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The Relationship Between the Governing Board and Congregational Professional Staff
The Relationship Between the Governing Board and Congregational Professional Staff

One of the most common sources of tension in a congregation where conflict occurs that involves governing boards is the relationship between governing boards and the congregation’s professional staff, including the minister.  I have found that much of this conflict arises from the relationships between the congregational governing board and the professional staff being unclear.  It is understandable, because there is no “book of order” in Unitarian Universalism that defines how a congregation should be organized, and so each of our congregations is a unique mix of history, culture, identity, and governance models.  Because of that uniqueness, and because every professional staff member brings their own assumptions and history about their relationship to a congregational governing board, each board has a unique relationship with their professional staff.  As the congregation changes, as new board members come on and off the governing board, and as the professional staff changes, the relationship between the governing board and the congregation’s professional staff also changes and adapts.

One of the ways to understand Unitarian Universalist community is that it calls us to seek to be intentional about relationship.  Covenant, at its core, is an practice of being intentional about the expectations, hopes, and responsibilities of the relationships in the covenant.  While not all of the staff of a Unitarian Universalist congregation may count themselves members of this faith tradition, the commitment to the intentionality in relationship is still necessary and vital in building a healthy relationship between a congregation and their professional staff.  Such intentionality must begin with the congregation’s governing board. 

The official relationship between a congregational governing board and their congregational staff begins with the congregation’s foundational documents (constitution, articles of incorporation, or bylaws).  Most often the official relationship described in these documents is the relationship between the governing board and the congregation’s called or contracted minister.  There is significant variety in how this relationship is formed in Unitarian Universalism.  In many congregations, the minister is elected by a vote of the congregation (a vote to call) or appointed by the governing board on a contract to serve the role of the minister, including serving as an ex-officio, non-voting member of the governing board.  “Ex-officio” means that the minister is a full board member by right of the office they hold.  In the event of a called minister, this makes them a governing board member, on par with other governing board members, for an indefinite tenure.  In essence, this makes the minister the long-term board member, while other board positions tend to rotate among the congregational leadership.  As a full board member, they are included in all board business unless they choose to recuse themselves, including but not limited to executive sessions of the governing board.  Now, it is good practice for a minister to recuse themselves from attending executive sessions when the board needs to have discussions that would be hampered by the minister’s presence, and such can and should be requested by the other members of the governing board when it is needed.  But as a full board member, it is up to that minister (who is an ex-officio member) to choose to recuse. 

It is also important to note the purpose of the “non-voting” aspect of the many congregational governing board’s official relationship with their minister.  The minister not voting in board meetings is not intended to make them less of a full board member.  It is a recognition of the dual role a professional minister plays in a congregation as both the spiritual leader and a governance leader, and it is a protection of the pastoral relationships that the minister holds.  In essence, the non-voting clause is so that board members are not put in the position of being on the opposite end of a vote from their spiritual leader and pastoral care provider.  The non-voting formulation also serves to balance some of the authority that the minister brings to the governing board through both their having an indefinite tenure (in the case of called ministers) and their spiritual and relational authority. 

In some congregations, the minister serves as a full voting member of the congregation’s governing board.  When functioning well, these congregational governing boards have developed a culture where the spiritual relationship between the minister and members of the governing board is protected through difficult votes by the assumptions the board members and the minister make.  It is protected by a formal or informal covenant between the governing board and the minister about the importance of the pastoral and spiritual relationships. 

It is not always true, however, that the minster of the congregation, called or contracted, is an ex-officio member of the governing board.  In some congregations, including some Policy Governance congregations and also some congregations with history that often stretches back more than a century, there is a pattern that the minister is not a member of the governing board, but attends governing board meetings as staff support to the governing board.  In Policy Governance congregations, the minister serves as the executive who is accountable to the governing board, and is not a board member in order to maintain the clarity of these roles.  Policy Governance boards have the primary responsibilities of setting Ends for the executive to achieve, setting limitations on what means the executive can use to achieve the ends, and monitoring how well the executive achieves the ends and abides by the policies.  It makes it unclear if the minister is a member of the governing board charged with setting the policy limitations and holding themselves accountable. 

In some of our congregations with a history more deeply rooted in New England congregationalism, the relationship was formed with a history that the governing board served the parish, in part by recommending a minister who would serve the parish.  The parish was a broader conception of the whole community, more than just the members who regularly attended the congregation.  As such, the minister tended to attend and advise, but not be a member of these governing boards.  A few of our fellowship movement founded congregations also adopted this role for the minister, that they attend, inform, and advise the congregational governing board, without serving as a member of the governing board. 

Some congregations define other relationships with congregational professional staff members in the congregations founding documents besides that of the governing board and the minister.  Most often, these are the Religious Educator and the Congregational Administrator.  I want to stress here that this is far less common, and not something I recommend when I am coaching congregations on developing their foundational documents, but I acknowledge that it is something some congregations choose to do.  In some cases, the congregation’s religious educator is given a similar ex-offico role on the governing board to that of the minister.  When this occurs, it creates significant complications in staffing supervision structures, especially when the minister is also the chief-of-staff. Much of the description of a minister as an ex-officio board member would also apply to a religious educator who is an ex-officio board member. 

It also occurs that a congregation may have an official relationship with the congregational administrator defined in the congregation’s foundational documents, although this is increasingly rare.  More often the governing board will have official duties for the congregational administrator in their board policies and procedures, usually around the publication of the board minutes and other such support needs.  I have seen one congregation who, upon the time that I met them, had made the congregational administrator an ex-officio governing board member.  There are a few larger Policy Governance congregations who have a non-ordained Executive Director who is the Executive under Policy Governance, and in these congregations the relationship between the governing board and the executive director should be defined by the boards governing policies.  I can think of no circumstance where an administrator or executive director should be an ex-officio member of the governing board, but Unitarian Universalist congregations always surprise me. 

Outside of the formal relationships with a congregation’s staff set by the foundational documents, a congregational governing board’s relationship to the staff has other complexities.  In some cases, members of the congregation’s professional staff may also be members of the congregation, or are in partnered relationships with members of the congregation.  A few congregations make the choice that all of their staff should be members of the congregation.  In other congregations, the choice is made that none of the congregation’s professional staff should be members of the congregation.  More often, congregational staffs blend members and non-members depending on position and role. 

The governing board and the staff person should be clear that, when a person becomes a member of the congregation’s professional staff, that is the primary and exclusive relationship through which the governing board will relate to them.  In choosing to join a congregational staff, the professional staff member is choosing to not seek to influence or exercise authority over the actions of the governing board, either directly or through their relationships in the congregation. 

In some congregations, the governing board itself serves as the chief-of-staff for all professional staff.  While some congregations have made this work, it is very difficult on the staff members themselves, and makes holding staff accountable complicated.  Many congregations have chosen to designate a senior staff member to be the chief-of-staff.  This is usually the most senior minister, but occasionally it may be an executive director in larger congregations.  The governing board then maintains oversight and accountability of the chief-of-staff for supervision and direction of professional staff members. 

While it is not something I recommend, the governing board is often the “court of appeal” in the congregation’s personnel policies.  What this means is that, when an issue or a grievance that a professional staff member has cannot be adequately addressed by the chief-of-staff, it can then be appealed to the governing board.  This has the effect of inviting issues within the staffing to be taken to the governing board in ways that can be unhealthy for the congregation.  What I recommend to governing boards is that an intermediate step exist between the governing board and the chief-of-staff, often a review by a personnel committee, and that the decision of the personnel committee be the final resolution of staff grievances, unless the personnel committee chooses to refer the issue to the governing board.   

Beyond the complications of having the governing board as a part of the supervisory structure of a congregation’s professional staff, there are also some needs that the governing board has for support from the congregation’s staff.  In order to fulfill its fiduciary, policy creation, and congregational assessment responsibilities, the governing board depends upon the congregational professional staff for data and information.  From monthly financial reports to attendance numbers to making sure the bills are paid, the staff often play key informational and support roles.  It is key that the governing board have good working relationships with the members of the staff. 

The rule of thumb I share about board’s working relationships with congregational staff members is that “praise flows directly” to the staff member, and concern should go through the staff supervisor. Because of the complicated history in most congregations, it is unhealthy for a governing board that has delegated the supervision of staff to a chief-of-staff to attempt address concerns in the performance of the staff member directly.  But the board can always praise a staff member, and thank them for their work in supporting the board.  In my experience, most governing boards do not do this enough. 

Like all the relationships in religious life, the relationships between a congregational governing board and that congregation’s professional staff are complex.  It takes intentional effort, clarity, and good boundaries for those relationships to work well.  Your congregation’s UUA Regional Staff can always be helpful in setting these relationships within healthy boundaries and expectations, so that the governing board and the congregational staff work smoothly together to build the congregation’s vision and execute the congregation’s mission. 

About the Author

  • The Rev. David Pyle is a member of the UUA's New Englandt 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 completed his Clinical...

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