Branding Faith-based Schools

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August, 2016

Branding has become a key concept in the strategy for any business today.  This should include faith-based schools.  But as much as administrators realize that competing for students means stepped up marketing efforts, there is still suspicion and misunderstanding around branding strategy.  Is branding really what faith-based schools need to be doing?

For me it’s clear that, to ready themselves for the challenges ahead, faith-based schools must indeed embrace their unique brand.  With the costs of education rising and a broadening range of educational choices families have access to—from magnet schools to charter schools, and home schooling to on-line academies—it will be critical that we distinguish ourselves and create an understanding of and loyalty to our brand.  But there’s a way to do it without forsaking, or for that matter cheapening, our mission or our charism.  The key is in how you define brand.

In my work, I’ve come to define brand as how our mission looks to our publics.  We’d like to think that our mission dictates our brand.  But it doesn’t, at least not by itself.  We can write the most accurate and compelling mission statement we want, but it will not prevent people from formulating their own mission statement for our school based on what they experience.  Having an accurate and compelling mission statement is a good place to start, in fact the right place to start.  But we still have to ask how this will look to the families we exist to serve.  Ignatius of Loyola knew this as well as anyone, and the Jesuit schools and ministries he inspired understand that simply having the right message isn’t enough.  We have to communicate it effectively.  There’s an old Jesuit saying, “We bring them in their door so that we can bring them out ours.”  People aren’t always ready to hear our message.  But if we understand what they are ready for, we can lead them beyond where they’re at to something deeper.

How do we do that?  To answer this question, I’d like to draw from what I learned from the marketing firm, JayRay (www.JayRay.com).  JayRay looks at brand as having three components—3 P’s if you will:  Position, Personality and Promise.  I like these three P’s because they give me a strategy for approaching the challenge of branding, and they are congenial to the spirit of a faith-based school.

Position is simply where people locate you in the in the spectrum of organizations which address the same needs you do.  There may be other academically excellent schools in your catchment area, maybe even some more respected than yours.  There may be other faith-based schools available.  But perhaps your unique spot is that you are the most academically superior, faith-based school in your area.  That might be your position in the “market.”

Personality is how people experience your school on a human level.  Are you strict and formal?  Are you relaxed?  Do you have a good sense of humor?  Do you value creativity, or discipline, or somehow both?  Certainly each of your teachers has her own personality, but your school has a personality too.  Hopefully, that personality is an expression of the love and welcome implied by the Gospel and spiritual charism of the school.  School personalities can’t be fabricated, especially not for marketing purposes.  But they are a good indicator of how well the loving spirit of Jesus is embraced by a school.  If that is not well, work needs to be done at the root level.  If your personality expresses your underlying charism, then the school should acknowledge and broadcast it.  This personality should be reflected in the speeches given by the president and principal, the way the school’s website looks, the photographs chosen for publications, even the types of media you choose to communicate with.

The word Promise is a great way to look at mission.  JayRay would ask, “What is it you promise to do every day as a school?”  Do you promise to be welcoming—every day, to everyone?  Do you promise to create a safe environment, to challenge all students to their full potential?  Do you promise to graduate students who are open to growth, intellectually competent, loving, religious and committed to justice?  And do you promise to work toward that each day?

One of the things I like about this approach to branding is that it is not, as so many assume, an outside-in approach.  We picture an ad agency coming up with a catchy phrase that tests well in consumer research and launching an ad campaign to create an image for their client.  But it doesn’t really work that way.  Well, maybe this works for some businesses.  But it won’t work for a faith-based school.  Brand has to begin at the very core of who the school is and radiate outwards.  JayRay describes it as a pebble in a pond with the waves radiating out from the center.  Teachers and office staff and custodians and coaches all have to understand the school’s promise as their promise and commit themselves each day to keeping it.

The school’s Strategic Plan is an important tool for aligning all community members around the position, personality and promise that shape its brand.  That’s why MfM uses a strategic planning process with its faith-based school clients that generates a high degree of stakeholder input.

In their own ways, which are very “corporate,” Apple and Starbucks have achieved high alignment with their employees.  Companies whose employees live out their brand have given us a great example.  It seems to me, however, that with the graces we are able to draw upon, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at the core of our schools, we should be showing them how it’s done.

Your school has a great message to share.  Aligning everything your school does around its core message is a big part of what we call managing for mission.  If you want to know more, please visit our website, www.managingformission.com.  And keep up the good work of bringing the mission of faith-based education to families who may need it even more than they realize.

This topic of Branding for Faith-based Schools can also be viewed as an seven minute video by clicking here. I encourage you to learn more about governance and school management by viewing the other tutorials on this website and our YouTube Channel.

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Faith-based School Boards 3

Best Practices for Doing the Board’s Work
May, 2016

Having great Trustees won’t by itself assure a great Board.  The other ingredient is effective processes for going about their work.  If you read the first two posts in this three-part series, you heard about the board’s role, as well as some best practices for becoming a better board.  In this post I’d like to talk about best practices for doing the Board’s work.

The areas I’ll focus on in this post are:

    Committees

    Strategic Planning

    Evaluating the Chief Administrator

    Board philanthropy

Committees

Boards do their work at a fairly high level, so their span of responsibility is quite broad. To give meaningful oversight to the apostolic, pedagogical, human and business dimensions of the school, boards must divide up the work among committees.  There they can focus on specific issues and bring back a deeper knowledge to inform board decisions.

Standing committees should be kept to a minimum, five at most, because they require significant time from both the trustees and the administrators who must support them.  These can be augmented by ad hoc committees as other needs arise.  Trustees should serve on no more than two committees, and for many, one will be commitment enough.

That means that committees should also involve non-trustees, who can add greater breadth and depth to deliberations.  The non-trustees are also a pool of potential trustees as they learn about the board’s work and the board learns about how they work.

The main role of a committee is to recommend to the board, when necessary, policies related to their area.  But they don’t set policy themselves.  More often, they serve as a sounding board and a resource to the administrator working in the area they oversee.  They must be clear, however, that they are not supervising that administrator, or it will subvert the relationship of the chief administrator to her administrative team.

In a high functioning board, most of the work is being done by the committees.  Because this is true, it works well to have the board and committees meet in alternating months.

Strategic Planning

Strategic Planning is the process of aligning the significant internal factors within a school’s control to better accomplish the mission, in the face of significant external factors not within the school’s control.

While the Strategic Plan is a crucial tool for the chief administrative officer, and the CAO provides leadership in its creation, the Strategic Plan must be formulated under the board’s authority.  The Strategic Plan allows the board to stay on the governance level, while giving the CAO clarity about its vision for the school.  Board members come and go, so the CAO and his team need the assurance of continuity in the strategic directions they are pursuing.

So ultimately the board “owns” the plan, and the CAO leads the planning process.  But because a faith-based school runs on generosity, its stakeholders need to participate in the process.  Their involvement assures that the experience of people served by the school shapes the plan, and it builds their ownership, so crucial when the time comes for implementation.

Managing for Mission has identified ten characteristics of effective plans.  Of these, the four most important are that they be:

    Truly Strategic

    Broadly owned

    Implementation oriented

    Compelling

To accomplish this generally requires a year from start to finish.  Managing for Mission has a separate tutorial on Strategic Planning and additional materials on our website.

Chief Administrator Evaluation

The board has only one employee who reports to it directly.  It is therefore imperative that the board give direction and feedback to its employee.  When things are going well, it may seem like a formal evaluation of the Chief Administrative Officer is unnecessary.  But there are at least three important reasons to maintain this practice.

First, if problems do develop, they will be easier to deal with if there has been a consistent discipline of evaluation.

Second, the evaluation isn’t just to identify problems with the CAO’s performance.  It’s a time for her to hear from the board that her job is important and she has their appreciation when she does it well and their support where she needs to get better.

Third, it sets a good example.  The CAO should be evaluating her administrative team, who should in turn be evaluating the faculty and staff who report to them.  The board must model the importance of evaluations to the CAO, giving her leverage when asking employees to participate in a process that applies to her as well.

The CAO should receive formative feedback on a regular basis.  This can be in an informal setting, like a monthly meeting with the Board Chair, but it should be planned and regular.

Managing for Mission also recommends that the board administer an annual summative evaluation which identifies and documents officially both achievements to be recognized and deficiencies to be remedied.

The summative evaluation should include data on the progress toward Strategic Plan goals, review of professional goals, a self-evaluation and confidential survey sampling 360o input from direct reports, various sectors of the school community, and every trustee.

The annual review should also include setting goals for the coming year.  Goal setting, and evaluation based on the goals, should be done yearly because good performance trends can’t wait for two or three years to be acknowledged and adverse performance trends can’t wait to be corrected.

Nothing the board does will impact the well-being of the school more that doing a thoughtful and consistent job of giving formative and summative feedback to the CAO.

Board Philanthropy

For some, providing philanthropic support is the most important job of the board.  I don’t think that‘s true, but it is pretty important.  Faith-based schools depend for their very existence on the generosity of benefactors.  To give such generous support, a donor needs to understand what the school is about and feel a personal connection.  Who is more knowledgeable and connected than the trustees?  If they are not willing benefactors, how could we expect anyone else to be?

Conversely, who can make a better board member than one who has done his due diligence and made a major investment in the school?   He will want to follow his investment and will have extra motivation and insight in carrying out his duties.

Trustees set an example for others to follow, in this as in other matters.   While it’s great to have people of wealth on the board who can give leadership gifts, it’s more important that all board members support both the annual fund and any campaign to an extent proportionate to their means.  In this way they can support the five keys to development success.

We’ve talked about committees, strategic planning, evaluation of the chief administrator and board philanthropy.  In the previous tutorial we talked about recruiting new members, formation, self- evaluation, and board manuals.   There are other best practices, but if trustees make a concerted effort in these, they can become a great board.

This topic of Four Best Practices for Doing the Board’s Work can also be viewed as an eight minute video by clicking here. I encourage you to learn more about governance and school management by viewing the other tutorials on this website and our YouTube Channel.

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Faith-based School Boards 2

4 Best Practices for Becoming a Great Board
May, 2016

Your board is contributing in important ways to the success of your school.  But if you’ve already read the first blog post in this series, The Role of the Board, it means you want, not just a good board, but a great one.  

In this tutorial, we’ll focus on best practices for becoming a great board: new member recruitment, formation, self-evaluation and the board’s Policy Manual.

Recruitment

Being on a board is a little like coming down off a mountain.  If you get started in the wrong direction it’s harder and harder to get back to the right one.  If new board members aren’t properly identified, recruited and oriented, the board will deal with the resulting mismatch of expectations and skills for years.  Here are some important ways to avoid that.

First, Identify needs and potential candidates. The board should maintain a profile in spread sheet form that identifies current Board members’ term expiration, committee assignments, association with the school, gender, ethnicity, profession, and skills.  Using this profile, a nominating committee can identify any coming gaps that will need to be filled and compile a pool of potential candidates to fill them.

Second, carefully Recruit new Board members.   Think of recruitment as the beginning of the orientation process.  Involving the chair, the chief administrator and one other board member in the ask will alert the prospective trustee that he or she will be joining a high-functioning team.

Having prepared materials that answer the nominee’s questions will demonstrate the Board’s commitment to the new member and its own processes.  The common questions nominees have are:

What is the school’s Mission Statement?

What are the expectations of board members?

How much of a time commitment is it?  When does the board meet?

Who else is on the Board?

What are the school’s strategic goals for the next few years?

But the most important thing they want to know is “Why are you asking me?  What do you expect me to bring to the Board?”  Don’t be afraid that being honest about expectations will scare them off.  The right person will be attracted by your enthusiasm and the serious way the Board approaches prospective members.

Formation

The recruitment process is a good start, but a formal orientation process will help bring the new trustee up to speed quickly.  In this orientation he or she is introduced to school leadership and key processes and documents, like the Mission Statement, the Strategic Plan, expectations of the sponsoring religious body, school history and current issues the Board has been grappling with.

This orientation can begin during a dinner meeting at the start of the school year, but on-boarding should also include opportunities over the course of their first year.  Some schools assign a mentor as a resource person for the neophyte trustee.

The process just described is applicable to any board of any organization.  Faith-based schools need to take this a step further with what we call Formation.  Their mission, which the board is in place to support, is to foster not just the intellectual growth of its students, but their spiritual growth as well. Trustees must not only understand what that means, but be committed to their own spiritual growth.  There’s a difference between information and formation.  Formation needs to be experiential, regular and geared to the needs of trustees as they grow on the board.

For our students, we think through a curriculum to guide them during their years in our school rather than just present unconnected lessons and courses.  Similarly, we need to think through how a trustee will grow over their 3 or 6 years on the board, and design a formation program to foster that growth.  Maybe, for instance, the second year trustees have already been trained on group discernment.  So you don’t want to repeat it for them.  But the first year folks still need it. An effective formation program has some common elements for all trustees, like the board retreat, and some elements geared to the needs of each cohort.

Self-evaluation

An important element of any growth process is evaluation. We learn from experience, but only if we reflect honestly on that experience.  An individual might be able to do this for herself in an informal way, because there is only one self doing the evaluating.  But that won’t work for a board because each trustee would know only his own feelings about how the board is functioning.  A regular, formal process in which everyone participates is needed for the board as a whole to learn from its own experience how things are going and how they can be improved.

The questions should ask trustees to rate the quality of their meetings, decision-making processes, agendas, the presentations and information they receive, committee effectiveness, their relationship with the administration and whether the board has the kinds of members it needs.  It should also ask trustees to rate their own participation and effectiveness, as well as how the experience has gone for them and how it could be better.  The results of the evaluation should be discussed in a meeting where the board can prioritize the improvements it wants to make and set goals for the coming year.

Board Policy Manual

The by-laws provide general rules within which the board and the school must operate.  But over time, the board will develop its own policies to govern itself and the school.  As trustees join and leave the board, it’s important to have one place they can find all board policies currently in force.

These might include the processes for electing officers, approving new members, approving the budget, conducting a self-evaluation or evaluating the chief administrative officer.  Having a Policy Manual spares the Board from reinventing processes once it has developed them, but it doesn’t prevent the Board from modifying them as its needs change.

Board Policy Manuals can be kept in hard-copy form, but schools are finding it more helpful to maintain them on line, often on a trustee webpage linked to the school’s website.  This allows access to them from anywhere and assures that the manual trustees are looking at is up to date. The Board Policy Manual comes under the purview of the board secretary but is usually maintained by a school staff member.

These best practices around recruitment, formation, self-evaluation and the board policy manual– will strengthen your board’s effectiveness if you’re not already doing them.  If you are, be sure to review them periodically to make sure your board is receiving their full benefit.

More information on how boards can best carry out their crucial role is available several places on this website, www.managingformission.com, by clicking on our SERVICES and RESOURCES tabs.  Or go to our MfM YouTube Channel, where you’ll find tutorials on best practices particularly appropriate for faith-based schools.  You can also find a video version of this blog post.

In the third blog post in this series, Doing the Board’s Work, we’ll look at four other areas where best practices can strengthen your board’s effectiveness: committees, strategic planning, evaluation of the Chief Administrative Officer and Board philanthropy.   

I encourage you to keep learning more about effective boards and working to make sure your school’s board is one of them.

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The Board’s Unique Role

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
February 15, 2016

Boards are funny creatures.  We give ultimate authority for an institution dearly important to us to a group of people who have little expertise in the core work of education, who spend only a precious few hours working together, and who must guide the school from within the cumbersome framework of group decision-making.  Why would we do this?

As unwieldy as school governance can feel at times, it’s critical to accomplishing the school’s mission over the long run.  

For school administrators, governing boards can sometimes feel like a necessary evil, something that just complicates their job and their ability to manage the school.  Unfortunately, this can be a self-fulfilling assumption.  The more we ignore the board and try to minimize the board and its impact, the more problematic it becomes.  Administrators will be able to do their jobs better if they invest time in supporting the board, in its proper role, and helping it become more effective.

So what is the board’s role?

We’ve all heard the word “fiduciary” to describe the role of trustees, as in “boards have a fiduciary responsibility.”  I used to think this word meant “financial,” that the board’s responsibility is relegated to the financial solvency of the school.  But fiduciary simply means trust.  It means that the board holds the school in trust for the community it serves and for the mission that comes to it from the greater church.

While administrators know their professions and their school’s mission well, they need this group of trustees to connect their work and the mission to the community they serve.  When boards are working well they bring three indispensable benefits to the school, often characterized as wisdom, wealth and work.

Wisdom

Trustees are a rich source of wisdom for shaping governance level policies and for assisting administrators in shaping administrative level policies because they’re drawn from a range of professions and backgrounds.

Wealth

When we say they bring “wealth,” we don’t mean simply that the trustees themselves are wealthy.  We mean that, because they connect well with the community, they help the school access resources it never could without them.  Yes, they themselves need to be benefactors, in proportion to their means, but they also attract other benefactors, and they help the schools tap into opportunities they might not otherwise.

Work

“Work” refers to the volunteering trustees do, not only in formulating sound policy for the schools, but by rolling up their sleeves to assist in areas of the school’s operations where their talents can be enlisted.

The Board forms an important link in what we call the “Chain of Care” that extends from Jesus to the church to the board, to the administration and faculty and ultimately to the student.  By doing its job well, the board strengthens this Chain of Care so that the students experience in a palpable and sustainable way the loving, creative presence of God in their lives.  If you want to learn more about this, Managing for Mission has a tutorial explaining the Chain of Care in greater depth.

As I said earlier, boards are funny creatures, and it isn’t always easy for trustees or administrators to understand the nuances of their role.  The line between governance and administration can be fuzzy, and board members can feel pulled inside that line and begin micromanaging and interfering with the administration.  Or they can feel pushed so far outside it that they can’t provide that life-giving connection that holds the school accountable to the community and the community accountable to supporting the school.

I’d like to borrow a way of explaining this from my colleague, David Coleman, author of Board Essentials, who talks about the different hats trustees wear.  There are three of them, and it is critical that Board members understand at any given point which hat they’re wearing.

Policy

The first hat is the policy hat.  It’s the most important, because governance level policy can only be formulated by the board.  If the board doesn’t set these overall policies no one else can.  No one else has that authority.  But as important as the policy function is, it’s the thing boards actually do the least.  Schools just don’t need that many governance level policies and once they’re in place, they usually stay in place for a while.

An example of a governance level policy might be the school’s commitment to diversity, or to employee benefits.  Budget is one of those grey areas, with the board setting the bigger parameters, like tuition or the faculty base, but not deliberating line item expenditures.

As seldom as trustees make big policy decisions, they still have to keep this hat close at hand because when it’s needed, they’re the only ones who can wear it.

Sounding Board

The second hat I call “Sounding Board.”  As pointed out earlier, there is a wealth of collective wisdom on the board, and administrators would do well to access that wisdom as they make decisions and formulate their administrative policies.

There are times when an administrator may want advice from the board for a decision which is hers to make, for instance a change to the dress code.  If the board thinks it’s wearing its Policy hat, it may end up tying the hands of the administrator by directing her rather than advising her.  When this happens, it can lead the administrator to become overly cautious about what she shares with the board.  The board is then pushed further away from the school and the wisdom it could offer is lost.

Volunteer

Finally there is the “Volunteer” hat.  The board is a great source of volunteers because they’re usually skilled and passionate about the school and its interests.  But again the trustees take off their Policy hats when they volunteer in the school.  

If a trustee is asked to serve on the campaign committee, he doesn’t overrule the development director by virtue of his status as a trustee.  In fact he has to be careful even when he isn’t intending to speak authoritatively because school personnel may assume they’d better do what he says.

I sometimes wish board members would actually wear these hats so that it’s clear to themselves and others what role they’re filling at any given point.  Short of requiring that, trustees should be constantly asking which hat they are wearing and make sure that is communicated to those they work with.

More information on how boards can best carry out their crucial role is available several places on this website, www.managingformission.com, by clicking on our SERVICES and RESOURCES tabs.  Or go to our MfM YouTube Channel, where you’ll find tutorials on best practices and an approach to discernment particularly appropriate for faith-based schools.  You can also find a video version of this blog post.

Thanks for your willingness to strengthen the mission of your school by serving on or supporting its board.  I pray that God will bless you in your work and bless the school and its students as a result.

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The Strategic Planning Process

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
November 15, 2015

For faith-based schools, good Strategic Planning is critical to survival and growth.  We all know we need to do it, and if we can better understand what makes it so important, we’ll also understand how to do it effectively.

Strategic planning is the process of aligning all the internal factors within a school’s control in order to accomplish its mission in the face of external factors that are not within its control.  This definition sounds a little like an institutional version of the Serenity Prayer.  There are some things, like the economy, trends in culture and technology that we can’t change.  But by being aware of them, we can use the factors within our control, like our curriculum, tuition, the condition of our campus, to harness the opportunities and manage the threats.

Resources in our Faith-based schools seem scarce, but when we focus our people, our traditions and our assets on what is strategically most important to us, most schools have more than enough to accomplish their mission.  Strategic Planning is a discipline that creates and sustains that focused use of resources.  For the board, the Strategic Plan is a tool to provide governance level direction, without being drawn into the operations of the school.  For administrative leadership, it assures that they can follow through on sustained, multi-year initiatives.  They know they have the backing of the board, even as its membership changes from year to year.

For parents, employees and donors, it shows them how their efforts and generosity will translate into the outcomes the school promises.

From my work during three decades in Catholic School administration and my work with Managing for Mission’s clients, I’ve learned that there are some key characteristics, 10 in all, to a successful plan.  Right now, I’d like to talk about 3 of these:  The plan needs to be Strategic, Broadly owned and Implementation oriented.  

First, to be effective, the Strategic Plan must be truly STRATEGIC.  It can’t just be a grab bag of nice things to do, or pet projects of particular individuals.  It must focus on the game changers, those few directions that will make all the difference in the long-run.

Second, the Plan must be BROADLY-OWNED.  After all, who owns the school?  Not a small group of shareholders, but a broad group of stakeholders: teachers, students, parents, donors and supporters.  Their generosity in one form or another, must be sustained day in and day out, year in and year out, for the school to accomplish its mission.  To move the plan from theory to reality, these stakeholders must come to embrace it as their own.

Which brings us to the third characteristic:  it must be IMPLEMENTATION-ORIENTED.  The Strategic Plan itself will be a visionary document, providing the general direction for the next 5 to 10 years.  But it must flow into an implementation plan which is formulated by the administration each year.  This annual implementation plan must identify the specific steps, targets and responsibilities that will keep everyone on track to accomplishing the plan’s goals.

So how do we do all that?  We recommend a process that generally takes 9-12 months in all.  Can a Strategic Plan be done in less time?  Sure.  A school can produce a plan in a weekend.  But it won’t have those three characteristics.  We recommend a process that begins with the Board, casts a broad, participative net, and then draws all the input back in to a concise, coherent and compelling document.

The Board begins with a retreat to reflect on strategic issues and set parameters.  Then it commissions a Steering Committee to guide the process.  The steering committee reaches out to a few dozen leaders in various sectors of the school community to analyze the Opportunities and Threats facing the school, as well as its Strengths and Weaknesses in responding to them.

Using this SWOT analysis, the school prepares a survey to be sent to all its stakeholders: parents, alumni and friends.  Using their input the school then invites its stakeholders to a town-hall type Stakeholders Meeting with 3 sessions in which participants can chose from several planning areas to discuss and give input.  From these, the Steering Committee selects 4-6 strategic areas for which special Topic Teams will be impaneled to drill into and make goal recommendations.  The Steering Committee receives these goal recommendations and distills them into the strategic few that will form the Strategic Plan.  While this last step is happening, the Administration begins working with the school team to develop the Annual Implementation Plan for the first year.  The Strategic Plan is then presented to the Board for its approval.  At the same time, the administration presents the Annual Implementation Plan to demonstrate to the Board how it will be working toward those goals.

As important as the Strategic Plan is, even more important is the planning process.  Done right, it will engender a discipline of thoughtfulness and collaboration which are themselves the biggest dividends.

If you’d like to learn more about the Strategic Planning process, additional resources are available under the Resources tab of this website (www.managingformission.com).  More is also available in earlier Blog posts in our Archives.  Also a 6.5 minute video tutorial is available on our YouTube Channel.

Thank you for not letting your school drift in the crosswinds of external forces and instead using a strategic plan to navigate to the future God wants to provide.

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Board Discernment: Part 5: The Four Core Tools of Group Discernment

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August 15, 2015

After reading the first four parts of this post on Ignatian Discernment for Boards, you may be left with an impression that learning to do Discernment is like learning to play chess, that it requires mastering lot of rules before you can even play the game.  In one sense, that’s true.  There is a lot to learn about discernment, especially if we want to receive all its fruits.  But we don’t have to become masters to begin reaping the benefits.  I’d like to talk about Four Core Tools which, if your board isn’t using already, can greatly increase the effectiveness of your decision-making.  The Four Core Tools are:

  • Praying for God’s will
  • Cultivating silence
  • Reviewing the Ground Rules
  • Round Robins

PRAYING FOR GOD’S WILL

This core tool was discussed in the 3rd tutorial on the “Habit of Discernment.” Probably all of us begin our meetings with a prayer, usually a brief reading from Scripture or a respected author, or sometimes an extemporaneous reflection by one of the trustees.  But to prepare ourselves for discernment, we need more than the obligatory opening reflection.  We need more than edification, or even inspiration.  We need to ask ourselves honestly if we desire, above all, that God’s will be done in the matter before us. If the answer is yes, the prayer must remind each member of this desire and invite them to assent to it personally.  In order to sustain the spirit of discernment, we may need to pray at several points in the meeting to remind and re-commit ourselves.

CULTIVATING SILENCE

This was also discussed in part 3 as one of the Habits of discernment.  We tend to be uncomfortable with silence, especially in a group setting where it can be taken as the sign of an impasse.  But it’s difficult to listen to God’s gentle prompting if we fill every moment with talking, because God speaks through our deepest desires.  Allowing even brief periods of silence–a few minutes–lets that deepest part of ourselves rise up to enter our thoughts and the group’s deliberations.  It can also be the opportunity for us to tell God again that we desire to do his will.

REVIEWING THE GROUND RULES

In part 4 above, we talked about the Ground Rules for group Discernment: listening deeply, trusting others’ intentions, sharing our experience and insights and having the freedom to let go of our own positions.  Simply having these ground rules is not enough.  We need to review them before important deliberations, or even during them, to re-center the group and keep it open to God’s prompting grace.

ROUND ROBINS

Because group members will range from highly extroverted to highly introverted, board discussions will often be dominated by just a few people.  It’s usually not intentional.  It’s just the way people are.  It helps to incorporate a point in discussions where the chair asks each person in turn to speak to the issue.  This Round Robin gives the opportunity for quieter members to express themselves, and the more talkative to hear them. Even if this can be done only once in a meeting, forcing the introverts to share what they’ve been thinking and forcing extroverts into listening mode will encourage more balanced discussion throughout the meeting.

These 4 Core Tools–prayer for God’s will, silence, ground rules and Round Robins–are fairly easy ways a board can start down the road to the deeper discernment Ignatius invites us into.

Thanks for your willingness to begin the journey toward deeper and more effective decision-making with your board.  I hope this post and other resources available from Managing for Mission will help you along the way.  God bless.

More information, including including 11 examples of board issues and how they might be discerned, can be found in the handbook, Discernment for Boards: an Ignatian approach, available from Lulu Press.

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Board Discernment: Part 4: The Six Components of Group Discernment

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August 15, 2015

Having discussed the spirituality and personal habits that underlie Ignatian discernment.  I’d like to turn now to how these principles are applied in practice.  The challenge of defining the steps of group discernment is that they’re as varied as the groups themselves and the decisions they need to make.  Each group must assess its own needs and shape its own process.  Still, every discernment will consist of six components:

  • Triage of the discernment needed
  • Gathering background information
  • Individual prayer and reflection
  • Group discussion
  • Making the decision
  • Implementation.

TRIAGE OF THE DISCERNMENT NEEDED

Just as a doctor has to assess the amount and kind of treatment needed for a trauma patient, groups need to know the time and effort they must commit to the discernment process. A simple issue, like revision of a board’s meeting attendance policy, will require less time in each of the components than, say, formulating and approving a strategic plan.  In the triage component, the group, or someone on behalf of the group, decides how much time and process must be dedicated to each of the other components.

GATHERING BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Good decisions require good information, but there’s a limit to how much information is useful. Based on the triage component, the group will have a good idea of how much and what kind of information it will need to gather.  This information could include history, statistics, perceptions and opinions of stakeholders and alternatives available.

INDIVIDUAL PRAYER AND REFLECTION

Regardless of how it may seem, groups don’t really think.  Individuals do. So the process must provide the opportunity for members to pray and ruminate, focusing especially on the Context, Experience and Reflection for the matter at hand.  This is a time to identify values in play, the impact of one’s own experiences and feelings, and become aware of assumptions and biases.  Having brought these to their awareness the individuals can then contribute in a more meaningful way to the next component.

GROUP DISCUSSION

In discernment, Group discussion is not a free-for-all.  The group needs to follow Ground Rules, such as the four offered in the second part of this post: listening deeply, trusting others’ intentions, sharing our own experience and insights and having the freedom to let go of our own assumptions.  The person facilitating the discussion needs to sense the amount of conversation needed and how to structure it so that members can express their views without fear of criticism—actual or implied.  There are several methods for doing this and many ways to apply them.  The important point is that thought must be given to how the group will deliberate so that it has maximum openness to the wisdom of its members and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

MAKING THE DECISION

In some cases, the group will agree that it will discern until it can reach a consensus.  In other cases, it will be clear that it will be put to a vote and not everyone will agree.  But even when it comes to a vote, the process should be such that all the group members feel it has been open, fair and sufficient to surface the important issues.  All should be willing to support the decision, even if it isn’t the one they would choose, because they trust that the Holy Spirit was able to guide the group as a whole.

IMPLEMENTATION

Strictly speaking, implementation is not part of discernment.  But decision-making groups would be well advised to think about how their decision will be implemented.  In the first place, envisioning implementation will shed light on the decision itself.  Ignatius advises us to imagine looking back on our decision to become more aware of its consequences.  Secondly, whether the decision is a good one will ultimately depend on how it is implemented.  Those responsible for implementation will want to have a clear idea of how the decision-makers intended it to be carried out. This is important even if they are the same people.

Much more can be said about each of these components of group discernment.  Even without a deeper understanding of the various methods and tools of group discernment, just by giving advanced thought to these six components—triage, background information, individual reflection, group discussion, decision-making and implementation—groups will put themselves in a better position to make a sound discernment.

The next and final part of this post on group discernment will focus on Four Core Tools that groups should use in their work even if they’re not able to do anything else.

More information, including a sample worksheet to guide Individual Prayer and Reflection, can be found in the handbook, Discernment for Boards: an Ignatian approach, available from Lulu Press.

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