Benefits of Policy Governance to UU Churches

rainbow chalice 02Benefits of Policy Governance to UU Churches

There’s been some recent conversation among UU ministers, especially ones to whom Policy Governance is a theory, rather than a reality, revolving around differences between traditional church administration and policy governance, especially as it relates to  hierarchy and administration.
One recurring question: what are the benefits to governance by policy, rather than having a board manage a church?

The short answer: it encourages flexibility, the seizing of creative opportunity, and forces appropriate delegation.

Let me say right up front: PG is not good if the “Executive” is not proficient at administration or if the Board is not qualified to run a church. Sadly, this is frequently the case. The worst part is ministers and boards who don’t realize they are not competent.

Why ministers– especially senior ministers– don’t want to thoroughly understand non-profit administration is beyond me.

Why would you nail your shoe to the floor? How much good can you do if you can’t raise money and inspire people? Why should anyone let a minister supervise staff who hasn’t demonstrated they can do this well?

OTOH, with a trained executive, and a trained board, PG allows for religious entrepreneurship in a timely fashion that is otherwise, mostly unavailable to UU churches.

This is one of the reasons, most large UU churches (and many districts) operate under PG: they see major benefits, and especially clear role delineation.

For that reason alone, I’d say PG is worth a look– it forces us to hand off authority commensurate with responsibility.

Whence my perspective? I have operated as the president of the Central Midwest District for 3 years (and before that a district board member for 4 years). I also operated as the Executive (Lead Minister) in St. Louis for 8 years; and now here in Houston for 4 years.

So, I have seen PG as a board member, as president of a board, and as an executive, in one way or another for the last 11 years.PG is great for some, not so great for others. It is great for me and my lay leaders.

  1. PG means I can turn the large ship around on a dime. Within the “limitations,” I can use the expertise, knowledge, passion, creativity, of my staff and myself to seize opportunities that present themselves in a timely manner.
  2. PG means the board always speaks with one voice.
  3. PG acknowledges that I know how to run the church better than individual board members do (and this better be true!)
  4. PG means the board’s entire relationship to the staff is through me– which simplifies hiring, evaluation, and compensation, and reduces staff triangulation.
  5. PG means I am there to make sure the board is successful; and vice-versa, in a very explicit way.

In 3 and 1/2 years here, that has meant: we’ve gone from 1 service to 2. We’ve gone from 1 campus to 3 campuses. We’ve added staff as I saw best (in consultation with the leadership). We adopted a brand new Creative Team approach to Sunday Services, Adult Faith Formation, and Social Justice Programming, and changed our communications. We adopted a new Healthy Communication Team approach for a grievance procedure.

All of that would either not have been possible, or would have moved at a much more glacial pace that we were able to do with PG.

PG depends on mutual trust, demonstrated expertise, and mutual commitment to success. It requires more work & expertise than conventional church management, and it requires another skill set for the Executive.

But when it works, it’s wonderful. It’s allowed us a first in UU History: to be One Church in Three Locations.

What’s your experience with PG?

7 thoughts on “Benefits of Policy Governance to UU Churches

  1. It sounds like you are advocating a successful dictatorship.

    1. Well, obviously, we don’t think so, in our situation. PG has been very helpful in living out the mission, vision, and values of the congregation. I understand that PG is a very different way of doing things– and it’s probably best just for larger, more complex organizations.

  2. Amen!

    When I’ve heard leaders at other churches talk about how PG isn’t working for them, it inevitably turns out that they’ve misunderstood one or more important features.

    One frequent cause of failure: they’ve tried to go it alone instead of bringing in a skilled third party consultant. It makes me wonder if these same folks would conduct surgery on themselves (or a loved one) after watching a few YouTube videos.

    Having a skilled third party, from outside the system, to help you know what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong is critical in order to not backslide into comfortable but unhelpful habits.

    Another is, as you note, having the wrong people on the bus. It might be the wrong minister and/or the wrong board. They might be lovely people and very good at many things, but simply not qualified for this particular style of governance and leadership.

    Thanks & keep up the good work!

  3. This is an excellent illustration of PG at it’s best. My question is, What does a congregation do when it has a PG structure and the leader is only interested in being in charge rather than leading?

    1. Well, this is tricky. PG requires a different skill set than traditional ministry education systems offer: so ministers can be unprepared. And it requires a different board model– so board members who come from academia, the social sciences, or large corporations are often ignorant of how unprepared they are, too.

      I think if you have built in accountability loops, it can go a long way toward focusing a leader to the mission, vision, and values of the congregation s/he is ostensibly leading.

  4. Hear, hear. Thank you for this post. Today I need to meet with several leaders in my church to explain that “helping” the minister by doing some of the administrative work is not PG. In fact, it is the opposite of PG.

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