How to Deal With One or More Combative Board of Trustees Members
This resource offers ministers who are experiencing combative Boards dispute resolution strategies that are uniquely designed to resolve bothersome issues caused by disruptive Board members.
Every Board is different, with its own individual personalities and idiosyncrasies. And a big part of their responsibilities is to support you, the minister, efficiently and with integrity.
Some Board members come to their positions with years of leadership experience. Others are neophytes or have limited Board experience. Some Board members are discerning, thoughtful and measured in their approaches. Others are more vociferous, taking charge and moving things forward quickly and aggressively. These are all legitimate approaches for qualifying for Board membership, and any one of them can work well for the benefit of your spiritual community.
However, there are two things all of your Board members should have in common: a high regard for Truth principles (as a student AND practitioner) and a love for your ministry. Without these two prerequisites, even the best-intentioned Board members will not function effectively!
There are times, however, when even with these prerequisites, one Board member’s personality, hidden agenda, or approach to Board responsibilities can undermine the Board’s and minister’s effectiveness. They’re usually the people who try to dominate a meeting, push their agendas no matter what the cost, and enjoy bullying their fellow Board members into seeing things their way. They’re even the kind of folks who tend to undermine and discredit the minister if he or she disagrees with them or doesn’t ‘minister’ like they think he or she should.
Suffice it to say, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of Board members approach their responsibilities with a sense of integrity and commitment. Occasionally a Board member will allow his or her self-interest to get in the way, and create difficult situations that threaten the Board’s and/or minister’s effectiveness. Perhaps they don’t fully realize the implications of what they’re doing it. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: the ministry suffers.
There are ways to solve these problems though, and it usually takes good dispute resolution strategies to resolve unpleasant Board issues. Finding those solutions starts with finding the root of the problem and understanding that there are a number of reasons why a disruptive Board member might cause trouble—whether that conflict takes the form of inappropriate aggression, passive-aggressive foot-dragging, attacks directed at the minister or fellow Board members, lack of integrity or commitment, or simple ignorance.
Our experience tells us that the causes of dysfunctional Boards are multifaceted and can be organized into four broad categories of dysfunctional behavior, each having different causes and remedies. Often these different types of dysfunctional behavior occur in combination. However, we’ll outline each type separately so you can appreciate their disruptive pathology.
Types of Dysfunctional Board Behavior
The four main types of dysfunctional Board behavior from a dispute resolution standpoint are:
- Poor managerial basics;
- A Board member’s hidden agenda(s);
- Difficult deliberations; and
- Built-in adversarial relationships.
Poor Managerial Basics
Any church Board that is not managed collaboratively is dysfunctional in some way, and many church Boards are susceptible. Because of their importance to the ministry’s success, Board members often need additional training in managerial skills such as:
• a clear understanding on the part of all involved about the ministry’s purpose and mission;
• a close relationship between its mission and its strategies;
• sound financial and budgetary savvy;
• fundraising experience;
• business acumen;
• visionary clarity;
• communication skills; and
• a shared commitment for accepting mutual accountability for delivering on those expectations.
A Board Member’s Hidden Agenda
One of the most obvious examples of pathological dysfunctional behavior on the part of a Board member is a problem that most of us have experienced – a Board member who is disrespectful, hostile, aggressive, and combative. The Board member’s questions sound accusatory rather than inquisitive, and in extreme cases, the Board member can become verbally abusive toward his or her fellow Trustees. The caustic effect of such dysfunctional behavior is readily apparent to all who witness it, but the offending Board member often perceives her or his behavior as entirely appropriate, reasonable, and necessary under the circumstances to achieve important objectives, including his or her unilateral assumptions of what is best for the church.
The conventional wisdom for dealing with this type of dysfunctional behavior has several steps.
1. The first step is to speak privately to the offending Board member about his or her behavior, pointing out the negative consequences on the efficient operation of the Board as a whole, and asking (by way of a gentle suggestion or demand) that he or she correct the unwanted behavior.
2. If this doesn’t work, then the next step might be to take the issue before the entire Board for further discussion. Even if you prefer not to do this, if the Board member’s behavior does not improve significantly, then we suggest you air it with the entire Board. The Board can decide how to handle the dysfunctional behavior or attempt to remove the offending Board member in accordance with the Bylaws. (See article on Board Commitment Pledge)
The important thing is to provide the offending Board member with realistic alternatives to his or her dysfunctional behavior, and to get some type of professional assistance in the form of coaching for the implementation of such alternatives.
The alternatives we’re suggesting consist of basic productive communication skills, tools and techniques like the use of “I” statements, focusing on interests rather than Board positions, neutral and cooperative word selection (as opposed to inflammatory), adopting strategies that are hard on the problem and soft on the people concerned, acknowledging and recognizing the thoughts and feelings of others, developing a principled “no” response attitude, active listening, empathic responses, offering reciprocity, etc.
It is important to note that the goal here is to create a better working relationship, in order to eliminate impediments to efficient and effective Board performance. A complete transformation of the offending Board member’s behavior is not necessary. A modest improvement is often sufficient to make a large difference in the Board’s overall effectiveness.
Boards are by definition deliberative bodies, which presupposes some amount of friction among Board members as the Board goes about its work. Church Boards are no exception. Most Board discussions about the business of the church are civil and deliberate discussions because Board members share the same love for the church and conduct themselves according to truth principles. Board members who have achieved this level of integrity and fair play generally treat each other with respect and welcome differing points of view.
Sometimes, however, rough patches are encountered. When this happens, you can use several commonly known dispute resolution techniques to smooth things out. For example, you can:
• call for prayer,
• use appropriate humor,
• invoke Robert’s Rules of Order to keep matters moving forward, or
• call for a brief recess to give members a chance to compose themselves.
Occasionally, however, a rough patch can persist or deepen into serious, debilitating conflict within the Board, particularly if the Board takes an adversarial position toward one of the Board members or the minister. Sometimes such conflicts can threaten the effectiveness, and even the credibility of the Board.
Conventional wisdom suggests handling a Board meltdown that deteriorates into a prolonged toxic conflict with as much patience and diplomacy as you can muster. However, if this doesn’t work, the result can be a stalemate or a splintering of the Board, which can cause collective lethargy and inaction, multiple resignations from the Board, and even removal of you, the minister, and other unfortunate consequences.
Obviously this is a time of difficult deliberations. And a perfect internal dispute resolution approach is no guarantee that a consensus outcome can be achieved or that a deep emotional abyss can be avoided, but its use is far more likely to result in a positive outcome than otherwise. However, these four steps can help you handle any difficult deliberation successfully before you call for outside resolution help:
- Set an optimistic, principle-based tone. This first step can be used as an opportunity for Board members to refocus on their responsibility to the church and its membership, reacquire the clarity they need to make truth-principled decisions as a group, and regain a sense of shared purpose. It should begin with prayer and a reiteration of Board member responsibilities to the church and to the minister.
- Focus on mutual understanding, empathy and trust. This step focuses on recouping the pre-conflict operational integrity. Even among intelligent and motivated people, the necessary level of mutual understanding is unlikely to be present at this juncture. In order to develop the necessary level of understanding, it is important for all Board members to have access to all of the relevant information, including hidden agendas. It is important that Board members understand and appreciate the broader implications involved. This level of understanding typically requires considerable effort to develop, and it certainly ought not to be assumed at the outset, even with a group who know each other well.
- Find common ground in order to uncover the truth. The third step consists of identifying options for solving the troublesome issue(s) under consideration. That means establishing criteria to evaluate potential options and narrow the available options through educated discernment and common sense. Deadlocks, emotional tsunamis and hidden agendas must be addressed and overcome. This requires that Board members dig deeply into their respective needs, concerns, interests, and underlying vulnerabilities and that they work diligently to find the common ground necessary to understand the real reasons for their expressed differences. The Board must negotiate and develop viable action plans for fine-tuned implementation strategies, anticipate possible obstacles to successful implementation, and plan how to overcome such obstacles if they should occur.
- Create an ironclad handshake agreement underwritten by a shared consciousness of integrity, mutual respect and unwavering commitment for the good of all concerned. In this step Board members identify next steps, evaluate the process for future reference, and participate in a closing ritual that seals your covenant with one another. This covenant is important because people who lead spiritual organizations generally respond powerfully to well-designed and well-conducted rituals.
Built-in Adversarial Relationships
Pre-existing adversarial relationship can cause any number of problems for a new minister. For example, Board members can attempt to circumvent the minister to gain an edge, protect old territory, and perpetuate dysfunctional liaisons that can undermine the minister’s influence and effectiveness within the church community. Without a respectful and trusting relationship between a minister and the Board or Board member, the Board may be too quick to unfairly handcuff and/or remove the minister at the slightest provocation. Ministers entering this kind of contaminated environment will have to employ their best conflict resolution strategies and fortify themselves with a quiver full of guiding spiritual principles.
You must do what you can to make your ‘enemies’ your allies! Otherwise your days will be filled with strained smiles, behind-the-back murmurs, and subtle sabotage. Any minister who has faced a phantom rival at church, a Board member threatened by your skills, someone unwilling to acknowledge your good ideas, a Board member who is intent on undermining your ministry, or an entire Board who decides they don’t like your theology – recognizes how much of a cloud that places over your ministry.
Built-in animosity and contrasting world views can sap your energy, stymie your progress, and generally keep you upset. Because rivalries can be so destructive, it’s not enough to simply ignore, sidestep, or attempt to contain them. Instead, you can turn rivals into collaborators by strengthening your position, your networks, and your ministerial career in the process.
Here are several ways to turn rivals into allies:
1. Redirect your rival’s negative emotions so they are channeled away from you.
2. Employ a little reciprocity. Undoing a negative tie begins with giving up something of value rather than asking for a “fair trade.” If you give and then ask for something right away in return, you don’t establish a relationship; you carry out a transaction.
3. Reflect carefully on what you want to give and, ideally, choose something that your ‘rival’ values like compliments, goodwill and offering help to someone close to him or her. Be rational and know that the rival’s ingenuousness is not really about you.
These three strategies – redirecting, reciprocity, and staying rational – will help you de-escalate and more effectively manage the unclear boundaries, ambivalent motives, unnecessary warfare, energy and trust erosion, and duplicitous conduct that characterizes adversarial working relationships.
To sum up, your ability to resolve conflicts that occur with a Board member or members will be critical to your church’s short-term health and long-term success – and for your own sanity and well-being! Ideally, what we have described here will work for you. We certainly hope so. All things considered, we want you to remember one thing – you have been called into the ministry to help people grow spiritually, so stay positive throughout any and all of your Board experiences and know that you can walk the spiritual path on loving and forgiving feet!
© 2016 Bil and Cher Holton, YourSpiritualPractice.com
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