The Unity Consulting Approach to Congregational Governance

By Laura Park

The Nested Bowls The Promise and Practice of Good Governance

By Laura Park

A practical book for congregations interested in bringing clarity and focus to their ministry...

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Unity Consulting’s mission is to liberate and empower the leadership of progressive congregations and related institutions to awaken compassion, transform lives, and bless the world. We help our clients articulate their mission as the difference they’re meant to make in people’s lives. Then, we help them organize to deliver on that promise.

We reframe the questions and commitments of John Carver’s Policy Governance® for application within a progressive religious, covenantal context, and help our clients structure a governance system in alignment with these questions and commitments. In this governance approach, the board asks and answers some powerful questions:

Whose Are We?

Answering the question, “Whose are we?” helps the board establish its sources of authority and accountability and define to whom the board listens and in whose best interest as a whole the board governs. Our book, The Nested Bowls: The Promise and Practice of Good Governance, available from inSpirit or Amazon, explains the impact that defining these sources can have on a board and, through the board’s work, an entire congregation or organization. Systematic, intentional, theological conversation between the board and its sources ensures, in the words of 20th-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams that “revelation is continuous” and that the board does its work, in the words of Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, to “listen to the course of being in the world . . . and bring it to reality as it desires.”

What Values, Mission, and Ends Belong in Our Nested Bowls?

Informed by its defined sources, the board discerns and articulates its foundational governing policies of core values, mission, and ends. Core values define what three to five timeless, transcendent qualities the religious community will embody in all that it does. Mission and ends describe what differences the congregation or institution will make in people’s lives, whether the overarching difference in the mission or the more specific differences in the ends. We help congregations consider what differences they’re meant to make within, among, and beyond:

  • Within congregants’ individual spiritual lives.
  • Among the people of the congregation as they build a religious community together.
  • Beyond the walls of the congregation as they bring their values out into the world.

You can see examples of these Nested Bowls governing policies and how the values, mission, and ends nest together in the Nested Bowls book and at the Unity Consulting blog. The board collects data to monitor that everything that happens in the congregation or the organization stays aligned with the core values and that the mission and ends advance.

The Nested Bowls takes the reader through the process of establishing these policies in conversation with the board’s sources. This process of congregational conversation, focused on a Powerful Question (see The Art of Powerful Questions by Eric E.Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs available from The World Café) with theological weight, grounds the congregational system in covenant, in the promises a free people, connected to the free spirit, make to one another in community.

What Will We Promise to One Another About How We’ll Use Power in the System?

This question is about the ongoing work of covenant, about covenanting as a verb we continuously engage. Martin Buber says we are promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing people. The values, mission, and ends of the organization represent promises about what the people of the congregation or organization will work to make real; the next step is to clarify what promises will ensure the transparent and appropriate use of power in the system in alignment with the values, mission, and ends.

We help boards establish a governance system with clear roles, meaningful relationships between each role, empowering authority to fulfill each role, and appropriate limits to the authority of each role. We work with boards to ensure ongoing accountability for the way the people in these roles use their authority and whether they stay within their limits. We help organizations consider how to renew their promises in this system when, because they are human, the people in the system sometimes break them. Governance with these clear promises, combined with a system of accountability for following them, liberates and empowers leadership throughout the congregation or organization for its mission and ends. We follow the robust, systematic, and comprehensive Policy Governance® guidelines to establish the relationships, policies, and tools that enable ongoing covenanting.

Unity Consulting has much more information about our governance approach and the stages of organizational transformation we help boards navigate. Our good governance overview page links to several videos about our governance approach. Policy Governance is the registered service mark of John Carver; the authoritative website for the Policy Governance model.

About the Author

Laura Park

Laura Park would have been astonished in college to be told she was going to be a congregational governance consultant....

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