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Characteristics of Decentralized Governance

Practical Decision Making

How a congregation makes decisions should reflect all the characteristics of a free church. Respectful participation, democratic values, and reference to common principles and mission should be common in our practices and most clearly evident in congregational meetings. A congregation generally has only a few of these meetings in a year. In particular, holding the annual meeting is a customary practice that powerfully "commissions" leadership to direct the undertakings of the congregation. 

Usually, the election of both board members and officers, as well as the approval of budgets, is a part of the annual meeting. In selecting who will represent the congregation and the means by which it will operate, the congregation exercises its authority in support of a plan (explicit or not) for the near future. Deliberations at the annual meeting should follow the principle of seeking the common good The meeting should also provide clear authority to the elected leaders to carry out the will of the congregation between congregational meetings. The annual meeting should be a mandate of care and is best embodied by an informed "followership" that respects its leaders. 

The congregation should take care to include minority voices in considering important issues. Often these sources contain wisdom that the group has not previously considered. However, it is human nature to focus upon the familiar and the near at hand. This focus may lead us to ignore perspectives and wisdom from different cultures, classes, sexual identities, or racial identities. It is a healthy practice to appoint a process observer to any decision-making body. This observer can point out habits that disempower minorities, the young, the old, newcomers, or individuals who are culturally different from the majority of members. A process observer can reflect upon what is happening constructively to ensure that the meeting process includes and fully considers all participants. 

In any decision-making process, emotions can harm or ennoble. Participants can lift up and redeem a discussion or embitter it with judgment and disrespect. It is up to the congregation to establish a culture in which healthy practices are the norm in decision making. Sometimes this is best accomplished by the establishment of a Covenant of Right Relations or some other document stating the congregation's intention to adhere to respectful and caring processes through specific means and principles of action. 

Respectful opinions should be respectfully heard. Still, no one or two persons should halt actions that have broad support. All decision making is imperfect. All decisions are imperfect. Each member should search his or her heart and mind to discern the truly important from the personal preference and should take care to listen with openness and to "speak truth with love." Above all, as participants in any decision-making endeavor, we should all mentally try on the phrase "I can live with that." Doing so may enable us to discover that even difficult outcomes need not define or undermine our commitment to our congregation. 

Once decisions are made, congregations should make a serious effort to live them out. Let them be tried with dullest support and evaluated in fullest fairness. Leaders should consider evidence, focus on the positive, improve upon what works, and let go any attachment to what does not prove effective. Honest evaluation, then, serves as grist for the learning mill. Communicating to the congregation what works and what does not work gives leaders an opportunity inform the congregation of meaningful findings so that future decision making is enhanced.  

Characteristics of Decentralized Governance

  1. Be Guided by Mission The mission of a congregation is its reason for existing.
    The mission matters more than form, historical precedent, or personal preference. Try to see things through the lens of the mission, and if in doubt, ask, "How do you see this relating to our mission?" before assuming something does not.
  2. Push Decisions toward Practice
    Whenever practical, encourage individuals undertaking projects to make decisions regarding those projects. Leaders feel much happier with their service when they can take into account the context in which the decisions will be applied. Encourage everyone to use the mission as a guide and to take initiative.
  3. Encourage Conversations on Learnings
    Create an atmosphere in which people value learning highly. Disappointments are signs of stretching and growing in a congregation. New undertakings will require experiments and even failure. If we only do what we know we will always succeed in doing, we are not trying enough new things! Be a learning organization.
  4. Create Roles Limited Only by Necessary Coordination
    Tell committee chairs and staff that they are free to pursue their piece of the mission and to yield that freedom only when coordination is required. Make coordination easy by having mailing lists and calendar management in one place that is accessible by all leaders.
  5. Feed the Loop
    Nothing will stop effective decentralization faster than a failure to communicate. Decentralized decision making without a feedback loop is really unaccountable autonomy. When people make decisions or undertake actions without communication of the process and results, it keeps everyone in the dark. Everyone is disempowered. Even wild successes need communication to be understood and valued. Adding even ten minutes of reflection time for participants at the end of an event or project, and then having participants report on their discoveries, generates increased learning for the whole congregation.

From Governance for Unitarian Universalist Congregation New Congregation and Growth Resources Unitarian Universalist Association 2005

About the Author

  • The regional Congregational Life staff are congregations' local connection to the UUA. All of the program Congregational Life staff have expertise in most aspects of congregational life and each also has a few program areas of expertise. See the UUA Congregational Life Staff...

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.

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