Here is an article I wrote in response to people's questions about Policy Governance:
So You Want To Adapt Policy Governance®
Ken Brown March 17, 2005
Many Unitarian Universalist Congregations and Districts are seriously exploring their forms of governance and how it impacts their ministries. The issues congregational leadership want to address in the governance discussion are expressed well in these bullet points sent to me by Jan Means of the Valley UU Church in Chandler, Arizona:
· Empowering the organization
· Simplifying the organizational structure
· Shifting board emphasis to fulfilling the church’s vision
· Resulting in better defined structure, roles, and responsibilities
· Providing structure to support growing church membership
· Reducing frustration and miscommunication caused by current ambiguities in roles and responsibilities
In seeking to address these issues the Chandler congregation decided to move toward a policy form of governance.
As more congregations explore the possibilities of adapting Policy Governance® as their mode of governance a number of issues have come to the forefront. First is the recognition that each congregation is adapting this form of governance not adopting it. In our Unitarian Universalist tradition we do not fully accept another person’s understanding of anything without running it through our own experience, so it is with governance in our congregations. Each of our congregations develops its own style and fit for this form of governance. We also need to recognize that Policy Governance® is a registered trademark by John Carver who trains people to lead workshops in this mode of governance. Thus I will discuss our congregations moving to a policy board style of governance since the adaptations being made by most congregations do not conform to one or more of Carver’s ten Policy Governance® principles..
Key to developing any governance system is having a clear shared mission for the congregation. Governance will function well only when people on the board know the mission and understand their role in implementing that mission. Further the ministers, staff, and committees can only be held accountable when it is clear that their role involves the creation of programs and ministries within the congregation that support the shared mission.
Another range of issues in moving to a form of policy board involves matters of trust and understanding. A congregation cannot succeed with this form of governance unless there is trust in the staff and the board to carry out their particular roles as delegated under the policies. This often means changing longtime relationships between the board and committees, as well as changing the whole way committees are developed. It places a level of responsibility on the Executive* that many ministers and laypeople might not be fully ready to accept. Along with this responsibility comes a clearer understanding of roles and responsibilities as well as more regular assessment than most of our congregations have undertaken in the past.
The built in processes of assessment in policy board governance involves regularly scheduled monitoring reports. I also believe that the UUA document “Assessing Our Leadership” fits well with any form of governance by policy. A policy board is charged with upholding the vision of the ministry of the congregation as articulated in Ends policy. The board has a prime role in assessment and that assessment goes beyond the regular monitoring reports. Thus I believe that incorporating the planning and assessment as suggested in “Assessing Our Leadership” helps the board fulfill its role within this form of governance.
Another primary block to successfully moving to a policy board is not having an organizational structure that supports the implementation of this form of governance. Too often boards move to develop a policy board structure without recognizing that they also need to take into account the relationships as dictated by their current organizational structure. My experience suggests that most congregations do not need to change their by-laws to adapt Policy Governance®, since most by-laws do not deal with governance issues. Where the by-laws give authority to a president or treasurer which become the Executive’s responsibility in policy style governance, the language often allows the officer to delegate this responsibility without having to change the by-laws. However, very often the organizational structure or relationships are described in by-laws and might need to be changed to create an organizational structure that supports a policy style governance. If, for example, the Vice-President is the chair of the Council in the by-laws this sets up a relationship that is not appropriate for a policy board. The by-law would need to be changed to call for a non-board member to chair the council or not to refer to the chair of the council at all. In addition to understanding the by-laws connection to a policy style governance and organizational structure the leadership moving to a policy style governance needs to carefully take into account how the current organizational structure might need to change to support policy governance.
Another area of difficulty in moving to a policy board is that very often members of our congregations have an understanding of our democratic form of governance to mean something like the New England Town Meeting where everyone gets to vote on every issue. A policy board functions as a form of representative democracy where it is clear which person or group has the responsibility for which decisions but limits the number of decisions where the whole congregation votes. This does not mean that there is not input from the congregation, a major role of the board to link with the owners, in other words, the congregation, as they develop policy to fulfill the ministry. It must also be clear that delegated responsibility is directed toward fulfilling Ends and will be assessed.
An additional aspect of change that needs to happen in the move to a policy board is recognizing differing gifts of members and working with nominating committees to help develop the leadership needed in differing roles. People on the congregation’s board in a policy style need to be folks who clearly enjoy the role of upholding the broader vision and doing the assessment in line with that vision. Thus a person who may enjoy the program work on a committee that is responsible for carrying out an area of the ministry may not be the optimal candidate for the board. Our political understanding of serving on the board as the ultimate role in one’s volunteer efforts in a congregation needs to be changed to help people understand that folk’s have differing gifts and that all roles in a congregation’s ministry are important for what they contribute to the mission.
One other area that congregational leadership needs to take seriously in moving to policy board is providing of ongoing training of new board members. I constantly get requests from new board members or board presidents to offer help in understanding their roles. I believe that Districts can be helpful in this area, particularly in doing such training in clusters. Yet, I also believe that congregational leadership needs to develop ways in which they ensure that new board members, and for that matter anyone in a leadership position, understand their roles within a policy style governance. This form of governance is different from what most of our members have experienced in the past and they need help in order to fulfill their responsibility.
For me one of the exciting aspects of a policy style governance is that it supports the direction many of our congregations have moved in trying to develop a shared ministry. Shared ministry at its best recognizes the varied gifts of professional ministry, staff, and lay people. It offers each congregation the opportunity to develop a system that allows for the fulfillment of people’s gifts. For a congregation to truly use the gifts of all their members there needs to be a clear shared mission. Thus each person knows how she or he is contributing to that mission when asked to participate in any aspect of the ministry. There also needs to be authority given to the board by the congregation to do the assessment of the whole ministry of the congregation, not just the minister(s), within the context of the established policies.
The bottom line in my experience is that the great majority of people in a congregation do not care about the form of governance. Members of a congregation want to be sure that the ministry of the congregation speaks to their needs and is providing what they want on their religious journey and care less about how it is accomplished. There will always be a vocal handful who will object to moving in the direction of a policy board, but my experience suggests that the clarity of roles and responsibilities in taking governance seriously only enhances the ministry for the great majority of people in a congregation. It also frees the staff to use their skills and passion in support of the congregational mission. The discussion of governance within our congregations is vital to the future of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I believe to flourish and grow into the future we need congregational systems that support creative and transformational ministry. Our struggle with how to adapt Policy Governance® is a crucial part of that future.
* I use the term Executive in this essay recognizing that in adapting policy governance each congregation has their own configuration, for some the Executive is the minister but in many it involves some type of Executive Team that includes differing configurations of staff and lay leadership.