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How many times have you sat in an elder board meeting, or Session, or Council, or whatever your church calls your Leadership Team…and thought, “Why? Why is it so hard to do this work?”

So there’s this famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) where a group of medieval monks is walking through a town chanting in Latin and slamming tablets on their foreheads.

Midway through many church board meetings, I’ve thought to myself: Same. I feel it.

Why? Why is it that service to our Lord’s church feels like slamming a stone tablet on your forehead? How many times have you sat in an elder board meeting, or Session, or Council, or whatever your church calls your Leadership Team…and thought, “Why? Why is it so hard to do this work?”

Does this ring any bells? An elder wants to go through the church kitchen budget line by line (fork by fork?)…at 10 pm. The church board wants to set the decorating scheme for Advent because last year the Christmas tree lights were the ‘wrong’ color. Someone wants to update the church mission statement—again—and you fall into a multi-month Mission/Vision/Values exercise (hellhole?) that involves Big Rocks, or Vision Frames, or whatever (lowercase g) god-awful buzzword was overused at the last denominational conference.

Okay, so the film is based on the Arthurian Legend and the monks are walking through a forlorn village scene where residents are disposing of their plague dead. And perhaps that’s where the analogy fails. Yet, I think we can all admit this analogy is not too far off the mark.

You might be metaphorically hitting your head with a tablet when the the agenda arrived late and has no details, the evening board Zoom is on hour three, and a group of adults just can’t seem to remember the very executive function skills they used at work all day. Maybe it’s the centering candle that does it for you. Or there’s that pre-meeting meeting where you discuss how the meeting will run. But, of course, you need a pre-meeting before the pre-meeting to discuss how you will plan for the meeting. It’s okay to laugh.

Many nonprofit and church boards experience very real challenges: lack of funding, membership factions, ambitious objectives, under preparation for said objectives, turnover, and the ever-present yawning gap in finance skills on the board. To say nothing of hardworking, highly skilled teaching pastors who are lost as managers and executives.

This isn’t meant to poke fun or even to shame, but to sit in this place we all inhabit and to maybe pause and look around for a second.

So, are we stuck this way, forever resigned to riding this carousel? No, we can remedy this. So let’s dive in:

1. Define the culture

Try to define your board’s culture. Before you roll your eyes and jump to those Classroom Principles posters from grade school, really think about it. Wouldn’t it be great to know people’s styles before jumping into actual projects?

  • Maybe Annie isn’t “not creative,” she just loves to brainstorm in a quiet space and isn’t given the ability to do so. So, can everyone brainstorm before the meeting and bring their ideas with them?
  • Maybe Julio can’t stand the sound of chewing and that’s why he’s always so grumpy at meetings. So, eat before the meetings please?
  • Maybe Sasha has bad hearing and doesn’t ignore your desires, she just didn’t hear you. So, maybe everyone passes around a mini microphone?
  • Maybe Duncan doesn’t know that LUNA is not just a bar… that it stands for liquid unrestricted net assets—the real holy grail of nonprofit land. So, have a financial boot camp at onboarding instead of assuming that your smart committed people know how to read balance sheets.

You see, maybe your least favorite board member isn’t so bad after all. If everyone took a bit to say what makes them tick and what makes them get heated, people could be aware of each other’s strong suits and boundaries. Get to know your board colleagues; it might make you feel better to know that Mark is working on not interrupting and Stephanie is listening when she doodles. Take the time to get to know each other; this can solve problems before they even start.

2. Decipher what can be done individually

The first and most important question when planning a meeting ought to be: why? Why can’t this be done individually, i.e., why are we not home in our sweatpants doing this ourselves? A great response would be: idea generation. Maybe this needs scaffolding before the meeting even begins. Maybe in the email reminder (which you DEFINITELY should be doing) ask members to come with 3 ideas ready. Make it easy for the group to succeed. This way you skip out on those awkward thumb-twiddling moments where people just can’t seem to get their brain waves moving.

3. Establish norms

Please take some time to establish mutually agreed to and crowd-sourced norms.

  • What happens when there’s a big disagreement?
  • What happens when someone is blathering on?
  • What happens when something outside of the meeting is interfering (sick kids at home, tough news day, etc.)
  • What happens when the brilliant engineer asks the devastating question at the very last minute?

Norms will look different for every team, but committing to them in advance can make it a lot less painful when problems arise. At the start of every meeting, reinforce the code by pointing to the norms listed at the top of your agenda—you do plan on posting them, right?

There are also very solid resources out there to help with these issues. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of them. Try BoardSourceCouncil on Foundations, or Independent Sector. There are people out there whose job is to help your team work.

Does this all sound like a plan? I don’t know, maybe we should have a meeting first to decide.

Nicole Bergeron

Ms. Bergeron got her B.A. in International Relations at UC Davis. She has a joint degree in law and public policy: J.D., UC Hastings Law; M.P.P., Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley. Ms. Bergeron serves as an officer of the board of Aslan Housing Foundation and Sojourners, volunteers on the Expert Bench of Moonshot edVentures, and is a Capital Collaborator with Camelback Ventures.