Forming a Committee on Ministry

By David Pyle

In consulting with congregations about their “Committee on Ministry”, I have learned that a necessary first step is to ask the congregational leaders to tell me what they expect their Committee on Ministry to do. And in every congregation, the expectations of a Committee on Ministry seem to be different, sometimes subtly and sometimes in very profound ways.

By the similarity of naming, there is an impression that Committee on Ministry is a singular thing, when in reality such committees have a broad range of responsibilities in different congregations. This is reflected in the ways different congregations have sought to modify the name of Committee to more clearly define the responsibilities in their congregation. From “Committee on Shared Ministry” to the “Ministerial Advisory Team”, congregations have sought to provide more clarity for themselves, which often then creates greater confusion when they compare what they have to other congregations.

To this confusion we also add that different formulations of a Committee on Ministry may not just have different responsibilities based on congregational culture and context, but they may also be formed in different ways. In some congregations, the Committee on Ministry is a Standing Committee of the Governing Board, nominated by and responsible to the congregational Governing Board for the performance of their role. In other congregations, the Committee on Ministry is a Staff Committee, selected and responsible to the congregational staff (usually a minister or a religious educator), and sometimes congregations will have more than one of this kind of Committee on Ministry. In some blessedly rare cases (but may work well for these congregations) the Committee on Ministry is a Committee of the Congregation created by the Constitution or Bylaws, and elected by the Congregation.

And so, the constellation of forms of a Committee on Ministry among Unitarian Universalist congregations is almost as wide as the number of Unitarian Universalist congregations themselves. In forming (or re-forming) a Committee on Ministry, I advise congregations to begin by thinking about what responsibilities you wish for your Committee on Ministry (whatever you choose to call it) to hold. Once you have developed the set of responsibilities that best fit your congregation’s needs and culture, you then choose where the Committee on Ministry will exist within your congregation’s leadership structure, and to whom they will be directly accountable. What structure the Committee on Ministry itself has depends on the answers to these two questions.

What are the Responsibilities of a Committee on Ministry?

While I have yet to find any model or theory that brings in all the creative ways that Unitarian Universalists figure out to “do church”, I have found that there are four common sets of responsibilities for Committees on Ministry in Unitarian Universalist Congregations. One way to think of these responsibilities is that these are the four most common needs that congregations have created Committees on Ministry to address.

  1. Ministerial Advisement
  2. Conflict Engagement
  3. Ministerial (and sometimes other Program Staff) Professional Development Support
  4. Congregational Assessment

Most Committees on Ministry tend to seek to address between one and three of these responsibilities in their congregation. It is rare to encounter a Committee on Ministry who seeks to address all four of these needs, and the majority of Committees on Ministry focus on addressing only one or two. Committees on Ministry seem to feel that addressing only one of these needs feels incomplete, and addressing more than three of them feels like too much. The first step in forming (or re-forming) a Committee on Ministry is to assess your congregation’s needs and culture in each of these areas in order to determine which can be best addressed by a Committee on Ministry. For a new Committee on Ministry, I advise by beginning with no more than two of these responsibilities in developing the committee.

To understand each of these sets of needs that a Committee on Ministry might be formed to address, let us explore each one.

  1. Ministerial Advisement
    Effective ministry is rarely done in isolation, and as wonderful as Unitarian Universalist ministers (and other program staff) are, they rarely if ever have all of the knowledge and wisdom necessary for effective ministry in and beyond a congregation.Many ministers and congregations have long realized the benefit of having a team of experienced lay-leaders in the congregation who can be in discernment with the minister (or other program staff members) about their ministry.
    Done well, the Ministerial Advisement role of a Committee on Ministry can be a saving grace for a minister and the congregation alike.The Committee on Ministry can be a source of congregational knowledge, history, and wisdom that a minister may not have.They can serve as a confidential “sounding board” for developments in the ministry, allowing the minister to receive feedback from a team of trusted lay-leaders on ideas, before they go to the congregation.This team can also provide healthy reflections upon the ministry, based on their own personal experience of the ministry, that can allow the minister to see more than their own perspective
    The question is not whether a minister has a need of a ministerial advisement team, but how formally the congregation wishes to meet this need.Most ministers find a few congregational lay-leaders whom they go to for advice and reflection.When it is done less formally however, the congregation has no voice in who these lay-leaders are, and their engagement with the minister is not directly accountable to the congregation itself.Having a Committee on Ministry fulfill this role takes something that will happen informally and makes it a part of the congregation’s formal structure.
  2. Conflict Engagement
    In Unitarian Universalism, we invite people to care deeply about their congregation, and then recognize the “right of conscience and the use of the democratic process”.Conflict and disagreement is an inherent part of Unitarian Universalism, and therefor a core spiritual practice of our faith is learning to do conflict and disagreement well.And yet, doing conflict and disagreement well takes intentionality, growth, and differentiation.Many congregations have chosen to assign to their Committee on Ministry the role of helping the congregation to live the spiritual practice of learning to engage conflict and disagreement well.
    Committees on Ministry with the Conflict Engagement responsibility have the dual role of leading the development of good “muscles” for engaging conflict well in congregations, as well as developing and holding good process and patterns for the congregation during a time of conflict.This means more than times of congregational conflict with the congregation’s religious professionals, although engaging these kinds of conflicts are often the most visible.It could also mean helping individuals in the conflict engage in inter-personal conflicts and disagreements well, as well as seeing potential tensions in the congregation and finding ways for the congregation to engage those openly, honestly, and justly.
    Of all of the roles a Committee on Ministry may be called to play in a congregation, the Conflict Engagement role is one of the more challenging, and often the most rewarding.It takes intentionality for a congregation to learn to engage conflict well, and doing so is one of the most effective ways to live the commitments of our faith tradition.
  3. Ministerial (and sometimes other Program Staff) Professional Development Support
    One of the most visible needs of a congregation that often a Committee on Ministry is asked to address is the need to the minister (and sometimes other religious professionals) to receive appropriate, healthy, and necessary Professional Development Support. Sometimes this is framed as “evaluation”, but I believe that term misses what is actually needed, and that is healthy, consistent support in developing into a better and more effective religious professional.
    There are two times when the anxiety in a congregation rises related to Professional Development Support for a minister. The first is when the minister is in Preliminary Fellowship with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA, and someone has to be responsible for completing the “Committee on Ministry” Evaluation report each year (as well as support the Governing Board in their own requiredMFC Evaluation). The second is when conflict has begun to arise about how well the minister is (or is not) performing as the congregation’s minister. Beginning evaluation or Professional Development Support once the anxiety about ministerial performance has already begun to rise is a recipe for needing a Committee on Ministry experienced in healthy Conflict Engagement.
    The healthier answer is to provide good Professional Development Support for ministers (and other Religious Professionals) on an ongoing basis. In many congregations with a Chief-of-Staff who is a minister, the Chief-of-Staff is responsible for providing Professional Development Support to that staff, but the lay-leadership maintains responsibility for providing Professional Development support for the Chief-of-Staff as the minister. Other congregations maintain a lay-leadership responsibility for providing Professional Development Support for all ordained clergy. However you engage this need, it is important that there be an intentional group of lay-leaders who hold and manage this responsibility at all times, and not just when the anxiety begins to rise. Engaging in good Professional Development Support for ministers (such as through the MFC Preliminary Fellowship Evaluation Process or using the “Fulfilling the Call” tool produced by the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association) is both an need and a responsibility that congregations often ask a Committee on Ministry to fulfill.
  4. Congregational Assessment
    Another need that some congregations have asked their Committee on Ministry to fulfill is the need of assessing how well the ministries of the congregation are leading towards meeting the congregation’s Ends/Goals and fulfilling the congregations Vision and Mission. Whether a delegated responsibility from the congregational Governing Board, or a responsibility held from the congregation or professional staff, assessing how well the ministries of a congregation (including but beyond the direct ministries of the congregation’s Religious Professionals) are changing lives and hearts takes intentional effort. It takes exploring not only what is happening within a congregation, but also learning and researching how other congregations are engaging their ministries, and seeking to learn from them.

Just as many Committees on Ministry hold a responsibility to provide Professional Development Support for Religious Professionals, some Committees on Ministry hold the responsibility for looking over the whole of the congregation’s ministries, and providing support in making those as effective as possible. There are many ways that they engage this responsibility, from utilizing formal congregational assessment tools to just taking an intentional look at a few areas of ministry each year. Often this responsibility can involve reporting on findings to the congregational Governing Board and Religious Professionals, and it can also mean building coaching relationships with and beyond the lay-leaders involved in the congregation’s ministries. It takes a team who are focused on learning and growing to be able to fulfill this responsibility.

A Few Problematic Responsibilities of Committees on Ministry

There are a few “needs” that congregations sometimes have that can lead to Committees on Ministry taking on some responsibilities that are less healthy for their congregations. Often these are not stated as responsibilities, but are devolutions of other, more healthy roles a Committee on Ministry can play. I mention them more for cautionary reasons than for any other.

The first is the “Minister’s Kitchen Cabinet”. This is a devolution of the responsibility of the Ministerial Advisement responsibility, and often comes into being when that advisement is done in informal and unstructured ways. It is natural that, when there is not a structure for this need, the minister tends to go to the lay-leaders in the congregation with whom they have the strongest relationships and with whom they often have the greatest natural commonality. Not only does this limit the feedback and reflection that the minister receives, but also can create a sense of disempowerment and resentment in the congregation members who are not regularly sought out for advice.

The second is the “Ministerial Complaints Committee”. This can be a devolution of both the need to provide Professional Development Support and to conduct Congregational Assessment. It is when the Committee on Ministry allows itself to be regularly triangulated between the minister and congregation members regarding concerns or anxiety the congregation members may be feeling. It happens when the COM takes on responsibility for “fixing” the congregation members concern, or reports concerns to the minister (formally or informally) that those other than the Committee on Ministry have. The Committee on Ministry should always seek to engage with the minister on the concerns they share as a Committee, and encourage and support others in the congregation to take concerns directly to the minister.

A third is the “Justify Firing the Minister by Evaluation Team”. This is a devolution of the need to provide Professional Development Support for a Religious Professional, when leaders are looking to justify a belief that the minister or Religious Professional should leave the position, but the congregation has not been doing regular Professional Development Support up to that time. It often happens for a Committee on Ministry that does not include the Professional Development Support role, when they are assigned this role during a time of heightened anxiety or conflict. It can also happen when a congregation seeks to create a Committee on Ministry during such a time of heightened anxiety or conflict. Whenever either of these patterns begin in a congregation, it is important to contact and ask for the support of your UUA Regional Staff.

How to Choose the Responsibilities of a Committee on Ministry

There is no “right” set of responsibilities for a Committee on Ministry in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, because each of our congregations is different. Congregations have different cultures, different expectations, and different needs, as do the ministers who serve those congregations. And just because a set of responsibilities for a Committee on Ministry are right for a congregation at one time does not mean they will always be. Responsibilities for a Committee on Ministry can change radically when the congregation calls a new minister (one of the reasons many Interim Ministers disband Committees on Ministry during an Interim ministry).

Whatever element of the congregation is going to form a Committee on Ministry (be it the Minister, the Governing Board, or the Congregational Meeting) should give great thought and care to what are the most important needs of the congregation that a Committee on Ministry can address. Those needs may be a combination of the four that are named in this article, or they could be something more unique to your congregation. It is important to remember, in choosing which are the right needs for a Committee on Ministry to address, that most Committees on Ministry can address between 1-3 different congregational needs effectively, and the newer the Committee the fewer the congregational roles it can play at one time. There may be a need for a need of the congregation to be address by some element other than the Committee on Ministry.

Forming and Choosing a Committee on Ministry

One of my guiding lights in developing congregational structures is that “form should follow function”. Once you have decided what responsibilities a Committee on Ministry should have, the structure and membership of the Committee on Ministry should be designed to meet that form. If the Committee on Ministry holds both the Professional Development Support and the Conflict Engagement roles, then the membership should be chosen to reflect those responsibilities. If a Committee on Ministry holds both the Ministerial Advisement and the Congregational Assessment roles, then the membership should be chosen to reflect those responsibilities. The first might have a preference for those who can listen to their fellow congregants deeply while maintaining their own emotional differentiation. The second might have a preference for those who can take a lot of input and from it put together a cohesive and useful picture.

Where the Committee on Ministry lives in your congregational structure depends on who it should be accountable to. If the Committee on Ministry is to be primarily accountable to the Governing Board (perhaps in the Assessment and the Professional Development roles) then it might best be formed as a Standing Committee of the Board, with its members appointed by the Board after the consent or the nomination of the Minister. If the Committee on Ministry is to be primarily accountable to the Minister (perhaps with the Advisement and the Conflict Engagement roles) then its membership could be selected by the Minister with the advice and consent of the Governing Board. I have yet to encounter a time when having the Committee on Ministry members elected by the Congregational Meeting has seemed like a good idea, but I live each day prepared for Unitarian Universalist congregations to surprise me.

As you engage in this process of discerning the needs within your congregation that a Committee on Ministry might address, choosing the right set of Committee on Ministry responsibilities for your congregation’s culture and leadership, and then deciding where in your congregational structure should the Committee on Ministry be accountable, know that you can always contact your UUA Regional Staff as a thought partner and process guide. An effective, well boundaried, and engaged Committee on Ministry can be one of the most important supports both for your congregation’s Religious Professionals, and one of the most effective ways for your congregation to better live your mission, vision, and values as Unitarian Universalists.

About the Author

David Pyle

The Rev. David Pyle is the Regional Lead and a Congregational Life Consultant with the MidAmerica Regional Staff. Rev. Pyle holds a Masters of Divinity from the Meadville Lombard Theological School and a Bachelors of Arts in History and Political Science from East Tennessee State University. He...

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