Main Content
Governance: Lighting the Leadership Chalice (I)
Governance: Lighting the Leadership Chalice (I)
General Assembly, Governance for Congregations

General Assembly 2009 Event 2037
UU University Governance Track, Part I

Facilitators: The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, Co-Minister, Unity Church, St. Paul, MN; and Laura Park, Principal, Unity Consulting.

The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs set the tone for the first part of this nine hour review of Unitarian Universalist (UU) Governance by observing that “Sadly, we often don’t offer spiritual growth or social action, but instead emphasize the needs of the institution itself. That should NOT be the end in itself. The end should be consistent spiritual practice, and community leadership.” He also reminded us that we are a covenantal faith. “A promise making, promise breaking, promise renewing people. Yet all too often we find our congregations only using the first two.”

Laura Park framed the main focus of today’s sessions as asking ourselves: “How can governance liberate the energy and creativity of UU Congregations to transform souls and bless the world?"

We would be identifying who is accountable for what in our congregations: Who provides the vision and who executes it. Once that is done, how do we know that it’s going well, and what will things look like when we’re finished. We would need to understand what we value about governance. And after sharing our own experiences we would start to discuss the structure Unity recommends to put all of that information to use—Policy Based Governance (PBG)—based on a not-for-profit governance model championed by John and Miriam Carver.

Laura promised us an opportunity for congregational self-assessment, plenty of opportunities to have questions answered, and a deliberate intent to have everyone share their own thoughts. To help with the more intimate sharing the participants were asked to sit in specific sections that had been identified for congregations of their particular size from their geographic region.

Participants each took a moment to reflect on an experience of the holy in their life and the value it represents. We each then shared that with a neighbor, and then with increasingly larger groups, until groups of eight people were prepared to share three values with the otherts in the room.

Patterns and common themes emerged as the values were shared: Wonder, Forgiveness, Humility, a sense of Community, Nature, Awe, Intimacy, Connection, Transcendence, Authenticity, Untethered Seeking, Love, Empowerment, Gratefulness, a sense of the Infinite, Presence in the now, Vulnerability, Worldlessness, Transcendence, Trust, Unity, etc.

We were asked to imagine doing this exercise in our own congregation. The values identified there would be the ones to be used to guide the congregation as it moves toward the future.

Joe Sullivan of Unity Consulting talked about “The Nested Bowls of Governance.” Values are the essential foundation of a governance system. They form the largest bowl, and hold the others. He suggested that congregations should identify no more than five values, as an effective way to inform decision making. The next bowl represents mission—"What difference are we here to make and for whom?"

“Ends” are nested inside the mission bowl. In Policy Based Governance, “ends” is identified as a tool that represents the overarching goals of the congregation. The ends are more detailed and time specific than values.

The values bowl represents those qualities of our congregation we wish to carry to the future, the mission identifies the overarching difference we are to make and for whom, the ends are specific, measurable differences we will make and for whom. To complete the metaphor, the flame that flickers in this chalice bowl is our connection to the source of our authority and accountability—the congregation.

As an example, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) ends are:

  • Congregations unlock the power that transforms lives.
  • Congregations live in covenant with other congregations in our association.
  • Congregations move towards sustainability, wholeness, and reconciliation.

As we finished the exercise some participants volunteered to share their “ah-ha” moments:

  • “I realized that our mission statement is incomplete. It needs to go beyond ourselves.”
  • “How different our congregation is due to our geography”
  • “We want to be a beacon of light for our community.”
  • “The important thing is not words of the mission statement but the process of getting there.”
  • “We have a board mission statement that does not agree with the congregational mission statement.”

There are two key elements of Governance Leadership; a vision with ends and making it reality. The two types of leadership associated with these are Visionary Leadership (filling the bowls), and Executive Leadership (making sure the outcomes become reality).

Visionary Leaders ask: "What does our membership care about?" "What’s at stake now for the future?" "How are our core values expressed in policies?" "What direction can/should we go?" "How do we prioritize?" These visionaries are the Board of Trustees and are accountable to the congregation.

Executive Leaders ask: "What programs need to exist to service our mission?" "How will our programs flow from the energy and creativity of our members?" "What ends need to change?" "Who is responsible for implementing our programs?" "How will we manage, update and enhance our resources to achieve our ends?" The Executive may be a single leader such as the minister, or a group, but it needs to be a single point of contact.

Clarifying these two roles results in a more empowering system for leaders at all levels in the organization.

Loiuse Wolfgramm of Unity Consulting offered Seven Indicators of Effective Governance, and asked the participants to rate their own congregation’s health:

  • “Trust” ensures that the congregation can assume you are working in the best interests of the congregation you will use power appropriately.
  • Members should be able to “Articulate” the mission of the congregation, commit to it, and give a good elevator speech.
  • With “Creative Engagement,” members of your leadership and congregation understand the issues you’re grappling with together, and allow room for new ideas.
  • People should be willing to “Invest and Commit” to service? But meetings should start and end on time? When a term of two or three years ends people should happily stay engaged in congregational life.
  • The board should have a “Holistic View” which represents the whole congregation rather then a particular constituency, and should be able to communicate the long term best interests of the congregation.
  • The congregation must be able to develop “Partnerships” with other UU churches, other faith groups, and other peace and justice making organizations.
  • The board must have an “Orientation towards Outcomes.” They should be able to measure the impact of our work, and ensure that the outcomes are as expected and still desired. They should be able to confirm we are living out our congregational mission and values.

To introduce the participants to “Policy Governance,” Loiuse led an exercise in creating a list of shared values about governance. With small groups of four providing up to three values, we could begin to see some similarities around being inclusive, having trust, transparency, responsibility, etc. She then gave a brief overview of Policy Based Governance and how it works. Unity Consulting uses nine principles adopted from the Carver model. This model was worked out at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, MN, the home of Unity Consulting. The nine principles are:

  • The board governs on behalf of congregation members not seated at the table.
  • The board (5-15 people) should speak with one voice or not at all.
  • Govern through policy, which are living documents that drive all operational plans.
  • The board delegates exclusively to the executive leader.
  • Distinguish Ends from Means.
  • Control means through executive limitations.
  • Develop policies as hierarchically nested sets.
  • Monitor Executive performance effectively.
  • Commit to Board Discipline.

Following these principles is PBG. It grounds the whole congregations in values and mission. It supports us as a covenantal faith, not a creedal faith.

Reported by Rodney Lowe; edited by Bill Lewis.

Part II >


Like, Share, Print, or Explore

For more information contact