Board Formation

Jack Peterson
August 15, 2014


Women and men who join the board of a faith-based school are generally drawn to offer their service because they recognize or at least sense that something special is happening at the school that they want to help preserve.  They often desire that that same spirituality influence their own lives.  Despite desiring this “something different,” they can be tempted to respond to a new and unfamiliar way of decision-making with feelings of diffidence and doubt, which can lead them to default to more familiar approaches.

The boards and commissions of faith-based schools hold tremendous responsibility for their organizations and as such have many characteristics and duties in common with the boards of other schools and even businesses.  But in order to sustain the unique charism of faith-based education, trustees must carry out these responsibilities in ways consistent with the world view and spirituality inspired by the Gospel and the teaching of the sponsoring entity, as the teaching of St. Ignatius developed by the Society of Jesus is for Jesuit schools.  The way they carry out their responsibilities will therefore at times contrast with their experience from other organizational settings.  And in order to do this, they need some additional help.  

In my experience, there are five characteristics necessary to sustain a Board formation program:  1) it has to be sequential; 2) it has to be simple but consistent; 3) it has to be spiritual; 4) it has to be the board’s; and 5) it has to be managed.

Sequential.  One of the characteristics of a board is that it is, or should be, bringing on new members every year.  For the person or committee responsible for board formation, this creates a perennial problem.  If they do a wonderful retreat on discernment one year, the next year’s incoming board members won’t have the benefit of it, unless it is repeated each year, which will drain away the interest of the veterans.  Our boards are like our schools in ways we often don’t acknowledge.  We take in new board members each year as freshmen, and we graduate them, usually 3-6 years later.  We wouldn’t give our students the same curriculum each year; nor would we give haphazard exposure to various themes over the course of their four years.  Similarly, with our boards the formational needs of first year members are different from those of veterans and our formation program should take that into account by providing a sequential program of formation beginning anew for each new cohort. 

Simple but consistent.  Already, one might suspect that such a sequential program for each cohort could be pretty complex.  It could be.  But here the analogy with the school curriculum ends.  The board formation program does not need to be complicated; it should be geared to the time availability of the board members.  But whatever is done needs to be done consistently.  As the program rolls out, board members will often desire more, but the workload and expectations can and should be dialed up gradually, and with their ownership.

Spiritual.  We often think that business people will balk at giving time to purely “spiritual” activities.  Since most of them are not familiar with silent, imaginative or affective prayer, if left to themselves they will default to what they know best, handling business, including treating prayer as though it were an agenda item.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t desire something deeper.  They may not even know they desire it.  But my experience is that they do.  That’s a big part of why they were attracted to the school and the board in the first place.  And I have found that when shown how and given the time to pray, for instance as St. Ignatius teaches in the Spiritual Exercises, they invariably want more.

The Board’s.  Once they experience what silent, imaginative and affective prayer can give them, once they know what they have been desiring, they can begin taking responsibility for their own formation.  Rather than the spiritual life committee cajoling them, they become ready to articulate their spiritual needs and challenge themselves to deepen their own formation.  Not everyone will, of course.  But that’s okay.  Enough will want it that the board collectively will stop resisting formation and begin seeing it as a benefit of being on the board.

Managed. Despite the board members desiring it, deeper formation, with all its moving parts, still has to be managed.  Calendars must be maintained, reminders sent, rooms scheduled, books ordered, etc.  This is something board members aren’t likely to do well, because the major demands on their lives come from elsewhere.  A board may occasionally have a member with the time and interest to manage the process for a year or two, but it would be better to assign the management to someone in the school.  I have found that the president’s (or principal’s) administrative assistant is a good person to manage the process details because once the program is set, he or she, can simply push the buttons to get action steps on people’s plates and the president, or principal, only needs to make sure the board is getting what it needs from the school.

My intention is not to make this all sound simpler than is, but to lift up a few considerations that can be key to sustaining an effective board formation program.  It can be scaled up or down to the appropriate level of the board’s and school’s capacity.  Don’t go for the brass ring the first time round.  Just make sure everyone knows that this is a commitment that the board, with the support of personnel at the school, will sustain for the long run.

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