10 Ways to Add Value as a Board Member

Larry WitzelFrom the Field, Leadership, Life Lessons

It was my third meeting as a new member of the Oregon Conference Executive Committee. A serious matter was brought to us, one that would have lasting consequences for a pastor’s career. After extended discussion, it was clear some committee members felt rushed to make a decision. Yet a vote was taken anyway. In the end, the right decision was probably made, but the process left a bitter taste, leading a member to resign.

I write this, not to be critical, but to share my journey as a board member. As I reflected on the experience of that meeting in the days following, I realized that by my silence I had failed the group. I myself was culpable. Frankly, this was not a matter requiring immediate decision. Waiting 2 months could have given this pastor’s congregation an opportunity to process the situation, and perhaps even begin to heal after his poor choices. I knew this in my heart, yet I didn’t speak until it was too late.

That’s when I realized I needed to do a better job in this new role. So I started jotting notes about specific ways to be more effective as a board member. I asked other members what I could do to improve. When I was reelected to a second term on Executive Committee, I asked three experienced members to mentor me. Most importantly, after every meeting I spent the drive home in silence, talking to God about it and reflecting on what I could have done better. I wanted to get better with every meeting.

I was on conference committee for 8 years, and I learned a lot. And now, as I retire from this board after two terms, I’d like to share some things I’ve learned.

Note, this is not a comprehensive article about the responsibilities of a board member. It doesn’t talk about a board member’s duty of care, or duty of loyalty. There are plenty of other comprehensive training resources out there for new board members, such as the free courses at Adventist Learning Community for new K-12 school board and church board members, or free courses for nonprofit board members at NonprofitReady.org. Dr. Byron Dulan at the North Pacific Union Conference recently recorded a webinar for Adventist Community Services called Ministry Boards 101, which is a great introduction to the responsibilities of board members. So if you’re new to boards, I encourage you to complete one of these courses to give you a foundation on boardmanship.

Here, then, are my 10 ways to add value to any board or committee:

1. Say yes—but not too often

If you have an opportunity to join a board, do it! You can’t add value to a board if you’re not on it.

On the other hand, you’ll do better work if you can focus. So if you’re already on a couple of boards or committees, say no to other opportunities so you can fully honor your current commitments.

Specifically, if you have an opportunity to be involved in Seventh-day Adventist Church governance, please take it. Whether it’s an audit review committee, lay advisory committee, session organizing committee, nominating committee, constitution and bylaws committee, constituency session, or executive committee itself, you can have a positive impact on shaping the mission and culture of our denomination in your territory. When you get the chance, please say yes.

2. Show up and pay attention

Turn off your phone. Don’t pull out your laptop to check your email. When you’re in the meeting, sit up, lean forward, and make eye contact with whomever is speaking. Make an effort to track the discussion. If you’re tired, get up and stand behind your chair. Do whatever it takes to pay attention.

To do that, of course, you have to be there. Attending meetings is the only way to participate in discussions. You can’t add value if you’re not there. In my eight years on Oregon Conference Executive Committee, I only missed one meeting due to family responsibilities.

You can’t contribute if you don’t show up. So show up, and pay attention.

3. Understand your role

As a board member, you have no authority outside a board in session. You cannot speak for the board unless you’ve been delegated that responsibility. You cannot speak for the organization, and you cannot act on behalf of the organization. Those are jobs for officers and staff, not you as a board member.

You also can’t talk about deliberations in a board meeting. This is generally true for every meeting, but anything that happens particularly when in an executive session must be kept strictly confidential.

So what is your role? You participate in dialogue about potential decisions brought to the group, vote on these decisions, and support the board decisions and the organization as a whole. You are an advocate for the organization, but without authority to speak or act on its behalf outside of board meetings in session.

You are also an ear for the organization. I can’t tell you how many emails, phone calls, and letters I’ve received from people with specific concerns about the conference. Each time I thanked the person for their perspective and said I would keep it in mind as the committee makes decisions. When appropriate, I would share these concerns with conference leaders or during board discussions.

So your role is to listen, dialogue, and vote. Outside of meetings, you are an advocate for the organization. That’s it.

4. Do your homework

Spend time outside the meetings researching the issues and gathering data to make better decisions.

A few weeks after my first conference committee meeting, I ran into the president at an event. I told him I had been attending the same church for 15 years and was thinking about doing a tour of some other churches in the conference to help get me up to speed on current ministry culture. He was ecstatic that one of his executive committee members would do this and gave me a list of some churches to check out.

Over the next year, I visited 30 churches across the conference: urban and rural, Spanish and regional, progressive and conservative, large and small. I went to Sabbath school and the worship service, then stayed late to pray with the pastor after the service. Sometimes I brought my kids, who gave me a scouting report on the children’s programs. It was a memorable experience that gave me a foundational understanding of the state of the conference. It was also a lot of fun.

Bottom line: the more you engage outside the meeting, with both people and issues, the more value you bring to each meeting.

5. Ask good questions

I learned it’s better to ask questions than to make statements. Questions engage the others in the room, and are more inclusive. Even if I already knew the answer, I found it gave more weight to visibly agree with someone else’s answer than to make a statement myself.

There are four general types of questions I ask while in a meeting:

  • Clarifying questions. Help me understand what’s being said. How long ago did this happen? What other steps did you take? What was the local church leadership’s response?
  • Probing questions. Get beyond the surface to understand the deeper implications. Why did you feel this was the right course of action? What has your experience been in similar situations? How will this impact the mission?
  • Policy questions. Help the committee understand the boundaries they must operate in. What is NAD Working Policy on severance pay? What are the continuing education requirements for teachers? What is the current conference policy on sabbaticals? Many of the decisions a board is asked to make will have policy boundaries you must work within, so asking questions about policy will help everyone understand where those fences are.
  • Procedure questions. Make sure everyone understands where you are in the meeting process. Is there a motion on the floor? What is the exact wording of the motion? Are we voting on the main motion or the proposed amendment? What does it mean if we vote yes? Roberts Rules of Order and GC Rules of Order require experience to fully understand, so asking questions will help less experienced members keep up with the proceedings.

6. Build relationships

Put some effort into building relationships with the other board members. Come early to connect with board members and staff. Stay after the meeting to process what happened with someone. Text with other members between meetings. Be open to viewpoints that are foreign to you. Embrace feedback, whether positive or negative.

I’ve been part of discussions where other board members have opinions I completely disagree with. Sometimes, I couldn’t understand how someone could hold that belief, and occasionally that disagreement was strong and passionate. But if we’re going to work together, good relationships are crucial.

I found having lunch with someone is a great way to build trust. Building that bridge is far more important than being right. There is more joy in relationships than in close-mindedness.

7. Create an inclusive space

When I started my second term on conference committee, I looked for ways to help new members engage. For many, it was a new environment, with new people. The culture of each board is a little bit different. Policies and processes were foreign. Procedures for motions and amendments can be confusing. It can all be overwhelming to newcomers, so I wanted to do my part to ensure everyone was keeping up with the discussion.

Specifically, when I saw signs of confusion in committee members I would ask questions, even when I already knew the answers. I would ask about policies and procedure to give people a chance to catch up and better understand what’s going on.

More than that, creating an inclusive space means giving others a chance to talk. It means pausing to let someone else make the motion, and the second. It means allowing a discussion to take shape, and if my viewpoint has already been expressed, keeping my mouth shut.

Side note: the less you speak, the more valuable each comment becomes. One of my mentors told me to look at the agenda, pick the one item I cared about the most, and save my words to speak to that issue. In a meeting, the total value of your words is inversely proportional to the quantity. Fewer words have more impact.

8. Make space for the underrepresented

I’m a middle-aged white man. Do you know what this denomination’s committees don’t need more of? Middle-aged white men. I know.

Still, I can bring value. So if I am on a board, I can passionately advocate for those who are underrepresented. For example, during this last term, I worked to formalize young adult representation on Oregon Conference Executive Committee through amendments to the bylaws. I have vocally supported the needs of both Spanish and African-American churches. I’m an advocate for church planting, for women in ministry, and for Adventist education.

More importantly, I worked to include representatives of these groups in the conversation. I’ve had numerous conversations with people from groups whose voices need to be heard, simply building their confidence to participate in the process. And once someone is present from one of these underrepresented groups, I do my part to encourage them to share their perspectives.

Sometimes that even means standing aside to create room for someone else whose voice needs to be heard. I’ve always wanted to be a delegate to General Conference Session, ever since I first attended as a kid. I’ve been to nearly every GC Session since I was a teenager, in numerous roles: TV crew member, musician, exhibitor. I would spend my breaks observing the business sessions, and have read the Adventist Review transcripts for nearly every meeting over the last 35 years. I’ve dreamed of someday wearing that delegate badge. But today I recognize this body needs other voices, and I am at peace with never being an official delegate. At this last Session, I cheered as Dan, Kara, Belinda, and Linda went as our representatives from Oregon. That’s a small sacrifice I can make to create space for someone else, and is a unique way to add value to the organization.

I cannot speak for underrepresented groups, but I can be an ally. And I can do my part to create space for their voice to be heard.

9. Make yourself a board contribution checklist

As I went on this journey, I found myself creating a personal performance checklist. I would look at it before each meeting, to remind myself of my goals, and then reflect afterward on how I did.

Here’s the current state of my checklist:

  • Safety. Did you do your part to create a safe space for people to share their thoughts and perspectives?
  •  Affirmation. Were you affirming with your words?
  •  Warmth. Did you keep a smile on your face? 
  •  Humor. Was your humor appropriate? Did you laugh with, not at?
  •  Gentleness. Were you gentle?
  •  Humility. Were you humble?
  •  Attention. Did you pay attention throughout the proceedings?
  •  Preparation. Did you do your homework?
  •  Value. Did you add value to the conversation?
    •  Clarifying questions
    •  Probing questions
    •  Procedure questions
    •  Policy questions
  •  Mentoring. Did you help other committee members to better understand the topic being discussed? Did you help them understand the process?

You’ll notice this list is tailored to my own strengths and weaknesses. For example, I am not a gentle person by nature, so I reminded myself to be gentle. Boldness is not a problem for me, so that’s not on my list. But someone else might need to remind themselves to be bold, not gentle. Both are important; one, in particular, needed my attention, so that’s what’s on my list.

10. Exude positivity

You help set the tone for the board. So put a smile on your face. Speak words of affirmation and appreciation. Give compliments. Point out things that are going well. Create a foundation of positivity. Then when you do need to speak a hard truth, people will know you’re saying it out of love, not with a critical spirit.

At every meeting, I tried to find a way to give words of affirmation: how honored I was to spend time with these people, how much I appreciated them, and how much fun I had together. I’m confident that if you asked them, people on that committee would say they felt affirmed in their contributions, and that I helped create a positive tone for the group. They would also say I spoke what was on my heart, even if it was discordant with prevailing opinion. You can be both positive and honest; it’s not either/or.

This positivity is so rare it can even be newsworthy. I recently publicly expressed my appreciation for the discussion taking place at the most recent Oregon Conference Constituency Session, and my comments were quoted in the news article about the session. So bringing a positive, affirming voice to a board or committee can add tremendous value to the organization.

While you’re at it, have fun! Once you’ve taken the effort to be at the meeting and understand the issues, enjoy yourself. If someone tees up a funny comment, make it. Laugh together. Change things up and make a simple procedural motion with a loquacious speech. Cheer for each other. Most of all, take pride in the work you’re doing together, having fun while you’re doing it. Be the positive influence God created you to be.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to serve on the Oregon Conference Executive Committee over these last 8 years. Having been in the room when some hard decisions were made, I have nothing but respect for our conference president, Dan Linrud, as I watched him wrestle with competing priorities in this spiritual war. This committee did some good work together, and I’ll always cherish the friendships I made with the other committee members. I’ll be cheering them on in each of their future ministry endeavors.

So what about you? Are you willing to step up and serve? There are organizations that need your help. No matter your experience or personality, you have something to offer. So say yes, and start adding value to the organizations you care about. Maybe you’ll even have fun in the process.

Larry Witzel is the founder and president of SermonView Evangelism Marketing. After serving on Oregon Conference Executive Committee for 8 years, he was elected to represent the conference on the North Pacific Union Conference Executive Committee.