It’s probably no coincidence that the service led by Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs this past Sunday began with the familiar UU hymn “The Fire of Commitment.” You see, Rob is not only the co-senior minister at Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota – he’s an expert on the church governance style known as “policy governance,” and one of the founders of Unity Consulting. Rob wasn’t just a visiting minister, here as a guest in our pulpit. He’d also spent much of the weekend educating members of our Board on the governance structures that work best at large UU churches, and how to put them into practice. And that hymn is clearly an ode to the impact of the governance style Rob had been describing.
What’s that? Governance doesn’t spring to mind when you hear “The Fire of Commitment?” Well, perhaps I should explain….
“Governance” is simply the way decisions get made in a church. There’s a strong correlation between the size of a church and the decision-making systems it most successfully employs. As churches begin to outgrow their governance, there’s a tendency to make incremental changes, adding new committees and staff in response to challenges as they arise. As programs, budgets, and staff grow, a board that seeks to manage the activities of the church begins to find that it is too busy to step back and consider the big picture.
It’s a pattern we’ve seen first-hand at Foothills. When the interim task force was preparing our application for interim ministry this spring, we invited comment from the entire congregation, and made especially sure to poll current and former members of the various committees and the Board. The lay leaders with first-hand experience doing the work of the church (and our ministers, too) all listed an updated governance structure as one of the most important issues our church needed help with. And so, we chose an interim minister with proven expertise in – among other things – helping large churches implement policy governance.
But what exactly is policy governance? If you ask Rev. Keyes, he’ll tell you that it’s a democratic process that unleashes creativity in churches. If you ask Rev. Eller-Isaacs, he’ll describe it as “a radical separation of means and ends.” It might require a slightly less pithy answer, though, to satisfy those of you still reading this far along.
In policy governance, the board and congregation work to clearly state the church’s values and mission, and decide what specific outcomes the church’s work should produce. These outcomes are the “ends” that Rob Eller-Isaacs was referring to. A board in policy governance has the task of drafting and continuously refining policies that state the impact the church seeks to have on the world, define how progress towards those goals should be measured, clarify how the organization should be structured in pursuit of those goals, and establish some limitations on the ways those goals can be pursued.
On the other side of the spectrum in Rob Eller-Isaacs’ definition, the “means” are the methods used to pursue those ends, and they are the domain of the ministers and staff of the church. The board places final responsibility for the success or failure of its goals on the “executive,” which is typically the senior minister, or sometimes a small team including, for example, the ministers and church administrator. Once the board has defined the goals the executive is responsible for achieving (and placed whatever restrictions it deems necessary upon those efforts) it allows the executive or executive team the freedom to decide on the means it will employ to succeed.
To offer a concrete example, suppose that our church had decided to eliminate homelessness in Fort Collins. That process might look something like this:
- The importance of the goal would trickle up from the congregation to the board;
- The board would draft a policy charging the executive with achieving this goal;
- The executive would be prevented by existing limitations policies from selling the church building to raise funds, from employing means inconsistent with our principles to pursue this goal, etc.
- Within those boundaries, however, the executive would be free to align its efforts with other partners in the community, and to choose which facets of homelessness might be most important in achieving the goal. We might focus our resources on addiction services, or mental health services, or rent assistance, or using the church budget to fund a shelter, etc.
- The executive would report to the board periodically on how successful our efforts have been towards the goal.
- The board may choose to refine the goal – for example, we might determine that it was naïve to expect to end homelessness entirely, but a more reasonable goal that the church should ensure that psychological, legal, financial and material assistance are available to all who face homelessness. And the process would begin again.
Clearly, this is a significant change in how our church operates, and it won’t happen overnight. Our board has begun, in small ways, to operate on a policy basis: we have delegated to Rev. Keyes the role of chief of staff, and have been working to articulate the kind of impact our church should have on our lives and the wider community. We’ve begun considering the governance policies of other large UU churches for instruction and inspiration. We’ve directed the Transition Team to work towards a covenant of right relations, and are drafting a conflict resolution policy. We’re making a real effort to listen to the congregation’s hopes and concerns, and to communicate in return how we intend to represent them.
We’re learning as we go, and a lot of work remains to be done. The transition won’t be painless. But continuing to run a large church as if it were a small church would mean settling for a community where our values don’t have much influence. Foothills is one of the bigger UU churches in the country, falling within the top 5% by membership already, and continuously attracting new members in a rapidly-growing city. Nearly all large UU churches (and the UUA itself) have implemented policy governance, or are actively working to do so, and we hear success stories from those who have made the transition all throughout the denomination. If we want to see the seven principles actively shaping life in Northern Colorado, we’re going to have to accept the reality of our size, and adopt governance practices that unleash our very real capabilities.
When we’ve completed this transition, it’s my hope that our board and congregation will be focused on important questions like, “Where does injustice exist in our community?” and “In what ways should Fort Collins be transformed by our presence?” All of the work we do together will be guided and fueled by an awareness of how that work furthers our mission. If we can accomplish that, I think, Foothills will be entering a really exciting new era. Or, in the words of the hymn,
When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze,
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way,
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within,
Then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.
See you Sunday,