The Most Underrated Board Position

The position of the board chair is pivotal to a healthy board.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


Underlying the professional qualifications for the board chair are
three sensitive areas of board leadership that depend directly on
personal character . . . integrity, trust, and humility.[1]

David McKenna

"A board member once told me that an organization has a choice between a strong chair and a weak CEO—or a weak chair and a strong CEO,” writes David McKenna.
He continues, “Experience often proves him right. But should it be? Isn’t the goal for the most effective ministry to have a strong chair and a strong CEO?”[2]

How is the board chair chosen for your ministry? For a few ministries, the founder is the leader and the board chair. But for most ministries, the board chair is elected by the board.

But what happens before the election?  Is there an appropriate amount of planning leading up to the election? Or is it a last-minute decision involving little discernment?

In a worst-case scenario, the person chosen to be the board chair is the only person who is willing to serve. Or, the fourth vice chair moves up to become the third vice chair. The third vice chair becomes the second vice chair, and the second vice chair becomes the chair whether qualified or not. You get the idea.

The board’s approach to selecting its chair speaks volumes about the importance the board places on this key position. Moreover, the quality of the chair selection process may well determine the effectiveness of the board. Whatever the process, without the call of God on the board chair, we cannot expect the chair to give the task the highest priority of time, energy, and resources.

Is the board chair just another board position—an equal among equals? Hardly!

According to David McKenna, the board chair must be first among equals. Underlying the professional qualifications for the board chair are three sensitive areas of board leadership that depend directly on personal character:

  • The board chair must be first among equals in integrity. While every board member must possess high moral and ethical standards, the character of the board chair is the most visible. The ministry’s top leader is the public face of the organization, but the chair is the face of the board.
  • The board chair must be first among equals in trust. The board chair must also have the gift of diplomacy. Yet more important than diplomacy is the gift of building relationships based on trust—relationships with the ministry’s top leader, the entire board, the standing committees, the task forces, and each individual member.
  • The board chair must be first among equals in humility. The title of board chair sounds lofty, yet it comes with no inherent authority or power. It is only the board itself that authorizes the chair to speak or act on its behalf.

The board chair may be the holder of a prestigious title, wielder of a ready gavel, collaborator with the CEO, announcer of good and bad news, voice of the board, or the power behind the scene. No matter how the board chair role is described, it is the key position of the board.

The competencies expected for a board chair are indicative of the importance of the position:

  • Personal integrity and public credibility
  • Passionate commitment and understanding of the organization’s mission
  • Executive leadership accomplishments
  • Service in a leadership position of the board (e.g., committee chair or executive committee member)
  • Earned respect of board members, the CEO, and key stakeholders
  • Diplomatic skills in building relationships, handling conflict, and building consensus
  • Communication skills, oral and written, with the ability to listen, elicit diverse responses, reconcile differences
  • Willingness and ability to commit time to the leadership of the organization

The board chair has many faces and functions. Here are just a few: missionary, model, mentor, manager, moderator, mediator, monitor, and master. But chief among all roles is that of maestro, explains McKenna in Call of the Chair.[3]

Leading from the board chair is like being the conductor of an orchestra. A conductor must imagine the sound of the music when all the instruments are playing as one. Like an orchestra, each board member must be reading from the same page.

The conductor must “listen to the clarinet,” perhaps the most forgotten instrument in a symphony. Likewise, the board chair must be sure more quiet board members are heard and that all board members are listening to each other.

Can an orchestra play great music without a conductor relying on gifted instrumentalists who own the score? Perhaps. “But if it is to soar into the realm of the artistic vision, it needs the conductor.”[4]

“A board of gifted volunteers who are committed to the mission can excel as a working body. However, 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.”[5]



Too often, the selection of the board chair does not
receive the priority it deserves. The attitude that just any
board member is qualified to chair the board removes the possibility
that the board will reach its maximum potential.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Read: Ask your board chair and CEO to read and discuss Call of the Chair by David McKenna.
  2. Review: Take time to review your process of selecting the board chair.
  3. Reflect: How could the board chair selection process be improved?



Lord, help us discern who should be the next leader for our board,
the person who will be the face of the board
and whose life exemplifies integrity, trust, and humility. Amen.



[1] David L. McKenna, Call of the Chair: Leading the Board of the Christ-Centered Ministry (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2017), 11.

[2] David L. McKenna, “The Most Underrated Board Position,” Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom (blog), April 18, 2018. 2018/04/lesson-22-most-underrated-board-position.html.

[3] McKenna, Call of the Chair, 107-19.

[4] Ibid., 117.

[5] Ibid.

From Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: 40 Insights for Better Board Meetings, 2018,

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.