Creating Guiding Documents: Effective Practices

mountain with path leading to the summit

Guiding documents like bylaws, covenants, mission statements, vision statements and strategic plans are developed in consultation with the congregation as a whole so that there is a general sense of trust and ownership. The documents can then serve as guides for the board, minister, staff and lay leaders in setting goals and making day-to-day decisions.

Here are some general effective practices in developing and creating such guiding documents:

1. Choose a Trustworthy Task Force

Because of the importance of these guiding documents, their creation should have the full trust of the congregation. Choosing the members of the team who develops and fosters the process is essential. Considerations include:

  • They are open to new ideas
  • They work well with others
  • They are well-respected and trusted by the congregation membership
  • They follow through on commitments
  • They know how to put individual desires aside and look at what is best for the whole
  • They should be able to work well in consensus situations and be capable of both self-assertion and compromise.
  • The team should include a balanced representation of the congregation (longevity of membership, leadership experience, and knowledge of the membership) along with a couple of people from any new demographics where you are starting to see growth.
  • The professional leadership (e.g. ministers, religious educators, and membership coordinators) may be members of the team; but a lay person should chair the team

The team should spend time (ideally a day-long offsite retreat) getting to know each other well and coming to a shared understanding of the work. A helpful "pre-work" resource is the UU Leadership Institute online course Strategic Leadership 301.

2. Take into Account the Dynamics of Change

Even though we live in an ever-changing world, we don't always understand the dynamics of change. Having your team learn together about the dynamics of change will help you in your process design. Here are some helpful mental models:

3. Assess the Level of Support

Without the support of at least three-quarters of the leadership, it is difficult to initiate anything new in congregational life. Leadership, in this sense, includes not only the elected leadership but also those who have unofficial leadership by virtue of former position, deep respect, and lasting influence in the congregation.

Of course, every congregation is different. Some congregations have a handful of people who, if they support an idea, can get it to go. In other congregations any kind of change work is next to impossible without convincing the entire congregation to be a part. It is a good idea to build as large a consensus as possible in your leadership group before proceeding.

If key individuals are boycotting the meetings or speaking against the initiative, take a step back. Is there some healthy communication work that needs to be done first? Is there a history where similar work was done poorly? Although resistance can be frustrating, it can provide clues as to where more information, support, or listening is needed.

There are several ways to engage the leadership. The overall goal is to provide opportunities for extensive open dialogue about the benefits, drawbacks, and risks of guiding document work. Provide the leadership with a summary of what the particular guiding document work is about, as well as an outline of a possible process. You may find that members of other congregations that have gone through the process might be helpful in answering questions and concerns.

You can learn about these congregations from your regional staff. Sharing these online resources with congregational leaders may also reduce anxiety. Help the leaders understand the nature of the change that you are undertaking—the adaptive work that is part of moving into a new way of doing things. The team may want to “try out” its ideas on how to involve the membership by walking the leadership through one or more of the processes that will be implemented later with the whole congregation.

Providing leaders the opportunity to express their concerns and expectations in a non-anxious, nondirective way not only helps them understand the process but also models ways to reduce the fears about the divisiveness of such conversations. By modeling good behavior and process, the leaders can see how guiding document work can energize the congregation. This goal can be best accomplished by letting go of your own expectations about the outcome. If you cannot persuade the leaders that guiding document work is a good idea, then other foundational work may be needed.

4. Design a Transparent, Intentional Process

Once the team has received the support of the leadership of the congregation, it is time to finish planning the process for the whole congregation. The feedback and questions from the leadership will give you a sense of what questions and concerns the general membership may have.

Whatever the specifics of the plan for the process, certain elements are critically important:

  • Permit enough time to engage the widest possible participation in the process. Make sure that the congregation understands what is being proposed. The greater the input, the more likely that everyone (or at least a plurality) will own the results.
  • Include a variety of opportunities for input and involvement. If possible, provide several different options for the time and day of meetings, taking into account the needs of various special groups such as senior citizens, parents of small children, single parents, youth and young adults, people who work during the day, and those who work less conventional shifts. As you go through the process, be open to adding additional ways of meeting for those groups that are not yet involved.
  • Keep extensive notes and records of what has happened throughout the process. This information can be used in future guiding document processes to improve them based on current learnings. Also, by having the records handy, people who enter the congregation’s life between guiding document processes can understand the nature, place, and role of the process in the life of the congregation.
  • Use visual and audiovisual presentations when possible. Remember that not everyone learns best by listening or by reading, and that by engaging all the ways of learning (auditory, visual, and kinesthetic), you will be able to reach a wider percentage of the membership. Any tangible objects created along the way, such as banners, should be saved, because they may become lasting symbols of the congregation’s accomplishments.
  • Plan for informal social events as part of the process. Not only does a good cup of coffee or tea entice people to come out but it also creates an atmosphere of caring and goodwill that may help during any difficult conversations that may arise throughout the process. When people’s physical and safety needs are taken care of, they are more willing to risk the difficult work of adaptive change. Pay particular attention to scheduling events.
  • Celebrate the milestones of the process. Hold special services to honor the creation of the guiding document(s), taking time to thank those who worked hard to bring the process forward.
  • View the production of the vision, mission, and covenant statements not as the end of the process but only as the first stage of moving the congregation into a new way of being. The statements should be used as resources in congregational life for new member orientations; publicity; religious education programs; and making key decisions about the time, talents, and treasures of the congregation.

The process plan must take into consideration the size of the congregation. The larger the congregation, the more different opportunities for participation must be planned. In a small congregation, it might be easy to gain over a 60 percent participation rate, but in a larger one, the participation rate may be less than one- third. Pay attention to your congregation’s culture: Do you need to have a large percentage of the congregation involved in the direct shaping of the statements, or is it sufficient to have a small group working on the statements and then presenting a draft for congregational approval? What works well in one congregation of one size may not work well in another congregation of the same size, while a process that works well in a particular large congregation may also work in a particular small congregation. Whatever process the team chooses, it should be open to modification and should provide for the eventual acceptance of the statements by the membership.

The process plan should include opportunities for individuals to participate in small groups and to hear from others involved in such groups. Questionnaires, surveys, and interviews can be used to gather information from those who are not able to be present during the process. The results of the groups and individual responses should be brought back together, and a rough draft should be created. This rough draft should be presented to the congregation informally for feedback and critique; a “final” statement then should be presented to the membership for formal adoption at a congregational meeting. This same process of small groups, draft statement, and final adoption can be followed for the guiding document statements either separately or all together. Some congregations find that a congregation-wide retreat (complete with a children’s program) is a good process for creating the guiding document work then done “at home” over a period of weeks and months. Again, the process should always be reviewed to see who is included and who is not.

Once the mission has been approved by the congregation, the next step is to develop mission objectives to make it come alive. Suggestions for how this can be accomplished are presented following this section, beginning on page 32. Finally, the team’s process plan should include a method of evaluation and review of the guiding document. The plan can also specify how the next team will be chosen when the statements are to be next reviewed.

About the Authors

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) is a Congregational Life Consultant and program manager for Leadership Development.

UUA Congregational Life Staff Group

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...

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