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Maintaining Policy Based Governance

We at Unity Church-Unitarian of St. Paul, MN tend to use our Board retreats as a way to renew our understanding of how the church is now operating. We usually have a section describing the Shared Ministry model and do an over view of Policy Governance. We try to schedule separately and outside of retreat time a session for new Board members that orients them to Policy Governance. I like to use the "Policy Governance in a Nutshell" piece available on the Carver website.We have also used a Policy Governance consultant to walk folks through the model. Outside expertise is always a joy if you can afford it.

Policy Governance education is the education of Board, staff, and congregation in Policy Governance. We all need to understand how language, relationships, and interactions will be different. At Unity Church we have done a decent job of it with the Board (annual retreat with a Policy Governance consultant to do training) but have barely touched on training with staff or membership. With Policy Governance the Board delegates the "means" (operations) to the executive and does not direct staff, does not dictate the means to be used in carrying out Board policy with regard to religious education, worship, finance, social justice, membership, maintenance, etc.

Staff can be unsure how to react to Board members' comments about their program areas and Board members (I for one) walked on eggshells with staff so I wasn't perceived as "messing with the means" (as we at Unity came to call it.) For example, if in a conversation with the religious education director, a Board member says how much s/he wants religious education to move in thus and so a direction it can be interpreted as a Board member "messing with the means" and trying to influence staff. Since the Board always speaks with one voice and only speaks through policy, this conversation must be taking place with the Board member's "Board hat off," as we say. I frequently said, "I'm now talking with my Board hat off," as a way of clarifying roles and allowing me to enter my role as a member of the congregation. I'd like to see Policy Governance churches have a workshop day for Board and staff to give the model a test drive in a safe environment.

While we have run many, many newsletter articles about Policy Governance and have had it in place for about seven years, I'd say that most in our congregation still think when we're talking about Board policy we're talking about operations policies and all decisions at the operations (program) level are made by the Board. At any rate, mutual understanding of the model would go a long way in easing into new relationships and new communication patterns.

—Gretchen Dorn, Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, MN, 08/12/99

The team meets regularly twice a month, with the Board President specifically invited. We find his presence exceedingly valuable—both for his perspective and to keep him up to the moment on what's going on. I'm thinking as I'm writing this that his attendance serves as an ongoing monitoring function, one we've not built into our monitoring policy structure. (We're particularly fortunate this first year of instituting Policy Governance with an executive team, that organizational management is his specialty, and that he's semi-retired with a flexible schedule.)

As minister, I convene the Executive Team meetings, am responsible for keeping them to one to one and a half hours with my velvet whip, and write up notes of the meeting on a single page (sometimes writing small). These meeting notes go into Board meeting packets (this, too, serves a monitoring function), and also to key staff (currently that's just our religious education coordinator), and into the binder of committee minutes that's available in the outer office to everyone in the congregation. These notes are set into a standard format of meeting date and time, persons present, issues under discussion, decisions reached, tasks undertaken, issues pending, and next scheduled meeting date and time. (We've provided a very similar single-page form to committees, too—some of which had not been keeping minutes—offering as a guideline that if it doesn't appear on paper in the office it didn't happen.)

I'm finding that the multiple insights of a team are invaluable in management decisions. [As a sidenote, I like the term "management team" I've heard here on the list-serve, and I think I'd propose that if we were starting afresh.] If I didn't have a team, I'd want one, and I'd want it to be three people or four, enabling us to be both efficient and diverse. (And I like the mix of staff and volunteer leaders, too.) I agree with Ralph that the personnel realm need not be personified on the team. However our office manager has suggested that if we had a volunteer coordinator, that person would be a likely alternative. I think so, too; and he/she could also convene our bi-monthly Fellowship Council meetings (gathering committee chairs and program leaders together for planning, coordination, and leadership training); this is something I currently do.

—Marge Keip, Interim Minister, Santa Rosa, CA

Q: What, in your experience, works really well in your application of Carver?

A: The empowerment and creative freedom the model gives to staff (paid or volunteer)—specifically our Executive Team—rendered management of the congregation I served this past year flexible, responsive and effective in ways that served everyone well. Good decisions were efficiently and safely and conscientiously made (quite an awesome combination!)

Q: What, in your experience, provides the most challenges?

A: Designing/designating the Executive role to best fit its own situation may be the most creative challenge facing a church Board in implementing Policy Governance. Over the long term, I'd say that internalizing the model is the prime challenge. It really is a new paradigm, not just a reconfiguration of ye olde Board modus operandi. And it needs everyone to continually practice it and recall it to awareness, integrating it themselves, and bringing others along. I've had this (not yet implemented) idea for creating little signs to have handy for members to raise during meetings with nudges such as, "A Board level issue?" "Do our policies cover this?" "Need to control?" or "Just want to know?"

Q: Pitfalls you've discovered?

A: Easy neglect of the Board's commitment to monitoring its policies, preferring to monitor church activities instead (largely, perhaps, because they want to know about them). A tempting trap, which leads to the Board getting fuzzy about its role, and vision time and connecting-with-the-congregation processes so easily go begging.

—Marge Keip, Interim Minister, Santa Rosa, CA

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Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.

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