Structured for Conflict
What is it about board meetings that brings out the worst in us?
For the most part, church boards are made up of good and godly people. They sincerely want to serve God. But something strange seems to happen the moment the meeting starts. A normally good-natured parishioner suddenly morphs into an ardent lobbyist or a hyper-suspicious watchdog. Folks who never balance their checkbook at home feel compelled to review and critique every dime in the budget. And business leaders who easily blow off criticism in the workplace panic over the slightest negative comment overheard in the hallway.
How did it get this way? Why do so many boards go bad?
The culprit is not what you may think. In the midst of dysfunction and chaos, we instinctively tend to chalk it up to sin and carnality. But more often than not, it’s not sin that wreaks havoc; it’s our systems, policies, and traditions. In many cases, we’ve unwittingly structured ourselves for conflict and division.
My First Board Meeting
I’ll never forget my first board meeting at North Coast Church. The meeting began with prayer and devotions. But while Jim tried hard to minister to our hearts, hardly anyone listened. A couple of guys leafed through the financial statements. One doodled. Others stared off into space.
Then after a brief round of reports, we moved on to the business at hand. I assumed we were in for a short meeting. The only action item was the purchase of tires for a church-owned car. The previous pastor had used it, but since I had no need or desire to use it, I hadn’t even given it a thought.
I should have.
It sparked a full-scale debate. Two members squared off over the relative merits of new tires versus retreads. They went at it for what seemed like an hour. Finally we voted. The new tires won in a split decision.
And this was for a car no one wanted and no one used.
That night on the way home, I remember thinking, “So this is what my dad went through all those years. No wonder he couldn’t wait for his term to end.”
Frankly, I was in a bit of shock. Since all of my previous ministry experience had been as a youth and college pastor, I had never actually been in an elder, deacon, or board meeting. I had no idea what I had been missing, or how grateful I should have been for being shut out.
The thought of going through this drill once a month for the rest of my ministry career was depressing. But it got worse. In the next few months the debates switched from what kind of tires to buy to which of my new ideas should be shot down first. Now that was really depressing.
Five Major Roadblocks to Unity
As I agonized over what was happening, it became obvious to me that many of the problems we faced were more organizational than spiritual. It wasn’t sin and pride as much as our systems and traditions that were tearing us apart. That sent me on a mission to identify and remove every systemic and structural roadblock to our unity and effectiveness that I could find. By the time I finished (and we were unified), it was clear that out of all the dumb things that we had been doing, five things had created the most conflict. Resolving these five issues provided the biggest payoffs once we found a way to get around them or fix them.
1. Meeting in the wrong place
2. Ignoring relationships
3. Not meeting often enough
4. Constant turnover
5. Too many members
Meeting in the Wrong Place
One of the most common and frequently overlooked roadblocks to unity is location. Too many church boards meet in rooms that are cramped, uncomfortable, and poorly lit—or oversized, cold, and sterile. We often ignore the fact that environment has a huge impact on the way we behave and interact with one another.
Location and environment matters; it’s never neutral. It always works for us or against us. More important, it sends a strong message about what kind of behavior is expected and appropriate. That was certainly the case when I first came to North Coast. We had no facility to call our own, so we held our monthly board meetings in my office, a refurbished two-car garage. There, on the first Thursday of every month, I witnessed a mysterious transformation.
What had earlier in the day been a place of study and prayer turned into a battleground of ideas and personalities. Members who had been warm and friendly on Sunday turned critical and petty on Thursday night. Folks who took copious notes of everything I said in the pulpit now questioned everything I said in the board meeting.
Then one day, after a particularly rough meeting, I suggested we hold our next board meeting at my home. I figured the change in ambience couldn’t hurt, and it might help. Bingo. Everything changed, so much so that from that point on, we’ve always met in homes.
By changing the environment, I had inadvertently changed behavioral expectations. Right away I noticed that we were noticeably more cordial when dealing with dicey issues. When reviewing the budget, we weren’t quite so picky. When someone talked, no one rudely leafed through reports, even if they wanted to. Instead, they followed the unwritten rules of our society. When someone talks to you in the living room, you’re supposed to listen. And when you disagree—no matter how much you disagree—when you’re sitting on my couch, you’re not allowed to be a butthead about it.
Admittedly, there are a few times when a large conference table or more formal setting might be better—for example, when hammering out budget details or anything else highly detailed. But in most cases, the more informal and intimate environment of a home works marvelously when it comes to building and maintaining a healthy and unified team.
Now, I realize that not every board has the luxury of meeting in a home. Some boards are too large, and some may not have an adequate home available. But nearly every board can find ways to significantly increase the warmth and informality of its meeting place. Just do what you can. You’ll notice an immediate difference.
Excerpted with permission from Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne, copyright Zondervan.
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What has your experience with board meetings been like? Are they productive or are they often a source of conflict among team members? Join the conversation on our blog! We’d love to hear from you!