Board Finance Report with pie chart
Your governance should be right-sized for your congregation!
Governance and Congregational Size

All congregations must understand that the instruments of congregational polity will vary with the size of the congregation. The practices of governance must be suited to the characteristics of the individual congregation. 

In 1983, Arlin Rothauge, an Episcopal minister, found that congregations functioned differently according to size (Sizing Up a Congregation for New Ministry [New York: Seabury Press, 1983]). Until then, it had been widely assumed that any successful program was appropriate for all churches. Rothauge discovered that the reason why programs succeeded in one place and not in another was a factor of the dynamics at work in congregations. The best predictor of these dynamics was congregational size. Rothauge found four size types and documented their size ranges according to Sunday attendance: 

  • 0 - 50       Family Size
  • 50-150     Pastoral Size
  • 150-350   Program Size
  • 350-500+ Corporate Size

Further studies of congregations have led to the addition of other typologies and refinements to Rothauge’s categories, but his insights remain the preferred way of viewing congregation types.  

Researcher and consultant Alice Mann has thoroughly considered the dynamics of congregations of each size and their transitions. Her research and experience suggest that a congregation’s governance style and structure will bear the hallmarks of the size "traits" of the congregation, and that successful movement from one size type to another requires considerable congregational learning. A congregation can become dysfunctional when it attempts to keep old styles of functioning at the same time that a size change calls for other governance styles more appropriate to the new size. Mann and others remind us that congregations may hold onto practices well after they are appropriate. For example, a pastoral church that is approaching program status may still be struggling to function as a family church. Thus, congregations should perform clear-eyed analysis, perhaps involving others outside the congregation, to make sure they undertake only one transition at a time. 

Mann's research is relevant to governance. Church size will predict which methods and practices of governance are most appropriate for a given congregation. A family-size congregation may be harmed by the use of governance techniques appropriate for program-size congregations. Congregations must follow a philosophy of "right-sized" governance. They can govern effectively only if their practices are effective within the dynamics of their present size. Trying to force a pastoral-size congregation to function as if it were corporate size, for example, is a formula for volunteer burnout. Such a church has neither the staff nor the resources to support its practices and will eventually experience the failed fruit of overreaching and the loss of size-appropriate success. This lesson is important for congregations with new members who are already Unitarian Universalists and have come from different-sized congregations. The new members may have very different expectations of church because of the shift they experience from one size (their former congregation’s size) to another (their new congregation’s size). 

Congregations, then, must consider key governance issues in light of size dynamics. The following chart documents some of the common issues of governance that congregations face. It includes size-specific responses, but congregations should not regard them as prescriptive. They are typical responses to governance issues. What should become clear is that these responses differ greatly according to congregational size. A congregation may never experience more than one size category in a human lifetime, or it may move through the sizes briskly. Nevertheless, at some point, a congregation must move through the issues if its members are to continue learning and growing. Congregational life demands adaptation and continual learning if a congregation is to continue to be relevant. As Alice Mann has cautioned us in a familiar riff on an old prayer, "God grant me the humility to let go of my baggage; the courage to act on the basis of my experience; and the wisdom to know the difference" (The InBetween Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations [Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1998]). for a detailed chart, see the source document Governance for Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

Governance Issues Characterized by Congregation Size

Authority is usually the first issue. As we have seen, authority is congregational, but size influences how authority is applied. As we move from smaller to larger, the body to which the congregation delegates authority increases in complexity, and often in formality. This formality is sometimes seen as un–Unitarian Universalist, inconsistent with Unitarian Universalist principles and authentic congregational life. What is actually happening is that because about half of our congregations are family to pastoral size, informal systems are dominant. This commonality is mistaken for an organizational value, when it is actually a function of size. In a faith tradition that requires no specific theological creed for membership, we must be careful not to replace theological creedalism with organizational creedalism. 

Institutional focus changes with size types. It is easy to see the whole congregation when it spans thirty individuals in a family-size church. However, the focus of a program-size congregation should be on the programs that give it that name. Program congregations focus on rich programmatic offerings. Individuals in program-size congregations naturally should not be as concerned with the whole, lest they provide only those programs of which all members approve. A healthy, growing congregation need not fear change. It should study the heck out of it! Ample opportunities for learning are available through reading, seminars, and workshops. No congregation should be unaware of the governance needs appropriate to its size. 

Each size congregation has a focus issue. For each focus issue, there is a shadow issue. A corporate-size congregation, applying the Policy Governance—or any other governance structure—that defines desirable ends for a CEO–minister, needs to be sure the ends are appropriate to that congregation. A pastoral-size congregation, learning to accommodate the financial needs of ministry, office, some staff, and a permanent spiritual home, will learn the shadow lesson that these things come with a need for mature and generous giving. 

The process of engaging with governance issues—their discovery and exploration—is also a function of size. The relatively informal systems of a family church work because this church is inherently less complex and more personal by virtue of its size. Although the use of committees may seem a universal of congregational life, they do vary in structure and formality. Whereas some congregations simply "gather the willing," others form committees by election or by employing board selection. For these reasons, the word committee must be used carefully. Will it use Robert’s rules of consensus? Will it use modified consensus, or simply discussion? Clearly stating the rules for process up front and allowing reasonable effort to include diverse views are actions that contribute to a regard for the outcomes of governance. It is because of such clarity and care in process that large, or corporate-size, congregation governance can indeed be participatory, and the smallest congregation can be amazingly efficient and professional in its proceedings. Quality in governance transcends all sizes. 

Board Development

Development, for a board, means being engaged in systematic learning about its roles and necessary skills. In that definition, the board's development needs are an intentional focus of board energy. But all governance methods require the development of their practitioners. Failure to provide that development focus retards the growth and quality of leadership. As a group, Unitarian Universalists value learning and are very capable of enhancing their abilities through theory and application. Therefore, it is strange that boards so often neglect their own learning. Board retreats, when held, are too often planning sessions that do not include exposure to topics relevant to the work. District seminars are often lightly attended and yet feature topics that are at the root of much congregational anxiety and concern. To take ourselves seriously as religious communities is to meet the need for learning with intentional focus. The agendas of board or committee meetings frequently should include the sharing of research, readings, or successes from other congregations. Leadership should presume a willingness to learn and should apply appropriate findings to the congregation. 

The challenges of creating inspirational organizational documents, which have been discussed, must be accompanied by the internal documentation necessary to inform action. Face-to-face communication may work today, but who will know what was decided tomorrow? Documenting, by whatever method has been chosen, is a courtesy to all involved. It is virtually the only way a congregation can make sense of what was experienced and learned. It is the only practical way to connect the experience of the past with the experience of the future.

Board composition changes quickly. Preserving a record of what was done, and why, saves much rework and speculation over policy and operating decisions. These times of easy electronic communication have lessened the barriers to good documentation. More people can be advised, included, and consulted. Therefore, we have the opportunity today to live out our values by keeping one another better informed. 


Initiative must start somewhere. The locus of this initiative varies according to size type and is the key to understanding how to produce action in the congregation. In each size of congregation, a key linkage initiates the majority (though certainly not all) of congregational action.  

In pastoral congregations, the minister and board lead together and focus on the whole—a change from the leader-to-member style of family-size congregations. When the board and minister of a pastoral-size congregation agree on a needed action, they generally communicate their findings to the whole congregation. This method accounts for an amazing amount of decision making at board meetings, which may feel "undemocratic" to a congregation used to participatory governance. However, this style of governance is quite natural and is a normal adaptation to the realities of size and the addition of professional ministry. It points to the need for those in the key to action relationship to make that process transparent, advising of the issues in play, soliciting input, and reporting outcomes. 

Each size of congregation has key relationships spurring action, and congregations of each size must consider how to avoid "not bringing the congregation along," a common error when new learning and intense transitions are under way. Consistent communication can help in this challenge, but communication methods also vary with size. For example, program-size congregations generally experience fast growth in communication methods. Weekly bulletins expand the reach beyond announcements. Email lists and increasingly sophisticated Web sites keep congregants in touch with even last-minute changes in events. No pastoral-size church has quite the same need, because of the simpler nature of the programs. No corporate-size congregation could get along without such devices of communication. 

Whatever the congregation size, important communication principles apply. Use multiple methods—never less than three—to communicate information; methods may be visual, oral, via mail, or electronic. The governing board should supply pictures, stories, graphics, and statistics to explain its perspectives (especially at canvass time!). Redundancy in communication sends the signal that governing groups want to inform and encourage participation. 

The relative formality and norms of size types—or organization style—have been explored by researchers, but our leaders must study them. Members new to Unitarian Universalism, or those coming to congregations of sizes unfamiliar to them, will require orientation to both the potential strengths and potential weaknesses of size types. If we clearly see the benefits of each size, we can better understand the challenges. 

Differences in governance are never wholly good or bad; they are only appropriate and functional or inappropriate and less functional.


How does a congregation evaluate itself, and by what standards? This question is at the heart of governance. Whether the evaluation is about the viability of our programs or the relevance of our policy, it is always a question about whether our means have served our congregation appropriately for its size. Most congregants, when asked if their governance method is working well, can answer in a flash. They know the answer without needing much reflection. Therefore, the standards question is usually simple and intuitively known—and well worth the time taken to ask.  

Evaluations, however, require something more. They require methods to define who will be involved, what will be evaluated, and how the evaluations will be documented and conveyed. In family-size congregations, a member or committee chair may take it upon himself or herself to make a report to the board. In a corporate-size church, skilled professionals may lead such evaluations using the latest techniques. Whatever the means, some systematic review of governance is appropriate to all sizes of congregations and fosters a learning attitude in congregational life.  


Coordination of the governing functions of any size of congregation must then be adapted to the workings of the group. A family-size congregation will naturally have a board that carries out the church’s work—a board of "doers" as likely to perform a task as to consider its need. A policy board would make a grave error in jumping in to perform a task delegated to the minister-CEO and foul the working relationship between itself and the minister. The character of the organization will define what actions of governance are appropriate. A congregation and its governing board must be aware that coordination must match the organization now, not the organization of a decade ago. That attitude will allow wisdom to be gained and chaos to be avoided. As in most things, seeing reality clearly is the essential organizational strength, and this is especially true in the work of governance.  

From the 2005 publication Governance for Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

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...

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