Board report: UUA governance ‘ready for transformation’

The UUA board reported on its activities this past year at the Saturday morning plenary. Four at-large trustees, including Charlie King, a member of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, N.Y., the Rev. José Ballester, minister of the Bell Street Chapel in Providence, the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, minister of First UU Church of Richmond, Va., and Nick Allen, a member of Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul, and Linda Laskowski, trustee from the Pacific Northwest district and a member of the UU Church of Berkeley, Calif., outlined some of the board’s major initiatives. These include the adoption of Policy Governance, the decision to hold some board meetings outside of Boston, the commitment to talking with congregations, the goal of achieving excellence in ministry, and plans to transform governance at the board, district, and General Assembly levels.

King, the first speaker described the UUA board’s adoption of Policy Governance as its means of governance. Under Policy Governance, the board is responsible for setting policy, while the staff is charged with executing it. King elaborated: “Policy Governance is a method of governance relationship that seeks to clarify the roles of board, president, and staff,” he said. “From the input it gets from all parts of Unitarian Universalism, the board sets a long-term vision for the UUA. The president then interprets the board’s vision, and in relationship with the staff, charts a course for enacting it.”

King said it had been a year of learning for the board in which it discovered that tasks traditionally handled by the board were now the responssibility of the UUA president and staff. The greatest finding, he said, was that the UUA’s governance was “ready for transformation.”

The Rev. Jeanne Pupke spoke next describing the board’s new commitment to holding at least one meeting a year outside of Boston. The reason for this, Pupke said, was that the board needed consistent, reliable feedback “from all corners of our Association.” The board held its first meeting outside of Boston this past January when it met in San Antonio. The board will be holding its next out-of-Boston meet in Phoenix, Ariz., “This Board of Trustees cannot afford to let Boston be its only home,” Pupke said.

Linda Laskowski described the board’s commitment to communicating with its member congregations throughout the country. Each trustee was assigned a number of randomly selected congregations to contact and hold discussions with. “We started with the 12 Texas congregations during our board meeting in San Antonio, and then randomly selected 100 congregations, nearly 10 percent of our membership,” she said. Laskowski reported that the board had already interviewed 65 congregations. While the conversations were enjoyable and informative, board members discovered that most of the congregations they spoke with felt like they had no relationship with the UUA board even if they knew their trustee.  Many of these congregations also felt very isolated, especially in religiously conservative areas.

Laskowski identified some of those congregations, which were connected through streaming video at the plenary, and led the crowd in the chant “You are not alone!” after each congregation was named.

The Rev. José Ballester described one of the board’s major initiatives: excellence in ministry. He said the board was working in collaboration with the Panel on Theological Education and many other ministerial organizations. “Excellence in Ministry,” he said, “was an endeavor to deepen and transform the culture of congregational ministry, in issues ranging from multigenerational ministry to models for congregational growth. Rather than focusing on specific skills or “one-size-fits-all” molds for ministry, Excellence in Ministry is an effort dedicated to outcomes.”

The board has adopted several approaches to achieve the goal of “excellence in ministry.”  One of them is the investigation of professional credentialing, another is an examination of congregations’ anti-racist and multicultural efforts. A third is the compilation of best ministerial practices, and the fourth is the strengthening of relationships with the boards of denominationally-identified seminaries.

Ballester reported that the board has also focused attention on youth ministry and is working with the UUA administration to implement changes.

Nick Allen presented the board’s initiatives to transform governance at the board, district, and General Assembly levels. The current governance, he said, reveals a “systemic brokenness” documented by earlier task forces charged with investigating the UUA’s governance.

The board’s size, with 24 members, is “costly, cumbersome, and ill-equipped to serve congregations and a movement,” Allen said. He reported that the board would be asking the General Assembly to pass bylaw changes that would reduce its size.

The board is also examining the UUA’s district system. Allen said that in the past few years, districts had begun to work collaboratively to share resources. The board will be investigating the possibility of moving towards a system of regions, he said.

General Assembly is another form of governance that will be under review. Under the current system, delegates are not held accountable for the changes enacted at GA, Allen said. It is also too expensive for people eager to be delegates. “Despite hard-fought efforts to improve access and follow-through to GA, it continues to be inequitable, convoluted, and by and large unaccountable to the statements we painstakingly craft together,” he said. “We must do better”.

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