How to “Right Size” a Governing Board

The word "plan" spelled out in Scrabble Tiles

By David Pyle

One of the regular questions that I receive from congregations regarding governance is “How many people should be on our Governing Board?” My answer is often wholly unsatisfying. “It depends. What does your Governing Board do?”

We have an assumption in Unitarian Universalism that all congregational Governing Boards function in similar ways, and have similar responsibilities in our congregations, yet I have found this to not be true. Congregational Governing Boards have different structures, cultures, assumptions, and responsibilities in different congregations. The size and structure of a governing board is dependent upon the roles and responsibilities of the board itself.

(To learn more about the different styles of Congregational Boards in Unitarian Universalism, click here)

When I coach congregations through making a decision about the size of their Governing Board, there are a series of factors I invite them to consider:

What are the responsibilities of your Governing Board, and how much effort do each of those responsibilities take to live well?

The role that a Governing Board plays in a congregation is the most important factor in determining the style, size, and practices of a Governing Board, and the expected role of the Board varies significantly from congregation to congregation. In some congregations, the Governing Board is expected to make and fulfill all of the Operational needs of the congregation. They sign all the contracts with vendors and ensure that professional staff are paid on time. They make decisions for committees and are the place where members come to get permission for projects and goals. In these Boards, the ability of the Governing Board to provide energy and attention determines how much the congregation can accomplish. In such boards, it makes sense that there be enough members of the Governing Board to provide that energy and attention.

In other congregations where Governing Boards have direct responsibilities for specific areas of the congregational program and operations, the size of the Governing Board is determined by the size and structure of the congregation’s program and operations. If the Board functions as a central coordinating point for all of the stakeholder groups in the congregation, then the board composition is determined by how much of the congregation’s program and operations each board member can effectively coordinate (remembering that Board positions are volunteer positions, and that the time and capacity of each volunteer is not the same).

In congregations where the responsibilities of the Governing Board are more clearly defined, limited, and where most of the operational and programmatic responsibility is delegated elsewhere in the congregational system, then the size of the Governing Board is determined by assessing the need for diversity of viewpoints and congregational experience in the work of discerning the congregation’s identity, culture, mission and vision.

How many other responsibilities outside of Board Service are board members expected to have?

It is rare in Unitarian Universalist congregations that the only leadership role a Governing Board Member has in the congregation is to serve on the Governing Board. Often, they are also teachers in Religious Education, or weed the garden, or serve as ushers on Sunday morning. Sometimes their board roles come with additional non-board responsibilities, such as serving on committees, or in the case of some boards serving as committee chairs themselves.

Determining the size of a Governing Board involves the cultural assessment of the expectations in the congregation of all of the expectations of Governing Board Members. The greater the expectations of Board Members beyond the Governing Board, the less time and attention can be spent per Board Member on the work of the Governing Board. If a smaller, more focused board seems appropriate for your congregation, then it is important to shift the congregation’s expectation about all of the roles that Board Members play.

How does your Governing Board relate to the other structures of the congregation?

When a Governing Board plays the central operational and programmatic role in a congregation, those responsibilities tend to take up a majority of the Board’s time and attention. Operational and Programmatic concerns (keeping the congregation open and determining what the congregation offers) often feel like the most immediate and pressing issues, and so receive the most attention. Planning, protecting the congregation’s resources, and asking big questions about the future, goals, and identity of the congregation are often given less attention so the Governing Board can address more immediate concerns. And when the Governing Board has the responsibility of mediating conflict between members or between committees and teams, those conflicts can seem like the most immediate and pressing issues of all.

Governing Boards who have delegated much or all of the operational and programmatic responsibilities of the congregation to staff, to an Executive Team, or to a Program Council have an ability to focus more fully on discerning the culture, identity, vision, and mission of the congregation, and as such can often function better with a smaller Governing Board than many of the more operationally or programmatic focused Governing Boards.

What role do Religious Professionals play in relationship to your Governing Board?

Many congregations include their Religious Professionals in the work of the Governing Board. In many cases, the senior Religious Professional (often a minister) will serve as a member of the Governing Board by right of their office (ex-officio). This often makes them the longest-serving Board Member, whether they are voting or non-voting. In other cases, Governing Boards have a co-operative relationship with one or more of their Religious Professionals, and sometimes there are staff members of the congregation who have responsibilities to provide administration, organization, and information support to the Governing Board.

Governing Boards that are intentional about their relationship with Religious Professionals and other staff members in support of their Governing Board tend to be better able to manage their own responsibilities and expectations. This does not mean that staff need to (or even should) attend Board Meetings, but it does mean that the staff of a congregation can often provide support that allows a Governing Board to meet its responsibilities and to maximize the time the Board can spend engaging the congregation’s identity, culture, vision, and mission.

How do Board Members interact in meetings?

When I work with Governing Boards, I will often ask if I can visit to observe a board meeting. Every Governing Board has a culture of expectations and norms for how they function together. New board members often adapt to these expectations and norms of board culture more than they shift those expectations and norms.

Boards that have a more collaborative and consensus-seeking culture tend to function better with smaller, integrated boards. Boards that have a more structured and process focused culture tend to function better with a larger board structure. The rule of thumb that I work with is that consensus-seeking board cultures tend to work best between 5-7 board members, and boards with a more structured and process-focused board culture tend to function best between 9-12 board members.

What percentage of active congregational leadership does the board compose?

Unitarian Universalist congregations can come in all sizes, from just enough members to form a Governing Board, to more than a thousand members. For both large and small congregations, there is often a tension of how many of those members are willing to serve in volunteer and leadership roles as compared to the overall number of members of the congregation. Estimates vary, but the number that I work with is that approximately twenty-five percent of a congregation’s membership is willing to serve in congregational leadership at any particular time. From among that twenty-five percent, I recommend that the Governing Board and its support comprise no more than twenty-five percent of the available leadership.

So, in a congregation of 100 members, this would give you a Governing Board of between 6 and 7 voting members. However, smaller congregations tend to have a higher percentage of members of the congregation in active leadership than larger congregations do. So in working with a congregation, I ask them to determine how many members are serving in leadership, and view twenty-five percent of that number as an upper limit on board size.

For larger congregations, I recommend the same calculation, but broaden the understanding of the twenty-five percent number of the Governing Board to include any and all sub-committees, standing committees, and task-forces that the Governing Board might create to support them in their work of congregational governance. For a congregation of 500 members, this rule of thumb would mean that there are approximately 31 congregational leaders who could be available to serve on the Governing Board, or a Task Force on Mission and Vision, or a Strategic Planning Standing Committee, or a Finance Standing Committee, etc. The more members there are to the Governing Board, the fewer members might be available to serve in ways that support the Governing Board in meeting their responsibilities.

For congregations under 100 members, trying to maintain a Governing Board of 7 members or more can be very difficult, especially as these Governing Boards tend to be more operationally and programmatically focused than Governing Boards for larger congregations. When working with these congregations, I have utilized two different strategies. The first has been to help the Board delegate its operational and strategic responsibilities, allowing the Governing Board to move to quarterly meetings. The second strategy has been coaching these boards in moving to an “Officer Only” Board, or forming a Governing Board that consists only of the Congregational Officer positions as required by state law. These would often create a four-member Governing Board consisting of a President, Vice-President, Treasurer, and Secretary.

Like most things in Unitarian Universalism, the “right size” for a Congregational Governing Board depends on the context of that Governing Board. It depends on the culture of how the Board functions together, and what responsibilities the Board has within the congregation. It depends on what the available leadership is within the congregation, and what role the staff and minster play in supporting the Governing Board. It depends on the time and attention that Board Members have to dedicate to the work of the Governing Board.

And so, there is no answer to this question that does not require the congregation assess their own functioning and expectations. Functioning and expectations can be shifted, but only after you have an understanding of what they are. If you are exploring a shift in the nature or structure of your congregational governance, your Regional Primary Contact can be a great resource, coach, and conversation partner in finding the right size Governing Board for your congregation.

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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