Dr. Barrett Mosbacker, PublisherI don’t like horror films. I find nothing redeeming about them and I don’t like leaving a movie theater feeling worse for the experience. Therefore, I don’t watch horror films.
But there is no escape—the horror stories still manage to find me. I frequently receive calls and emails from frustrated board members, administrators, and pastors concerning alleged bad governance and inappropriate interference by the school board or the alleged ineptness of the school’s administrator. I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories and I’ve seen some pretty bloody outcomes.
Of all of the challenges facing Christian schools, tense relationships between the school board and administrators rank in the top five. Why is this the case and more importantly, how do we turn these horror stories into love stories?
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (Joh 13:34-35)
There is very little I like about growing older and “more experienced”. The one redeeming blessing is that, by God’s grace, one gains perspective and at least a modicum of wisdom with age. With the prayer that the Lord might grant a bit of wisdom in the writing of this short article about fostering effective and positive relationships between the school board and chief administrator, I will share a few insights I have gleaned through God’s word, careful observations, and personal experience.
I am a school administrator so one could naturally assume that I would tend to side with administrators when dealing with poor school board relationships. Although there is plenty of blame to go around, I begin with administrators because frequently it is the failures of administrators that precipitate problems with school boards. Not always—sometimes administrators are the victims of boards—but too often administrators create unnecessary problems for themselves, for the board, and for the school.
Rather than writing a lengthy narrative, I will provide a simple, but I trust not simplistic, list of do’s and don’ts that the reader can contextualized for his or her situation.
- Nurture your spiritual growth so that you increasingly manifest the Fruit of the Spirit in all of your relationships, including those with your board.
I am not starting with this in an attempt to “be spiritual” or “politically correct” for my Christian readers. I start with the Fruit of the Spirit because it is foundational to fostering a godly perspective and godly responses. Carefully study each of the fruit listed: to what extent do you consistently demonstrate this fruit in every interaction with school board members?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:22-26)
- Pray for board members who mistreat you--and I do not mean imprecatory prayers either!
Board members are usually not your enemy but even if they prove to be, pray for them, remembering that the “Lord turns the king’s heart like the rivers of water.” I did not write pray for your situation or for yourself; I wrote pray for the board member(s) who are treating you like an enemy. Pray for him or her. Pray that God will bless them, will grant them wisdom, and that they will manifest the Fruit of the Spirit. I find it difficult to remain angry or bitter against those for whom I am actively praying.
"But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. (Luk 6:27-29)
- Listen and invite
One of the first things I do each year is take each new board member to lunch. My purpose is NOT to share with him or her my vision, my concerns, or my agenda. My purpose is NOT to “sell.” My purpose is to invite the board member to share with me his or her vision for the school and any concerns that he or she may have. I am there to listen and to learn. Inevitably I have an opportunity to share my perspective but my primary motive is to carefully listen and learn from the new board member for the Scriptures teach that we are to be “Quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19) and that “There is wisdom in many counselors.” (Prov. 24:6)
To stimulate fruitful discussion I typically ask several questions:
--How long have you been interested in serving on the school board?
--What do you see as the primary strengths of the school?
--What do you see as the primary weaknesses of the school?
--What are one or two things you would most like to see done to enhance the school’s program and ministry over the next three years?
--What can I or my staff do to assist you as a school board member?
--Do you have a particular concern that I can address?
--Is there anything else you would like to share with me?
- Integrate the board’s vision and concerns into your planning
Although it is the administrator’s primary responsibility to chart the long-term course for the school’s development, the planning should always incorporate input from board members. The perspective of the board as a whole should be enthusiastically integrated into any plans whenever appropriate and feasible. There should be a bias that says, “We can do that!” School administrators are never to operate as “lone rangers” with the idea that they are to lead and the board is to follow. Yes, the administrator has primary responsibility to lead but effective leaders will honor the board by honoring the vision, desires, and concerns expressed by board members whenever possible.
- Under promise, over deliver
Have you ever had the experience of having great expectations for a new restaurant only to be disappointed in the food and/or service? It is very unlikely that you will frequent that restaurant again. On the other hand, if you go into a restaurant with no particular expectation and discover that the food is wonderful and service is outstanding you are likely to do two things: 1) tell your friends about this wonderful new restaurant and 2) return for another meal.
The principle is simple: if our modest expectations are exceeded—we are pleased. If our expectations are not met we are disappointed, frustrated, perhaps even angry. The same principle applies to the expectations of our parents, employees, and board members. It is far better to under promise and over-deliver than to disappoint.
In our zeal to placate, to impress, to ‘sell’, or to demonstrate our competence, it is tempting to make promises or commitments to board members, employees or parents that we cannot keep. If we over promise we will disappoint. Disappointment leads to lost credibility, diminished trust, and the loss of good will. It is far better to be conservative in one’s commitments and then to exceed those expectations.
- Provide energetic, visionary, positive leadership
Be passionate. I am not referring to personal charisma or coming off like a used car salesman. Sustainable excitement arises from casting an achievable (remember—under promise/over deliver) vision for the future of the school. In other words, the administrator should make a priority of articulating exciting new initiatives designed to enhance and expand the school’s programs. The administrator should be future orientated while simultaneously dealing with real day-to-day issues.
Providing such a vision requires that the administrator work hard at being creative or to use a worn out cliché, practicing “thinking outside the box.” Board members want to know that the administrator is actively planning for the future—a future in which the school is stronger, more vibrant, and with an increasing impact on students and the surrounding community.
Board members are not encouraged when the administrator focuses on problems and/or “administrivia”. Good boards want future oriented administrators who are moving the school forward.
- Do your job
No excuses—the buck stops with you. Although board members can “step over the line” by attempting to deal with issues that properly fall under the administrator’s purview, most do so out of ignorance and the best of intentions. More often than not board members begin to micro-manage the affairs of the school when they are losing or have lost confidence in the administrator. This is not always the reason—sometimes board members have inappropriate and self-centered agendas (which I address to board members below), but I believe this is the exception rather than the rule.
Most board members do not want the administrator’s job. In fact, most board members would give a big sigh of relief if they thought they no longer had to worry about how the school was being led. It is the administrator’s responsibility to lead so competently that the school board never has to concern itself with managerial matters. This is only possible when they have learned that their administrator will properly handle any issue that arises and is providing competent, visionary, proactive, and positive leadership.
- Recruit and vet potential board members
Although the school’s bylaws determine how the nomination and election of board members is handled, it is the administrator’s responsibility (along with other board members) to encourage potential board members to prayerfully consider serving. Potential board members should reflect these qualities:
--Have demonstrated Christian maturity in all of their relationships
--Consistently reflect the Fruit of the Spirit in their lives and relationships
--Have a solid, if not comprehensive, understanding of Christian education
--Currently have (or if their children are older, had) their children enrolled in the school
--Have behaved appropriately in their dealings with teachers, school staff, and other parents, e.g., they have followed Matthew 18
--Do not have personal agendas; they are not interested in serving because they want to “change this or that.” They are kingdom focused and love the school ministry.
--They are men and women of integrity; they have demonstrated that they do what they say, they do not gossip or backbite.
--They are not “small minded”, i.e., they are focused on important issues for the school and for Christian education, not on relatively minor matters
--They are trustworthy; they will not share confidential matters with others, including a spouse.
--They have demonstrated Christian service and leadership in other venues, e.g., serving as a deacon, elder, teaching Sunday School, going on a missions trip, serving on a committee, etc.
- Do Unto Board Members as You Would have Them Do Unto You
This is simple and self-explanatory: do not say anything about or do anything to individual board members or the board that you would not want them to say about or do to you. More positively, be intentional in supporting and encouraging the board and in promoting the reputation of each board member and the board as a whole.
- Do not paint an inaccurate rosy picture
Every leader wants to convey to his or her superiors that everything is going well and that he or she is competent. We always want to put the best face forward. Consequently, the natural temptation is to report the good news and ignore or diminish the bad news when reporting to the board. Although this is a natural and understandable temptation, it is both wrong and unwise. The truth will surface, the bad news will become evident. You owe it to the board to tell them the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
If enrollments are likely to decline—tell the board sooner rather than later. If you made a bad hire, admit it, explain how you are going to address the issue, and then fix it. If you made a mistake regarding how you handled a disciplinary or personnel matter—be the first to tell the board. The board should never hear bad news from others that they have not first heard from you.
This does not mean that you share every detail of every issue with the board. They neither need nor desire to know this much detail. In fact, your job is to shield them from small matters. However, if the matter is consequential and if it is likely to be an issue ultimately deserving of the board’s attention, then you owe it to them to inform them up front.
- Don’t surprise the board
Likewise, if you believe a matter that would normally not go to the board but nevertheless is likely to affect them (or church pastors if your school is a church ministry), then immediately alert the appropriate board members and pastors. Normally, it is the administrator’s responsibility to discipline students or terminate employees. These are matters that fall under the jurisdiction of the administrator, not the school board. Nevertheless, if you have a situation that you have reason to believe will come to the attention of board members or pastors and that may cause them concern, or that may put them in an awkward situation—call them immediately. In other words, do not put board members and pastors in the awkward and unfair position of being confronted in the parking lot by a disgruntled parent or employee about an issue that they know nothing about.
You will need to use judgment as to what situations should be brought proactively to the attention of board members and/or pastors. Here are a couple of real-life examples to illustrate how I tend to address “dicey” situations.
Significant Student Disciplinary Matter
If the disciplinary matter is severe (e.g., multiple-day suspension or expulsion), I will typically call the board chair and inform him or her of my disciplinary decision (or that of a dean or principal) and the reasons behind it. I will then ask the chair if he or she has any questions or suggestions on how better to handle the situation. Typically the board member expresses appreciation for being alerted to the situation and concurs with the decision. In some instances, the board chair has provided very helpful suggestions. There are several positive results of taking this approach:
1. The administrator gains wisdom and insight form the board chair
2. Trust is reinforced—the board chair (and the full board) know that I seek to honor them by avoiding unpleasant surprises
3. Should a parent corner the chairman or other board member, he or she is able to say in effect, “yes, the superintendent consulted me about that…decisions of this nature fall under his jurisdiction…we support his decision….”
Terminating an Employee
The board should not be surprised by the termination of employees. While it is the administrator’s responsibility to make hiring and firing decisions, the wise administrator will alert the board well in advance of potential dismissals. My general approach is to highlight any personnel concerns I have in my monthly report to the board, including the reasons for my concerns, the steps I am taking to address them, and the potential of terminating or not renewing the employee(s). Such forthrightness has the advantage of inviting the wise counsel of the board, avoiding surprises, and fostering trust and support.
If a situation arises suddenly requiring an immediate response, I call the board chair (and appropriate pastor(s) if the matter may concern the church-e.g., if the employee has deep connections with the church) to alert him or her to the situation. Depending upon the situation we may decide to convene the Executive Committee of the board to pray about and discuss the matter in more detail.
Here is a concrete example. I once had a situation in which the employee’s conduct was such that it justified termination. The employee had long standing and deep connections with the school and the church. Rather than handling the matter in isolation, I proactively called a meeting of the Executive Committee of the board and appropriate church pastors. I reviewed the entire situation with the group—honestly and objectively, outlined my intended course of action, and solicited their prayers and godly advice. I then proceeded to handle the situation based on the advice I’d received.
Sure enough, the spouse of the employee setup an appointment with one of the pastors. The spouse, after explaining what had happened asked, “Did you know about this?” To the spouse’s surprise, the pastor was able to say, “Yes, I am aware of the situation. The superintendent met with us to inform us of the situation…..”
The result? Trust and confidence were maintained with the board, the positive relationship between the school ministry and the church was reinforced, godly counsel was sought and received, a very hard decision was made, there was minimal fall-out because key leadership was informed, and our students and staff ultimately benefitted from the decision.
Do not mischaracterize or minimize a parent’s concerns
Although board members should never entertain the concerns of individual parents without going through the administrator, it happens. If asked by a board member about Mrs. Jones’ concern, the temptation is to put the best spin on the situation, usually by downplaying the legitimacy of the concern. Doing so is dishonest and unfair to Mrs. Jones’ and to the school board.
To avoid the problem, I ask the parent put to put his or her concern in a letter to the board for me to take to the upcoming board meeting. The parent’s written letter reduces the likelihood that I will misinterpret or misrepresent the parent’s concern. During the meeting I ask the board to read the letter, I provide my perspective on the matter, answer any questions that they have, and solicit their advice. A decision is made and I communicate that decision to the parent.
Obviously, parents will sometimes go directly to a board member with a concern. Board members should always refer the parent back to the administrator for a response. I address this matter below.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff
Although attention to detail is important, do not take up the board’s valuable time with relatively minor matters. Stay focused on the larger picture—school development and growth, long-range planning, major new policies, school finance, curriculum development, staff training, etc.
- Do not die on the wrong hill
There are some matters worth fighting and dying for or being fired over. Most matters do not rise to this level. Choose your battles carefully. Is it really worth creating ill will and conflict with the board over the school calendar, the dress code, the bylaws, or some other relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. I for one, am going to be very careful where I “plant my flag.”
- Do not be defensive
As a rule, I have found that the more competent, self-assured, and humble (no that is not a contradiction) the administrator, the less defensive he or she is. If confronted by a board member with a concern or even an accusation, listen! Don’t immediately jump to justifying yourself or the situation. Ask questions. Seek to understand. One of my favorite quotes from Steven Covey is, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Be honest. If you screwed up—admit it, fix it, don’t do it again, and move on. If the board member is mistaken, provide accurate information in a godly, calm, and professional manner. DO NOT GET EMOTIONAL AND ALWAYS MAINTAIN THE HIGH MORAL GROUND REGARDLESS OF HOW THE BOARD MEMBER (OR BOARD) IS RESPONDING. Stick to the facts and only the facts. Do not assign motives to others. Do not editorialize. Do not react—instead, respond.
- Do not throw the bylaws in their face
It is not wise to “throw the bylaws” in the face of the board, even if the board is violating those bylaws. Bylaws are important and should be followed. However, I do not believe it is the administrator’s responsibility to enforce the bylaws—it is the Board’s responsibility. What if they are violating the bylaws? I recommend setting up a lunch meeting to discuss your concerns with the board chair and leaving it at that. In most instances the violations are relatively insignificant in the scheme of things. Ultimately, adherence to the bylaws is not the key to healthy administrative/board relationships nor to the health of the school.
What if the violations are of such a nature that they materially compromise the integrity of the board or your integrity? Under such circumstances, if the board chair or board are conducting business in a manner that is illegal, immoral, unethical, and/or in clear violation of the Scriptures and if the behavior is not being addressed by the board chair and/or church leadership, you may have to resign. I caution, however, that you should consider carefully the nature of the “violations.” Are they substantive? In the grand scheme of things does it really matter? If the answer is no, address it with the board chair and then let it go. If, on the other hand, the violations are important, substantial, and threatened the health of the school, church (if applicable) or the testimony of the Gospel, and if there is no evidence that the board will correct the problem, you may need to resign.
- Don’t speak negatively about the board or board members
Unless you have reason to be dealing with a Matt. 18 issue with the appropriate individuals, you should never speak negatively about the board, individual members of the board, or board decisions—period. You should never go home and criticize board members or board decisions to a spouse. You should never go to school and express disappointment, disagreement, or any other negative sentiment or comment about a board member, the board, or board decisions to anyone. When you leave the board meeting, it is your responsibility to support and implement board decisions to the best of your ability.
If you cannot in good conscience publically support the board’s decision, and the matter is of a substantive theological, moral, or legal nature, and you have exhausted appropriate steps to address the matter, you may need to prayerfully consider moving on.
- Don’t say “they”, say "we”
Similarly, unless the matter is a substantive theological, moral, or legal matter that you cannot in good conscience support (in contrast to a personal or professional preference), use the plural “we decided” when communicating board decisions and actions to parents and employees, even if you disagree with the decision. If you say, “The board decided….”, you imply disagreement (perhaps in an effort to retain the good favor of those with whom you are speaking) thus fostering division.
You may ask, “isn’t that dishonest?” No. You are an ex officio member (or should be) of the board. This means you “own” the decision, it is “our decision” not “their decision.” In other words, do not play “good cop, bad cop.” In a board meeting you should vigorously and respectfully share your perspective and even disagreement. Once a decision has been made and you leave the board meeting, it is “our decision.”
To Board Members
If you have had several administrators over a relatively short period of time, if the school continues to struggle after several years of operation, if there has been a history of tension or conflict with the heads of school—the problem probably lies with the board. Take a moment to reflect prayerfully and candidly on the following list of typical mistakes. Are any of these true of your actions? Has or is the board making any of these mistakes? If so, sustained action needs to be taken to correct the problem(s).
Typical mistakes boards make:
--Failing to recruit and retain a competent administrator
--Failing to disclose (being dishonest about) the true status of school operations to a prospective administrator during the interviewing process
--Failure to properly compensate the administrator
--Treating the administrator in an unbiblical manner
--Developing policies that make it difficult for the administrator to keep the school on a financially and academically sustainable course, e.g., setting tuition rates too low to support excellence, not properly capitalizing school operations, etc.
--Failing to consistently follow school policy and the bylaws
--Making decisions based on personal preferences or agendas
--Interfering with administrative affairs, trespassing upon the prerogatives of the administrator
--Attempting to micro-manage the administrator and/or school operations
--Spending too much time on relatively minor matters, e.g., dress-codes, uniforms, the calendar…
--Electing board members because of friendships or to gain allies in promoting a personal agenda or personal preferences rather than making selections based on the spiritual maturity and expertise of the board member and his or her demonstrated support for the school and Christian education
--Permitting board members to have their children enrolled in other schools
--Giving an ear to complaining parents or employees rather than directing them back to the administrator to address
--Surprising the administrator with a difficult matter during a board meeting
--Gossiping about or back stabbing the administrator
--Overturning decisions made by the administrator unless his or her decision was immoral, unbiblical, illegal, unethical, or threatens the stability and sustainability of the school
--Failing to pray for and encourage the administrator
--Failing to cover the administrator’s backside when needed
--Failure to engage in board member training
--Failure to support difficult and sometimes controversial decisions, e.g., the expulsion of a student(s), holding parents accountable to pay their tuition bill, or the termination of an employee regardless of his or her school or church connections
--Failing to hold individual board members accountable for their actions, e.g., not fulfilling his or her responsibilities or fostering division
--Focusing on the short-term rather than long-term plans and programs
As I stated above concerning administrators, the board has a biblical obligation to “Do Unto the Administrator as You Would have Him/Her Do Unto You.” This is simple and self-explanatory: do not say anything about or do anything to the administrator that you would not want him or her to say about you or do to you if the positions were reversed. More positively, be intentional in supporting and encouraging the administrator and in promoting his or her leadership, welfare, and reputation.
When Boards Behave Badly is an excellent companion article highlighting problems facing many school boards.
An Invitation to Administrators and Board Members to Respond
What is your reaction to this article? What advice would you offer to administrators? What advice would you offer to board members?
You can leave your comments on this blog or on the Facebook discussion board for this topic.