Governance Trends in UU Congregations: A Recent History

Part of The Congregational Handbook

By Renee Ruchotzke

Note: This post reflects my understanding of events and does not constitute an official history by the UUA.

Wood gavel

There is an old narrative that the UUA tells congregations what to do, in particular when it comes to governance

I want to clarify that the UUA doesn’t dictate any particular governance model for congregations because of our congregational polity. Each congregation gets to decide for themselves. We at the UUA do try to lay out the options available to congregations. Currently, we list several models in LeaderLab along with useful resources about implementation.

In looking at our history, I can see where it may have looked like the UUA was pushing one model or the other.

My take is that when a new, ready-to-implement model has been proposed, there have also been consultants at the ready or a book available to buy. It would make sense that we would then see a lot of our congregations start to consider the model. Not only is it the “shiny new thing,” there’s also someone motivated and available to help you adopt it.

After John and Miriam Carver’s book Boards That Make a Difference came out, many large congregations saw the “policy governance” model as solving some of the tension between what is the board’s work and what is the minister’s/staff’s work. Many of the ministers of these large congregations had known each other since their days in LRY (Liberal Religious Youth) in the late 60’s and early 70’s and shared resources and ideas about adapting the model to large congregations.

In 2006, the UUA board voted to move toward the Carver model of policy governance under the leadership of President William G. Sinkford and Moderator Gini Courter. (The moderator is the chair of the UUA Board.) A lot of Carver resources were posted on during this time with no other specific options mentioned. (Most of those webpages on the Carver model have been retired.) Before the 2012 webpage updates in LeaderLab, it may have looked like the UUA was pushing Carver because that was the only model mentioned.

Some of Carver model’s biggest mis-matches with churches include assuming that donors are one group, the volunteers are another group, and those served are a third group. We do not have those separations in churches. It also assumes that the board has the ultimate authority to select and remove the executive, which is not the case in congregations, where the minister is called by the congregation, or the UUA, where the minister is elected at the UUA General Assembly.

In time, two modified models were developed by UU ministers (Dan Hotchkiss and Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs) that were geared toward churches. Unity Consulting, under the leadership and reputation of Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs, developed their adaptation of policy governance and offered the services of consultants. They also offered a Lighting the Leadership Chalice governance track at the 2009 UU University which gave their model a lot of visibility. In 2018, consultant Laura Park published the book The Nested Bowls on implementing the Unity Consulting model.

Around the same time, in his work with mainline churches and synagogues, Alban Institute consultant and UU minister Dan Hotchkiss saw the need for some new thinking about governance. In 2009, drawing from his experience and some of the Carver model, Hotchkiss wrote the first edition of Governance and Ministry. After several years of implementing his model, he was able to refine it and include more practical advice in the heavily-revised Second Edition of Governance and Ministry in 2016. Many large and mid-sized congregations have implemented a version of Hotchkiss’s model.

Sometimes the model of policy governance will work very well during a long tenured ministry, but then a ministerial transition results in adjustments. The interim ministry time often requires adaptation, and then re-adaptation following the call of a new settled minister. This makes sense as all models of policy governance depend on a trusted relationship between board and senior executive (usually minister) and the executive’s skill-set. This does not mean the earlier models of governance were wrong or the new adaptations of governance are better, but that governance is a flexible, adaptive structure that changes over time. These are learning opportunities, including for us as your UUA staff as we partner with you as you figure out what model meets your needs and mission.

Today, following the Commission on Institutional Change’s report Widening the Circle of Concern, congregations have been exploring less hierarchical models of governance, such as Sociocracy. This is a work in progress. The very nature of these newer models, being emergent and iterative, means that it is unlikely that there will be an authoritative book or consulting group to provide the “shiny new thing” energy that we saw among the variations of policy governance.

The thing with any governance model is that all of the leaders need to really understand what they need to do to make governance work in order to serve the mission while including the voices from the margins of the congregation. Congregations often don’t pair the governance model with adequate, ongoing leadership development and training. Boards that don’t understand the importance of their role in the partnership are likely to under-function. This is why we at the UUA offer board training. We want you to be successful leaders!

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 .