Yes! Share the Stories. Please.

By Meck Groot

Two dark hands pass off a silver baton on a black background.

Among the things that has kept regional staff busy lately is conducting transition interviews. When a settled ministry ends, we meet with the departing minister to get their responses to a set of questions designed by the Transitions Office. We also meet with the board and ask them the same questions: What worked well? What were the biggest challenges? What did you learn? Why did the ministry end? How was conflict dealt with? What cultural shifts happened in the congregation during this time? What are your hopes for the future of the congregation’s ministry? and more.

In the transition interview, regional staff members bear witness to the experience of those who steward the well-being of the congregation from their unique vantage point as congregational leaders and as minister. There is no intention or need to "speak with one voice" since there is no expectation that everyone experiences a ministry in the same way. While it can be a challenge to capture everything that's said, it is an honor to be entrusted with people's truths.

A final version of the minister's interview is shared with the board and vice versa. Copies of each are kept on file with the Transitions Office and the Regional Office. We send copies to ministers newly hired or settled by the congregation so they have a sense of the ministry that preceded the one they are beginning.

While I was conducting such an interview with a governing board recently, they asked me if they could share their interview with the incoming board. There would be significant turnover and this board wanted the incoming board to know some of what they had gone through as a leadership team during a very difficult year. It was not a usual request and I wasn't sure how to answer. I was suddenly anxious that too many people in the congregation would know "the secrets" and a new round of whispers, hearsay and argument would begin. I found myself wondering if the statements made in a board's transition interview are meant to be available only to UUA staff and incoming ministers.

So I checked in with colleagues. Joe Sullivan's response was eloquent:

"The incoming board becomes part of a continuous leadership body with overall fiduciary responsibility that is ongoing even as its membership changes. Board documents and information generated anytime, whether confidential or not, are board documents and information for all time."

Joe's words reminded me of something Unitarian Universalists don't seem to take seriously much of the time: elected leadership is a sacred trust. The individuals that assume official roles in the congregation are not there to promote personal agendas and preferences or to gratify ego needs. They are there to tend Unitarian Universalist tradition as lived out in the life of their congregation. It is on them to ensure work is done to acknowledge past harms, to repair broken relationships, and to carry the gifts of Unitarian Universalism forward into an unfolding future.

So, the answer I wish I had had at the ready when I was asked by the board if they could share their interview with the new board is "Yes! Yes! Please!" In fact, don't just share the interview. Don't just orient the incoming board to where to find board documents, policy manuals, personnel records, etc. Don't just pass along systems and processes that are in place for agenda-setting, discernment, and decision-making. Share stories. Talk about your experiences — not only of what happened, but more importantly, how those experiences made you feel, and what you learned about yourself and the congregation.

Don't bury the experience just because everyone's story is not the same. Your stories don't have to agree with each other. Stories rarely do — especially when they are about difficult experiences. Just as siblings have different accounts about growing up in the same family, so leaders have different accounts about their time on the board. The incoming board is inheriting the legacy of whatever happened in the past — however recent or distant, however harmonious or conflicted, however wholesome or painful. They will need help understanding that legacy. It is important that current board members have access to former leaders as needed for support — whether that happens during a ministerial transition or not.

The ministry of congregational governance invites leaders to navigate between their power and their powerlessness. We are all powerless over past events as they unfolded. We cannot change those events. However, we have the power to practice tending our tradition by remembering, narrating, listening to varying accounts, reflecting on what we hear and exploring together what that means about who we are or want to become.

About the Author

Meck Groot

Meck Groot’s lifework has largely been at the intersection of faith and social justice. She has delivered her gifts in administration, teaching, consulting and facilitation as a UUA employee on district and regional staff in New England. Her passion has been to inspire and support vital,...

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