The source of many disagreements within many communities is the misunderstanding of the roles of Imam and Board. This often leads to divisiveness among leaders and community members; and sometimes evolves into mistrust.
The Board is the entity that holds the trust and the legal responsibility for the organization. The Imam is the leader of the congregation in all religious services and provides religious guidance to the community and to the Board.
It is essential that the Board leads the way in considering and treating the Imam as the leader in all religious matters, and to consult with the Imam on all strategic discussions and other Board responsibilities.
There are many matters that an organization undertakes including the allocation of resources that are the responsibility of the Board. Due to this, Board members often misunderstand their role and assume that they are the absolute leaders in all matters- an easy trap to fall into since the overwhelming majority of serving Board members never get any training or the orientation necessary to help them understand their roles. This leaves them very ill-prepared to manage the relationship with the Imam. The most glaring offense is when the Board assumes the responsibility to make decisions on religious matters.
From the Imam’s perspective, this is not only difficult to manage but it also impedes the Imam’s growth and professional development. When another entity is taking over a good portion of the job, one may not have a choice but assume a lesser role. The alternative is to engage in claiming the responsibilities which is likely to result in disagreements between the Imam and Board members.
Similarly, in some cases an Imam makes the mistake of assuming that he is in charge of all decisions. Governance matters, and operational decisions are normally decisions for both the Board and the operation staff to manage. Coordination among the Board, Imam, and operation staff is necessary, but it is essential that each entity knows its role and respects the boundary of other leaders within the organization.
The key to avoid conflict is a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. Imams are leaders and must be treated as such. They may be hired by the Board and the Board must take responsibility for their performance, but that does not mean the Board can step in and do the Imam’s job or overrule his decisions. The Board must delicately create the balance of being an employer, but respecting the fact that the employee, who is this case is the Imam, is more equipped and better prepared to be the religious leader.
This can be compared a football team owner hiring a head coach. On the field, the coach is the leader, and the owner should not step on the field and assume coaching responsibilities. However, the owner has the responsibility of assessing the Coach’s performance at the end of the season and deciding if it the right fit for the team. Meanwhile, as long as the coach is a coach, the owner must offer respect, support and positive feedback, and must give the coach the space to operate and manage the team on the field.
Another key for a successful leadership is good and frequent communication. Board members and Imams must have routine and frequent communication. This can be formal and casual, one-on-one and in group- not limited to Board meetings and in official communication settings.
Both Board members and Imams are leaders in a different form. Some of the Board members must make it a point to have a weekly meeting with the Imam. Even when there is no crisis or no specific occurrence to report. They all must work as a team, and in order for a team to achieve success, it must first have solid chemistry.
Board members must view their leadership role as one that makes sure they are supporting the Imam and offering him what he needs to succeed as a spiritual leader. This includes constructive feedback, opportunities to grow and develop his career, and opportunities to cross train and interact with peers and mentors such as Scholars and other Imams in other communities. Ideally, a Board must make sure the Imam has a well mapped professional development plan.
Additionally, the Board has the responsibility to secure resources to make sure the Imam is well compensated and is offered the benefits that are equivalent to other leaders in other professions. Realistically, setting high expectations for the Imam cannot be done without offering reasonable compensation to allow the Imam to focus on his role as a leader rather than being worried about paying for his living expenses.
On the other hand, the Imam may be well served by making sure he builds a group of “first line of students”, a group of 3 to 5 people who are serious seekers of knowledge. This group can serve the important role of being the support system, the backup system, and the consultants- a group the Imam can reach out to to discuss important decisions. This can even be formalized as the Religious Affairs Committee, which may reap many benefits.
In addition to providing the backup leadership during the Imam’s absence on off days or vacation days, it can be a tool to avoid polarizing the community. As community members are less likely to take polarizing positions when they realize that religious decisions are made through consultation of several people.
A healthy Imam-Board partnership is essential for successful Mosque organizations. Clear understanding or roles and responsibilities, high level of respect and professionalism, and good communication are essential ingredients.