At a congregational meeting in 1987, following several years of research by their board and minister, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont voted among three choices for governance. Option One was Council Governance, in which the Board restricted itself to business-type matters and core structures for ministry and staff. Option Two they called Administrative Governance — what I was taught as Committee-Led — in which each Board member liaised with one or more committees, and Board meetings were for pooling their information about these committees’ decisions — along with said business and staffing matters. Option Three was Policy Governance. I was taught long ago to call this Board Driven, and that title says it all.
Each form of governance had its own disadvantage. Council Governance — which was what they chose and still have — demands tons of lay leadership, doing tons of work. But it gives each committee a lot of power over what it wants to do. The Board is always struggling to catch up — with committee-generated funds and programs, with leadership issues within the committees, with staffing commensurate with the committees’ energy when it’s flying. And it’s hard to get committee leaders or reps to add a central meeting to their monthly calendar, when they’re already flat out for their interest area.
Administrative Governance has great communication, but again, the Board is always fighting rear-guard actions. The advantage is that they know what the rear-guard actions need to be before the committee breaks down, in either mission or personnel or interpersonal dynamics. The disadvantage is that the Board learns a ton about how committees could function better, but has no authority to share it.
Board-Driven polity, at its best, capitalizes on the learnings of a stable, well-informed Board, attracting seasoned and diverse members from throughout congregational activities. The disadvantage might be more theological than practical. UUs do not like to access God — which for many of us, is a verb and not a noun — through mediators or — even worse– delegates. So the idea that we petition a Board with our idea and then wait to see how it fits their big picture totally contradicts our definition of God. And I note that for many of us, even God is too remote and the whole idea of petitioning is complete anathema. “Just do it!” we started saying, long before the Nike commercials, the nineteen sixties, any of that. In fact, when Reverend William Emerson, father of Rev. Ralph Waldo, and himself a preacher of high reknown, preached at the ordination of the Society’s first minister, back in 1810, he called for a religion of practical significance. Not words but deeds, were his motto — although he spoke with eloquence and couched his message in strong Pauline theology.
But the problem with committee and Council governance — which is all they have ever had up here — is that it breaks down at 500 members. That’s a threshold they’ve been struggling against for more than one hundred years — not counting a few demographically-induced sloughs of despond. During this interim ministry interval, along with issues of ministry, this repeated failure lurks in the background.
It is not my place to make their decision, but as a historian and minister, I started looking to see if Council Polity had to be abandoned to get over the five hundred threshold. For weeks I listened desperately for an old memory which might say “no,” because I happen to be one of those radical congregational-empowerment UUs. I grew up in Committee Governance, and I like the way it lets each committee dream big dreams and pursue them wholeheartedly. I like a rearguard Board, because frankly, I do not like mediators. I pray directly to God, when I so desire, and when I want to talk to Jesus instead (that Christian thing), I do so. God can listen if He/She/It/They so desire.
Finally, the model came back to me. Riverside Church in New York City. 2700 members, and council governance. Yes, they have an Exec to handle the core stuff, and I presume there’s a board in there somewhere, but the leadership relates among themselves in subdivided Councils. They have a strong Senior Minister and a strong Mission, but after that, laity and staff are all unbridled to fulfill God’s mission for their particular area of interest. I don’t know much about them anymore, but I can see that their polity structure makes sense for lay empowerment.
Riverside, of course, centers around one of the most famous and powerful pulpits in our liberal religious community. This leads me to suspect that the key to successful Council Governance is not so much in the polity design as in the mission. A congregation can only do Council governance if they are pervaded and energized by the same mission and vision, from top to bottom. If even the kids get why they are there every Sabbath, and the dying can look back and name that same work and worship as an adequate reason for their proudest thoughts, words and deeds. Not every congregation, UU or otherwise, is able to say that about themselves: mission is often our mushy place. And if a congregation is still working on core message, it is possible a Board-Driven structure would be their best choice.
But the second question about Council governance — and here I step beyond my relationships in Burlington — has to do with communication and support. When you ask a lot of lay leaders, they need staff support on a highly present basis. And if they are working in a particular area of the society’s ministry, that means specialized ministers, whose tool-kits reach the pinnacle of interfaith professionalism in that area. No one or two people can know as much about teaching fourth grade religious education as about equipping a family for the journey with a newly-arrived crisis. Nor can the same person add to that same impossible toolkit a similar knowledge of what the neighbors need to keep their area just, merciful and empowering. UUs are traditionally not willing to pay for support staff — even trained and ordained — for fear it will overestimate its leadership functions. This is even more true at the council level — ministers of religious education, social justice, pastoral care — than at the pulpit level. And even many of our pulpits are underfunded, especially in times as hard as these.
As the denominational Large Church folks prepare to gather next month, I wish to be sure that each of them — of us — stands at that same moment of decision, when it arrives, as greeted the Burlington UUs in 1987. There are three kinds of governance, and each has its value in particular places and moments. Each has its challenges and strengths. That is why we have congregational polity — that each — ultimately little — group might know itself, and choose what it finds most supportive.