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Governance: Lighting the Leadership Chalice (II)
General Assembly, Governance for Congregations

General Assembly 2009 Event 3005
UU University Governance Track, Part II

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Facilitators: The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, Co-Minister, Unity Church, St. Paul, MN; and Laura Park, Principal, Unity Consulting.

 “Since my house burned down, I have a much better view of the mountains and the moon rising beyond them.”—This was a visual reading performed during the short worship service which preceded this continuation of the UU University Governance track, presented by Unity Consulting.

The facilitating team felt that one significant question that was raised several times in yesterday’s session needed to be answered early today. That is, "What is the role of the minister in vision casting?" The Rev. Rob  Eller-Isaacs explained that the minister provides the underpinning for the theology used to inform the vision casters. The specifics are the duties of the congregation and their elected officers. The minister and any other designated executive, however, do act as Prime Informants, to use Carver terminology.

Laura Park summarized the first session and set the scene for today. In the earlier session, we started by recalling our personal experience of the holy, explored our values, discussed the filling of nested bowls resulting in a fulfilling vision and leading to a clarity of leadership which liberates energy in our congregations. We reviewed the indicators we can use to measure how things are going and we received an overview of Policy Based Governance (PBG) as a structure on which to hang our findings. Today is about applying that PBG model, and answering questions we have about the model.

Participants were asked to review two case studies, and then meet as four person boards to answer two questions: "What is the good governance response?" and "What Policy Based Governance factors apply?"

In Case Study #1, a staff member had expressed concerns to a board chair about a senior minister’s “management style”. The comments and questions which emerged from the board discussions of this issue included:

  • Do we have a policy in place that covers this situation?
  • Does the board need to craft a grievance process?
  • If there is no policy in place, question whether the two people should have spoken face to face.
  • The board would hopefully have conflict resolution policies in place.
  • We need a policy on respectful relations.
  • If the minister is the executive the solution would have been be different. If the minister is the executive what controls have been put in place?
  • Should the minister be supervising anyone?
  • As a board we would need more data from the unhappy staff member.
  • We need to do more data gathering.
  • This clearly indicates a monitoring process problem.
  • Is this a systemic or an individual conflict?
  • Is this simply good management that is not liked by the staff member concerned?
  • Our board did not feel that we needed to maintain confidentiality of the individual—it was just difference in communications style
  • We had no consensus.
  • If the staff complainant is a congregation member, that would be a[n additional] problem.
  • The board chair should not have talked with this individual.
  • It is difficult to write policy while in the midst of a problem.

Joe Sullivan of Unity Consulting led a discussion on how board meetings change when you shift to Policy Based Governance, and we watched two role plays of board meetings addressing the same problem—one with and one without PBG in place. In the discussion that followed many differences in style were identified between the two meetings, but the participants recognized that the primary difference was in focus and direction:

The "old" (non-PBG) board got hung up on the money issue, with each member representing a different constituency. In contrast, 85% of the time in the "new" (PGB) board meeting was spent looking to the future, because they knew that the problem raised was someone else’s [i.e., a designated person's or committee's] responsibility and they—the board— represent the whole congregation.

Testimonials were presented, via recorded video, from congregations who have had success implementing Policy Based Governance. Some representative comments are:

  • "PGB has helped us focus on who we serve."
  • "This governance style lets us know that a portion of our leadership is designated to look ahead."
  • "We are more intentionally in conversation with the congregation."
  • "Congregations can be comfortable that the board enables accountability."

Joe Sullivan introduced four transition stages in a mult-year process of moving to Policy Based Governance, emphasizing that benefits can be realized from every stage— even if you never fully implement PBG.

Unity Consulting calls the first stage “Dreaming over Oceans,” and suggests scheduling 12-18 months to complete it. During this stage the board articulates the values, mission and goals of the congregation. This includes beginning a conversation within and among the congregation. This is the ideal time to suggest new ideas—to brainstorm. The board also drafts a transition plan during this stage, recognizing that you’re going to be building a new boat while you’re still sailing the old one. Now, especially, it’s almost impossible to communicate too much, but recognize that it is fundamentally holy work, and that you can expect to get substantial benefits from just going through this phase.

The second stage, which they call “We’ll Build a Boat,” is typically completed in about 12 months. Here, the board crafts policies that have ends that the congregation and its board can live with for a year. This is the time to establish executive limitations. Many congregations find it helpful to work with someone accustomed to policy formulation during this phase. Although there are templates available, the board, its committees and the congregation should be careful not to copy another group's policies—the policies you adopt must fit your congregation’s values, if they are to be meaningful and lasting. This is the time to begin establishing your new governance structures. Bylaw changes, most commonly elimination or revision of committees and changing the role of the treasurer, may be needed. To enable the work going forward, the board establishes a monitoring schedule, indicating when each policy will be monitored and revised. A standard agenda for board meetings can be drawn up. If this has not already been done, the vision needs to be set at this time.

The third stage, “Learning the Ropes,” is a 12 month period during which everyone is getting used to the model and how it works. The executive will write policy interpretations which the board reviews and approves or, if needed, revises. It is now that the board establishes board development and education practices and invites the nomination comittee into dialogue with them. You should also start thinking about what data will be tacked to ensure progress is being made.

The forth and final stage is “Sailing with Confidence.” This is when you are actually living the model. A 2-5 year cycle is established, during which you continue to refine practices, guide new board members, and initiate holy conversations to renew and revise the nested bowls. This is not a 1,2,3,4 or 5 year thing. This is ongoing holy work.

A video was shorn in which congregational leaders who have gone through this process of transition offered advice:

  • "This is an ongoing process even after 4 years."
  • "You can’t put enough energy into making sure new board members understand PBG."
  • "Talk about the role of the community, leadership, and committees—not just the board. You are changing the culture of community."
  • "Counsel patience and make sure someone is riding herd to move it forward."
  • "This belongs to the people."
  • "When you have a momentum, move forward with it."
  • "Have an inventory of old committees and make sure they have a place in the new model."
  • "Build from the existing model."
  • "Draw on the wisdom of other congregations with a policy manual."
  • "The transition is a great teaching experience, which may be more valuable than the final end goal of PBG."
  • "And, of course, a sense of perspective and humor is always useful."

Laura Park challenged the participants to ask themselves, “So What?—Now What? What key insights do you want to take back to your congregations?  How could these insights enhance your congregation’s effectiveness? What next steps will you take with your congregation to realize the benefits you anticipate?"

Participants took a few minutes to answer these questions for themselves, and then took five minutes to find a neighbor with whom they could partner, to keep each other accountable. The pairs swapped contact information and set dates for follow-up.

Gini Courter gave the participants their final charge. As always, Gini’s words were filled with humor and wisdom in equal part. “This is cool," she said. “You’re still here, which means you’re committed to good governance."

“The economy of late has presented us with an opportunity to make use of good governance. There is dissonance between who we say we are and the reality of who we actually are. We cannot continue to let people exercise unaccountable power in our congregations. I think this costs us ministries. We have often failed to understand that shared ministry means lay people do good governance 365 days a year.

“Here’s what I need you to do, and the reason is not trivial. good governance is the key to the Unitarian Universalism we want to pass on to our children. Take your plans back home and get the governance gig right. But remember, you will go back smarter and changed—and therefore suspect.

“Our mission is to transform the world, not gaze at each others navels. To the extent we can do this in these hard times the more likely we can be a beacon of light in our world. Go back and tell the truth. Build it strong because it needs to last the generations.”

Reported by Rodney Lowe; edited by Bill Lewis.