Congregational Polity for the Over-Extended Lay Leader

By Renee Ruchotzke

The Cambridge Platform Contemporary Reader's Edition

Contemporary edition of the 1648 Cambridge Platform, the historic document that articulated the foundational principle of congregational polity. Annotated, with a new introduction by Alice Blair Wesley.

The Cambridge Platform

Who cares about Congregational Polity? Doesn’t it just boil down to the fact that we as a congregation can do whatever we want with no interference from any bishop, or presbytery, or Pope, or even the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston?


Consider a deeper theological understanding of what it means to gather as an independent faith community and to consider some of the implications and ramifications of what it means to be a self-governed church as well as a part of a larger liberal religious movement.

Even without a clear shared theology, Unitarian Universalists have a clear shared Polity, or governance structure, that helps to inform our theology. The following metaphor may be helpful: Our Congregational Polity is the common underlying structure or skeleton upon which we hang the muscle and sinew of our individual congregational manifestations.

What the Heck is “Congregational Polity?”

First things first!

Polity is a way of referring to a particular form of government, within either a state or other institution.

Congregational Polity is a specific form of church governance, organized at the level of the individual church or congregation.

I Know It When I See it

What does it mean to be a congregationally organized church? Several theologically diverse denominations have some kind of congregational polity, including United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Baptist and Reformed Judaism. Here’s a short list of features that congregational churches or synagogues all share:

  • The highest level of decision-making happens within the church, not within a higher ecclesiastical body (such as bishops, presbyters or district staff)
  • The elected lay-leadership (usually the board of trustees or equivalent) holds the legal authority to buy and sell property, negotiate contracts and other such activities
  • Congregations set their own criteria for membership.
  • The minister is chosen and called by the congregation.
  • Ministers are ordained by congregations, not by a higher ecclesiastical body.
  • The church is financially self-supporting through the financial stewardship of the members.

A Little History

Back in Jolly Old England

Back in the 16th century, many pious folk felt that the state-controlled churches were corrupt, and most of the churchgoers were insincere in their faith.

They looked back to the early Christian churches (the ones described by Paul in the New Testament) for a model of how to create a genuine Christian community. An Englishman named Robert Browne recognized that the early churches were gathered groups of committed believers. In the early days, Christians could join a church only after a rigorous training culminating in full-immersion baptism. Only then did they become members of the gathered church and were included in the sharing of communion.

Browne saw the need to create new versions of such voluntary gathered communities, separate from the non-faithful masses. The foundation of these church communities would be a covenant, between one another and with God. Members were responsible to guide and discipline one another. The church would elect officers to fill the roles of pastor, teacher, elders, deacons and “widows.” (“Widow” was a catchall term to describe the women who provided pastoral care.) The pastor would be ordained by the elders of the congregation, in response to the pastor’s inner call and the recognition of that call by the members of the church. These independent church communities would meet in synods or councils, to seek advice or to help resolve conflict.

Coming to America

In the Old World, there was an “established” state religion—anything else was considered a sect. In the new world, these sects were able to flourish. The state religions did not have the ability to import the power they enjoyed in Europe. Coercion was replaced by voluntarism where members of a church joined of their own volition and supported the church with their own resources. No one sect (or state church) had enough power to make a bid to become the American version of the “established church.” Experiences of persecution, and the realization that membership in any of the sects promoted a moral life and created a good citizen, led to religious tolerance and denominational identification.

Two different versions of Congregationalists started churches in the earliest days of the colonies: the Pilgrims and the Puritans. So what’s the difference?


The Pilgrims were Separatists, who wanted to establish a religious community based on New Testament principles. They believed that existing institutions of both church and state were corrupted by self-interest, and the Reformation had not reformed the church enough. The teachings in the New Testament superseded any man-made laws. At first their meetings were lay-led, later they would elect and ordain their own pastor.


The Puritans were part of a movement trying to reform the Anglican Church from within. They were concerned about the political influence on the church and were looking to create a purified version, away of from the influence of royal officials, in the new world. Though they had Anglican clerical leadership that had emigrated with them, the Puritan congregations began the practice of re-ordaining the minister “as a sign of election and confirmation.”

Putting it in Writing: Cambridge Platform (1648)

In the first half of the seventeenth century, most churches in the colonies were all operating under some form of congregational polity. After some irregularities and disagreements, the British Parliament starting taking a closer look at what was happening across the Atlantic. The congregations in New England (including both Pilgrims and Puritans) decided to convene a synod and develop a document that was both descriptive and proscriptive of their practices. This democratically developed document became known as the Cambridge Platform.

Our Congregational Roots Still Matter

  • Our theology is developed by persuasion rather than coercion
  • Members must have a high level of commitment
  • Members develop and live in accordance with a covenant
  • Members consent to mutual giving and receiving of religious instruction
  • Members gather in order to live in resistance to the dominant culture
  • Clergy are called from membership and tend to share authority
  • Leaders are elected and empowered to tend to the running of the church
  • Churches, though independent, must support and aid one another

Polity Today

Underlying Assumptions of the Democratic Process

Assumptions about people

  • Every person has inherent worth
  • All ideas have value – but not all ideas have equal value
  • We are all fallible – we should use mistakes as learning opportunities

Assumptions about communication

  • The most constructive discussion and well-defined decision-making happens at the committee level or in board meetings – not in meetings of the “whole”
  • Meetings of the “whole” work best when there is a clear object for discussion and decision (most of the tweaking should have be done in committee)
  • 7 to 10 people is a good size for committees, boards or discussion groups

Assumptions about decision-making

  • There is no “ready-made” will of the congregation – discussion creates or elicits what that will should be
  • No decision is final – it is just “good enough” for the time being
  • Consent of the group comes two different ways: It can be discerned from smaller groups or committees, or it can be asked for by the governing body
  • Overarching principles (mission and vision) are established by the governing body and are part of the covenant
  • As any organization grows, power tends to become more centralized. Any larger hierarchy or ecclesiastical governance would be at risk for corruption.
  • Micro-management stifles creativity

Assumptions about good governance

  • Good government requires trained expertise (this is one of the roles of the minister)
  • Good government requires that the executive details are delegated to the experts—i.e. trained staff (professional or volunteer)

Religious Freedom in Congregationalism

The final religious authority for each person is their own conscience, grounded in their own experience of both intuition and reason. No one should be coerced into a belief.

However, religious freedom does not mean we can believe whatever we want. Everyone’s beliefs come from their own experiences and reason (intellect). It means that we don’t dismiss or repress beliefs. We give all ideas authentic consideration within the religious community. Still, what we believe must be reflected upon with others in a free an open discourse. We compare our experiences. We critique each other’s reasoning. We come to a new understanding that re-informs our reasoning and experience, and the cycle begins anew (see diagram above).

Unitarian Universalists sometimes mistake this process for the kind of competitive, cut-throat discourse as often happens in academia. The difference is that we are seeking knowledge and truth within a faith community, where the process is as important as the product.

A faith community of free and open discourse must be founded on both forbearance and good will.

Freedom of the Pew:

This does not mean you can believe nor do whatever you want (though membership should never require a creedal test). However it does mean that convictions held by one can be questioned by others. It also means there is stewardship of the functioning of the church – all must ensure the continued existence of this institution that encourages religious freedom.

Freedom of the Pulpit:

The called minister of the congregation must be free to speak truth to power—truth with love. The minister shares his or her own struggles with the human condition in the here and now. Members of the congregation may or may not agree. This relationship requires a high level of trust between minister and congregation.


Mental Map showing how good will and forbearance are a part of covenant

The Importance of Covenant

The Covenant is what makes free religious communities possible. It is not a rule, rather it is an explicit expression of the relationship between the members of the congregation, with a mission and vision which transcend the congregation.  The Covenant is what makes free religious communities possible. It is not a rule, rather it is an explicit expression of the relationship between the members of the congregation, with a mission and vision which transcend the congregation.

  What It Is How to Develop It
  • Patience
  • Tolerance
  • Self-control
  • Not responding to provocation
  • Meditation
  • Personal Spiritual Practice
  • Small Group Ministry
Good Will
  • Trust & trustworthiness
  • Fellowship
  • Sympathy
  • Social Interaction
  • Serving Others
  • Hearing Other's Stories
Mission & Vision

An agreed-upon ideal, such as

  • Humanity as a whole
  • The interdependent web
  • God, or other transcendent object
  • Free and open discourse
  • Listening deeply to all members of the community
  • Refining into statements that resonate with the whole

The Importance of Commitment

The covenant is not a one-time event. It is a continuous process where all of the elements are in constant development and renewal.

Membership in a congregation requires a high level of commitment from each and every member – Membership should not be taken lightly!

Of course the community should be open and welcoming to newcomers and include “friends” of the church in programming. But becoming a member should be a momentous occasion signifying the high level of commitment expected of members:

  • Members must understand and agree to the congregational covenant
  • Members must understand how the congregation makes decisions and who is responsible for carrying out those decisions
  • Members must commit to their own personal and spiritual development
  • Members must encourage each other in their personal and spiritual development
  • Members must take time to develop relationships with others in the congregation
  • Members must be trustworthy and trusting in these relationships
  • Members must participate, somehow, in the operation of the church
  • Members are concerned with the congregation as a whole
  • Members must pledge to support the congregation financially at a stewardship level (with a goal of 5% of their income).
  • Members must hold each other accountable to all of the above!

A persistent refusal to engage with forbearance and good will is a reason for removal from membership.

-Alice Blair Wesley

Who’s the Boss?

Where does authority lie in Congregational Polity, which is basically anti-authoritarian?

Both authority and responsibility are shared by various groups and positions within the congregation. How they are shared varies from church to church, but here is a broad-brush look at the different spheres of influence.

The Board of Trustees

The governing board usually holds most if not all of the legal responsibilities for the congregation. Board oversees the running of the church, in alignment with the church’s constitution and bylaws, making sure that committees are staffed, bills are paid and the facilities are maintained.

Smaller churches tend to have working boards, where members tend to fulfill many of the duties and head many of the committees themselves. Larger churches tend to govern by setting policies (in alignment with the mission and vision of the congregation) and delegating the duties and lower-level decision-making to paid and volunteer staff.

The Parish Minister

The minister derives her/his authority from many sources. The first is from her/his own sense of call to the ministry. The second (and most important in congregational polity) is from the congregation, through the solemn occasions of ordination and/or installation. Other sources are their academic studies (signified by the traditional Geneva gown), their accreditation by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the long-standing tradition of respect entrusted in ministers throughout history.

The Committee on Shared Ministry

This is a more-recent development in congregations, meant to facilitate true shared ministry. Successful ministry of the church depends upon relationships between the members, and with the minister. The committee on ministry, along with the minister, is charged with assessing, educating, consulting and recommending how the congregation fulfills its mission and vision as a covenanted community.

When Congregational Polity Goes Bad: The Problems of “Personalism” and “Parochialism”

Unitarian Universalists have been very good at protecting our liberty in the form of freedom of both pulpit and pew, and rightly so. We have also been very suspicious of various loci of overt power, and rightly so. But radical individualism has its own problems, and can interfere with the proper working on Congregational Polity.


The American culture, and capitalism in particular, has a much bigger influence on us than we like to admit. We think that our intellectualism inoculates us, but instead it has only distracted us. Personalism, a radical form of individualism, may be our greatest obstacle. Our notions of freedom and individualism are often intertwined with our notions of free-market capitalism and consumerism, sometimes resulting in narcissism and selfishness.

Personalism, and its cousin consumerism, encourages us to get our own needs met without care or concern to what is best for the congregation. Churches become providers of spiritual services to individuals rather than organic, dynamic communities of mutuality. The ethic of competition urges us to joust with our ideas rather than to engage creatively and lovingly with one another. Membership requirements are diluted, because such standards are perceived as infringing on people’s liberty.


On a larger scale, we face the same sort of problem. Personalism will cause a congregation to stay insular without engaging the wider world. This kind of parochialism discourages congregations from engaging with one another. By fragmenting our efforts we lose the chance to share resources, develop creative strategies or take collective action.

Congregational Polity on a Larger Scale

As any organization grows, power tends to become more centralized and the risk for corruption increases. So it’s only natural that there is an innate suspicion of any centralized group.

However, we have moral obligations—starting with the Cambridge Platform in 1648—to aid and support other Unitarian Universalist churches.

We also know there are efficiencies that are gained by sharing resources, and effectiveness that can be achieved by combining resources.


The creative interchange of ideas that happen between members within a single congregation can also happen between different congregations.

Also, interacting with members of other congregations can widen the vision of what Unitarian Universalism is and how it can serve the wider world.

Many churches are members of informal clusters – churches that are geographically close, and allow churches to meet often, and share some resources:

  • Regional advertising campaigns
  • Presence at local rallies or parades
  • Pulpit Exchanges

Every Unitarian Universalist church is connected to the UUA. Regions have paid staff and their own governing boards and committees that help to organize and plan various types of d programming:

  • Communication and Coordination
  • Workshops & seminars (stewardship, growth, programming)
  • Training for leaders and religious educators
  • Chalice Lighter grants
  • Summer Institutes or Camps.
  • UUMA and LREDA chapters


Our congregations value and embrace the need for diverse voices in the search for truth and meaning. Without a common creed or even a prevailing theology, we need (at least) four things in order to be vital institutions in the world.


What is the purpose of the congregation in the world? Once a congregation has a clear mission and vision, making decisions about where to direct church resources become clear.


How shall we be together in community? How do we treat one another? How do we make decisions?


What does it mean to be a member of the congregation? How are members expected to strive to better themselves and the community? What is expected financially? What behaviors are unacceptable?


How do we keep our churches places where creativity can flow freely, enriching and amplifying the lives of all of the members?

Sources and Resources

Back in Jolly Old England

Williston Walker. The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism. New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1991.

Coming to America

Conrad Wright. Congregational Polity: A Historical Survey of Unitarian and Universalist Practice. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997. (pdf)

What’s the difference between a Pilgrim and a Puritan?

Sidney Mead. The Lively Experiment: The Shaping Of Christianity in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

Putting it in Writing: Cambridge Platform (1648)

Conrad Wright. Congregational Polity: A Historical Survey of Unitarian and Universalist Practice. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997. (pdf)

Peter Hughes, ed. The Cambridge Platform of 1648: Contemporary Reader's Edition. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008.

Underlying Assumptions of the Democratic Process

A.D. Lindsay. The Essentials of Democracy. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1929.

Religious Freedom in Congregationalism

Conrad Wright. Congregational Polity: A Historical Survey of Unitarian and Universalist Practice. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997. (pdf)

Conrad Wright. Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches. Boston: Skinner, 1989. (pdf)

The Importance of Covenant

Alice Blair Wesley. Our Covenant: 2001-2002 Minns Lectures. Chicago: Meadville/Lombard, 2002. (pdf)

James Luther Adams. The Prophethood of All Believers. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

The Importance of Commitment

Alice Blair Wesley. Our Covenant: 2001-2002 Minns Lectures. Chicago: Meadville/Lombard, 2002. (pdf)

Commission on Appraisal. Belonging: The Meaning of Membership. Boston, UUA, 2001. (pdf)

Who’s the Boss?

Robert T. Latham. Moving On from Church Folly Lane: The Pastoral to Program Shift. Tucson: Wheatmark, 2006. (See Addendum VI “The Committee on Ministry”)

When Congregational Polity Goes Bad: The Problems of “Personalism” and “Parochialism”

Robert N Bellah. Unitarian Universalism in Societal Perspective. (pdf) (paper presented at 1998 General Assembly, Rochester, NY)

James Luther Adams. The Prophethood of All Believers. Boston: Beacon, 1986.


Commission on Appraisal. Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity. Boston: UUA, 1997.

About the Author

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) is a Congregational Life Consultant and program manager for Leadership Development.

For more information contact .