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Lessons Learned on the Way to Policy Governance
Lessons Learned on the Way to Policy Governance
General Assembly, Governance for Congregations

General Assembly 2009 Event 2019

Presented by members of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Board Governance Working Group and UUA Board Linkage Working Group: John Blevins, Prairie Star District; David Friedman, St. Lawrence District; Donna Harrisson, Southwest Conference; Linda Laskowski, Pacific Central District; Tom Loughrey, Pacific Southwest; Jackie Shanti, Clara Barton District; Chuck Wooldridge, Joseph Priestley District.

UUA Board Trustee Linda Laskowski gave a presentation on the past, present and future of the UUA Board's use of Policy Governance. Out of over 100 attendees who joined this session, about 70 indicated their congregations are using Policy Governance, and several more are just beginning the process.

The UUA Board of Trustees began investigating Policy Governance in 2004, guided by the Carver model used widely in the business world. The Board began writing policies in 2006, with input from 2007 and 2008 General Assemblies. Draft policies were brought to more than 35 Unitarian Universalist (UU) events for feedback and revision. This work led to a UUA Governance manual, establishing a set of policies on “ends” and limitations. These are instructions the Board provides to the President about what difference the UUA makes for whom, delineated by boundaries on what can be done.

The Board adopted this manual at their April 2009 meeting. These policies will go into effect on July 1, 2009. UUA's form of Policy Governance requires no bylaw changes at this time. Rather, changes will be brought to General Assembly (GA) over the next few years, as issues such as the role of committees are clarified.

UUA staff will now begin writing interpretations of policies and measurement strategies over summer. Monitoring reports will begin to be delivered in September and continue on a defined schedule throughout the year. The Board will continue to work with congregations and other “sources of authority and accountability" to fine-tune the “ends” and executive limitations with the staff, and determine how to report progress on achieving “ends.”

Following Carver's model, congregations would qualify as both "moral owners" and "customers" of the organization. The Board communicates with congregations in their role as "moral owners," those with a vested interested in the success of this faith. Distinction was made between the two concepts:

 “moral owner” “customer”
a moral owner invests so services are available a customer uses services
concerned with longterm survival of the organization concerned with getting needs met
moral owner believes in and is invested in this organization a customer can go elsewhere if needs are not met
moral owner links w/boards    a customer links with president and staff

Please note that the term "sources of authority and accountability" is being used in place of Carver's term "moral owners." The UUA Board chose the different terminology to avoid a term that may invoke the pain of human ownership for many of our members.

The UUA Board is accountable to our "sources of authority and accountability," which include:

  • our member congregations
  • current and future generations of Unitarian Universalists
  • the heritage, traditions, and ideals of Unitarian Universalism
  • our vision of "Beloved Community"
  • a spirit of life, love, and the holy

Top Ten Learnings

Laskowski shared the UUA Board's Top 10 ideas the working group learned about Policy Governance:

  1. Policy Governance is still not a hot topic—seems to be the dominion of wonks.
  1. A “beginners mind” helps when you start to learn about Policy Governance.
  1. Policy Governance is about changing culture, such as how a board spends its time. In governance, it should spend 85% on future.
  1. Transitioning to Policy Governance is a lot like mating two elephants: it is done at a high level with a lot of trumpeting, has something to do with "ends", there is a risk of getting trampled in the process, and it will take at least three years before you produce anything.
  1. There are more limiting policies in our "covenantal relationship" with the President (executive limitations) than there are Unitarian Universalists!
  1. “Effort” and “result” are not the same thing. It is hard to measure outcome when we are talking about faith as a product.
  1. The new monitoring process is exciting. A team defines terms of the outcome, and the Board gives latitude to executive to get there.
  1. It is hard to stay in “owner linkage” roles and not ask, “What do you want?” Of course, that's the wrong conversation!
  1. If there is any particular "hot button" in an organization, it will be found in the transition to Policy Governance, which will then be held responsible for it.
  1. Policy Governance is holy work; it's about our values.

The UUA Board's “ends” are to grow UU congregations that:

  • unlock power that transforms lives (personal)
  • live in covenant with other UU congregations (across congregations)
  • move toward sustainability, wholeness and reconciliation (outside congregations)

Q & A Highlights

Members of the UUA Board working groups took questions and comments from attendee; these fell into 3 categories: platform inquiries, terminology and technical questions from those who are grappling with using Policy Governance in their churches.


An attendee asked for clarity on Policy Governance for the UUA Board vs. congregations. John Blevins stated that the UUA is not asking congregations to move to Policy Governance; congregations would have to make that decision. He offered the possibility for a Governance Institute to be held in the future, to help congregation-level practitioners, but there are no plans at present.

Along these lines, the UUA is not training ministers to operate under Policy Governance, since there is no mandate for member churches to adopt this model. However, Rev. Dr. Douglas Gallager noted that Dreaming Big, a program preparing ministers to work with large congregations, is addressing this issue.

A minister recommended a book by Dan Hotchkiss of The Alban Institute on how to alter Carver model for use in churches (see Notes). She also commented that ministers need support in playing their role in Policy Governance.


There were many questions about terminology like “staff.” In a church, staff includes paid and volunteer staff. Since Board can't talk to “staff,” chairs reports to the minister.

John Blevins was asked to define “strategic planning.” He said it is a tool that belongs to the staff, not a Board. The Board provides the “ends” to staff and the president. Resources, finances and systems need to be organized around these ends. Collaboration will inform board about interpretations by staff. He defined Board duties thus:

  • to provide linkage with “sources of authority” (or “moral ownership”)
  • to provide the vision, which grows out of linkage.
  • to assure the performance of organization

One attendee asked how Policy Governance relates to congregational polity. The working group said polity means congregations decide how to govern themselves. Policy Governance may be the tool your congregation chooses to use. However, as always, the model is based on principles, and everyone implements them in their own way.


Many have encountered problems with interpreting the Carver model, as it applies to churches, and making it work.

One church board gave their minister oversight of finance, but had to take it back when things went awry. The working group offered that, while a board cannot delegate how tasks are completed, they can be addressed in executive limitations. In this case, the board could set a limitation that budget has to be balanced. John Blevins offered the reflection that it requires courage to work this way, but the process is worth pursuing.

If a congregation calls the minister, but the minister doesn't work for the board, one attendee asked, who evaluates the minister? Church Wooldridge offered the solution that the Committee on Ministry can provide the board with an evaluation of the minister.

A participant asked if “ends” are a good vehicle for letting staff know what priorities are, when ends are general and budget is driven by non-discretionary. The working group advised that when “ends” are developed, the executive writes interpretations collaboratively with the board, so there will be conversation about priorities and what parts of the “ends” get the money. The Carver field guide offers examples of this. Also, strategic planning is a conversation between the executive team and staff, but also with board.

Along this vein, what if a new board comes in, with no ownership of “ends” established by the old board? The working group said that a board is called to be rigorous in assessing itself. If new board thinks the standing “ends” aren't important any longer, they need to make new ones.

Whatever the problems, most attendees agreed that Policy Governance is a great tool to address “authority-phobia” and accomplish the paradigm shift of boards moving from talking about the past to talking about the future.


Reported by Toby Haber; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

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