The monthly board meeting is coming up on Tuesday night. The agenda is packed and you have key items to bring before the board. Your items could take thirty minutes to two hours to discuss! The real problem is that the board needs to focus on critical issues for the church’s future—and these could take another two hours of board time. If your items don’t get addressed now, they’ll have to wait another month for approval. What should you do?

This is a real dilemma in board meetings. The agenda is always full and you have important items, critical items and urgent items. The same could be said of your next meeting with your Senior Pastor. You have ninety minutes to work through his items and yours. How can you keep him informed, get decisions made and work through all the “stuff” of church?

This article will explore how to work through these issues. First, let’s look at some principles and practices from the business world. Then, let’s apply that learning to the church world.

The Business World

In business language, there is the interesting term of “Managing Upward.” It has both positive and negative meanings. On the plus side, it is to work well with your boss. On the down side, it has implications of trying to out-maneuver your boss. I’ll start out with the negative side of the term with an article from Forbes, My Advice On Managing Up—Don’t, by Mike Myatt.

Mike briefly explores the darker implications of managing up. People who do have read The Prince by Machiavelli and are coercively acting politically:

Here’s the thing—the best way to be looked upon favorably by those you report to is not through various charades and other forms of skullduggery, but by simply doing your job and serving them well. When the emphasis of your efforts shifts away from others and to yourself you have placed yourself on a very slippery slope. If you want to move up in the organization let it be the quality of your work that catapults you upward, not your skill in manipulation. If your timetable for career acceleration isn’t matching up with that of your employer, surface your concerns with them in a straightforward fashion, don’t revert to amateurish corporate hi-jinks.

There are some key words in his thoughts, such as skullduggery, slipper slope, manipulation and hi-jinks. When giving information to your boss or the board of your church, these are the things to stay away from. Everyone in business and church will say, “Of course I don’t do that.” But you need to go farther than mouthing the words; you need to stay away from appearing like you are manipulating or doing church hi-jinks. We all need to stay away from the appearance of political machinations. That means we need to share balanced and unbiased views with those that we report to. It’s fine to add your opinion in a conclusion but present all the facts concerning a situation—not just the ones that suit your agenda.

The positive side of Managing Upward is seen in Elizabeth Garone’s article, What It Means to ‘Manage Up’ in the Wall Street Journal. Her straightforward definition from Rosanne Badowski is “… that you need to stretch yourself. You need to go above and beyond the tasks assigned to you so that you can enhance your manager’s work.” Badowski, co-authored Managing Up: How to Forge an Effective Relationship with Those Above You.

The WSJ author cites Badowski because she served for fourteen years as an executive assistant to Jack Welch at General Electric. Welch was a tough boss to work for and had high expectations for his employees and his company. You can read Welch’s views in his book, Jack: Straight from the Gut. How tough was Jack to work for? This Amazon overview of his book gives some insight:

They called him Neutron Jack. They called him the world’s toughest boss. And then Fortune called him ‘The Manager of the Century.’ In his twenty-year career at the helm of General Electric, Jack Welch defied conventional wisdom and turned an aging behemoth of a corporation into a lean, mean engine of growth and corporate innovation … And although it chronicles billion-dollar deals and high-stakes corporate standoffs, Jack is ultimately a story about people—from a man who based his career on demanding only the best from others and from himself.

Returning to the Badowski definition, the key words are stretch, above & beyond, and enhance.  These were the key terms for her to work with Jack Welch. She had to stretch to meet his expectations. She had to go above and beyond the tasks given to her. She had to enhance Jack’s work at GE. The key words are simple but putting them into practice was demanding. Does this sound like your church yet? How are you stretching to work with your Senior Pastor? How are you enhancing the work of the board?

Now let’s get into some specifics of managing upward. I found some great thoughts in Margie Warrell’s article in Forbes, How To Handle A Bad Boss: 7 Strategies For ‘Managing Up.’ While the title of the article approaches the topic from the negative side, there are some great insights on the topic.

Some of Warrell’s strategies include:

  • Identify the prime motivations of your boss.
  • Support their success and work around weaknesses.
  • Speak up and give your boss a chance to respond.
  • Adapt to the preferences of your boss.

These are vital strategies. Many times we do a task in the way in which we want to do it, not in the stylistic preferences of the boss. For example, I helped launch a local non-profit. The boss said, let’s get some office space in downtown Fullerton. The guy in charge could move forward and get space that would fit his preferences. The thing to do, though, was to identify the preferences of the boss and work with those. Some of those questions about preference in office space would include:

  • Should the offices be upstairs or on street level?
  • Does it matter if we get on the main street or a side street?
  • What are the needs of the non-profit for office space and will the boss need space there on a regular basis—or will he work remotely?

These are just the questions for acquiring the offices; there are additional questions as to the taste and style of the furnishings.

In talking about identifying motivations, Warrell has some excellent thoughts:

The better you understand what your boss does, and more importantly, why, the better positioned you are to deliver results, manage expectations, and avoid lose-lose situations. Try to put yourself in their shoes and see the world, and your workplace, as they might.

  • What does he care about?
  • What keeps him up at night?
  • What would he love more of and what would he love less of on a daily basis?  
  • What frightens him?
  • How much importance does he place on impressing others? 
  • How does he measure success and what does he think about failure?

When you know what drives your boss (even if your boss may not be fully conscious of it), you can speak to “his listening,” frame your opinions and use language in ways that line up with his core values, concerns and priorities.

This is hot material! All of us live in this world everyday, not just in the workplace. In our home relationships with a spouse or kids, we should be asking the same sort of questions.

The Church World

Let’s apply the principles we have seen to working with a governing board. Most boards meet only one time a month, so managing up is critical. There isn’t enough time in each meeting to address every issue. You need to prioritize what you share and how you share it.

Taking one of Warrell’s strategies, we can “identify the prime motivations” of the board. They want to govern well. Plus, with all the stakeholders coming to church each week, they are in a different position than the board of a company or a non-profit. Those organizations rarely provide opportunities for the stakeholders to have conversations with the board members. At church, a congregant can talk to a board member any Sunday. So the motivation of the board is both to govern and lead people that they see each Sunday.

Warrell also asks, “What would he love more of and what would he love less of on a daily basis?”Let’s apply this to the board. What does the board need more of and what do they want less of? I have found that the board wants more information about major decisions being made in the church. They want to know the problems and issues that are brewing in the congregation.

Simultaneously, they want to talk less and less about ongoing issues. They want to talk more about where the church is headed, major initiatives and significant upcoming events. This is a “catch-22” situation. The Urban Dictionary defines a catch-22 as: A requirement that cannot be met until a prerequisite requirement is met, however, the prerequisite cannot be obtained until the original requirement is met. To paraphrase it tongue-in-cheek: The board wants more and more information and wants to talk about it less and less.

Let me conclude with my solution to the dilemma of the over-filled agenda for a board meeting. Don’t cut out information but encourage pre-meeting reports and discussion. Here are some examples:

  • The Finance Report—I have seen boards discuss finance issues as long—or longer—than the Finance Committee. If you have a Finance Committee that has already thoroughly looked at the monthly finance report, then tell the board that. Tell them in writing. Give them all the data and ask for comments before the meeting.
  • Facilities Issues—Boards want to know that the work done in the plaza was because of a broken fire sprinkler line. They will have congregants ask them about this major upheaval in their Sunday morning path. The board needs to know that it cost $25,000 to fix it. They then need to know that the emergency was handled and is in process of being repaired.
  • Budget Setting—Many churches have a Budget Committee comprised of staff and key leaders who prepare a detailed, line-item budget. My preference is to share the detailed Excel sheets with the board and to schedule time with any board member who wants to walk through them. These meetings will last upwards of an hour and answer the questions that a few board members will have. Others may email in a question. Then, at the board meeting, we can further address any major issues—but the minor ones have already been talked through.
  • Staff Issues—Boards have a variety of levels of interacting and addressing staff issues. Some boards do the hiring of all key staff and some do little. Either way, the board needs to know of upcoming staff hires and transitions. They need enough information to be knowledgeable and the opportunity to give input.
  • Special Issues—There are a ton of special issues that church boards need to know. These range from the bullying of children, to designated Thanksgiving offerings, to worship, to policies.

One way to solve the catch-22 of “information vs. time” is to write a detailed report for the board. Manage information upwards so the board has great information that fits their needs and preferences:

  • Write a 3-5 page report each month that covers each area that you report on. Email this report to each board member a few days before the board meeting so they can read it through.
  • Ask for board members to contact you with questions before the meeting. Give as much time as needed to each board member. Work through all the questions that the board member has. Some will be minor and some will be enormous.
  • Build trust by giving impartial data, as well as steps that have already been taken. Be transparent with the information.

Doing this allows for the board chair to ask, “Were there any major questions or issues with the report.?” This will save hours from every board meeting. Those hours can be invested in talking about the issues that the board wants to focus on.