Governance is the system by which a congregation exercises its authority. A congregation may use any system to govern itself; it may change systems frequently or entirely ignore the systems it claims as its own, but as long as the congregation lives, it will continue to exercise authority.
Many times, people take governance choices for granted. Because of their long tradition of universal suffrage, U.S. citizens may expect that everything will be put to a vote of the membership. Liberal religious communities with an emphasis on participation may assume that all decisions should be made by consensus. Still other congregations, eager to be relieved of leadership demands, may be anxious to hand over almost all the authority to a board or minister. Often, congregations learn the full consequences of choosing a particular form of governance only later, when they appear amidst conflict.
Congregations can be surprised to discover how meaningful the issues of governance are to them. In a 1997 study of polity, the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1997, Section One: Theological Perspective, sub-section: Six Propositions for Theological Reflection, Expanding Our Concept of Governance, Paragraph 2), wrote:
The complexity arises because of questions of governance involve ontological, ethical, and political questions (i.e., questions of ultimate reality, questions of the good that ought to direct our actions, and questions of forms of government and social power). Questions of polity move us beyond practical concerns to concerns of basic outlook, beliefs, or value commitments.
The Need for Thoughtful Governance Selection
Although it may sound like dreary stuff, the choice of a good system of governance actually offers many wonderful benefits and is well worth the time and attention of all congregations. The benefits include the following:
- Providing continuity through hard times.
- Maintaining a framework insuring that all members will be represented.
- Offering stimulation for meaningful member participation.
- Creating methods for urgent action that can foster responsiveness.
- Building in methods of review to help avoid unproductive reactivity among members.
- Allowing leadership to be transferred with continuity.
- Shaping the identity of the congregation as a "reasoned body."
- Fostering community when carried out with care.
- Clarifying and justifying the authority vital to taking initiative.
- Making internal lines of authority clear and accessible to individuals outside the church community.
- Adding transparency to decision making.
- Protecting leaders by providing a basis for insuring their actions.
Governance is also a necessary investment so that the congregation is be able to do the following:
- Form a legal entity.
- Apply for not-for-profit religious status (effecting tax deductibility of pledges and other assets).
- Find insurance.
- Establish financial accounts and credit.
- Show good faith in its fiduciary (trustee) issues.
From the 2005 publication Governance for Unitarian Universalist Congregations.