Collaborative Leadership in Churches' Best Interests

If you dropped into a meeting of the executive team at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, MN (787 members), you might wonder who was in charge. The team is composed of the two co-ministers, the Revs. Janne and Rob Eller-Isaacs; director of resource development Louise Wolfgramm; and director of administration Barbara Hubbard.

The assumption might be that the ministers were in charge. That would be wrong. Unity Church-Unitarian is one of a growing number of congregations practicing a cooperative and collaborative style of leadership where all staff members have a voice in making decisions. This is a departure from the more hierarchical style of staff management where the minister plays the role of CEO and the other staff are subordinate.

“The executive team functions with as much sense of, and reality of, equality as I have ever seen,” said Janne Eller-Isaacs. The method works well with Unity Church-Unitarian’s policy governance style of organization, which calls on staff to speak with one voice on issues. The team has done workshops for other congregations on the executive team model.

“The underlying value that informs everything we do is trying to determine what is in the best long-term interests of Unity Church,” said Eller-Isaacs. “We listen very intently to one another, and deep, abiding respect underlies our interactions. I know many of our colleagues think that this compromises our authority, but I think it lifts up the authority of administration. . . . I think this model has saved us from making mistakes based on our individual blind spots.”

The two ministers do have ultimate authority on issues involving ministry. And each member of the team has specific areas of responsibility and greater authority in those areas. Eller-Isaacs paraphrases Aristotle: “If you have trust and friendship there is no need for justice. We trust each other implicitly.” All four team members are supervised by the board. “Rob and I do not supervise Louise and Barbara but we hold each other accountable within the process of the team.” It’s also important, she noted, that all members of such a team be well compensated for there to be true equality.

When the Rev. Susan Archer, president of LREDA, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, was religious education consultant in the Metro New York District, she helped lead collegiality workshops. People named what was of overriding value to them in their work and when people understood what the others valued they could be more supportive, she said.

Archer recommends that staff be clear about what they need from other staff. Consider holding meetings some place other than the senior minister’s office. Decide how you’re going to talk out differences before they arise.

At the UU Congregation of Columbia, MD (345), the three full-time staff members and two members serve on the “A-Team” (Administrative). “We approach our work collegially and collaboratively,” says the Rev. Paige Getty. “We all know that the ministry of the congregation is not held by one person alone.”

As parish minister, Getty supervises the other two full-time members, director of lifespan religious education Cathy Muller and administrator Paula Linn. “But having the responsibility and accountability for the professional staff doesn’t have to be at the expense of trust and empowerment and collegiality,” says Getty. They maintain a collegial relationship and make most decisions through consensus.

Muller adds, “The key really is trust. We’re honest with each other and we say what has to be said, but hopefully in a kind way. And we laugh a lot together.”

Resources

Contact your district staff for information on staff collegiality. Visit the Unitarian Universalist Association District Services web page for contact information.

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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