Would Jesus Overturn Your Board Table?

The room was hot, and I stared at the pristine white table in front of me, being careful not to lift my eyes, my muscles tense. To my left were members of the International Board of Directors of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), seated at the table and joining on video. To my right were lawyers. One of them was preparing to read to us the 12-page report of a months-long investigation into sexual assault allegations regarding the ministry’s founder, Ravi Zacharias.

The tension was palpable. The boardroom seemed too dim, although that suited the mood; some of us weren’t ready for bright lights.

My experience as an RZIM board member would completely change the way I view ministry today. I believe many ministry boards are broken—or at least deeply unprepared for the challenges they may face—and my aim is to start a conversation on how that can be remedied.

When I speak of “boards,” I’m using the term broadly. You and people you know may not serve on the board of an internationally known nonprofit, like RZIM at its peak. But you may serve on your congregation’s elder board, as a deacon, or as a member of the vestry or the pastoral search committee. You may advise your children’s Christian school or informally help steer a local food bank or the Sunday School planning committee at church.

The hard lessons I learned will be applicable to almost any kind of group leadership arrangement, especially in ministry contexts but also more broadly. That said, specific needs and circumstances will vary, so I’m sharing my lessons as questions that Christians in board leadership should seriously ask themselves and their colleagues.

1. Should board members be required to engage in continuing education?

Not only was I ill-equipped to be a board member, I was unprepared for the onslaught of crises that would engulf the ministry throughout my short tenure. From what I observed, even the longtime board members were unprepared for what seemed like “unprecedented times”—the catch phrase during those years.

Looking back, one problem was that those were not, in fact, unprecedented times. Ministry leaders fail. Red flags aren’t noticed—or worse, they’re willfully ignored. Understanding theories of institutional betrayal and how abusers often confuse and verbally attack their victims while deflecting responsibility has been helpful in my quest to make sense of RZIM’s trajectory. But it would have been much more helpful to have known all of this before the crises occurred.

If you’re serving on a board, consider what knowledge gaps you may have that could limit your ability to serve well. What high-level questions keep coming up for you in meetings? What other perspectives might you need to understand? Are you not just willing but eager to learn and grow? How can you acquire the knowledge and skills you need for faithful service and push your colleagues to do the same?

2. Whom do you choose as board members?

The RZIM board was overwhelmingly comprised of Ravi Zacharias’s family and friends. They were all highly invested in the ministry and the man; they donated their time, their expertise, their money, and their contacts because of that personal relationship. From my outsider perspective, they all seemed to have very similar skill sets. Loyalty was highly prized.

I was an unexpected addition to this group and the first woman to ever sit on the governance committee. I had no relationship with Ravi, and I didn’t lead a successful company or have an impressive contact list. This put me at a tremendous disadvantage when voicing concerns. The skills that other board members saw as helpful when I was in agreement with them—my willingness to learn new things, my eagerness to listen, and my ability to be vocal about things I believed in—became liabilities when I disagreed.

On your board, how are members chosen? I don’t only mean the procedures, which are certainly important but are often established by by-laws or denominational rules outside your control. I also mean what qualities and skills are preferred at a cultural level. Do you take spiritual gifting and spiritual maturity into account? How do you round out the roster beyond the officer roles? Are you looking for unexpected people that may offer a unique perspective?

3. How do you think about giving?

For many nonprofits, it’s a given that most board members are chosen for their ability to donate and raise funds. After my time with RZIM, I see this as a dangerous pairing of power and money. Wealth should not be the measure of a leader’s commitment, faith, or contribution to an organization. This metric can encourage a sense of entitlement in board members and provide a false sense of security to the leadership team. When board seats are only filled with those who provide the ministry with monetary stability, there is a power imbalance in the structure that can and often does lead to unhealthy relationships.

Is your board overlooking potential members because of their inability to give significant monetary gifts? Have you unconsciously come to assume bigger always equals better? How can you make sure to remember the widow’s mite and that wisdom and wealth do not reliably coincide?

4. How does your board communicate?

Truth and transparency have always been important to me, but never more than they are post-RZIM.

The organization had an executive committee that met separately and privately, away from the full board. That committee made all the important decisions, and to my recollection, during my year of service, the full board never once received or reviewed their minutes. The committee would send recommendations to the rest of the board, and our votes were strongly encouraged to be unanimous. I observed—and was told—that abstention was better than a “no” vote. As the abuse crisis continued to unfold, this silo of secrecy within the board caused major problems, as did similar “normal” RZIM procedures.

Does your board have a similar secret oligarchy? Is secrecy the default or the exceptional measure at your organization? Is it necessary to invoke legal danger to force board members to do the right thing? Does fiscal protection of the institution always take precedence? Are board members adapting the world’s “spin” for ministry use? Are you willing to tell the full truth to yourselves and others, even if it’s potentially disruptive?

5. What does accountability look like?

Board members are supposed to provide institutional accountability for the ministries they govern. But who provides accountability for the board?

As the RZIM saga unfolded, we heard multiple calls for the board to resign from both donors and key individuals outside the inner circle. The board did not want to resign. I heard excuses such as, “We should be the ones to fix this” or, “If we resign, who would lead?” This board failed to take a sexual predator out of ministry but continued to reject calls for transparency, even demanding anonymity for themselves—refusing the barest accountability of being publicly named.

Before a crisis comes your way, it is vital to establish answers to the following questions: Is there a point at which a board has shown itself incapable of self-correction? What would need to occur to disqualify board members from serving? Does a grave public failure require public repentance? How will your board self-assess or subject itself to external assessment? Concretely, what does accountability look like for you?

6. Who do you think you are?

Being on the board of a global multimillion-dollar ministry is a status symbol. Once people found out I sat on the RZIM board, they were impressed, curious, and fascinated by the power they perceived me to hold.

Internally, the general ethos of the board was that Jesus neededus to do this work. Twitter banners proudly displayed photos of board members on RZIM stages or with celebrities connected to RZIM. There were Facebook posts about the great work the board was doing for the kingdom. We had special dinners, fancy hotels, beautiful facilities, and a general feeling of superiority. Social media was a way to brag about accomplishments until it became clear it could also be a conduit of demands for accountability.

Does your board comprehend the kind of servant leadership that must come with so much responsibility? How much of their identity do members find in their board role? How do we make sure power is always paired with responsibility, not only in our formal rules and procedures but in our hearts?

RZIM’s unofficial motto said no question was off limits. But as a board member, it became clear to me that this was not true. I encountered institutional failure firsthand. I failed—at first, to even believe the victims, and then, in my attempts to reform a broken system.

But failure doesn’t have to be defining; rather, it should be refining. For me, it has fueled a passion to help members of other boards forestall the kind of dysfunction and abuse we did not prevent at RZIM. Instead of hiding and deflecting responsibility, Christians in leadership roles must freely admit and correct institutional and personal failure alike. We should be the first to recognize that every one of our failures can be redeemed by a God who has offered us full and complete forgiveness.

The stakes are high, but ministry boards can and should be a place where the best examples of servant leadership are found. So ask yourself: Would Jesus overturn your board table?

Stacy Kassulke is passionate about encouraging individuals to use their unique giftings to make things right for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. She served on the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries from February 2020 to March 2021.

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