Every Unitarian Universalist Congregation is designed differently. How each congregation functions is a blend of congregational experience, culture, and history. Congregational structures are also affected by whether and which other congregations members have attended or been a part of before. We are over a thousand differently designed institutions, with some similar needs but often with radically different responses to those needs.
Congregational Governing Boards are no different. In each of our congregations, the expectations, assumptions, and structure about the role and functioning of the Governing Board in the congregation and community are different. In some cases, the Governing Board is called upon to lead. In others, they function more to coordinate and represent the leadership of the members. In some cases, they have a pro-active and co-operative relationship with Religious Professionals and Staff, and in others they have an intentionally separate relationship from them. Some even serve to supervise Religious Professionals and other staff. Some operate according to a strict understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order, while others use a more consensus approach to making decisions together.
The clearest distinction among our congregations that I have seen has been in how the Governing Board focuses its time and attention. Our congregational Governing Boards exist in a spectrum between those that focus their time and attention towards the congregation’s operational and program concerns, and those who focus their time and attention towards the congregation’s strategic direction, vision, and mission.
An Operationally-Focused Governing Board is one who manages the institution of the congregation. For these Governing Boards, their time and attention are spent making decisions about the congregation’s property, its operations, and even its programming. They serve the congregation as the “deciding-body”, and are often the “court of last appeal” for any issues that cannot be decided elsewhere in the congregation. If you have ever sat in a board meeting discussing who should and should not have a key to the building, then you have experienced an Operationally-Focused Governing Board.
At the other end of the spectrum are Strategically-Focused Governing Boards. These boards spend all of their time and attention on understanding the congregation’s vision, mission, culture and identity, and asking what is required of the congregation to fulfill its mission and goals. They serve the congregation as the “discerning-body”, and have delegated the operational and programmatic decision making somewhere else in the congregational system. Sometimes operational decision making is delegated to staff, and sometimes it is delegated to other lay-leadership structures, such as an Executive Team or a Program Council. A Strategically-Focused Governing Board studies the congregation itself, asking who the congregation is, and how the changing world and communities the congregation is a part of changes the congregation’s mission and vision. They provide guidance and direction for the congregation, while maintaining overall responsibility for the fiduciary and overall health of the congregation. Since they have delegated the operational and programmatic responsibilities elsewhere in the system, they serve as the source of accountability for those who manage the congregation.
Almost all congregational Governing Boards have some elements of both Operational and Strategic responsibilities in their design and functioning. Over my yeas of consulting on issues of governance with congregation, I have identified several broad categories of congregations along this spectrum. While I express these as discrete categories, the truth is more fluid. Congregations tend to move between categories on the spectrum based on specific issues or the amount of stress or pressure the Governing Board is experiencing. For the sake of understanding, I express these categories this way:
These Governing Boards make all major and many of the minor decisions within a congregation. Congregational members know that, if you want something to happen, you need the Governing Board’s approval. They focus their time and attention on making sure that the congregation functions. Some decisions may be made by board leadership on behalf of the Governing Board between board meetings, always subject to approval by the board itself. In this structure, the Governing Board has the most direct control, but often feel frustrated that the majority of their energy is spent reacting to events in the congregation.
These Governing Board maintain both authority and responsibility for all major and many of the minor decisions within the congregation, but in specific areas have either formally or informally delegated the authority and responsibility to others, such as committees or Religious Professionals. Any areas not delegated remain under the board’s direct responsibility and authority, and the board may over-rule the decisions of any body they have delegated some authority and responsibility to. An example of a managing board is one that maintains direct authority over all financial matters, but has delegated authority to the Religious Education Committee for all program decisions within the Children’s Religious Education program. If there is a dispute between congregants and the Religious Education Committee about that program, a Managing Board would be the “court of appeal” for that dispute. They would also serve as the “court of appeal” for any disputes between committees or teams who have delegated authority from the Managing Board.
These Governing Boards maintain both authority and responsibility for all major and many minor decisions within the congregation, and have delegated that authority to specific board members, who also serve as the “chair” or leader of areas of the congregation’s program and operations. The board functions as a coordination body of those who directly lead an aspect of the congregation’s operations and program. For example, the Trustee of Social Justice serves as the chair of the Social Justice Committee, and the Treasurer serves as the Chair of the Finance Committee. Portfolio Board Members may make decisions in their specific operational or program areas, subject to being reviewed by the whole Portfolio Board. This structure ensures that all of the key leaders are in the room for board decisions, however the time and attention required to both serve on the board and lead a major area of congregational operations and program mean very little energy is available for board work. It also has the dynamic that Portfolio Board members tend to look at issues before the board through the interests of their particular operational or program area, rather than from the perspective of the health and mission of the whole congregation.
These Governing Boards maintain accountability for the effectiveness of the operations and program of the congregation, but have delegated both authority and responsibility for the operations and the program of the congregation to the committees and teams of the congregation. Board members serve as official communications representatives on these committees and teams of the congregation, while not serving as the chair or leader in these operational or program areas. The Board serves primarily as a coordination and de-confliction body, as well as the “court of appeal” for conflicts between congregational committees and teams. The Board does not usually intervene in disagreements that congregation members have with a specific committee or team. Often, Liaison Boards develop from Portfolio Boards, but not always. Liaison Boards also shift some of their time and attention towards discerning congregational identity, culture, vision, and mission, in order to further their role of coordinating the activities of committees and teams within the congregation.
These Governing Boards maintain accountability for the effectiveness of the operations and program of the congregation, but have delegated both authority and responsibility for the operations and program of the congregation to another entity. Sometimes this delegation is to a Religious Professional or Staff member, sometimes this delegation is to another lay-leadership structure. Often it is to a combination of these two. Strategic Boards develop structures for the operational and programmatic authority (such as an executive team, program council, or congregational executive) to be accountable to the Strategic Board. Unless an action by the operational and programmatic authority is deemed to be fiduciarily unsound, counter to the congregation’s vision and mission, or outside of policy and other guidance given by the Strategic Board, the board does not intervene or overrule decisions made by the operational and programmatic authority. Strategic Boards focus their time and attention on discerning the congregation’s identity, culture, mission and vision. They develop good policy guidance for the congregation, and insure that the assets of the congregation are protected and utilized to achieve the vision and mission. Strategic Boards regularly assess how well the congregation is achieving the mission and vision, and with the operational and programmatic authority create goals and plans for achieving that mission and vision.
These Governing Boards maintain accountability for the effectiveness of the operations and program of the congregation, but have delegated both authority and responsibility for the operations and program of the congregation to an Executive that is clearly defined by Governing Policies. Policy Boards create a formal relationship between the Executive and the Governing Board, and define clear roles and responsibilities for each. There are several models for Policy Boards in Unitarian Universalist congregations. The two most common are Carver Policy Governance and Governance and Ministry as created by Rev. Dan Hotchkiss. All of these systems have in common the expectation that the relationship between the operational and programmatic authority (Executive) and the Governing Board is clearly defined by Governing Policy approved by the Governing Board. How these policies are formed vary depending on the congregation and the model they are using. Each operates within the principle that the Executive is accountable to the Governing Board within a set of expectations set in policy, and the Executive can exercise authority and responsibility over congregational operations to achieve the congregation’s goals (ends), vision, and mission within the limitations and expectations of Governing Policy.
Different Styles for Different Congregations
All of these styles of how congregations make decisions together seek to bring order out of the sometimes chaos that is living religiously in community. What style of congregational governance is appropriate for a congregation at a particular time is determined by the congregation’s goals, history, culture, and community. Congregational size also plays an important role, in that the larger a congregation grows, the more pressing its need to have a body focusing on discerning the congregation’s identity, culture, vision, and mission. I have seen all of these styles of congregational boards function both well and with health in congregations, just as I have seen all of them function poorly.
The question I ask congregations is how well their particular “style” of Governing Board is serving the congregation and its mission. How well does it function, and in what ways does the style of a congregation’s governing board become an obstacle? Answer that question can help a congregation to discern what is the best way to make decisions together.