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Why Use Policy Based Governance?

We have been using Policy Governance for some six or seven years now, predating my time on our church's Board, so I was not really clear as to why we ever took up the model. I did some checking and it seems that Policy Governance was brought in at a time when the Board was frustrated with lack of definition (clarity) around the roles and responsibilities of the lead minister with regard to various committees, staff, and members. Who do committees/staff report to? How involved should the Board be with each committee? With staff? How involved (directive) should the minister be? Who is operationally responsible for the action of staff or a committee—the Board or the minister? So I think that Policy Governance served to clarify roles and responsibilities.

—Gretchen Dorn, Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, MN

Let me spin out one way of looking at how Policy Governance changes the status quo. If a Board holds total power to create/approve/enact all decisions of any significance in an organization, then any initiative that anyone (or any committee) undertakes has to first come to the Board for action. John Carver points out somewhere that staff [and volunteer leaders] spend more time and energy almost making a decision and bringing it to the Board for re-decision, than they do in undertaking the decision themselves. If these folks have more expertise than the Board does regarding the matter at hand, they have to educate the Board in the process. Board members may thrive on learning all they can, and cherish being at the heart of everything that happens—but this feeds their own needs, rather than honoring the good folks in the field devoting focused attention to the issue. Worse, it says sotto voce that we can decide this more wisely than you can.

What Policy Governance does is more fully empower more people, while also investing a share of responsibility in the Executive role that the Board otherwise has to bear in total, by itself. When that empowerment transfers on to committees and program leaders, immense amounts of energy, creativity and expertise are unleashed.

—Marge Keip, 08/12/99

I believe the objection to "fewer folks with more power, which is certainly the Carver Model no matter how you slice it" misses an important issue. Obviously, the Carver Model favors a delegation of power. How, when, and where power is delegated is obviously important. But of equal importance is the accountability for the use of that power.

I believe a "good" system of governance—whatever form it may take—will be one in which power and accountability go hand; and a system where they are separated will be a bad form of governance.

I have known congregations (and many other types of organizations) where power was not officially delegated. Officially, power was distributed to "the people." It sounded very egalitarian. The problem was that there were certain people who had de facto power. They had it through informal means and they were always the first to protest any nasty, evil delegation of power. The reason was simple: they had power, but no accountability—and they liked it and they abused it.

The issue is not just delegation of power, be it formal or informal, but how it is delegated and whether those with power (formally or informally) are also required to be accountable. In other words, complaints about delegation of power may be a red herring.

Also, I find it ironic that we spend so much time talking about diversity while at the same time we have a growing numbering of voices protesting democratic governance and instead demanding a consensus model. One of the basic assumptions of democracy is the idea that one will not always get his or her way. In other words one will have to live with people who are different, i.e., diversity (when the decision making process is over there can still be a "loyal" opposition). Consensus models, which arrive out of indigenous (tribal) cultural models have very different assumptions. They assume that when all is said and done everyone will be in agreement, i.e., there will not be diversity and there will not be a "loyal" opposition because the failure to "agree" evidences that one is not a "good" member of the group.

My impression of the Carver Model is that it is a good model for some situations. But as with any form of governance, the ultimate test is how it is implemented.

—Jack Bryant, 08/11/99

The problem with the Board making policy and then delegating to the committees is that the Board is then trying to administer. It may be that some Boards can do that with some effectiveness, but I've not seen it at church No one wants to take the responsibility for contacting all the people who need contacting and no one is accountable. Sometimes things get done if a committee is on the ball and self initiating or if a Board chair is very active. But as a recently retired active Board President, I can testify that it is very hard and inefficient. Coordination was the major problem.

At my church many years ago, the Board created a Council to do the program administration to relieve the Board. But the council is also lay people, who are usually not very good at administering, i.e. delegating and empowering other people and groups and especially coordinating the efforts of the various groups in the church. But the main problem is the lack of coordination between the Board and Council. in spite of liaisons, so that there are really two different agendas going on.

I see the Carver Model as being more likely to delegate, empower, and coordinate the Board policies of the church and hence, much more likely to be able to effectively distribute power. It would also provide a lot more continuity over time since the x-team would be more permanent that committees and Boards that change often.

For example, the Board might decide to adopt a policy making a church that had previously not met in the summer into a year round church with summer services. The policy might be that they would have services and some form of program for children although not as extensive as during the regular year. [Our church did that. The council was not involved and hadn't taken that on as a project, so they didn't even think about implementing the policy. The Worship Committee did some work setting up services, but the person who agreed to do most of the services got stuck with doing everything that is usually done several other committees during the regular year. It was a mess, except that a few of us jumped in and helped her out, but it was not a pleasant experience.]

In a Carver Church, the X-team would be present at the Board meeting, would know it was responsible for coordinating the policy, would meet and divvy up the tasks of talking to committees (task teams, whatever) explaining the situation, asking for their ideas and solutions to providing year-round services. They would not dictate or tell committees what to do, they would help each committee identify what they felt were their responsibilities, help them see how it would affect other groups and the overall project and leave the committees to figure out how they wanted to implement their part of the responsibilities. For example, the Religious Education Committee would decide if it wanted to have regular classes, a special open-classroom for all, or just baby sitting for little kids; and it would put it in place, but the X-team would make sure that their decisions were coordinated with other affected parties. So for instance, people creating services would know that elementary children would be in the services and make provision for their interests.

The X-team would also get together to make sure all the bases were covered.

—Beverly Moore, Louisville, 08/12/99

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Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.

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