Keeping the Board Together

The board of directors is tasked with responding to instances of misconduct. This is likely a time of unprecedented intensity and turmoil, and it can be a challenge for board members to continue working productively together. In addition to their own wrestling with what just happened within their beloved community, board members will inevitably become the targets of intense pressure campaigns from various interest groups within the sangha seeking certain outcomes. How does a board stay together in the face of these and other powerful challenges? One lawyer we spoke with, well-versed in the fallout following a teacher transgression, said they could “count the number of boards who stayed together on one hand.” For this project, we want to share some factors that helped the GBZC Board of Directors continue working together during a crisis, offered from the perspective of the board itself.

  • Approaching board service as sacred duty and spiritual practice. We begin every meeting with a sit and then a brief check-in, when we honor how people are arriving. This simple practice grounds us in mutual respect and listening and reminds us that we can invest our full selves in how we approach our responsibilities. There were times we found ourselves saying, “I wish I didn’t have to do these board activities so that I could return to my practice,” after which we would catch ourselves with the reminder that this was the dharma gate, appearing before us.

  • Prioritizing relationships. There were many times that we as a board disagreed amongst ourselves, often strongly. When emails could get testy or views increasingly misaligned, we addressed these fissures as quickly as possible with an emphasis on first repairing the relationship. People went on walks together, jumped on videoconference calls for 1:1 conversations, or had regular small-group meetings until the conflict was sorted out.

    Sometimes the best format was that of circle practice rather than discussion or debate. In circle practice, we addressed not just the substance of the concerns but the felt and underlying dynamics of strained relationships. People who were in conflict would speak from the heart, non-combatively, and then be invited to listen as others shared. In circle practice, the goal wasn’t agreement or even decision-making but mutual understanding. We were fortunate that all board members wanted to understand and work together and were committed to this ongoing process. None of these strategies would work if someone had already given up interest in collaboration or had adopted a fixed view.

  • Practicing humility. Board members aren’t typically tempted toward arrogance in the way that those in powerful teaching roles can be. The teacher role breeds a certain expectation of deference, which is a systemic liability we want to continue to examine. Board roles, by contrast, are typically more invisible and entail more grueling and thankless activity. This enables board members to see changing their mind or learning new things from others as part of their role, rather than undermining their authority. Taking responsibility for the impact of our actions, regardless of our intent, is a practice of humility and non-defensiveness and was a way to continue to communicate our goodwill to each other.

  • Commitment to independence. Empowered by the board, our sangha has been developing a horizontal and dispersed leadership structure, characterized by activity-specific working groups who operate with a great deal of independence in making choices to run the operations of the center. This structure enables people to see each other as acting in service to the sangha, rather than serving as assistants to the teachers. No one on the board saw themselves as obligated to carry out the teachers’ wishes or felt that they were hand-picked by a teacher to do the teacher’s bidding. 

  • Commitment to democracy. When operating well, democratic practice can strengthen outcomes. In debate and discussion, ideas get refined, complicated, and recast, with the result that a more nuanced and thoughtful outcome can result. Sometimes a compromise can emerge that demonstrates flexibility on all sides. Democracy is an art and a practice, and it can be done well or poorly. In our best moments, one person’s self-proclaimed “good idea” was then tempered and in some cases debunked by others in discussion. In sanghas where a single teacher’s viewpoint is prized, this opportunity for wholesome challenging and refining is lost, and outcomes are poorer.

  • Good fortune. It always helps to have a little luck on your side! The board had the good fortune of having an attorney as a director who had extensive experience in non-profit law and gender justice. This director acted as a counterforce to the relentless pressure to conform to teacher direction. Another director was a skilled facilitator with experience in settling agreements and conducting circle practices and other meetings.

    Additionally, while no board member had lots of “free time” in their schedules, many were able to temporarily reprioritize their lives to dedicate extraordinary amounts of time to this response. Keeping lines of communication open and attending to subtle dynamics while identifying best courses of action while responding to hostile emails and juggling other responsibilities is an incredibly time-intensive and emotionally demanding enterprise.

    Finally, the survivor in our community should get an incredible amount of credit in creating a tone of collaboration and mutual respect. She was a great teacher throughout this process in how to approach challenges with full heart, honesty, and integrity.

  • The practice of mutual respect. Our lineage has a practice of “dharma dialogue” or “dharma discussion,” where dharma talks are followed by opportunities for members to come forward with reinterpretations, challenges, objections, their own insights, and so on. In our way, we talk about the dharma talk as merely priming the pump for the full teaching, which emerges when the whole sangha comes forward with our offerings. This model enabled us to see many sangha members as having wisdom and authority, rather than as merely recipients of teacher wisdom. Board members were also formed by this ethic and brought it to our interactions.

Next: Sangha Responses to Misconduct: Atonement Is Part of the Process

Published June 12, 2022