Best Board Books #12: Call of the Chair


By John Pearson

David McKenna warns CEOs and boards—don’t speed-vote an unsuspecting person into the board chair! This esteemed governance guru writes that the board chair “has responsibility for the speed, spacing, and sequence” of the governing process. (That will preach!)

Book #12:
Call of the Chair: Leading the Board of the Christ-centered Ministry, by David L. McKenna
(Order from Amazon)

Before electing your board chair...STOP! If you’ve been around the nonprofit block for a few years, you’ve certainly experienced this scenario:

“Quick! While Jane is out of the room—I move that she be elected the new chairperson of the board, effective immediately.”

And presto! Without warning, Jane returns to the boardroom only to be handed the gavel—accompanied by the delightful dysfunctions of a nonprofit or church board of directors.

Stop the madness, says David McKenna.His book should be required reading for all ministry board chairs and CEOs. (Chairs of faith-based for-profit companies would also benefit.) Call of the Chair is jam-packed with 119 pages of wisdom, insights, and practical help for the board and their board chairs. Example:

McKenna writes that “The chair for a Christ-centered ministry must be called of God as well as elected by the board.” That would eliminate the speed-voting trick that landed Jane at the head of the board table.

“When the time comes for a board to elect a new chair,” McKenna adds, “all business should stop while the members reflect in silence and ask that the Spirit of God might give them discernment in their selection.”

Then this: “In the induction of the chair that follows, there should be the question, ‘Has God called you to this leadership position?’

“The prayer that follows should seal that call with the sacredness of the moment. If done in a consecration service for the board, its officers, and its members, the significance of the chair is communicated throughout the organization.”

McKenna cautions: “Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit that comes with spiritual maturity. It may well be the gift that defines Christ-centered leadership.”

That defining moment—and that powerful question—will eliminate speed voting and will weed out chair candidates who aspire to resume-building versus Kingdom-building.

McKenna has more—and it’s convicting:
• 4 assessment questions for the board chair
• 5 deficient ways that boards elect chairs: Successor, Exemplar, Rotator, Politician, and Dissenter
• Commenting on the Rotator chair scenario, McKenna notes: “The idea is that the ministry can survive incompetence for a short period of time.”
1 priority: why being board chair must be that person’s number-one priority
• 9 board chair roles: Missionary, Model, Mentor, Manager, Moderator, Mediator, Monitor, Master, and Maestro
• 3 results when the board chair fails to focus on the clarity of the mission: “mushy, muddled, and almost meaningless”
• 60 words in 30 seconds: Jesus’ elevator speech!

McKenna, retired president of two universities and one seminary, is author of numerous books, including Best Book #4: Stewards of a Sacred Trust: CEO Selection, Transition and Development for Boards of Christ-centered Organizations. Read my review to learn how he helps boards segment CEOs into six descriptive categories (several are unsavory!).

In Call of the Chair, McKenna defines an important fork-in-the-road for boards: “A major difference between Christ-centered ministries and for-profit or nonprofit organizations is in the question, ‘Who gets the credit?’”

The Transcendent Moment

Trust me—this book is very, very convicting. But when I reached the last few pages of the book—ready to wrap it up and move on—I was blown away by “The Transcendent Moment” on pages 116-119.

Whew! I won’t spoil the drama and impact for you—but at a board meeting just after reading the book, I asked a board member (he has a great radio voice), to read those pages during the agenda segment, “10 Minutes for Governance” (a lifelong learning feature the board enjoys at every board meeting). Here’s just one taste:

“…if the board is to rise to its spiritual potential, it needs a chair who brings the personal experience of Pentecost to the leadership of the board.”

Oh, my.

I will end with this helpful metaphor: “Like a one-stringed banjo player, the chair will always sound the note reminding the members that the board’s role is policy, not execution.” How knowledgeable is our staff on the roles and responsibilities of the board—and the board chair?

BOARD DISCUSSION: Discussing the policy governance term, “executive limitations,” McKenna illustrates: “In effect, God gave Adam and Eve a policy of executive limitation, saying, ‘Go until I say stop.’ He did not say, ‘Stop until I say go.’” Are the board’s executive limitations crystal clear to your CEO and all staff?

MORE RESOURCES: Check out the “40 Blogs. 40 Wednesdays.” color commentaries on Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom, by Dan Busby and John Pearson, including Lesson 22, “The Most Underrated Board Position,” by guest blogger David McKenna.


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.