Address Absentee Board Member Syndrome

There are three unhealthy ways that many ministry boards respond to empty chairs at board meetings.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


I want to manage the [ministry] to God’s glory.
Anything less contradicts the Creator, who after creation
surveyed his work and said, “It is good.”
He didn’t say, “Oh, it’ll do.” [1]

Don Cousins


Which statement below best characterizes your board’s response to absentee board members?

  • HO HUM. Certain board members frequently miss board meetings, but there is no board policy addressing absenteeism, so nothing is said.
  • HINT. When board members miss a meeting, the board chair (or CEO) gently “hints” that their participation was missed, but nothing further is said. Expectations on board meeting attendance are not clear and are not in writing.
  • HARASS. If there is a written policy, one willing soul on the board agrees to remind the absentee board member of the policy (usually with a strongly-worded email), but there is no follow-through or personal meeting with the person.

Maybe your board responds more appropriately. We hope so. But if not, here’s our list of seven insights for addressing Absentee Board Member Syndrome:

  • Insight No. 1: Recruit committed and faithful people. It goes without saying (but we’re saying it anyway) that you can address 99 percent of future absenteeism problems by focusing on the front end of the board member recruitment process. Simply recruit people who have already demonstrated high commitment and faithfulness in their previous volunteer and board responsibilities. Invite people to serve who already have a track record of excellent board meeting attendance in other organizations and settings. And only consider individuals who limit their service to one or two boards at a time. Just as you expect your CEO to check references when hiring staff, so the board must carefully check references of board nominees.
  • Insight No. 2: Inspire board members with an annual affirmation commitment. Leverage a recommitment time each year (a holy moment) with an annual affirmation statement. (Download a template from the ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 1: Recruiting Board Members,[2] ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance,[3] or ECFA’s Knowledge Center.) That form should list board meeting dates (and key agenda items) for the next 12 to 18 months. It also reminds board members, annually, that if their schedules don’t align with the board’s schedule—perhaps due to new responsibilities at work or home—they have the option of exiting off the board before their terms are completed. (Or, that discussion might prompt the board to change the meeting dates to accommodate all board members.)
  • Insight No. 3: Engage the board with an engaging agenda. Sometimes board members skip meetings because they are not needed. The CEO and the staff do all the talking. Next steps are all buttoned down. There’s no room for generative thinking by the board. No heavy lifting. No big rocks. What’s the point of participating? This is easy to fix by engaging the board in creative ways.
  • Insight No. 4: Establish a written policy on board meeting attendance requirements. If you have a Board Policies Manual (see Lesson 4 in Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom[4]), include board member attendance policies—and review them at least annually. Some boards have an automatic exit plan for board members who miss X meetings in any rolling 12-month period.
  • Insight No. 5: Emphasize calling over rule-keeping. Al Newell, founder of High Impact Volunteer Ministry Development, writes: “Sustaining motivation is better understood as a by-product as opposed to a goal of itself. It is my experience that if you pursue discipleship with volunteers [and board members], motivation will follow. If volunteers see the fulfillment of their role as ‘obeying and serving God’ rather than serving you or your [ministry], it will cause motivation to swell.”[5]
  • Insight No. 6: Affirm. Affirm. Affirm. Take time to creatively affirm board members for their participation and their contribution as stewards of your ministry. Board discipline (news flash!) is the board’s responsibility—not the CEO’s responsibility. Ditto affirmation. When board colleagues affirm each other, then engagement will heighten and board service satisfaction will soar.
  • Insight No. 7: Address issues early. Don’t wait for the fifth missed meeting. Establish the expectation that your board chair (and perhaps one other board member) will meet personally with policy offenders. No one should be surprised that absenteeism will be addressed when necessary and in a God-honoring way. Pray for a discerning spirit to know when you must show grace—and when you must show someone the door.



Engage the board with an engaging agenda.
When unhealthy attendance patterns arise,
don’t respond with unhealthy actions (Ho Hum, Hint, or Harass).
Instead, address Absentee Board Member Syndrome early and often.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Engage: Distribute an engaging agenda prior to the meeting that communicates “Your wisdom and insights are needed.”[6]

  2. Ensure: Verify that you have written policies on board member attendance—and make those clear in the recruitment and onboarding process.

  3. Expect: Create a boardroom culture and expectation that empowers the board chair to quickly address unexcused absences.



Lord, thank You for every board member
and the time each person invests in this holy calling.
Give us courage—and grace—to address unhealthy
board meeting attendance issues. Amen.



[1] Don Cousins, Leith Anderson, and Arthur DeKruyter, Mastering Church Management (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1990), 17.

[2] ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 1: Recruiting Board Members—Leveraging the 4 Phases of Board Recruitment: Cultivation, Recruitment, Orientation, Engagement (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2012). “The Board Member Annual Affirmation Statement” can also be downloaded by purchasing the book by Busby and Pearson, ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance.

[3] Dan Busby and John Pearson, ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance: Time Saving Solutions for Your Board (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2019).

[4] Dan Busby and John Pearson, Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: 40 Insights for Better Board Meetings, 2nd Ed. (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2018), 16-22.

[5] Used by permission of the author, Al Newell, at

[6] Adapted from John Pearson, “7 Ways to Address Absentee Board Member Syndrome.” Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations (blog), October 25, 2017. https://ecfagovernance.

From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019,


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.