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Creating the Executive Team
Governance for Congregations

The Executive Team Model we are considering will most likely include the minister, director of finance, and church administrator. This should help alleviate the concentration of responsibility (power, authority, and knowledge) in a single CEO/minister position and will provide another venue for the practice of shared ministry. The single CEO/minister model, without the proper support for all of that responsibility, was problematic for us as a large church and caused a certain isolation. I was especially drawn to the Santa Rosa Fellowship's policy that requires the X-Team to speak with one voice in it's communication to the board just as the board speaks with one voice to the congregation and beyond (e.g. no minority reports!) I was intrigued that their limitations policies apply to the X-Team as a whole so they apparently have not drafted limitations for each position on their X-Team. This makes perfect sense if the "team" functions as the CEO/executive role. I do wonder, though, if their board spells out, in policy (probably Board/X-Team Relationship Policies), the individual responsibilities of the four folks on their X-team or if that is left to the team as they create policies and job descriptions for the operation of the organization.

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

Here in Santa Rosa, the Board needed a viable way to overcome micro-managing, and Policy Governance mapped the way. The Board studied it, adopted a comprehensive set of policies, and designed an Executive Team to fulfill the role of CEO. Our "X-Team" is comprised of myself [as minister] overseeing church program, our office manager [administrator] overseeing operations, a liaison from the Personnel Committee responsible for personnel issues, and the treasurer overseeing the realms of finance. (The treasurer's position was shifted to the Executive Team and off the Board, where he now sits non-voting, ex officio. This brought the Board down to eight members, the minimum allowed by the bylaws). The Executive Team meets twice monthly for an hour and a half, with our Board president sitting in when he can. I'm impressed with how effectively our team is working. We stay on task, and manage to keep team meetings within ninety minutes while making well-considered decisions. Notes of Team meetings are part of the Board's monthly meeting packet, and an oral update on the most significant issue or two of the moment is part of the Board agenda—enabling Board members to continue to "know what's going on" without having to manage it all.

—Marge Keip, Interim Minister, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, CA

Personally I've one observation about our Executive Team structure. First, we are still in process and that means we proceed through murky waters, developing practices as we struggle on. So far we have not needed to spell out particulars of the roles played by the four Team members, and I don't think that will ever be necessary. They know what their roles are and the Board need not tell each what they can (and particularly, cannot) do.

As expected, the the representative from Personnel was changed to a congregant-at-large. There were so few times when personnel matters came up at Executive Team meetings, that inclusion was superfluous, and a reaction to the past rather than a rational need in the present. Close coordination with Personnel Committee when personnel matters are at hand is all that’s needed.

After almost three years our four-member Executive Team functions extremely well at managing the operation. There has been no need to specify duties/responsibilities for individual members. When our new minister came aboard, he easily transitioned into the Executive Team role, and was fully comfortable with policy governance.

—Ralph Melaragno Board President, UU Fellowship of Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, CA

When we were designing the Executive Team, and developing policies at the same time, I emailed John Carver (himself!) with the following questions that concerned us, "To what degree can the executive team wisely be expected to act as one voice? Actions within each team member's own area of accountability would seem rightfully to belong to that member rather than the team. Decisions that overlap areas, of course, should be of "one voice." But if the team members have competing concerns that appear mutually exclusive, would the Board not need to hear this?"

John responded, with the warmth and clarity that I've come to know are inherent in him. He observed first that "the group executive is open to more ambiguity and is dependent more on personalities fitting well than is a clean delegation to one person." And he went on to my questions. Here's what he said:

"The executive team must act as one voice or it will not work. Now, that doesn't mean they all agree, nor does it mean the various elements of the team do not have their own areas of control to which the group voice never speaks. In other words, the group decides (just as a single CEO would) what will be delegated to its component parts. If minister or administrator has been delegated authority to act in a certain area (given that area and its boundaries by the group as a whole), then the minister or office administrator simply acts with the authority given. He, she, or they do not have to come back to get the full team's buy-in (else why would the team have delegated anything?) "So what will constitute "overlapping areas" is decided by the team, not by the individuals. But within a non-overlapping area, the team stays quiet and lets its members act. "As far as what the board needs to hear, I'd say nothing as long as [1] the team still functions and [2] the overall ends are being achieved and unacceptable means not happening. In the case of [1] the team functioning is not a matter of whether members have competing interests, but whether the team can come to a single decision. If it cannot, the board will know its group executive idea isn't working so well. Then the board must either change members of the team or give up the idea."

So, our Board went on to develop and adopt the following, under its Executive Limitations policies:

  • Executive Teamwork: The Executive Team shall not fail to speak as one voice to all parties to whom the team is responsible. Accordingly, Executive Team members shall not:
    • Fail to include and consult with each other on all issues which materially affect each other's areas of accountability.
    • Fail to support the recommendation of the senior minister regarding matters of mutual accountability when the Executive Team does not reach consensus.
    • Fail to honor and support each other's views and positions in areas of the other's sole accountability.

You are welcome to adapt and adopt! (But I'd caution that you hold true to the awareness that these are limitations, and the negative language is important and empowering in the safely-bounded freedom it provides.)

—Marge Keip, Interim Minister, Santa Rosa, CA, 03/18/99

We are in our first year of policy governance and we are currently content with a three-person Executive Team consisting of our two co-senior ministers and our interim assistant minister for Membership and Administration. (We are currently looking for an executive director/minister for the position starting in July when we hope our excellent interim will be called by his own congregation...but that is another story.)

We believe that our Executive Team needs to be professional staff—the Board and members of the Congregation need to work on vision (ends), but we believe unleashing the professionals will move us faster with greater focus and clearer responsibility. The Executive Team (or CEO) must agree to speak with one voice and to be collectively accountable. The Executive Team must be able to select appropriate volunteers ("staff") in order to reach our ends. The implication of this is that the Executive Team must be able to gently deselect (fire!) volunteers if needed to reach the ends.

And, yes, we are trying very hard to keep any Board members from being adopted as part of the Executive. We can help the Executive Team in our other roles, such as finance, as volunteers; but, we are working to keep Board duties separate from execution.

—Galen B. Workman Moderator, First UU Society of San Francisco, CA,  500 members

Any Board anywhere could decide to delegate its decision-making in any number of areas to committees—but without necessarily taking the step of establishing a CEO function (which is the part of the Carver Model that has me stumped).

You're right. A Board could and should be doing exactly that right now no matter the size of the church. I don't know too many other ways to turn off volunteers (or staff) than to give them a responsibility and not give them the authority to make decisions related to accomplishing the related tasks with limitations. I emphasize the latter because I see much of the purpose of the executive function as assuring the Board that all is done within the Board's limitations* (e.g., not spending money that isn't in the budget, etc.) If you don't delegate that responsibility (and authority to interpret limitations) the Board has the responsibility to do that. And that doesn't seem like a good use of Board time or expertise. If you've put together a Board that brings wisdom, experience and dreams about the future of the congregation, you want them talking about the future and articulating via policy what that future should look like.

I think we should ban the CEO term from our discussion—it brings too many different meanings from our various backgrounds—and use executive as Marge has mentioned. Then, look to the model to provide a description of what executive means.

* The ultimate control remains the congregation's as the Board's limitations are consonant with the bylaws and other congregationally-adopted rules.

—Margaret Sanders, 08/12/99

There has been a most delightful discussion about the role of the executive in the Policy Governance Model. I wanted to chime in with my concurrence on using the term "executive" rather than "CEO." While I have frequently used the term CEO on-list I heartily agree with those who believe it unnecessarily pushes red buttons for folks. Our board did use the term CEO, I think mainly because we had a single executive in the person of the lead minister. We on the Board grew quite accustomed to the term, it simply became part of the vocabulary. As we have moved to an Executive Team Model, the term is used less and less.

I have noticed, however, that whenever the term CEO was used in conversations with members of the congregation, it turned folks off and the conversation was over before it began. "Executive" does not seem to elicit the same response.

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

There has been some discussion on-list about creating a Policy Governance model in which the Executive role excludes the minister. This has been proposed as an attractive choice for congregations in which the minister eschews administration. I've wondered if anyone has actually managed to create such a thing.

The main difficulty I see with this sort of Policy Governance model is that it would necessarily set up the minister as a person reporting to some other Executive (either team or individual.) I'm guessing that in most congregations this would not be acceptable. Should the minister report individually (separately from the Executive) to the Board, you no longer have a Policy Governance model.

In our church's model, the minister, as part of a three person Executive Team is responsible for operationalizing board policy in nine functional areas—children's religious education, adult religious education, music, worship, membership relations, communications, social outreach/action, denominational affairs, pastoral/spiritual care. The human resources, development, financial, fundraising, maintenance, clerical, bookkeeping and a few other functions fall under the other two members of the Executive Team.

I think "healthy growing" is nicely facilitated through a Policy Governance model that allows for tremendous freedom and creativity on the part of the Executive (which would probably include the minister)—freedom to carry out board policy in innovative ways given the safety net of the Board's executive limitation policies. It's wonderful not to be running to the board for approval all the time, rather, to know that, except for what has been specifically limited as out of bounds, the sky's the limit!

—Gretchen C. Dorn, Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, MN, 08/16/99

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