Designing a Board Retreat

Jack Peterson
November 2017

Most governing boards schedule an extended meeting time at least once a year to accomplish what can’t be accomplished during regular meetings. This is precious time for the board, so how can we design it to be most productive?

We call these special times together “retreats,” although they often aren’t retreats in the traditional sense of taking time away from our routine to center ourselves more on God. During the course of the year trustees find themselves making many decisions, but they long to step back to see how all these decisions fit into an overall direction for the school. They realize they need to set aside time to do this.

Their motivation is often just to do planning for the future, but there are three other important reasons for setting this time aside: strengthening board process, prayer and board formation, and strengthening board relationships. With proper design, and coordination with the regular meetings, all four can be accomplished. Let’s look at each of these four objectives.

Planning:

Board planning can range from setting annual goals for the board itself to setting a strategic vision for the school for the next five to ten years. If annual board goals are needed, the board can generally use a meeting or two to identify potential goals and use the retreat for deeper discussion and adoption.

If the need is for institutional strategic planning, satisfying that need may require three major steps. The first might be a retreat at the end of one year to initialize the process. Then most of the next school year may be needed for a steering committee and a number of subcommittees to engage the community in helping to develop the plan. Finally, at the end of that year, it may need another retreat to thoroughly review and approve the proposed plan.

Whatever the level of planning, it’s important to design the retreat to provide necessary information and incorporate sufficient discussion, yet work within the time available to bring closure to at least one step of the process.

Board Process:

There are many best practices for making boards more effective and no board has mastered them all. For instance, are agendas designed to allow for substantive discussion? Is there a policy manual that keeps a record of board decisions over the years? Is there a robust process for selecting and orienting new members? The board retreat is a good time to review those practices.

A helpful tool for doing this is reviewing the board’s annual self-evaluation (which is itself a best practice). By doing this at the retreat, the board can delve more deeply into its own needs, and set goals for the coming year to up its own game.

Formation:

In faith-based schools, it’s important that trustees, individually and as a group, embody the spirituality and ethos of the school. As lay people who work in the secular world, they bring some of this with them when they join the board. But given the role they now play in guiding a ministry, it’s critical that they continue to be fed spiritually. This can be done to some extent during regular meetings, but an opening and closing prayer, as important as they are, simply won’t fill the bill.

Even a personal commitment to spiritual growth doesn’t necessarily translate into a collective commitment. The retreat is an opportune time for the board to renew its commitment to the school’s religious foundations and explore how to better incorporate them into its work. Studying the school’s values and spiritual foundations is important, but board formation must also include an experiential element. Here we come closer to the traditional understanding of a retreat as a time away to renew our relationship with God.

While this was the original purpose of a retreat, it often gets lost in the press of handling weighty business matters. Even during regular meetings, boards would do well to pause for silent prayer, communal prayer, and reflection on scripture or other foundational documents. But these will be more effective if during retreat time the board can go deeper, learn and practice forms of prayer that enrich their reflection, and experience those graces that require time to develop.

Relationship-building:

We don’t often think of boards as teams. We think of them as people with various connections to the school who assemble to make decisions on behalf of the people it serves. They want to make those decisions carefully, but also efficiently. The idea of working on how they relate to each other as human beings seems like a luxury and not central to the work they do. And yet we all know the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional board.

A dysfunctional board struggles to get anything decided because members are distracted by each others’ perceived agendas and constantly in defensive mode. A functional board is one where mutual respect and appreciation allow members to focus on the issues at hand and draw strength from diverse perspectives and skills. I call it traveling at the speed of trust.

While boards often feel there’s not enough time for team-building activities, my experience is that they give back more time than they take. The board retreat is a great time for people to interact on a more human, relational level. It’s best if they can engage in activities that allow them to be more vulnerable and that put everyone on an equal footing.

An overnight retreat is a great way to build relationships, as is simply sharing meals together. I’ve also used everything from sing-alongs and drum circles to chowder cook-offs and Frisbee golf to break down the barriers. Invariably these additions to the agenda meet with suspicion and some anxiety. But they are often what people say later made the most difference in how they approach their work.

The question is how do we squeeze planning, process, formation, and relationship-building into one half-day or even day-long retreat? You may have noticed as you read the descriptions for each of these, that they are not independent of each other. Planning requires good board process. Prayer is a good way to build relationships. Formation can strengthen planning and working on process can be part of team-building

There are ways to blend these elements together. For one board, some elements may need to be emphasized more than others. In some cases greater development of an element may have to be take place beyond the retreat day. For instance, the retreat might kick-off a prayer program that trustees commit to which is revisited briefly at each board meeting throughout the year.

The key is to be thoughtful, the way schools are in designing their curriculum. Schools look at the big picture of what they want their students to become, and develop a curriculum to support that. As school boards and commissions, shouldn’t we use an analogous approach to design our meeting and retreat time?

I hope the foregoing has provided you with some principles for designing your board or commission retreat. You can scroll to the top of this page to watch a video of this post, or share it with others at your school who work on board development. And if you want to learn more, please explore the rest of this website, www.managingformission.com. You’ll find more information that can help you in your role with the school, or you can contact me and ask me your questions directly.

The work you do is important enough to set aside some special time for doing it better. You won’t regret the extra effort to use it well.

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