10 Mistakes to Avoid at Your Next Board Retreat: Part 1

By John Pearson

BoardSource has just released a jam-packed treasure chest of ideas and insights, Board Book Essentials: Checklists + Infographics + Topic Papers + Guides + Tools + Templates.

The 136-page PDF (available only to BoardSource members) includes boardroom “discussion starters,” dozens of board topics and helpful reference materials, including two glossaries (14 pages) of governance terms, board leadership terms, and financial terms.

If you’re planning a board retreat this year, you’ll appreciate the six “how-to” pages covering:
• Why have a retreat?
• What topics should we address?
• Where should we host our retreat?
• When should we host our retreat?
• Who should be involved in our retreat?
• And 11 tips on what to do, and what not to do at a board retreat.

I’ve enjoyed (and endured) my fair share of board retreats over the years. In reflecting on the best and the worst, the BoardSource resource prompted me to write this board retreat list for Christ-centered organizations:

Top-10 Mistakes to Avoid at Your Next Board Retreat

#10. Preaching. As Christ-followers, we all share one common methodology—the weekly sermon. Board retreats, however, do not need sermons. Instead, use the away-from-the-routine setting to engage every board member in reflection, spiritual discernment, and discussion. Skip the talking heads and ask your facilitator to bring out the best in each board member.

#9. Protocol. When senior team members are invited to participate in the board retreat, ensure that the protocol is clear between the staff, the CEO, and board members. Insist that direct reports to the CEO do not conduct “end runs” around the CEO—and share information and opinions that have not been shared first with the CEO. Ditto for board members: they should avoid inappropriate conversations with senior team members about the CEO. Use your annual 360 for that fact-finding process.

#8. Prayer. In an unhurried, relaxed environment of a retreat setting, don’t miss the opportunity to invest significant amounts of time in prayer together. Praying only when scheduled to pray: Big Mistake. Instead, pray as a group. Pray in small groups. Pray in groups of two. Pray when you sense the Holy Spirit’s nudge. Pray without ceasing.

Corrie ten Boom once asked,

“Is prayer your steering wheel
or your spare tire?”

#7. Planning. While not every board retreat must involve strategic planning, a retreat is the perfect time for the annual look back and bold look forward. The most common mistake, however, is the expectation from less experienced board members that an entire strategic planning process can be completed in one board retreat. When you fast track the agenda, and minimize the spiritual discernment process, you’ll get what you paid for.

#6. Popcorn! While you’ll want to steward your time well, don’t forget to have fun food and fun times. (I call it hoopla!) Invite board members to complete the online >StrengthsFinder assessment—and ask your facilitator to plan a session on leveraging board member strengths. You'll have fun comparing those with "Harmony" strengths to those with "Activator" strengths.

If working on your strategic plan, divide into teams and role play a preferred ministry outcome that could happen five years from now. Put some of your more expressive board members on stage (Expressives love the stage!) and they’ll create many funny and memorable moments.

Stay tuned for five more board retreat mistakes in the next blog.

QUESTION: Could a well-executed board retreat help enrich our relationships, our planning, our dependence on God, and our trust factor with the senior team?


This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.