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Five Strategic Tasks of a Governing Board

By David Pyle

Board members around a table

A typical board meeting.

After a congregational governing board has begun to transition the operations and management of a congregation out of the governing board and towards the congregational staff or a lay and staff leadership team, I will regularly receive the same question from congregational presidents and board members: “So, now what does the Board do?” It is an understandable question, in that for many congregations beginning the transition from an Operational to a more Strategic Board, they have very little experience beyond the many decisions that it takes to manage and operate a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Operational decision making in a congregation is almost always time critical, and has often fulfilled all of the time and energy that a congregational governing board had available.

So when those operational and management decisions begin to be made by a staff executive (as in the Governance by Policy models) or a joint lay/staff team (as in other models of strategic congregational governance), it is only natural that the governing board finds itself in a bit of an identity crisis. All of the issues and decisions that once filled the governing board’s agendas and dragged board meetings into the wee hours of the night are being decided by someone else. These governing boards find themselves reviewing a few reports, asking a few questions, and generally wondering what more they should be doing.

While that might sound wonderful to someone who is currently on an overworked and underappreciated operational-style congregational governing board, in reality it is a very frustrating experience for these governing boards. More than one congregational governance transition has fallen apart because the governing board, after delegating operational authority, decided to take that delegated authority back for a lack of understanding any other work for them to do.

Strategically-focused governing boards, once freed of the challenge of direct operational decision making, have the time and energy to begin addressing what I call the “Five Strategic Tasks” of every governing board. Operationally-focused governing boards also have responsibility for these Five Strategic Tasks, but rarely have the time and energy to address them with any depth or consistency. For the strategically-focused governing board, these five tasks become the center of all of their responsibilities.

  1. Congregational Mission-Vision Discernment
  2. Fiduciary Responsibility and Oversight
  3. Policy Development and Promulgation
  4. Congregational Assessment
  5. Strategic and Long-Range Planning

When a congregation makes the transition from an operationally-focused governing board to a strategically-focused governing board, the success of the transition depends on the governing board shifting its understanding of its self and its place in the congregation. This shift in the governing board’s identity and culture is the most likely place for governance transitions of this type to fail. For a congregational board to successfully transition into a strategically-focused governing board, the board must intentionally shift its identity and culture. A focus on the Five Strategic Tasks is one way for a governing board to make this transition.

Let us explore each of the Strategic Tasks.

Congregational Identity-Culture-Vision-Mission Discernment

Every Unitarian Universalist Congregation has an Identity (who the congregation is in that moment and circumstance), a Culture (what assumptions and patterns congregations have to accept to feel comfortable in the congregation), a Vision (what is the world we want to create) and a Mission (what parts of creating that world are we willing and able to work on right now). These always exist in every congregation, whether they are clearly expressed or not. A strategically-focused governing board takes on the responsibility of exploring who the congregation is and what it is called to as an ongoing responsibility of their religious leadership.

This is the most vital work of a strategically-focused governing board. This is not the work of a task force, and it is not about creating statements. It is about developing, testing, and adapting a living understanding of the nature and the purpose of the congregation. Strategically-focused governing boards allocate significant portions of every meeting to conversation amongst the board members (through tools such as Powerful Questions and other techniques) exploring who the congregation is? What are the assumptions shared by congregants? What does the changing nature of our community and world require of us? What opportunities are there were our congregation can make a difference in people’s lives?

Governing board members tell me that, once a board has learned to do this kind of discernment, it is the most fun and religiously fulfilling part of their board service. When done well, living this task feels like being a part of a “covenant group on the future of the congregation” as one board member described it to me. Being a part of these kinds of discerning conversations forms the foundational understanding that governing board members need to live all of the other Strategic Tasks.

Fiduciary Responsibility and Oversight

Congregational governing boards are “fiduciaries”, which means that they are entrusted with overseeing the health of the congregation as an institution, and ensuring that the congregations assets and resources are utilized towards achieving the congregations Vision, Mission, Goals, and Ends. As fiduciaries, congregational governing boards are expected to make decisions in the interests of the institution above any personal interest they may have. In most states, the governing board is also the legal fiduciary, responsible for the institution of the congregation under applicable state law.

What this means in practice is that the governing board is responsible to ensure that all of the resources given to the congregation, both now and in the past, are utilized to live the congregation’s identity and fulfill the congregation’s vision. In practice, this often looks like reviewing financial reports, making sure the congregation has appropriate levels of insurance, and that staff and volunteers resources are protected and achieving the mission of the congregation.

To conduct appropriate fiduciary oversight, the governing board must begin from a well-developed understanding of the congregation’s identity/culture/vision/mission. It is the role of the governing board to assess how well the assets of the congregation (property, funding, volunteers and staff, congregational name and reputation, etc.) are being utilized to make real the congregation’s vision.

Reviewing financial documents, making sure the congregation has appropriate insurance, and ensuring that staff and volunteers are not being over-utilized and burned out are some of what living the Strategic Task of Fiduciary Responsibility and Oversight look like, but at the core is an assessment of how well these resources are living the congregation’s vision.

Policy Development and Promulgation

Policy is how a congregation describes what the congregation does, setting patterns and expectations to which congregational leadership can both be held accountable, but also can be guided. I have come to believe that in majority volunteer-led institutions such as congregations, having published, written, and detailed policy is even more important than it is in institutions which depend on compensated professional leadership. In majority volunteer-led institutions, leadership tends to change more rapidly, and most of the informal systems of accountability of leaders tend to be weaker than in the corporate or even the traditional non-profit sectors.

The time to develop and promulgate a policy is before you need it. There tend to be two different categories of policies that congregations need: Governing Polices and Operational Policies. Governing Policies create the structure and relationships within the congregation that are not created by the congregation’s constitution / bylaws. In consulting with congregations, I have a tendency to recommend that they create as much of their congregational structure as possible through Governing Polices, to allow the congregation to be more adaptable to changing circumstances. Governing Polices will create the relationship between the strategically-focused governing board and the staff-executive, council, or lay-staff team to whom the governing board has delegated operational responsibility. It includes policies for how the governing board will relate to one another. Governing Policies may also include charters for all committees and teams that the governing board has created within the congregation.

Operational Policies are policy directions that apply to the whole congregation, and detail what the congregation will do. How the congregation will handle certain circumstances or opportunities. Some examples of congregational operational policies may include a safe congregations policy, a disruptive persons policy, a fundraising and stewardship policy, a building use policy, a personnel policy, etc. In some congregational systems, the governing board may have delegated the development and promulgation of Operational Policies to the executive, lay-staff operations team, or an operations council. In other congregations, the governing board may maintain responsibility for promulgating all policy, while they may ask those who make the operational decisions to do some of the development and drafting of Operational Policies.

Whether the strategically-focused governing board drafts and promulgates a policy or not, they maintain a fiduciary oversight responsibility to make sure that all policy within the congregation is consistent with other policy, protects and utilizes the resources of the congregation towards the vision, and is in keeping with the Identity, Culture, Vision, and Mission of the congregation. Ensuring the congregation has necessary and appropriate policy support is one of the more important and involved Strategic Tasks.

Congregational Assessment

For a strategically-focused congregational governing board to understand how the congregation living into the congregation’s vision and fulfilling its mission, it needs to study the congregation itself. Board members have their own individual experiences of being congregants, and they may hear anecdotally about how others are experiencing the congregation during coffee hour on Sunday morning. They may also receive reports from the staff, operations council, or the lay-staff executive team that provide a lens into how the congregation is functioning and achieving its goals and ends.

And the strategically focused governing board needs to be more pro-active than this kind of passive listening. The Strategic Task of Congregational Assessment calls upon the board to make an intentional and ongoing “study” of the congregation, either on its own or with the support of a Board Standing Committee for Congregational Assessment. Even in strong Policy Governance systems, the governing board has the responsibility to assess for itself the functioning of the congregation, and the Executive is responsible for supporting the governing board in this task. Outside of Policy Governance, it is rare that anyone in the congregation besides the governing board has the necessary view of the congregation to assess how well programs and operations are living the vision of the congregation, and fulfilling the congregation’s mission.

When I coach congregational governing boards into living the Strategic Task of Congregational Assessment, I encourage governing boards to choose two areas of congregational life each year that the governing board wishes to learn more about, often one area in the congregation’s programming, and another area more in congregational management and operations. Perhaps it might be to look closely at why the congregation’s effort at campus ministry ten years before was unsuccessful, and to see if the circumstances have changed since then that might make this the right time. Or perhaps another area of exploration could be a look at how the building’s long-term needs are being managed, and whether enough money is being put into a long-term building maintenance fund.

Whether you use a system like I describe above, or a more in depth congregational assessment tool (of which the UU Minister’s Association has several available), the governing board maintains a fiduciary, policy, and vision responsibility to assess congregational programming and operations as an ongoing and regular aspect of the board’s work.

Strategic and Long-Range Planning

From the base of the strategically-focused governing board’s congregational assessment process, an understanding of the congregation’s resources, and a living sense of the congregations Identity, Culture, Mission, and Vision, the governing board is responsible for the congregation’s future. Discerning that future and planning a pathway to achieve it is the responsibility of the governing board and the congregational executive, council, or executive team together. In different congregational systems, strategic planning may be primarily a responsibility of the governing board, or it may primarily be a responsibility of the congregational executive, council, or staff-lay executive team.

If it is primarily a responsibility of the governing board, the board may delegate the development work of the strategic plan to a task force or a board standing committee, or the governing board may choose to develop a strategic plan themselves. I will often now coach congregational boards on using a three-year rolling strategic plan model, where each year the governing board assesses the previous year, develops the next two years, and adds the outlines of a third year to a rolling strategic plan.

But whoever develops the strategic plan, the governing board maintains two additional duties that make the strategic and long range planning a key Strategic Task. It is the responsibility of the governing board to ensure that all strategic and long-range planning of the congregation, including that done by the executive, as well as by committees and teams, is leading towards the congregation’s vision and mission. It is also a key governing board responsibility to ensure that all strategic and long-range planning is conducted in accordance with policy, and is a sound use of the congregation’s time, talent, and treasure. Doing so is a part of the governing board’s fiduciary responsibility.

There is one more important aspect of the governing board’s responsibility for the Strategic Task of Strategic Planning, and that is making sure that the strategic and long-range planning of the congregation remains a part of the governing boards discernment and assessment processes. It is the role of the governing board to ensure that the strategic and long-range planning of the congregation is a living, breathing plan that adapts and changes as the circumstances change.

When I lead workshops on the Five Strategic Tasks for congregational leaders, I have seen an experience happen for attendees. They arrive having begun the transition away from being an operationally-focused board, and are wondering what they will do with the time that they “save” by having all of the management decisions made by someone else. They leave the workshop a little overwhelmed by all the things that they “should” be doing as a strategically-focused board. What I tell them in the parking lot after the workshop is that it is okay if you do not live into all of these at once. Begin with the deepening the understanding of the governing board of the congregation’s Identity, Culture, Mission and Vision. Then live more fully the governing board’s fiduciary responsibility, and being putting some appropriate policy structure in place. Get some help beginning to do some good congregational assessment and some strategic planning from other lay-leaders in the congregation.

The key is to being the transition, and realize what is changing is the culture and assumptions around what it means to be a congregational governing board. That transition may take years to live into fully, but when you become a fully functioning strategically-focused governing board, you become the visionary religious leaders that your congregation and community have long needed to remake the world into the congregation’s vision.

About the Author

David Pyle

The Rev. David Pyle is the Regional Lead and a Congregational Life Consultant with the MidAmerica Regional Staff. Rev. Pyle holds a Masters of Divinity from the Meadville Lombard Theological School and a Bachelors of Arts in History and Political Science from East Tennessee State University. He...

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