Nate Wilson, son of my favorite blogger and preacher Doug Wilson, has formulated a rule that more boards and committees should be aware of. He has said that “in any meeting that lasts over twenty minutes, someone will propose something which, if implemented, will ruin everything.” Don’t I know it.
I was on the board of a private Classical and Christian School, modeled after the principles expressed by Dorothy Sayers, in her book The Lost Tools of Learning, and of Doug Wilson’s update, Recovering The Lost Tools of Learning. My oldest daughter was part of their first class, and my other two daughters followed her a few years later. We started with the most marvelous of conditions, or so we thought. The entire board, faculty and student body were composed of members of two compatible conservative Christian churches. Our small town was located in central Washington, more conservative than the eastern and especially the western parts of the state. The superintendent of the public school system in town was a member of our church, as was the principal of the school that our church held services in. His daughters also attended our school, and the superintendent would have sent his children if allowed, and was supportive. All we lacked was sufficient money to pay our teachers what they were really worth, but they loved being there anyway, since in the beginning, those who had children enrolled them in the school.
It should have been perfect. For a few years, it was. But the progression of the school’s, if not downfall, at least dilution, followed that of virtually all organizations. That’s why this tale is relevant to anyone. The following is taken from Pastor Wilson’s blog post, because it is about general principles that apply to private schools, yet it describes our school exactly.
“A successful school will have hundreds of people involved in it. Lots of people going in all kinds of directions. It is an organization of people, and if it is organized well, it will function like a body. As a body, it will have lymph nodes, and when a cancer arrives, it will go for the lymph nodes. When you enroll your kids in a thriving Christian school, you may not know a third of the board members, and you may not know (yet) half of the teachers. And depend upon it, when you have a school that size, somebody is up to no good. The school may be great for five years, okay for two, and mediocre until your third kid graduates. It may be great the entire time. It might be steadily improving. But if it is steadily improving, it is because somebody is doing it on purpose, not because that kind of thing happens all by itself. What do you need to do to get a garden full of weeds? Absolutely nothing, that’s what.
“So somebody gets elected to the board because they have money, and they also have a tenuous understanding of the importance of Latin. A couple parents clash with the Latin teacher, the one with an over-inflated view of Latin. Naturally. The clueless Latinist on the board takes up their cause. One of the board member’s kids is a premier pill, and no discipline ever seems to land anywhere near her. The state legislature passed a “let’s-bribe-all-the-Christian-schools” bill, and you have talked to a couple board members who don’t seem all that concerned. In short, something bad is always developing. So if you have your kids in a Christian school, it is no sin to ask questions. And it is usually some kind of sin not to.”
Take out the word Christian, and you still have a cautionary tale for all organizations: loss or lack of vision; mission drift; factions; money priorities; power; competing temptations. I will address each of these realities, what I call artifacts of the people store. If you have people, you will have these realities. Pastor Wilson says “when cancer arrives”, not if cancer arrives. Cancer is basically a disease of uncontrolled cell division. Its development and progression are usually linked to a series of changes in the activity of cell cycle regulators. For example, inhibitors of the cell cycle keep cells from dividing when conditions aren’t right, so too little activity of these inhibitors can promote cancer. Cancer progresses from early organ-confined disease to metastatic disease. So, cancer starts within the body, rather than by an attack from outside organisms, and if not isolated and excised from the original site will spread, making treatment more dangerous, and might eventually kill the body.
Loss of Vision: A cooperative human venture–an organization–whether a school, corporation or team, comes into being via a vision of accomplishing something long term. The vision helps shape the missions of the organization. In my case, the vision was of an education grounded in the Bible as the standard of truth, with all subjects taught faithfully in relation to God’s purpose for our existence. If we lost that vision, subjects would be taught by rote.
Mission drift: The vision shapes the primary mission, which was to produce a community of students who applied God’s truth to all questions of life, and whose relationships reflected God’s love. But money was always lacking, and other missions, such as fundraising, started to expand.
Factions: In every group, the “people store” will produce factions, no matter how clear the vision and mission statements are. We had those, plus a statement of faith that all stakeholders agreed to, plus we had detailed written bylaws and procedures for everything we could think of. It wasn’t enough to prevent factions. I’m not sure anything is.
Money priorities: I believe the statement, “there’s never a money problem, there are only idea problems.” Sometimes the problem isn’t a lack of ideas, but too many, which dilutes efforts.
Power: Even in our environment, the power to control others could raise its head. We had a rule for board meetings, which was no idea can be implemented unless we come to unanimous consent. The power problem got manifested in the increasing length of the meetings, because most of the board members, brilliant and dedicated all, wanted their complete say. As Nate Wilson said, eventually things got implemented which began ruining the whole. We should have placed a strict limit on the time each board member could give their opinion.
Competing temptations: This affected succeeding classes more and more. When the school was tiny, and the kids were young, academic and behavioral goals were enough. As they got older, and the school grew to include more churches and even some students whose family had no church identification, and our kids would see their public school friends playing sports and enjoying many social activities, those temptations became greater priorities. That’s probably inevitable.
The greatest mistake: Despite all those challenges, I believe we could have maintained our vision and mission and our healthy culture, but one fateful board meeting produced a disastrous decision. That decision set us on the wrong path, which is another way of saying we weren’t seeing ourselves clearly, and got our priorities backwards. I will explain this decision in some detail, because it is what breaks most organizations eventually. For the first four years, we had two marvelous headmasters, who really embraced the vision and mission. The first headmaster was one of the three founders of the school. The second was a retired executive from Hewlett-Packard, who brought real leadership concepts and also embraced our vision and mission. But both these men embodied something even more important. It will sound like something uniquely Christian, but that’s just semantics. Each of these men embodied grace, rather than law.
Here’s the distinction that is relevant to every organization. “Law” is teaching obedience to the standard, “grace” is teaching love for the standard. In the Bible, the ultimate purpose of the law is to demonstrate your complete inability to follow it; it illuminates your sin. Grace is unmerited salvation from the burden of the law. How this concept applies to organizations is this: law-oriented leadership is adherence to rules, external pressure to obey, sending soldiers into battle while hanging out a safe distance away. Grace-oriented leadership is “servant leadership.” Jesus summed it up: But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:25-28
When He said “slave”, he didn’t mean a literal slave, but someone who is driven to please the only real master, God. A servant leader is in front of the troops, not relaxing in their well appointed office. Our disastrous decision was hiring, for our third headmaster, the very model of law-oriented leadership. We were blind to the fact that we didn’t even understand the two forms of leadership, nor recognize what really made our previous leaders great. After this hire, board meetings became even longer, since headmasters attended the meetings to report to the board, though this new hire, rather than just reporting, thought to make policy, the prerogative of the board. The loving, patient culture rapidly changed to one of rules and emphasizing outward appearances, rather than a selfless internal spirit.
We replaced him after a year, but by then the damage was done. Competing temptations became stronger, our culture less attractive. I haven’t had any direct contact with the school since 2013, when my kids were out. Judging by their website, which contains links to their statement of faith, blog, board policy and other interesting things, nothing has changed for the worse. The headmaster we hired after the mistake is still there, so I hope that means the listing ship has righted. The current board members are people I know, who have the same vision. Maybe our school learned the right lessons. If so, thank God they are in a small town that the major media doesn’t care about.