One evening at a Board meeting, we came to a question about our definitions of membership. The congregation had a number of members who had belonged to the congregation for decades, had led or participated in the work and ministries of the congregation with generosity and skill, and had contributed generously to the pledge campaign every year. However, these people now, as they approached the end of life, were experiencing various physical and mental challenges that made full participation in the congregation difficult or impossible for them. The Board was concerned about meeting quorums at congregational meetings given this not insignificant number of members who could not attend meetings. We were concerned about members with advanced dementia voting on congregational business. But we did not want to take any action that would diminish our recognition or appreciation for these members.
This is just one example of a thorny question that a congregational Board might face. It’s the sort of question that might live on a Board’s agenda for months, because it’s important but also difficult. Finding a way through a situation like this requires spaciousness. It might need research: what do other congregations do? What do these folks want? What do their families advise? It might also require time for long discussion: coming up with ideas, weighing pros and cons, talking long enough for an elegant solution to emerge.
To be clear, we believe that Boards should make space for spacious discernment together whenever possible. But sometimes the Board encounters a question that they just don’t have the capacity to address well without help.
When I served UU Catskills in Kingston, NY, one of the functions of the Committee on Shared Ministry (CoSM) was to help the Board answer thorny questions like these. The Board could ask the CoSM to research and discuss a particular situation and make a recommendation to the Board. The CoSM had space in our meetings for the kind of lengthy discussion that hard questions require. Since CoSM members did not have the same level of responsibility between meetings as Board members, CoSM members could take the time for conversations and other research to inform a recommendation. CoSM members were chosen for being people whose good judgment and relational skills had earned the trust of others in the congregation. The Board could rely on the council of the CoSM when making final decisions on questions such as these.
Many congregations do not have a formal means of serving the function of an internal think tank. But it’s so incredibly helpful! This function is not a constant need, though. So it doesn’t necessarily require a standing committee. Instead, you might decide to identify 4-7 people in the congregation who are well respected and have earned the trust of most members. Often it is helpful for these folks to be past Board members. This ensures some experience with the details of running the congregation. It also provides a meaningful way for those cycling off the Board to use their experience in an ongoing but less intensive way. This group could be activated when the Board has a question for them to work on, but not meet otherwise. In fact, you might even identify a larger pool of up to 10 members who could be called on in this way, and then when there is a need, 3-5 of them could volunteer to take up that specific question.
Depending on the size and culture of your congregation, you may find it helpful to do all of this quite formally. So, for example, the members or potential members of the think tank might be elected by the congregation. There might be an official motion at a Board meeting to refer a question to the think tank. Then the think tank engages in discernment before writing a formal report and recommendation to the Board.
You don’t necessarily need things to be quite this formal, but they should certainly be clear. It should be clear to the Board, the congregation, and the think tank who the members or potential members are. The question to the think tank should be expressed clearly, and with some sense of why the Board is struggling. What are the factors to consider? What specific advice does the Board need? And the think tank should be sure to make a recommendation back to the Board, rather than announcing or enacting a new policy itself.
Gifts for This Task
- People with gifts for complicated questions with no clear right answers
- People who are trusted by others
- Compassionate listeners
- People who can weigh all the factors and propose a way forward, even if it is not perfect
- At least one person who can clearly communicate a recommendation in writing
- Sometimes the Board needs help with difficult or thorny questions
- Think tank does not need to be a standing committee
- Think tank can either be 4-6 people, or you can have a pool of 10 or so to choose from when a question arises
- Think tank members should be trusted, experienced leaders (this is a good role for former Board members)
- The congregation should know who the members or potential members of the think tank are
- The Board should ensure that questions are clear and sent to the think tank with enough background/detail
- Think tank makes recommendations to the Board. It does not announce or enact policy itself