Liberating Governance for Our Times

By Joe Sullivan

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In a recent post titled Imagine New Patterns, Rev. Erica Baron invited leaders to envisage ways of doing church that are deeply enriching, fun, fulfilling; that reflect and advance core values and mission, unconstrained by long-standing habits, as if you were starting anew.

“What would we create if we were starting now? What systems and practices would support the pattern we yearn for now? How could we organize our communal life to emphasize joy, vitality, and spiritual depth? … Imagine that you could recreate your congregation’s committees and programs from scratch.”

An underappreciated gift of the pandemic has been the creativity and experimentation as we made changes that would otherwise not have been attempted. We all discovered that when we are forced to, we actually can make dramatic effective change. Now that we know that, maybe we can also make change in other areas of congregational life. Such as… Governance!

Governance doesn’t often get the same attention or intention as other areas of congregational life, such as worship. However, governance may actually be the key to whether we live our values and impact our communities in ways that align with our values - or not.

Governance, broadly speaking, is how we make decisions together. It includes how we have chosen to organize power and how people access it. When approached with care, governance becomes systems and practices to live out our values and advance our mission.

Governance is often steeped in “the way we’ve always done it” norms. Except for the annual pleading or arm-twisting for new board members, governance is an area of congregational life commonly relegated to autopilot. Bylaws were set long ago. Committees were established; some written into the bylaws. Over the years policies were approved and then seemingly forgotten.

As it has for all of living memory the board meets monthly with its agenda of largely operational concerns. And term after term the president seems to carry the load for the entire governing board. Despite an increasing lack of volunteerism and energy to run their governance systems many congregations maintain the old patterns and practices hoping it will all somehow turn around, or not knowing how to begin creating alternatives.

Your own congregation may match this description completely, or only in part, or not at all, as every congregation is different. But many of our congregations experience similar struggles to carry the weight of our inherited structures.

Despite our commitment to creating more liberation in the world, we often forget to look at our own governance. Is it liberating? Is it helping us practice liberation and be a blessing to the world? Or are there things about our governance that undermine our values?

In June of 2022, the UUA Board asked the delegates to the General Assembly to pass a Business Resolution (PDF) to reimagine the UUA Bylaws from the ground up to create “dynamic, accountable, flexible, and responsive” structures for the UUA in this time. Delegates approved, and this work is moving forward.

Would you describe the way your congregation makes decisions as dynamic, accountable, flexible, and responsive? If so, wonderful! But many congregations have structures and practices that do not (or do not fully) match this description.

We are inspired by the work of the UUA Board. And also by the conversations we are having with many of you as you are also thinking about how to shift your practices to meet the current moment. So many of you are working on this that we think you might want partners on the journey.

Coming in January 2023: Liberating Governance for Our Times: A Community of Practice

We are creating a community of practice on liberating governance for our times. We invite you to consider your congregation’s ways of sharing power and making decisions. Are your systems dynamic, accountable, flexible, and responsive? Are we creating liberatory ways of being within our congregations as we work for liberation in the world?

We will meet every other month for 90 minutes to learn together and support each other in making the changes needed in our congregations. This program is open to all staff and lay leaders. It is especially appropriate for Board members and others in the congregation entrusted with significant decisions. We highly recommend participating as a team with others from your congregation.

Let’s learn together as we loosen stuck places, recenter our purpose and values, and learn more inclusive styles of decision making.

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About the Author

Joe Sullivan

Joe works with churches of all sizes on a range of congregational life matters with a special interest in helping congregational boards be more faith-filled, mission-focused, and accountable in their practices. Joe joined the UUA staff in 2012 as District Executive for the former Northern New...


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