If you’re a Board Chair, Moderator, or President, you might experience a situation where you wonder if it would be appropriate to ask your minister to step out of a particular board meeting so the board could discuss something by themselves. Or perhaps another Board Member has requested this of you and you’re wondering what to do.
As UUA Regional staff, we often remind boards that their minister is (with rare exception) an ex-officio member (by virtue of their office) of the Board. The minister should be a part of all Board discussions -- with the exception of the ministerial evaluation process (see below). Yet this question of asking a minister to leave a meeting so others can “talk freely” comes up regularly in our consultation with congregations.
Ministerial Evaluation? Yes!
It’s common for ministers to be absent for specific parts of a ministerial evaluation process. Ministerial evaluations should be planned well in advance and the process carefully thought out. This ensures that ministers know what the agenda is and how the feedback will be shared with them. Assessing Shared Ministry has more information on ministerial evaluations.
Other Board Conversations? Not a Good Idea
If the request for a conversation without the minister is coming up outside of an evaluation process, it’s usually because of concerns with the board’s or congregation’s relationship with the minister. Common reasons include worries about congregational finances and impact on the ability to fund a full time minister or specific concerns about the minister’s behavior or performance which haven’t yet been shared with the minister.
A variety of Board topics could bring these issues to the surface, such as a conversation about ministerial priorities, changing the annual worship calendar, or revising the ministerial contract. As with most sources of tension, the real issue is usually not the surface issue, but a deeper one.
Being Excluded Can Raise Anxiety and Erode Trust
The most important thing to understand if you are considering asking your minister to leave a Board meeting conversation, especially in the moment without a clear reason why, is that it will likely elicit a high level of anxiety for your minister. It signals that there is something that is so wrong that you can’t talk to them directly about it -- at least not yet.
Ministers are human. They’ve heard dozens of stories about relationships between ministers and boards where this kind of meeting is the beginning of the end. They can’t help but wonder if this is the first sign that you want to remove them as your minister. Even if this wasn’t your intention, it will compromise the trust you and your minister have established, and that could take time to rebuild.
The next most important thing to know is that your UUA Regional Staff are always here to support you. Whenever your congregation is struggling with a conflict, please reach out for help sooner rather than later.
We Want To Keep Our Minister! There’s Just Some Tension At The Moment
If you are just facing some difficulty in communication between leadership and the minister, the last thing you want to do is increase the minister's anxiety by excluding them from the conversation.
The challenge is to figure out how to have this difficult conversation in a way that builds trust instead of eroding it. What tends to work is to:
- Slow down the process,
- Focus on trying to solve the communication challenge.
Often board members are feeling anxious about saying something that could feel awkward or hurtful. Or they may be anxious because they are afraid that someone else might be feeling anxious, and anxiety is contagious.
It’s helpful to remind yourself that the minister has a lot of wisdom (that’s why you have a minister!) and will contribute important insights to the conversation. It will be really helpful for the minister to hear what the lay leaders are observing and experiencing, and have time to sit with the information, especially if it is difficult to hear.
If the minister and the board have a covenant, and/or there is a whole-congregational covenant, you can use the covenant as a way to start the conversation: Our covenant calls us to speak directly to one another when we have a concern. Can we talk?” If there is nothing in the covenant about how to be in communication with each other during times of tension, this could provide an opportunity to revisit the covenant and update it together
Strategies for Diffusing Tension and Getting to Direct Communication
Nurturing our relationships is part of the faith development process in our congregations. This means that practicing communication and holding healthy boundaries are part of the work of ministry. Here are some strategic processes to help develop faithful communication:
Defer the Conversation
If someone suggests asking the minister to leave in the middle of the meeting, press the pause button. Observe that there seems to be something about this conversation that’s a little hard: “We are experiencing some tension right now, but it’s okay. We can do hard things. And, it’s okay to slow down. Let’s talk about this later.”
In between meetings, reach out to the people who feel like they need to ask the minister to leave the meeting. Find out what’s going on for them, and help them to find the words (and courage) to bring up the concern directly.
Help The Minister Receive Direct Communication
There could be a conversation someone needs to have directly with the minister before the meeting so they can process difficult information before the meeting. Learn how to give and receive feedback with your minister.
Ministers get a lot of unsolicited feedback from random members and friends of the congregation. They might get defensive or downplay your concerns, even though you are the body entrusted to give feedback. If you see a pattern of defensiveness, encourage the minister to learn more about how feedback can be helpful. If that doesn’t work, reach out to your UUA Regional Staff.
Offer a Process Where You All Share Equally
Circle Processes (or rounds) enable each person an opportunity to share without being interrupted. Often a group can surface and discern the deeper issues this way.
Start with some picture-forming questions like “What complications are you seeing? How is it impacting the congregation?” Then you can move on to suggestions about how to move forward.
“Popcorn” conversations (where people jump in randomly) can be muddled, tend to leap from subject to subject, and often create opportunity for the anxious talkers to take up most of the airtime.
Starting An Awkward Conversation When You Don’t Know How to Start
If your board has a covenant and a high level of trust, but is just having trouble starting the conversation, you might try this method to help surface the elephant in the room. (This can be used for any topic, not just those involving the minister.)
- Start with a clear, focused question (e.g. What complications are you seeing around X? How is that impacting the congregation?).
- With everyone in the room, ask each person to write their answer down on a card using kind, but direct language, e.g. “Cracking jokes in the pulpit signals that we don’t take our faith seriously. I’m afraid it will turn people off.” (If you are on Zoom, you can ask people to put the comments in a direct chat message just to you. You may want to change the settings so no one accidentally sends it to the group.)
- Have a person (who has good judgment) read out loud what is written on the cards. This way the communication is direct but without the anxiety of one person beginning the conversation about the concern. Each comment came from someone in the room, with the minister present to hear all of it.
- After all cards are read, invite a pause for everyone to reflect on and process what was shared.
- Use a circle process where everyone, including the minister, has a chance to share their reflections on what they heard. Offer at least two rounds so that people can reflect on any new information or insights that might come up. This can help your Board get to the heart of the matter.
- Then you can move on to a round where people can make suggestions about how to move forward.
- If there is a potential that one of your board members would use this written process as an opportunity to make a hurtful, unhelpful comment (as often happens with anonymous feedback) do not use this process. This process only works with groups with some level of trust. We live in a culture where people feel empowered to say hurtful things in writing that they would not say to someone’s face, as often happens when anonymous feedback is tolerated in a congregation, or if there is a culture of sending flaming emails.
- If, as a facilitator of the process, you discover that one of the cards has an inappropriate comment, simply pocket the card without mentioning what was written. Reading it aloud would compromise the process and damage trust between the board and the minister.
If none of these steps help reduce the tension and get through the conversation, please reach out to your regional staff for assistance.
When There Are High Levels of Conflict
When the board (or the congregation as a whole) are in the early or middle stages of a conflict, and things feel muddled, it’s helpful to take some time to sort things out. Contact your UUA Regional Staff to help. We may suggest a process where the board uses an executive session without the minister present to process their feelings and tension so they can get to a place of clarity and speak with one voice. These sessions are to develop clarity that will be shared transparently and promptly with your minister to help de-escalate tension.
If you’ve gotten to this level of tension and conflict with your minister it’s likely your congregation doesn’t have an established process to evaluate your minister. Having a regular annual assessment process for the minister (alongside assessing the ministry of the congregation as a whole) can help ensure that your minister receives timely feedback. This helps your minister grow, deepens trust between lay leadership and minister, and prepares all of you for challenging conversations in the future.
When You Have Significant Concerns
You may have a situation where your minister’s cognitive functioning may be declining, or when your minister has discontinued performing basic ministerial services (e.g. avoiding pastoral visits, not showing up for meetings or Sunday services, etc).
Or, you may have a severe budget shortfall which will likely impact the minister’s compensation.
UUA Regional Staff can help you navigate the tensions your congregation is experiencing and assist you in discerning a way forward using direct and transparent conversation for the good of all. We are trained to assist you with difficult conversations with your minister, even to the point of asking them to resign.
If you have significant concerns around harmful behavior by a minister, or are wondering if your congregation should ask your minister to resign, please call your UUA Regional Staff and/or the UUA’s Safe Congregations Team, email@example.com, right away.
Ministerial Misconduct includes:
- Inappropriate relationships with congregants or minors
- Financial malfeasance
- Displaying a pattern of disruptive or bullying behaviors including with staff