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Linking Governance and Emotional Systems
Linking Governance and Emotional Systems
General Assembly, Governance for Congregations

General Assembly 2007 Event 2022
Speaker: Rev. Stefan Jonasson


Program Report

Rev. Stefan Jonasson, the Unitarian Univesalist Association (UUA) Director for Large Congregations, welcomed a large crowd of anxious Unitarian Universalists (UUs) who, as Jonassan said, are apparently dissatisfied with their present church governance, are perhaps in search of the perfect model of church governance, and maybe have the mistaken belief that Jonasson has found it. Jonasson emphasized there is no universal model. However, any model can work when used with common-sense wisdom, or can fail in the hands of zealots. In other words, every system needs a flexible approach.

With any system, it is important to understand the role of emotions. For example, potential leaders may become anxious and reluctant to take on the distasteful tasks of leadership, especially when our congregations are not sufficiently appreciative of our leaders. Apparently, Board and Council members do not always feel embraced by the "beloved community." It is essential to reduce anxiety and create an emotionally-rewarding way of working together.

Jonasson's PowerPoint presentation (PPT, 37 pages) (PDF) outlines the three models recommended by the UUA Extension Office in 1984: the "Administrative Board Model" which works well for many congregations; the "Board-Council Model" which is appropriate for Mid-sized or Program churches; and the "Policy-Making Board Model" for large churches. This large-church model is based on the Policy Governance® model of John Carver.

Jonasson advocates the Policy-Making Board Model for large churches, though he stressed the need for flexibility. An approach that works well in some congregations may flounder in others. What gets in the way?

Our UU tradition of congregational polity suggests an important test: if something seems to violate our tradition of polity it will likely be troublesome. As always, flexibility is essential: inflexible zealots can paralyze any system.

Furthermore, size matters. Jonasson discourages small fellowships from using the Policy-Board Model.

The four congregational sizes are illustrated in slide 11 (of 37) in the Powerpoint presentation. On the left are the relationship-based systems of smaller congregations; on the right are the organizational systems of large congregations. At the top are the member-centered systems of both Family and Program churches; and on the bottom are the minister-centered systems of both Pastoral and Campus churches.

Pay attention to the changing needs of your congregation, Jonasson recommended. The origin of your future failure is often seeded in your past success. In other words, if your congregation grows, your system of governance may need to change.

Competence matters. But we may not want to go there because people will get anxious—which takes us back to Jonasson's title theme: emotions matter.

Roles matter. In business systems, there are "owners," "staff," and "customers." However, in a church, these three roles overlap. For example, a Board member could be cast in all three roles.

Keep in mind that Boards do more than govern. So, indeed, do Members of Congress. However, when a Member of Congress responds to voter concerns about an inefficient Post Office or a delayed passport application, s/he is not engaged in governing. This is micro-management, not the visioning and policy-making that are the primary functions of the Board in John Carver's Policy Governance®.

Furthermore, as stewards, Board members are guardians of both tangible and intangible assets. The tangible assets are the buildings and investments. The intangible assets are the congregation's reputation and credibility.

Also, the leaders are seen as role models. When nominating leaders, select people who are generous with their time or money. The congregation will not be more generous with time or money than is the Board.

The Board should not step into other fields without an invitation. Indeed, it may spend a lot of time defining boundaries and fences. However, good fences have gates. We should not ignore the fences, nor should we risk losing the keys to the gates.

Emotional systems are crucial. To illustrate the point, Jonasson described how, as a boy, he had more than 700 Matchbox® toys and used these to create an imaginary community of plastic people. It was a well-ordered community because he was in control. As adults, we deal with real people. We may try to create a tidy organizational structure and then become anxious and discouraged when real people mess it up.

A good system makes room for complex emotional systems. Ideally, the system should be in place to deal with human issues proactively and avoid the need for the Board to respond reactively in crisis mode. Proceed from the general to the particular, i.e., from general rules and policies to particular disagreements and problems.

Sometimes, by-laws are written reactively, to fix previous problems. Jonasson described a church that had consumed (or perhaps chewed and spat out) eight previous ministers. Because he knew the personalities of these previous ministers, he could predict which bylaw had been written in reaction to which minister.

You probably know the formal agreements and written contracts that govern your congregation, but do you know the informal or tacit agreements of your congregation? If you are a long-time member, you may know them subconsciously. However, to a visiting UU from another congregation, they may feel uncomfortable; while to a first-time visitor familiar with another religious tradition they may be bewildering to a degree that may be alienating. For example, within Boston, the behavior expected at King's Chapel is different from that at Arlington Street Church. How obvious it this to you, and how obvious is it to a visitor? And how do these tacit agreements affect the congregation?

The most important tacit agreements deal with how we treat each other. Does your "beloved community" have a behavioral covenant, wither written or unwritten? Newcomers pick up these signals and may be either drawn in or feel excluded. How do first-time visitors feel when they are from other faith communities, other economic communities, or other ethnic communities?

Does your Board speak with one voice, or as separate individuals? A Board member who throws his/her weight around as an individual is counter-productive, whereas a unified Board that creates a proactive system to anticipate problems is more effective.

Let it be a dance, but not one where we laboriously follow the numbers marked on the floor; that is not dancing. Both in dance and governance, flexibility is essential. Those who know the dance will improvise as needed.

Finally, Jonasson talked of Richard Chait's concept of governance as leadership. Chait advocates modes rather than models. For example, in the Fiduciary mode, the Board focuses on waste or misuse of resources, whereas in the Generative-Governance mode, the Board defines the meaning of what we do and focuses on the big picture rather than micro-managing the minutia.

In summary, there is no absolute goal and no perfect model. However, a simpler way is likely to be a more effective way. And if the system is set up to consider human emotions, it will be more effective.

Reported by Mike McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

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