Congregational Governance

One important way that we express our congregational polity is in the governance of our congregations. Governance is spelled out in the fifth Principle, which calls for "the use of the democratic process within our congregations." Just as Unitarian Universalists emphasize-in our theology and history-the independence of each congregation rather than our interdependence through the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), we emphasize the independence of each person more than our interdependence as members of a congregation. The tensions between the independent congregations and the Association are analogous to the tensions between the individual and the church community. This section considers how our notions of polity affect the ways we govern our congregations. It offers suggestions for improvement in the areas of decision making; board, ministerial, and congregational relationships; freedom of the pulpit; membership; mutual accountability; money; and stewardship.

Congregational polity is concerned not only with interrelationships among congregations, but also with the governance process of each congregation. Under congregational polity each congregation is self-governing, choosing its own leadership, handling its own finances, and choosing its own delegates to the General Assembly (UUA Bylaws, Sections C-3.2, C-11.1, 4.8). However, this independence does not imply that we must reinvent our governance process in each congregation. Yet we provide few guidelines for congregations to follow.

Our polity is very much responsible for our loose association, which prevents us from prescribing structures and practices for congregations. It enables organic practices and organizations to rise and survive, which is sometimes a strength, but often does not serve us well. Perhaps because the UUA is so often accused of dictating to congregations, the Association, the districts, and other congregations are reluctant to suggest congregational practices.

The Congregational Handbook[1]makes many recommendations for congregational processes. One section addresses Congregational Meetings (p. 89), and an extensive section on bylaws deals with issues such as the power of the board, decision-making processes for the congregation, and elections (p. 33-34). Although the Handbook contains much useful information, more could be said on many subjects. For example, the Handbook does not mention congregation responsibilities for ordination (discussed in Section 9, "Religious Leadership," in this report), nor does it recommend how delegates to the General Assembly and district meetings are to be selected and instructed. The material that follows touches briefly on several areas that are not fully addressed in the Handbook.

Decision Making Within the Congregation

How we relate to each other as individuals within a congregation mirrors the interrelations among congregations, entailing the same issue: balancing independence with interdependence. Difficult decisions such as actions for social justice or a new location for the congregation spark this issue most clearly.

Too often members of congregations believe that the only model for democratic process is for everyone to gather in one place and make all decisions by consensus. Although consensus may be appropriate for a small fellowship, it restricts both the size and development of the congregation. Rabbi and psychotherapist Edwin Friedman states the case: "[Consensus] tends to value peace over progress and personal relationships over ideas. . . . Emphasis on consensus gives strength to the extremists."[2]

The Reverend Brent Smith makes a similar point: "We are not in the tradition of consensus as the chief means of decision making, regardless of its current faddishness amongst us. It is not democratic. It doesn't allow each person to exercise their right to act upon the truth as they see it; that is, to vote. It requires conformity of every person to one decision and one path, and subverts the subtle discernment represented in differing individual viewpoints."[3]

Many congregations use a super-majority to approximate consensus. Their bylaws require a two-thirds or three-quarters vote to call a minister, take a stand on a social justice issue, or sell land. Although it is not democratic in the sense of majoritarian, the difficulty of achieving a super-majority assures that the issue is carefully considered and that most members of the congregation are in agreement. This agreement is particularly important when a congregation takes a stand on a social issue.

Democracy must allow everyone to participate in decisions affecting the group. However, participation might mean delegating a decision to a representative or talking with others before making a significant decision. The important point is for members to be involved in the process. For example, although voting by absentee ballot permits broader participation, it does not encourage members to interact in considering the issue. Its use should be permitted only when members have had adequate opportunity for discussion and debate before voting.

The Reverend Tom Chulak says:

Without some hierarchy it is my experience that groups become stagnant, orthodox, and rigid. They become oppressive. Why? Because what happens in human community when you do not delegate authority to certain roles and Boards is those who have the greatest need for control and power will move into the center and there will be no way to move these persons out and eventually the group will die. Those groups which do not pay attention to structure-to roles and relationships and the need to have leadership-become the most anti-Unitarian Universalist.[4]

Relationship Between the Board and the Congregation

While our Principles commit us to "the use of the democratic process within our congregations," we are generally unclear about the specifics. For example, which decisions can be made by the board of trustees and when is a vote of the congregation required? What is the specific role of the minister?

Bylaws cannot spell out every decision that must be made by the entire congregation. The appropriate process depends on the size of the congregation. A large congregation must be a representative democracy where most decisions are made by the board; a medium-sized congregation may have more decisions made by the congregation, but many by the board; a small congregation may operate by group consensus. However, as congregations grow they tend to try to function with a decision process suitable to their former size.

We recommend that the bylaws of medium-sized and larger congregations reserve to the full congregation only critical decisions such as the calling of ministers, the approval of the annual budget, and the purchase or sale of land and buildings. A board that is in touch with its membership will bring other decisions to the full congregation when appropriate. For example, approval for a capital campaign may not be required by the bylaws, but would certainly need congregational agreement.

Again quoting the Reverend Chulak: "I am also a believer that in congregations, we must have a balance of power among staff, Board of Trustees, and the larger congregation. Authority must be distributed. . . . Balance of authority and power is central to our fulfillment. Within this balance-roles and relationships must be clearly defined."[5]

Relations Between the Board and the Minister

Because the minister is called by the congregation and the board is elected by the congregation, congregations have dual leadership. Congregations that directly elect their officers create a third center of leadership. A board that selects its leadership from among its members avoids a three-way split and creates a more unified board. Whichever method a congregation uses to select its lay leadership, the minister and the lay leaders need to have clearly defined relationships with the congregation, and they must each understand their responsibilities for the congregation's mission.

Ministers have different styles of participating in the governance of a congregation. Some join their churches as members and thus have a vote, although some decide not to use it. (By law in Maryland, clergy must be voting members of their congregation's board.) Some ministers see their role as primarily pastoral, supporting the lay leadership, while others see themselves as consultants, providing experienced advice and suggestions. Still others see themselves as strong leaders, making recommendations to the board and the congregation. An appropriate balance-making the best use of the capabilities of the minister and the congregation-should not be assumed to occur automatically, but be the result of careful consideration, negotiation, and testing.

Ministers often express frustration in getting congregations to make full use of the minister's experience and expertise. Although there is no simple solution to this problem, one suggestion is to have a Committee on Ministry (discussed in "Mutual Accountability" further on in this section). In addition, the expectations of the minister and congregation should be clearly spelled out in the minister's letter of agreement.

Other issues arise from the increasing number of congregations with multiple ministers. Are all ministers supervised by the senior minister? Can there be effective co-ministers who are not married or partnered? The First Unitarian Church in San Francisco has the first co-ministers who applied and were called as unpartnered individuals. Will this be a model for the twenty-first century? The crucial issue, however, is not the form of ministry, but the clarity of the ministers and the congregation about their respective lines of authority.

Freedom of the Pulpit

Freedom of the pulpit traces its roots to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The Congregational Handbook suggests this bylaw language (p.39): "The minister(s) shall have freedom of the pulpit as well as freedom to express his or her opinion outside the pulpit." This is assumed to mean that while members may express their disagreements, the minister cannot be censured for his or her statements. Although many of our congregations have bylaws that guarantee "freedom of the pulpit," this concept is rarely defined or discussed. The Reverend Thomas Starr King stated his views in a sermon on October 26, 1856:

Brethren, it isn't a question of what you want to hear, or don't want to hear; it is simply a question of what, with my vision of spiritual laws and human responsibility, I ought to do. I have told you how the question looks from my side; and I tell you further, just as honestly, that if you do not like the danger, so long as I shall hold such views, of hearing your public as well as your private responsibilities set thus in the light of them, you have only to say so, in a parish meeting, and the matter will be ended. Even if a large minority will say so, I will give you at once the opportunity of finding a man whose views of duty are different, and whose preaching will be more safe. Let us understand each other on this point, once for all. You certainly have the right, as well as the power, to choose what type of preaching this pulpit shall represent; so long as I stay in it, it will represent no other type than that I have just described-not because I ever intend to "preach politics," but because I feel I must preach devotion of humanity as the highest outward form of the gospel and the obligation of doing the most good that possibly can be done by all of a man's influence, by his ballot as well as by his money and his words. (emphasis in the original)

This issue is still alive today. For example, is the freedom of the pulpit for anyone speaking from the pulpit, lay or clergy? What is an appropriate response from members of the congregation when something is said that offends them? We recommend that all congregations adhere to a standard of free expression without censure. If most congregants-or even individual members-disagree with something that is said, they should also have the right of dissent. Members can be permitted to address the gathered community without disrupting the worship if limits are set on the time and the place. Such a practice would further democratic expression.

A related issue is the question of who speaks to the public for the congregation? As a religious community, we need to speak out on issues of public policy. However, all members do not necessarily agree on specific stands. The UUA has a well-defined process for the General Assembly to take stands for the UUA. Our congregations rarely have policies that are as clear.

We suggest that congregations consider authorizing the following groups as spokespersons, both to clarify who can speak and to honor possible dissidents:

  • The minister(s) of the congregation, indicating his or her title.
  • The board of trustees, by majority vote, indicating that they speak as the board, unanimously if that is the case.
  • The Social Justice Committee, indicating that it speaks as a committee of the church.
  • The members of the congregation, indicating the number of congregants voting in favor or signing the document in question. (See Section 10, "Social Justice," for more information.)

Members of congregations often criticize their ministers for things they have said. In some cases congregations have fired their ministers, notwithstanding the bylaw provision. However, our Principles call on us to respect a diversity of opinion and the freedom of the pulpit should be a part of our cherished tradition.


The UUA Bylaws state that each member congregation sets its own standards for membership. Although there is no need to change this basic power of congregations within our polity, the result has been a wide variety of procedures and qualifications for membership.

The simplest process is for new members simply to sign a book or other document stating their sympathy with the purposes of the congregation. Some congregations require a pledge of record in a minimum or any amount. Some congregations require an interview with the minister; others require acceptance by the board. Some congregations have age restrictions; others have classes of membership, such as youth. Many congregations have an inactive membership status; the congregation does not count the person but does not sever the relationship. When a person has not contributed or participated for a period of time, the board usually notifies the member of transfer to inactive status. It would be useful to have some survey information about congregations' practices and their effectiveness.

The Congregational Handbook discusses minimum contribution, age, and a waiting period for voting (pp. 35-36). The waiting period is particularly important when membership is open without board approval. For example, if an organized group were to try to join the church to control its assets, a period of 30 to 60 days would enable the church to organize to block the action.

Mutual Accountability

Governance of a congregation is spelled out most clearly in its bylaws. However, custom and practice govern much of the day-to-day operation. Ministry is the task of the whole church-the governing board, minister(s), staff, and membership. How this group works together to further the goals of the church is critical to its success. Understanding that these relationships are based on mutual accountability can help correct the anti-clericism that sometimes occurs in our congregations. While not necessarily spelled out in formal agreements (except, for example, in the minister's letter of agreement), the concept of sharing the ministry of the church is a part of the congregation's polity.

One of the most effective ways to further the mutual accountability of lay leadership, professional leadership, and general membership is through a Committee on Ministry. Although the Handbook discusses a Committee on Ministry, its description more closely matches what is generally called a Ministerial Relations Committee.

The Reverend Robert Latham suggests that the Committee on Ministry oversee the entire ministry of the congregation, not just that of the clergy. The Reverend Latham says such a committee has four major areas of responsibility:

  1. Assessment: responsibility for working out a plan to periodically assess the effectiveness of every facet of congregational ministry.
  2. Communication: facilitates the flow of communication regarding effective ministry. It promotes dialogue between groups representing various aspects of the congregation's ministry. It seeks a commonality of goals and a webbing of approaches. It engenders trust and mutual respect. It is in consultation with the Board, committees and agents of the congregation's ministry. It makes recommendations whenever and wherever it deems needful in upgrading this ministry. Its approach is always positive rather than negative-always focusing on potential rather than problem.
  3. Education: since its assessments and recommendations are geared to the congregation's Mission-Covenant, it seeks every opportunity to promote awareness regarding this purpose.
  4. Consultation: it is in consultation with the professional ministers as regards effective performance and relationships. It makes recommendations as to salary, benefit and expense packages to the Finance Committee and the Board of Trustees.[6]

Latham adds: "The standard by which all facets of ministry are evaluated is the congregation's statement of Mission-Covenant. Since ministry is everything the congregation does to fulfill its mission, there is no other appropriate standard. To the extent that this Mission-Covenant statement is demanding of responsibility, so is it of accountability."[7]

A Committee on Ministry can do much to foster mutual accountability among clergy, lay leadership, and membership for the advancement of the Mission-Covenant adopted by the congregation. The committee clarifies that the mission is the responsibility of the entire congregation, not just its ordained clergy.

We recommend that the UUA make available to congregations a variety of assessment instruments and procedures for evaluating the ministry of the congregation and clergy, in addition to those already in The Congregational Handbook.

There are other ways in which the democratic polity of congregations can enhance mutual accountability. For instance, in most congregations the delegates to the General Assembly are self-selected, based on their interest and financial ability to pay the cost of attending. Since the General Assembly has primary responsibility for policy determination for the Association, the General Assembly would be more accountable to the congregations if delegates were elected with care and the cost of attending subsidized if needed.

One of the most difficult situations a congregation faces is when a member conducts himself or herself in a manner that is severely destructive to the church community. Many, if not most, UU churches have no established procedure for removing such a person from a committee or membership. We recommend that congregations provide in their bylaws a process for terminating membership when a person's actions are contrary to the congregation's purpose and program. This might be done by a super-majority of the board of trustees, with appeal rights of the full congregation to assure due process. Termination could also include a process for reconciliation and readmission.


Another difficult area of congregational governance is personnel administration-the hiring, evaluation, supervision, and dismissal of non-clergy staff. Some congregations designate the minister as chief executive officer who oversees the staff. Other congregations delegate this responsibility to the board of trustees or jointly to the board and minister. What is important is that the responsibility for personnel be clear and understood by all. Personnel should be evaluated regularly and in writing; conditions of employment should also be in writing.

Money and Giving

Difficulties of congregational polity are often most visible around issues of money. Should we require minimum financial contributions from members? Which programs are funded and supported with staff? Should we have a separate fee for children in our religious education programs? Is our staff fairly compensated? What is our obligation to the UUA and the district?

We can answer these questions only if we have open discussions about money. But as a recent sociological study has found, "It doesn't matter that money, possessions, and giving are among the most common topics addressed throughout the Bible. The church in the United States has often chosen to shun the issue in practice. For example, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that, although Americans generally avoid discussions of personal finance, it is even less common for people to talk about money among their church contacts than in other settings."[8]

Our individualism and independence lead to the attitude that no one should tell us how much we should give. Although that is our practice, a deeper understanding of mutual accountability and support would lead to more open discussions about money and the choices we make about it. Just as we expect each person to find his or her own path in spiritual development, we must each develop our balance of consumption, saving, and giving. However, as we expect to learn from one another about spirituality, we should also expect to learn from one another about financial responsibility. This exchange can only happen when we are much more open about money and how we use it.

We must also have more frank discussion among our congregations of the financial meaning of our mutual covenant. In 1994-95, 636 of 1,032 member congregations contributed at least the $32 per member Suggested Share contribution to the Annual Program Fund of the UUA. This means that more than one-third of our congregations, including some of our largest, did not meet our mutual standard, and this number has been rising. While many studies have considered other standards, such as one based on a congregation's budget instead of one based on its membership, the problem is less with the standard than with our commitment to common goals. Even the recently adopted Rule 3.5.2, which requires congregations to contribute at least 25 percent of the Suggested Share for at least one of the last three years in order to be represented at the General Assembly, has met with some criticism.

Congregations often feel that their contributions for support of their districts and the UUA compete with the funding of their local needs, rather than viewing their contributions as serving their members and the larger world. Other congregations feel that membership in the Association should require the payment of annual dues. Some members believe that support for the UUA should only come from congregations and not from individuals, because we are an association of congregations. A clearer and more specific understanding of our polity would provide the basis for finding answers to these concerns.

Education on Stewardship

Stewardship education must be founded on a theological basis that draws on our values. Just as the covenant of our congregations informs our expectation of congregational contributions to the UUA, our shared commitment to our communities calls us to the mutual support of our congregations. Our desire for a better future demands that we invest for future generations as well.

Because member turnover is high, this educational process needs to be ongoing. Some years ago most people joining our congregations came from another denomination; today, many new members have no previous experience in a church. This means that instead of coming with an understanding of stewardship (even as a negative experience), members, especially younger ones, have little understanding of stewardship and charitable giving.

Education on stewardship must help us become responsible members of our church communities. We must connect our espoused values to the way we allocate our financial resources. The minister must develop a major part of this program, but district staff can help. The UUA has trained fundraising consultants to work in each district. However, we need addi-tional materials such as adult education curricula to assist members in understanding a Unitarian Universalist theology of stewardship and sharing.

Before ministers are ready to educate the congregation, they must be prepared themselves. According to a study sponsored by the Lilly Endowment:

Today's pastors are, at best, reluctant stewards of their churches' human, physical and financial resources. Although their hearts are in the right place, pastors, by their own admission, frequently lack the knowledge and experience that is required to oversee the development and management of resources (people, buildings and money) that are needed to support the mission of the church. And today's seminaries, also by their own admission, are extremely reluctant to take the lead in helping pastors and other church leaders learn how to become better stewards![9]

As Unitarian Universalist seminaries have begun to grapple with this problem, the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and other UU institutions need to address the issue of continuing education on stewardship for both clergy and lay leadership. Congregations must better understand their shared responsibility for the maintenance of the UUA, their districts, theological schools, and other UU institutions. Money should cease to be a tool for gaining power and control; instead it should express our fidelity to the religious community that shares and promotes our values.

Because of the independence of member congregations, we fail to learn from one another the practices that are most likely to help congregations best serve their members and the world. Complex problems may have many solutions. We can benefit greatly from the experiences of others. The UUA and the districts could provide more information on specific topics, but the congregations own the responsibility for using the information made available.


Ministers, lay leaders, and members can benefit from renewed dialogue about their understandings of the expression of the democratic process in their congregations. Instead of developing these processes and procedures in the isolation of each congregation, we can learn from one another's experience which procedures work best. Specific areas of concern are the relations between lay leaders and ministers, the qualification and removal of members, decisions about who is authorized to speak for the congregation, and understandings of our mutual commitments and accountability.


  1. As a guide to congregations, the UUA should make available information beyond that in The Congregational Handbook. Possible topics include governance, finance, personnel, administration, and computer software. Districts and congregations have already developed much useful information, and the UUA should aid in its dissemination.
  2. Congregations should carefully review their decision-making processes, looking at the appropriateness of consensus and super-majority models. Where needed, they should clarify the appropriate decision-making roles for the congregation, board, and minister(s).
  3. Congregations' bylaws should reserve only critical decisions to the full congregation, such as the calling of the minister(s), the approval of the annual budget, and the purchase or sale of land and buildings.
  4. Congregations need to negotiate carefully with their ministers the style that makes the best use of their respective capabilities. Ministers should have a carefully drafted letter of agreement.
  5. Congregations should have a well-defined policy designating who is authorized to speak on behalf of the congregation.
  6. Congregations and their members should adhere to a standard of free expression without censure. However, they should also have the right of dissent. It may be desirable to allow any member of the congregation to address the gathered community from the pulpit or another forum under controlled conditions.
  7. The UUA should develop recommended procedures for congregations about accepting new members, terminating membership for cause, and maintaining categories of membership.
  8. Congregations should provide in their bylaws a process for terminating membership when a person's actions are contrary to the congregation's purpose and program.
  9. Congregations should consider creating a Committee on Ministry to oversee the entire ministry of the congregation.
  10. The UUA should make available to congregations a variety of assessment instruments and procedures for evaluating the ministry of the congregation and clergy.
  11. Governance of congregations includes administration of personnel. Supervisory relationships should be clear, with written job descriptions and periodic evaluations of job performance and compensation.
  12. Districts should provide opportunities for more frank discussions among our congregations of the financial meaning of our mutual covenant.
  13. The UUA, the UUMA, and other UU institutions should provide opportunities for continuing education on stewardship for both clergy and lay leadership.


Interviews with Alicia Forsey, dean of continuing education and stewardship, Starr King School for the Ministry; Patti Lawrence, UUA trustee and dean of students and congregational outreach, Starr King School for the Ministry; and Fia Scheyer, former director of the UUA Annual Program Fund.


  1. Lawrence X. Peers, ed, The Congregational Handbook: How to Develop and Sustain Your Unitarian Universalist Congregation (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1995).
  2. Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford Press, 1985), p. 227.
  3. Brent A. Smith, "The Characteristics of Highly Effective Organizations," First Day's Record, Newark, Delaware,September 1995.
  4. Tom Chulak, "The Free Church and Conflict-Revisited," Unitarian Universalist Voice, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Winter 1995, p. 9.
  5. Ibid., p. 10.
  6. Robert T. Latham, Committee on Ministry: A Model (Golden, Colorado: Jefferson Unitarian Church, 1994).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Robert Wuthnow, God and Mammon in America (The Free Press, 1994), quoted by Johan and Sylvia Ronsvalle in "Money and Secrecy in the Church," Congregations-The Alban Journal, The Alban Institute, Washington, DC, November-December, 1996.
  9. Dan Conway, Project Director, The Reluctant Steward: A Report and Commentary on The Stewardship and Development Study, co-sponsored by Christian Theological Seminary and Saint Meinrad Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana, December 1992.

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