Orientation a Vital Part of Church Board Experience
Orientation a Vital Part of Church Board Experience

We’ve all had the experience of walking into a room where a conversation was in progress. We were able to understand a little of what people were saying, but a lot of references went over our head because we didn’t have the benefit of what had gone on before. It can be like that if you’re a new member of a church governing board but haven’t had the benefit of a proper orientation.

Fairfield, CT, who is president of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) District of Metropolitan New York and past president and currently secretary of the UU District Presidents Association. “You find yourself part of a stream that’s already flowing, but it’s not always clear how you fit in. I’ve had people tell me it took them two years to catch onto what was going on. Well, on most boards I’ve been on, that’s too much time to waste.” After one experience with a board that got off to a slow start, she created a process to quickly and comprehensively orient new board members.

“It’s the first responsibility of leadership,” Bluestein says, “to welcome and to properly orient those who are going to join you in the task of leading. To not do that is like inviting someone to cook a meal in your kitchen without telling them where things are or how to turn on the oven.

Bluestein believes in holding a retreat for any new board as soon as it is convened. The retreat covers where the board has been and where it is going. “These retreats place us in time and connect us to one another,” she says. Each board member gets a binder with policies and procedures, and a description of current and past projects.

At the first board meeting it’s important to lay out the complete year’s agenda, as far as it is known, Bluestein says: “In that first meeting in the summer, I tell them where we want to be by the time of the annual meeting in April.” Certain items, she notes, have to be dealt with at a certain point in the year. For instance, if awards are going to be presented in April, then discussion on them should start in January.

Every board member also gets a list of responsibilities, an explanation of how meetings are conducted, and information on where to go with questions.

At the UU Fellowship of Corvallis, OR (289 members), the Rev. Gretchen Woods has found it helpful to use Starhawk’s Circle of Leadership from her book, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Mystery, and Authority. Starhawk is a leader in earth-based spirituality.

The circle uses the four directions to help people understand that people lead in different ways. From the North come “Dragons, those who care for the resources;” from the West come “Graces, those who share warmth and bring people together;” from the East, “Crows, who are far-seeing;” and from the south, “Snakes, those who bring up from below the things to be discussed that no one has wanted to address.” And there are also “Spiders, who know what is going on in the whole web."

Says Woods, “It points out that many types are needed for a truly healthy system and that those who sometimes are considered uncomfortable types are absolutely essential.”

At Cedar Lane UU Church, Bethesda, MD (864), new board members are oriented in four ways. First the board chair calls a meeting of just the new members to talk about the board and to answer questions. Then each July there is a retreat for the full board to educate members about how the board and congregation operate, to build relationships among members, and to set goals for the year.

Thirdly, each member gets a “board book” with bylaws, policies, committee charters, etc. And finally, “We also encourage board members to attend district and UUA [Unitarian Universalist Association] events,” says the Rev. Roger Fritts. “For example, I have offered to pay the way for any board member who is willing to attend the large church conference.”

The Rev. William Zelazny, district executive for the UUA’s Ballou Channing District, recommends giving new board members a tour of the campus. “Surprisingly, some have never seen all of it. It’s also a good time to talk about maintenance and capital improvement issues.”

Schedule a time when experienced board members can tell new ones what they learned, what was different than they expected, and what they would have done differently, he says. Orient members on using the copier and how to request clerical help. At the first meeting, have board members tell why they agreed to serve, what their major goal is for the term, what their time limits are, and their major fear and hope for the congregation.

Robin Scheu, of Middlebury, VT, helps train nonprofit boards and has worked with UU congregations in board training. “If boards are not focused they have a hard time discerning their business from that of the staff. They may micromanage. I was at a board meeting once where a board spent 20 minutes discussing the length of the service agreement for the copier. That’s not a board decision. The board’s role is to set the direction, but then let the staff decide how they are going to get there.”

“Often boards are unclear what their role is,” Scheu says. “Their role is to articulate the vision, getting input from lots of sources, and then saying what results or outcomes they want to have. They set the direction and then let the staff decide how they are going to get there.”

She adds that board members should understand that their role is to represent the entire membership, not just a particular constituency. They should support the board’s final choice, and not bring hidden agendas. “Board work is really brain work,” she says. “It’s deep conversations and includes getting information from many places. It can be exhilirating work if we let it be.”


Contact your district executive or consultant for board resources.

Building Effective Boards for Religious Organizations: A Handbook for Trustees, Presidents and Church Leaders, edited by Thomas P. Holland and David C. Hester (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board, by Max DePree. (Eerdmans, 2001).

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.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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