The Power of Asking Big Questions from Rich Young

Over the last six months, your Board has begun considering some provocative questions about this church and its future. What matters most to our congregation? How can we assure that our members find meaning and purpose here? Who belongs among us but is missing? What needs in the wider community are we uniquely able to address? What responsibilities do our size and success among UU churches confer upon us, and are we meeting them adequately? How can we ensure that our lay leaders are prepared to do what we will ask of them? How can we best accommodate the ongoing growth we are experiencing? What can we do to ensure that our leadership remains in touch with the evolving will of the congregation? How should… well, you get the picture. This time of transition has asked of the Board, and the congregation as a whole, a great deal of introspection and contemplation.

In late fall, this conversation was distilled into a set of outcomes that this board hoped the church would produce under its leadership and in the years to come. A few highlights among them were:

Foothills Unitarian Church becomes a “Flagship” church in Fort Collins

  • We discover and act on our large church identity;
  • We have the structure, staff, and capacity to serve the size we are as well as the size we are going to be;
  • We explore multiple campuses and address our building needs with a capital campaign;
  • We are welcoming to all who would seek a liberal religious home in Northern Colorado
  • Organic growth in committed membership allows us to better fulfill our mission;
  • We are known in the UUA both as a result of stronger ties with other UU congregations, as well as from our leading practices;
  • We ensure a vibrant home in Fort Collins for future Unitarian Universalists.

Our church touches souls through expansive and excellent worship, lifespan religious education opportunities, and a clear path of leadership development within and beyond the congregation.

  • Leaders are equipped and supported in their roles in the congregation – before they begin and during their service
  • Excellent worship occurs in multiple settings, including on campus through an expanded and strong campus ministry
  • There are robust and diverse opportunities for spiritual growth and religious education for all ages – small groups, classes, spiritual practices – including within our campus ministry program
  • People know how to serve and get involved in our congregation – and do get involved and serve
  • Our program for children and youth keeps growing, even doubling in the next few years
  • Our leadership development program is offered to all the UU congregations in our area and we are a leader and resource within the cluster, District, Region and national UUA

Through community leadership and service, we turn our faith into action to address injustice and human need.

  • Foothills Unitarian Church is known in the community for its generosity and leadership, especially in involving congregants in social justice and spiritual growth;
  • We have a meaningful impact on homelessness and hunger in Northern Colorado, addressing the roots causes in addition to routine service;
  • We leverage the resources of our congregation to engage issues of environmental justice and climate change;
  • We build on our work with immigration justice and serving our neighbors;
  • We take our OWL program and bring it out into the community, including into PSD and the CSU campus;
  • We change society’s conscience so that it addresses the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • As a large church, we have a meaningful impact on multiple issues.

As you can see, it was a sweeping vision for the future of the church. It had its roots in the hopes and dreams of all of us on the board, pulling from our many friendships in the congregation, our many years of experience with the church, and our diverse backgrounds and social justice interests. And it was exciting to talk in such detail about what Foothills could become.

More exciting still was what happened next: Revs. David Keyes and Gretchen Haley took this laundry list of our dreams and aspirations for this church community, and they transformed it from a collection of wishes into a plan. Every vision on the Board’s list was attached to activity by at least one of the ministers or staff, was given a timeline, and was framed in a way that it was easy to imagine knowing whether or not it was being carried out successfully. This strategic plan for the transition period was delivered to – and enthusiastically approved by – the Board in late January.

In the time since, we have seen the work outlined in the transition strategic plan begin. Campus ministry is growing and taking shape. Our participation in the One Village, One Family homelessness support initiative has begun. We’ve begun exploring multi-site options, launched a ministerial search committee, and we’re wrapping up another successful stewardship drive. We will soon begin exploring the feasibility of a capital campaign, relaunch our partner church program, and continue to explore the history and importance of our own church and the larger movement of Unitarian Universalism. Big things are happening here.

As these big things happen, or perhaps occasionally fail to happen, we will review our progress; contemplate whether the original vision might stand to be revised or clarified, or has perhaps evolved; we’ll engage with the congregation to ensure we stay in touch with our sense of mission and purpose; and we’ll begin conversation with community partners on ways we can refine our church’s participation in the work we share. The strategic plan that the board adopted early this year should become a living document, subject continually to our scrutiny, our discernment, and our common ingenuity.

What I want to convey to you is that this is the way your Board intends to govern in the future: by listening to the congregation, surveying the need around and among us, casting a big vision informed by these inputs, and finally working with the ministers and staff to carry that vision out. It is in this way that we hope to fulfill the promise that we began this transition period with: retaining what is special about this church community, while working for a world transformed by our values.

See you Sunday,

-Rich Young, Board President

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Then Our Promise Finds Fulfillment, and Our Future Can Begin

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:

  1. The importance of the goal would trickle up from the congregation to the board;
  2. The board would draft a policy charging the executive with achieving this goal;
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. The executive would report to the board periodically on how successful our efforts have been towards the goal.
  6. 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,

–Rich Young