Policies in a Tiny Church

An elderly woman with light skin and silver hair talking with her hands held out in an open gesture.

Policies and procedures are just a way of agreeing how you are going to do something. If you’ve already been a congregation for 10, 50, or 200 years, there is probably already wisdom somewhere in your congregation about how to do just about everything. Sometimes when I’m on a team that realizes we need a policy for something, there’s a temptation to start with a policy from another UU church, but often the policies are too big, too complicated and not a good for us in congregations of fewer than 30 members.

Here’s a process for finding the policy or procedure that grows out of your own wisdom.

Start With These Simple Questions:

What are we doing now? Sometime when leaders are gathered, ask how it’s getting done. If you hear that “Kiki usually…” Ask Kiki what she usually does, and how she knows to do it. Just write down whatever she says.

What did we used to do? Even if you are not doing it now, probably at some time in your history you were doing it. This question is great for figuring out why things aren’t working- often the answer is that whoever used to do it is not able to anymore.

Take notes. Assemble all you’ve learned on a single page in a big font- just the action steps. 
If you learned too much to fill a single page, that’s great! Share that with your board or send it to your historian, then pull out just the action steps for this new procedure you are writing up.

Is it working? Would we change anything? Read over those simple action steps with your leaders, ask if there is anything you would like to change about the process, and incorporate any change you agree to.

Try, Repeat; Empower everyone to use the new policy/procedure. Come back in a couple months and check in- is it working? What’s working? What’s not? Any changes? Write down the changes, including the date of the changes so you don’t get confused. Repeat until it feels good.

Example Policy

Membership Procedure at a Tiny Church

  • Visitors sign the visitor book by the door
  • During coffee hour, Maria – the church extrovert- is sure to greet every visitor and make sure they feel welcomed and have a conversation with them.
  • Jackie checks the visitor book every Sunday - Jackie notes the email addresses and adds them to the listserv/ newsletter
  • Then Jaan checks the visitor book once a month. After the second visit Jaan sends a letter by email or postal mail inviting visitors to participate in upcoming activities, and who to talk to if they want to learn more.
  • In the spring, the board looks at all the visitors and sees if anyone should be invited into membership. A volunteer is recruited to call each person (people call someone they already know, and feel comfortable calling) and ask if they’d like to consider membership or would prefer to stay a friend, and helps them with next steps of each.
  • Repeat visitors are invited meet with the Jaan to learn more about UU and the church, (individually or in a small group if there is more than one).
  • Ernesto, who keeps the worship schedule, schedules a new member ritual for an upcoming Sunday and helps the worship leader prepare the ritual.
  • Jackie adds the new member to the church directory

Policy or Procedure?

Most things are best served by a procedure- just clarifying who does what.

A policy has some legal teeth to it, and is important for things like background checks in the Sunday school, or how to deal with disruptive members, or who can sign checks, or who can post to the congregation’s Facebook page.

If you write a policy, be sure to follow it, and change it quickly if you realize you can’t follow it. A plain language procedure works for most things. If you can imagine lawyers getting involved someday, ask your regional staff to look over your final policy.

About the Author

Darcey Elizabeth Hegvik Laine

Rev. Darcey Laine lives in Ithaca, NY and serves congregations in Athens, PA and Cortland, NY. Over the years Rev. Laine has consulted and preached at a number of small congregations, which taught her the blessings of small-church ministry.

For more information contact .