Pressure Points (October)

With Dr. Bruce Hartung

Q: Help!  Our congregation’s board [on which I serve] is going nowhere fast. We spin our wheels.  We talk and talk … but we do nothing and make even fewer decisions. Our chairperson lets everyone talk, sometimes about anything that comes to mind. We cannot agree on a course of action.  Even when we do agree, we do not get it done. We come to the next meeting and [realize that] what we said we were going to do is not done.

This going around and around is a waste of my time. I am thinking of resigning. I am well-known in the congregation, so maybe [my resigning] will shock some things [into action]. I want us to be making decisions and doing what we need to be doing. Our congregation is poised to do some wonderful things in the community, and all we do is talk.

As I said at the beginning — help!

A: Your letter begins with “our” and “we,” and you indicate that you are “thinking” of resigning. So I assume that you remain a member of your congregation’s bhartung.gifoard. If this is true, then the first concern has to do with you.

For me, it is a truism that before we even start thinking about the changes others should make, we begin with an examination of ourselves and the changes we should or can make for the good of the group and the institution — in this case, your congregation. Those who are dissatisfied with the direction or process of meetings often want the leadership or process to change without that first necessary step of self-examination.

So, this is your first challenge: what can and will you do differently?

A clear option is to discuss your concerns with the chairperson of the board. Do not begin with criticism of his or her leadership style, but with your concern that the board work toward a needed end product, which is apparently missing. You could certainly point to the negative outcome of the board’s behavior, rather than criticizing individual people.

Another clear option would be to discuss your concerns with the board itself by adding the matter to its agenda. When you do address the entire board, follow the same parameters as you would in discussing the matter with the chairperson alone.

In other words, rather than criticizing the board, express your concern that members work together toward an end product. Own up to the fact that you share in responsibility for the board’s inaction, and that you want to work to change that.

As this first step toward the board’s possible and needed culture change, begin by addressing the initial function involved in the work of any team: trust.  For this concept, I am indebted to and recommend Patrick Lencioni’s books titled The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Death by Meetings.

When a basic sense of trust does not exist among members, all illusions of effective and energetic teams go down the proverbial tubes. Without such basic trust, there will be little vulnerability, and therefore considerable diminished attention to outcomes or results. People continue to meet and possibly make decisions, but there is little working through of issues and less of follow-up and accountability.

Trust gets started when you exhibit personal vulnerability by sharing your concerns about the functioning of the board and — I hope — by sharing something personal about yourself as you lay out your hopes for the work of the board.

Also, invite other board members to share along these same lines. By doing so, members are not criticizers, but rather encouragers of personal concern and hope. As people share, the barriers begin to break down, and further development of a better functioning board can commence.

This will obviously take hard work, and is just the beginning toward producing a God-pleasing outcome. But it is an essential beginning.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu

Posted Sept. 25, 2008

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