Balancing transparency and confidentiality can be challenging for congregational board members, staff, and other leaders who have access to sensitive information. Healthy, vibrant systems need as much open communication as possible. White Supremacy Culture sometimes uses "the need for confidentiality" to reinforce its power and in turn the oppression of marginalized groups. This resource—though not legal advice—can guide you in being as transparent as possible and help your congregation default toward healthy disclosure. You may also have provisions in your bylaws or policies that spell out how you handle confidentiality, and those would take precedence over the information in this document.
Ideally, board meetings are open to members of the congregation. Often committees of the board might make a recommendation or give a report. There may be a decision or situation of interest to other members. Or members may just want to observe how the board makes decisions.
In the case where individuals want to speak to a specific issue under consideration, it should be done covenantally, especially so that individuals don't attempt to coerce or manipulate the members of the board. It is recommended to have only board members sit at the table, and non-board members sit apart. That way there is no confusion about roles, and non-board members can be invited to speak either before or after the board members have shared their thinking. Some boards include a time for visitor comments at the beginning of every meeting, for a specified amount of time (10-15 minutes).
The board needs to protect its integrity as the board: They are the duly-elected fiduciary agents of the congregation and hold both the responsibility and accountability for the congregation and its mission and vision. Therefore, you want to guard against any blurring of roles during the meeting.
Sometimes, when there is an especially difficult issue under consideration, or an issue where there is strong disagreement within the congregation, it may be disruptive for the board to have an audience as it struggles with the issue at hand. This is particularly true of personnel issues which should always be dealt with in executive session. There may be an issue with a disruptive behavior in the congregation. The board may be negotiating a contract or buying real estate. These are times when a board may need to go into an executive session.
To go into an executive session a motion needs to be made and seconded. With a majority affirmative vote of the board, the executive session begins. The board can exclude anyone from the room except a board member, whether they are elected or in an ex officio role. At the same time, all board members have the right to be in the room, even if the concern is about them. All conversations in an executive session are strictly confidential. A document prepared by the board for public release about what was decided (if needed) in Executive Session is all that any board member is allowed to disclose. In cases of sensitive issues, such as personnel matters, it could simply say something like “The Board approves the plan concerning XX as presented by the (minister, personnel committee, etc.).
The board can invite anyone into the Executive Session (including staff or consultants) but no one other than members of the board are entitled to be in an Executive Session.
Meeting minutes should be made readily available to members. They should not include details of deliberation, but only the motion, who moved and seconded it, and the results of the vote. Occasionally, if there is a strong dissenting opinion, that may also be recorded in the minutes.
Budgets and financial reports should be made readily available to members. This includes staff's salary and benefits. The exception to this is the Minister's Discretionary Fund, the account that is used to help out congregants in need.
Secrecy around money tends to suppress generosity rather that encourage it. The board whose members are forthcoming about their giving and pledge generously set a tone for the rest of the congregation. The balance between being forthright and privacy about financial matters can be accomplished by talking in terms of percentage giving, rather than absolute dollar amounts.
Congregations that give access to pledging data to the minister and Stewardship team enable them to have authentic, faithful conversations when asking members and friends to support the congregation. Clearly, this information should not be made available to other members.
There are times when a congregational board or other committee needs to keep confidentiality. This is done both for individuals’ privacy, and also to reduce needless conflict in the congregation
Search Committees should not share the names or other information about potential candidates. This protects the ministers or other staff who are not chosen, and keeps the congregation from needlessly dividing between potential candidates.
Staff Evaluations should not be shared beyond the supervisor. These are personnel issues, and never should be discussed with the wider community. The results of evaluations may be shared with members of the congregation’s personnel committee.
Staff Performance Improvement Plans should only be shared with those who are part of the plan, and/or with the personnel committee as is appropriate. In case where failure to achieve the goals of an improvement plan leads to termination, it may be necessary to share relevant information with the congregation’s board
Due to safety or legal concerns, you may need to share information with congregational leaders or the congregation as a whole. Following are some general guidelines for congregational boards. More detailed information can be found among the UUA’s Safe Congregations resources.
If your board actually has one of these situations, we recommend that you also seek outside guidance, such as your insurance company, lawyer and your UUA field staff.
Healthy Disclosure to Key Leaders
Some of the decisions and documents should be shared with key leaders. In each case careful consideration of who needs the information and who does not is important. The subject of the documents should know who has this information.
Limited Access Agreements: Registered sex offenders or other people with criminal histories may work out limited access agreements to safeguard them and the congregation’s members. These should be shared with staff and key lay leaders who are empowered to ask the member to leave the premises if needed. For more detailed guidance, see Balancing Acts: Keeping Children Safe in Congregations.
Individual Behavioral Covenants: Some individuals with histories of disruptive behavior due to substance abuse, mental health, or other issues may work out individual Behavioral Covenants in order to participate in church life. These should be shared with staff and key lay leaders who are empowered to ask the member to leave the premises if needed.
Healthy Disclosure to the Congregation
There are decisions and events of major importance in the life of the congregation which should be communicated to the congregation and yet care must be taken in how the information is communicated and how much information is communicated. It is recommended to consult with a lawyer in any instance where your communication may open you up to libel or employment related lawsuits. If the disclosure involves abuse of an individual within the congregation great care must be taken to ensure that any details shared do not further harm or traumatize victims. In addition UUA staff is available to consult on wording as such communication has a high likelihood of becoming public
In situations where you cannot communicate details, you can communicate about policies and procedures and assure the congregation these policies and procedures were followed. For instance, the congregation may not need to know the performance details resulting in a termination, but they should know there is a fair employee evaluation, feedback, and improvement plan process in place.
Further, where you are limited by how much you can say in writing, it can be helpful to have a congregational meeting to allow people to share feelings and to answer questions. The extent of the details you can provide will still be limited, but this means of communicating and chance for members to feel heard can increase the trust of the congregation in the leadership.
Staff Termination: If a staff member is terminated for performance issues after an unsuccessful improvement plan, the communication should be short, kind and without any details about the performance issues. The minister and board must protect the congregation from any claims arising out of inappropriate disclosure of these matters.
Staff or Congregant Termination for Cause: If a staff member or congregant has broken a law and been arrested, the details can be communicated if the details are in the public record. If the staff member or congregant has harmed another person or a child, the communication should name the harm and how the leaders are keeping the community safe, such as sharing safe congregations plans and actions. If the staff member has violated their ethical guidelines but not the law, the details of the ethics violation shouldn't be shared, but you should share that you know of no laws being broken or people or children harmed.
Disruptive Behavior Policy: When a member or friend of the congregation is asked to leave the congregation because of an inability to follow the covenants of the congregation and/or keep other members of the community safe, it is likely a short communication to the congregation is needed, particularly if the individual still has relationships in the congregation. This communication should not include details, but should tell the congregation that a person has been asked to leave and remind the congregation of the process by which this happens.
Healthy Disclosure to Neighboring Congregations
If your congregation has taken action regarding individuals who may attend a neighboring UU congregation in the future, communication with neighboring congregations is a covenantal act. Should their congregation be directly affected, their leadership can speak confidentially to your leadership to get full information.
Danger to children or others: If a member or staff member has harmed minors and may have encountered minors from other congregations, send copies of your communication to your congregation to neighboring congregations’ Board and Minister(s) as well as any other groups that might be at risk. For more detailed guidance, see Balancing Acts: Keeping Children Safe in Congregations.
Disruptive Behavior Policy: If a member or friend has been asked to leave your congregation for reasons that would likely cause problems in another congregation, consider sending a letter to the Board and Ministers of neighboring congregations simply naming the person, that they were asked to leave, and volunteering that if the individual begins attending their congregation, your leaders are available to speak to theirs.