board life. If it is made clear that differences of perspective are a resource and not a threat, even new members will feel comfortable confronting troublesome issues. "Does anybody else feel this way?" can be a valuable question, but it will only be asked if the person doing the asking can be reasonably sure that he is not stepping into a win/lose situation he is likely to lose.

Healthy boards pay attention to the process and not just the content of decision making. They will pause sometimes after particularly difficult decisions to reflect upon the way in which their conclusion was reached. They will note whether they have opted for an easy out that preserves an unhealthy status quo. They might, on the basis of this discussion, decide to reopen the discussion.

Efficiency is a good thing, to be sure, but it cannot be a successful board's highest priority. Efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing. Effectiveness is something that is built over time, and involves taking time for reflection and for personal interaction.

Bringing in the Out-Groups
Boards that meet infrequently, briefly, and with tightly packed agendas do not allow for input from all members. Those who are responsible for advance planning and dissemination of information are thus in positions of power--they constitute an in-group that can stand unchallenged and appear unchallengeable. There is often an unspoken assumption that some board members have a greater right to power by virtue of their longevity on the board. Such insiders have been thoroughly immersed in the board's culture, in "the way we do things."

In-groups do not enter the board fully formed, though. They have to learn the ropes, to be taught, to be mentored. Boards that examine their in-groups often discover that the people unofficially chosen for such mentoring are people who come to the board with some status--wealth, for example--or prestigious occupations, clergy status, maleness, whiteness. Boards that are committed to valuing and encouraging the participation of all members--to expanding the in-group--can begin to do so in several simple ways.

Equal access to information is the hallmark of a democratic board. Board members are aware of what is expected of them before they sign up. Once they are members, they are trained. Orientation is taken seriously--it is not a matter of being handed a tossed-together packet of information. Meetings have time for questions, and agendas are sent out far enough in advance to allow for thoughtful formation of questions. Effective meetings focus deeply on a few issues instead of lightly on a multiplicity of details.

Some board chairs and presidents have made a practice of being in touch with each member of the board between meetings, either in person or by telephone. This allows members to dig deeply into background questions they might not be comfortable raising in front of the whole board. It is a clear sign that their concerns are being taken seriously, and can serve as an opportunity to learn the most effective ways of addressing issues on a particular board.

Well-informed boards that are sure their questions will be addressed are freed to dig beneath the surface of issues. They can ask probing questions that cut across committee boundaries, and work together to find the source of their answer; they do not hesitate to look beyond the board for information. They are not afraid to brainstorm.

Successful boards groom all their members for leadership. One useful approach involves rotation through committees--two at a time. Some new board members have skills that strongly suggest their placement on particular committees--bankers on finance, theologians on academic affairs. They don't need to be isolated there, however: Placing them on additional committees will give them breadth of experience to balance the depth of their expertise.

Members of underachieving boards often do not know one another, and view any outside relationships with other board members as incidental. Healthy boards take time for interaction in settings less structured than meetings--dinners with the president and board retreats are two frequently used strategies. Unexpected gifts often come to light during informal conversation, and comfort levels are higher among people who know one another in several contexts. This comfort will result in increased interaction among board members at meetings--members will relate to one another, not just to the chair.

Setting Goals
A board that has worked toward self-understanding will have found areas for improvement. Setting goals can help boards maintain a healthy focus on their own process, whether goals have to do with board development or other tasks. It is helpful to plan goals slowly, with maximum input from all board members--and the institution's president as well. Keeping goals specific and attainable, and building in structures for evaluating their success, helps to build cohesiveness and shared satisfaction. If the goals are publicized throughout the institution, it helps faculties and administrations to view the board as a lively entity that has found its place within the larger life of the institution--and to call it to accountability.

The Effective Board of Trustees, by Richard P. Chait, Thomas P. Holland, and Barbara E. Taylor (American Council on Education/Series on Higher Education, Oryx Press, 1993). See especially Chapter 3, "The Interpersonal Dimension."

Nonprofit Board Answer Book: Practical Guidelines for Board Members and Chief Executives by Robert Andringa and Ted Engstrom, BoardSource, 1997 (pgs. 127 to 132).

Building Effective Boards for Religious Organizations: A Handbook for Trustees, Presidents and Church Leaders by Thomas P. Holland and David C. Hester, Jossey-Bass, 2000 (pgs. 198 to 203).

The Strategic Board: The Step-by-Step Guide to High Impact Governance by Mark Light, John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

Other In Trust Articles on Board Orientation

  • Essential Orientation Materials: Six Basics for the New Trustee's Packet
  • Bringing New Members onto the Board: Good Orientation Is the Key to Settling Them in Fast
  • Back to School for New Board Members: Integrating Training into the Trustees" Agenda

    Top Topics
    Roles & Responsibilities
    Board Essentials

    Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

    Advertise With Us

    Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

    Learn More