Committee on Ministry
Committee on Ministry Not Just for the Minister

The Committee on Ministry may be the most misunderstood committee that a congregation has. Is it an advocate for the minister—a kind of ministerial cheerleading squad? Or does it represent the congregation’s interests? Beyond that, does it just respond to crises or is it supposed to meet regularly? Is it responsible only for the ministry provided by the called ministers or for the whole ministry of the congregation? What’s the difference between it and a Ministerial Relations Committee?

“The most difficult part of a Committee on Ministry is getting people to understand what it is and how powerful it can be,” says Karen Eng, former longtime chair of the Committee on Ministry at the First Unitarian Church in Oakland, CA (304 members). “Even Committee on Ministry members don’t always have a clear idea of what it is.”

Time was when most congregations had what was called a Ministerial Relations Committee. It existed pretty much for the support and advocacy of the called minister and no other purpose. Today, congregations can have either a M inisterial Relations Committee (MRC) or a Committee on Ministry (COM), but the trend is toward the latter.

The COM can take two forms. It can be much like the old MRC, just focusing on the minister, responding to complaints, advocating for the minister’s compensation, etc., or it can be broader, focusing on all of the ministries of the congregation. In her book, Churchworks: A Well-Body Book for Congregations (Skinner House, 1999), Rev. Anne Heller, district executive of the Pacific Northwest District, writes: “Committees on Ministry are designed to track the heartbeat of ministry within a congregation; how the members...take care of themselves and each other, how the lay ministerial leadership serves a congregation; and how the called minister serves the congregation. It seeks to understand, assess, support, and advocate for robust ministry throughout the context of congregational life.”

Very small congregations may find the MRC is adequate, but larger ones are encouraged to consider a COM because of its broader scope.

“The idea behind a COM,” says Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) director of congregational services, “is to move away from putting sole responsibility (or blame) on the minister for the ministry of the congregation of which the minister is a part.”

When Rev. Ken Read-Brown was called to the First Parish in Hingham, Old Ship Church in Hingham, MA (246), seventeen years ago he and the congregation created a six-member COM. The committee serves as a supportive group for Read-Brown and it addresses any specific concerns that come to it, but its larger role is to focus on the various ministries within the church, such as social justice, caring, etc. For instance, when the congregation was trying to hire a new music director last fall the committee spent a session talking about music as a ministry.

There are plenty of ways for a COM to go wrong. It can be seen as the minister’s personal support team, defending him or her against even legitimate criticism. Committee members can be perceived as having personal axes to grind. The chair of the committee might “pack” the committee with people who support her, or the governing board might not be brought into the committee’s work.

Rev. Tricia Hart once served a congregation where the COM tried to react to a serious issue with the minister but the governing board cut it off, resolving the issue itself. That left COM members with hurt feelings. “Now I tell boards they should imagine a hypothetical situation where the COM wants to do something the board doesn’t agree with,” says Hart. “How will you deal with that?”

In another congregation members who took a dislike to sermon topics took the issue directly to their friends on the governing board, rather than the COM. “In cases like that,” says Hart, “it’s important for the board to direct people back to the COM.”

A small congregation may have a three-member committee, with five or six members in a larger congregation. Finding the right people is important—people with vision, who have the confidence of the congregation, who can leave personal biases at the door, who can work in a confidential but not secretive manner. Terms should be staggered, and the committee should meet monthly with a regular agenda so that each aspect of the ministerial-congregational relationship is reviewed.

Hart says the First Parish in Cohasset, MA (198), congregation she is serving this year as interim minister, is experimenting with having not a COM but a “Council on Ministry,” composed of representatives of each major area within the church. A plan to designate a smaller executive council of that group to respond to serious, immediate situations involving ministry is being considered.

If a congregation has more than one minister should it have a COM for each? No, says Qiyamah Rahmen, district executive for the Thomas Jefferson District. She believes that multiple COMs could make each one little more than a support group for each individual minister. In a congregation where there is truly shared ministry one COM is called for, she believes.

“I think the term Ministerial Relations Committee is outmoded,” says Rev. Craig Roshaven, at First Jefferson UU Church in Fort Worth, TX. “That old model suggests that the minister needs to be protected, managed, and/or interpreted to the congregation and vice versa. We need to move away from that model as it invites destructive secrecy, anonymity, and triangles.”

At the Channing Memorial Church in Newport, RI (180), the COM convenes a meeting of all committee chairs twice a year as a way of helping them know what others are doing. The COM also coordinates an annual volunteer fair and is overseeing the first goal of a new strategic plan to enhance shared ministry. “Moving beyond the Ministerial Relations model (which only focused on the professional minister) to a COM has expanded our vision of shared ministry,” says Rev. Amy Freedman. “Where the governing board oversees the operations of the church, the COM oversees the quality of our relationships. We have been able to create new ways to enhance our communication and ways of working together from ideas born in this committee.”


About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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