UUA Board moves toward new governance model

UUA Board moves toward new governance model

Gradual process involves adapting Carver Policy Governance model; Board also approves new health care plan.

Tom Stites


The Board of Trustees voted Sunday to move toward significant changes in the governance system of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

The changes are a work in progress—it could be many months before they take final form and even longer before they take full effect—but the UUA’s two top officers, President William G. Sinkford and Moderator Gini Courter, who is chair of the Board and of the General Assembly, agree that the new approach signals a major departure from past practices.

Board members expressed hope that the changes would make the Association more effective in its work. “With a mediocre governance system, the talents of presidents and Board members can be wasted,” said Tamara Payne-Alex, an at-large member from San Jose, Calif. “It’s a huge cost.”

Courter and Sinkford said the changes should bring new clarity about Board and staff work and the president’s role in an Association devoted to working on behalf of its member congregations to achieve goals that are too large for any one congregation to handle. The changes, Courter said in an interview after the meeting, “will allow the voice of the Association’s member congregations to be heard more clearly.”

Sinkford said in a separate interview he was ambivalent about the changes but added, “I think that if we can move toward greater clarity there’s a real advantage in that. What we’ve had in the past, because of a lack of clarity, has encouraged the Board to micromanage, and has been confusing to the staff about what level of reporting does the Board want or properly need.”

In other actions, the Board:

  • Received the 25-page final report of the Special Review Commission that explored a series of incidents disquieting to youth of color and others at the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas. The final report contains a complete narrative and an enhanced list of the recommendations first made in the commission’s preliminary report. [see below for links to the final report and coverage of the preliminary report.]
  • Received the report of a three-person commission that reviewed the Pathways Church Project, a startup congregation in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs that has not met its ambitious goals. Pathways was the UUA’s first attempt to start a congregation with the aim of rapid growth to a large membership. [see below for a link to the report.]
  • Approved preliminary plans for a new $55 million capital campaign for the Association.

The governance change vote came at the end of a regular quarterly meeting of the Board April 21-23 that included a full extra day for consultant-facilitated discussion of possible governance changes and an additional afternoon of discussion after the consultant left.

Courter said the Board’s interest in refining the UUA governance system dates to 1992, when a panel conducted a study and made recommendations that were presented to the General Assembly but not adopted. In 2003, she said, the Board took a straw vote about adopting a form of governance formally known as Policy Governance—and arrived at a tie. Then last year, the Association’s executive vice president, Kay Montgomery, invited Courter and two other Board members to join her and Harlan Limpert, the Association’s director for district services, at a Policy Governance conference in Arizona. That fueled further conversation in the Board, and five trustees volunteered to form a governance task force. The task force drafted new governance policies that were reviewed and refined at last week’s Board meeting.

John Blevins of Kansas City, Mo., the trustee from the UUA’s Prairie Star District and a member of the governance task force, said it would be difficult to undertake change of this magnitude without the high levels of trust the UUA leadership is experiencing. “Trust levels are high between our president, moderator, and the Board,” he said, “giving us a special opportunity.”

Policy Governance, a theoretical model setting out the role of the boards in businesses, nonprofit organizations, and governments, was developed by John Carver and is sometimes called the Carver model. More than 30 midsize and large UU congregations and eight of the 20 UUA districts have adopted modified forms of Policy Governance, and others are exploring it. Interest has been spreading among UUs to the point that Policy Governance workshops have been presented at the General Assembly and the UUA has launched an email list for people interested in its application to our churches. [see below for links to Policy Governance information.]

Unitarian Universalist churches use Policy Governance only in modified forms because the Carver model specifies that the Board hire the chief executive officer and confine itself to creating policies to guide the CEO’s actions and to monitoring her or his performance. The congregational polity at the foundation of Unitarian Universalism requires modification because parish ministers are called by a vote of a congregation’s members, not the congregation’s elected governing boards. This is true as well for the UUA, in that the president is elected by congregational delegates to the General Assembly rather than appointed by the Board.

Sinkford’s ambivalence about the governance changes rests on concern about the president’s role in a UUA that adopts a governance system adapted from Policy Governance.

“The Policy Governance template,” he explained in the interview, “assumes that the CEO—an executive director typically in a nonprofit—is hired by the board, and that’s not our system. In our system the president stands in the same position as a congregation’s minister—with a direct relationship with the congregation.” The UUA president, he said, has an analogous direct relationship with the congregations whose delegates elect him or her.

Sinkford said he dropped his initial opposition to the governance changes because the Board was comfortable with the idea of a collaborative approach to setting goals, or “ends” in Carver language, for the Association’s work. Formal Policy Governance confines ends-setting to the board.

“The willingness of the Board to do the ends collaboratively was a tremendous help to me,” he said.

The next steps will be to refine policy language that describes structures and systems and sets the roles of the board and the president. Then the process will turn to devising the collaborative process for determining the ends, which will include devising new forms of communication to learn the wishes and needs of congregations. The final task will be to work out what the ends will be.

“Ends are the cool part,” Courter said, “the part we’ve not done before: What should the UUA do to make a difference in the world?” All involved said it will be up to two years, possibly longer, before the ends can be articulated and the new governance system can be wholly in effect.

Several members of the 25-member Board joined Sinkford, a nonvoting member, in voicing caution about the secular vocabulary of Policy Governance literature. A group of members, most of them clergy and including Sinkford, have agreed to work on finding substitute language consonant with Unitarian Universalism.

The motion the board approved on Sunday, respecting the reservations of Sinkford and others, does not refer to Policy Governance: “Be it resolved that the UUA Board commit itself, within our structure of congregational polity, to continue its whole-hearted engagement in a process of assessing and implementing improved governance practices regarding roles, responsibilities, and accountability.” There were no dissenting votes.

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Correction 5.4.06: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that recommendations in the Special Review Commission’s preliminary report were unchanged in the final report presented to the Board. The list of recommendations was in fact enhanced in the final report.