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Alternative Models
Governance for Congregations

We have a twelve member board; five staff (program team) members attend all board meetings, except those in executive session related to compensation. The program team is the senior minister, assistant minister, music director, director of religious education, and myself (director of Ministry Development); we are using some of the Carver principles, but do not see our organization in the Carver Model but rather a ministry model; the Board works and relates by a written covenant and forms task forces for specific pieces of work related to mission and long-range planning. Our church is organized into six interdependent ministry groups for spiritual growth, social justice, stewardship of resources, denominational interdependence, congregation services, and institutional leadership. Each member of the board serves as a liaison to one of the ministry groups and the committees in that group. This is primarily a communications role. We have a staff relations committee that engages matters relating to staff—and since staff development/captain is in my area of responsibility, I interface regularly with this group along with the senior minister. This committee is made up of the immediate past president, the current president, vice president, treasurer, and two other members of the Board and meets monthly or as needed. Board is working from mission and is thinking in terms of being ministry-driven rather than program-driven. 

Karen Lindley, Director of Ministry Development, 01/21/99

In our recent conversations at the Board level about the model, we seem to agree that two aspects of the Carver Model are very useful:

  • That Board members should focus on longer-term goals instead of operational details; and
  • That the Board should speak with one voice, presumably that of the president or vice-president, in communicating Board policy decisions.

But we have not been able to implement the "executive" aspect of the model, because of our respect for congregational polity.

Our compromise has been that we now present our budget in both traditional and mission-based formats. Our senior minister has identified for himself and our associate minister a division of responsibility as a "designee" for each of the congregation's program councils (for example, Religious Education, Social Justice, New Members, Fellowship, etc.).

The Board also established a Program Evaluation Committee two years ago. It meets with the council directors as a group on an "as needed" basis (usually about once every six weeks) to discuss procedural questions that could benefit from some overall coordination. It also assists new council directors with goal-setting and evaluation formats in the effort to keep the focus on our identified mission. (Because the Program Evaluation Committee is so new, and because the turnover in volunteer leadership is so frequent, we have so far done more with goal-setting than with evaluation.)

We also have a devoted staff member in our church office. But I do not believe that either of our ministers or our office staff thinks of himself or herself as the kind of "executive" that one would find in other non-profit organizations that would expect the "executive" to be selected by and to report to the board, not the membership.

—Marjorie Girth, Unitarian Universalist Church of Atlanta, 700 members, 03/11/01

Our congregation numbers four hundred members (not including friends/youth) Our full time staff consists of senior minister, associate minister (primary responsibility to Lifespan Religious Education with Pastoral Care and ministry support), administrator, administrative secretary, custodian. Part-time staff—religious education secretary, parish nurse (provided by local hospital), music director/choir director, youth choir director, organist.

Our Board has been studying policy governance, and experimenting with its implementation since summer 1996. We have been operating with the senior minister as CEO, however our senior minister and associate minister have both reported to the board. Our Board is currently having active, frequent and lengthy discussions on the governance/reporting structure of our congregation. Considering having only the senior minister report to the Board as CEO—also considering having the administrator also report to the board.

We have not utilized or developed CEO policy limitations, and are discussing our need to do so. Our need for a policy "strictly limiting and defining appropriate communications between individual members of the Board and Staff" was identified in May, 1996, and we have failed to do so. The current Board would like to do this as soon as possible. I would greatly appreciate any examples of such CEO limitation and board communication policies to aide our discussion.

In addition to the Board/Staff structure I have described, the board adopted a system of program oversight that we call "Commissions" the summer of 1997. The board appoints members to the commissions that oversee eight program areas: Communications, Community Outreach and Social Justice, Lifespan Religious Education, Facilities Planning, Worship Arts, Ways and Means, Pastoral Care, and Membership. All programming committees and task forces are under a commission. The Board allocates block grants to the commissions that oversee the committees. Each commission has a voting board member, and a non-voting staff consultant. Commissions are policy proposing bodies, the board approves policy. The board vice-president is charged with coordination of the commission system. In addition the Board has three standing committees—Personnel, Committee on Ministry, and Finance.

—Nancy Edmundson, Board of Trustees member, Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, CA

We are a large (1400+ members) with a large, professional staff and two ministers (18.5 FTE). We have struggled to develop a model of a more horizontal decision making structure that represents a shared decision making model between the Board and the ministers with clear lines of reporting and accountability. Our model gives lead responsibilities to the minister for the implementation of the ministries (some might say programs) and the lead responsibility for policy and bottom line legal and fiscal functions to the Board of Trustees.

It has taken a lot of work; it is definitely not a hierarchical model. I don't think it really fits the policy governance model of Carver but it was certainly informed by that work. We think it's pretty exciting. I would agree that the senior minister has to be empowered to provide prophetic leadership and setting up a dualistic system that divides responsibilities is not productive. We've worked to help our ministers acquire the skills and knowledge needed to be more "administrative" and to help our lay leadership deepen the spiritual base of our "administrative" responsibilities. It's interesting, challenging and ultimately very rewarding work.

—Janis Elliot, First Unitarian Church, Portland, OR, 05/03/99

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