Governance Concerns for Family Size Congregations

small church circle

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.

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. 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. 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 In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations [Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1998]).


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 informal systems are dominant. This 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.

  • In family size congregations, there is a strong sense of the authority being collectively held by the members of the congregation, with parts delegated to the board. Systems are informal, with individuals often taking charge of specific areas with out formal authority.

Institutional Focus

Institutional focus changes with size types. They tend to provide 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 its governance needs.

  • The family size congregation is focused on maintaining community, with energy going toward keeping things running as smoothly as possible and avoiding destructive conflict.
  • The shadow side of having informal systems is that individuals can take control of a committee or ministry, and not make space for new ideas, volunteers, or energy.

Opportunities for Ongoing Development

Development, for a board, means being engaged in systematic learning about its roles and necessary skills. The board's development needs should be an intentional focus of board energy. Failure to provide ongoing development impedes the growth and overall quality of leadership. Encouragement to spiritual growth is a core Unitarian Universalist value.

Unfortunately, some boards neglect their own learning, even though there are many online and nearby, in-person opportunities that feature topics that are at the root of much congregational anxiety and concern. Board retreats, when held, are too often planning sessions that do not include exposure to topics relevant to the work. The agendas of board or committee meetings should include the sharing of research, readings, or successes from other congregations.

  • Family size congregations often need extra assistance in hiring staff, in general church organization, in tightening up policies and procedures, and in new member welcome and integration.


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 or 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, password-protected webpages and cloud storage 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.

  • Family size congregations sometimes struggle with keeping copies of minutes and sometimes even the latest revision of the bylaws!
  • If a family size congregation has a mission or other guiding statement, it's important to keep it at the center when the leadership makes decisions.

Initiative and Action

Initiative must start somewhere. The locus of this initiative is the key to understanding how to produce action in the congregation. In family size congregations, initiatives often start with the board.

As they add a minister and grow into a pastoral size, the minister and board lead together and focus on the whole. When the board agrees on a needed action, they often will check in with the whole congregation. As a congregation grows into pastoral size, more decision-making happens 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.

Culture of Communication

No matter how well you communicate, there is always someone who will say, "nobody told me about...." Nevertheless, it's important to be intentional about communication, and to understand the needs and culture of your congregation when considering modes of communication.

Use multiple methods—never less than three—to communicate information:

  • Inserts in the Order of Service
  • Weekly emails with upcoming events
  • Monthly newsletters
  • Notices on Social Media
  • Announcements on Sunday Morning (only for the most important information)
  • Mailings
  • Graphics/photos/charts
  • Video (e.g., flat-screen TVs in gathering spaces)
  • Texting services

During times of change or transition--when anxiety can be higher than normal--it's important to "over-communicate," i.e., to communicate in as many different modes and times as possible.

Feedback Loops

How does a congregation evaluate itself, and by what standards? This question is at the heart of both governance and ministry. Whether the evaluation is about the viability of our ministry programs or the relevance of our policies, 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.

Feedback loops, such as 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. Whatever the means, some systematic review of governance is appropriate to all sizes of congregations and fosters a learning attitude in congregational life.

About the Author

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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