Four or five years ago John Carver’s model of Policy Governance broke over UU congregations like a wave. It seemed them that Carver’s admonition for boards to focus on policy and stay out of the minutia was just what we needed. It would be hard to say it wasn’t. Anyone who has served a term on the board of a UU congregations knows the little emotional roller coaster of attendance at a board meeting. At 8:00 PM the meeting is going well. Three little items left on the agenda. How long can a report from Buildings and Grounds take? You actually begin to hope that you might be able to get a little time with the family before bed. And then it balloons–the report on the work-party leads into a discussion of how there were not enough tools for everyone last Saturday which leads into a discussion of who might donate tools how really you can’t store the tools in the back hall and, if you get more tools, you need to build a new shed. For some unfathomable reason this leads into a discussion of run-off, drainage, and whether that corner or your property might not legally be considered a wetland. As this happens you get a sinking feeling as the possibility of getting home before 9 or 9:30 or. even 10:00 drains away. Anyone who has been through this can readily see the wisdom of the advice that board should focus on setting policy and deciding on proposals, not on generating proposals or on general discussion of issues. Even boards that have solemnly declared themselves to be policy governance boards and have done their best to live by the precepts of Carver’s Boards that Make a Difference find it very hard to discipline themselves not to get drawn into this. Indeed, I myself have found it irresistible to contribute what I knew about the such things as latest in wetland laws (my wife works for the Environmental Protection Agency) even as I despaired at how long the discussion was taking. Our congregations have a lot to learn from Carver and even those congregations that have officially made the jump into policy governance do well to discipline themselves to keep at it.

Yet can we say that good governance can be reduced to a matter of simply doing Carver diligently? Someone observed that to balance out our openness about theological exploration UUs have a tendency to organizational fundamentalism–to believing that following the latest organizational expert with sufficient exactness will get us where we want to go. Yet, are our congregations really well served by well when the boards set the organizational end and then limit themselves to negative statements concerning means the executive should not use to achieve those ends? And what about the experience of being a board member? Is it a satisfying board experience to be really kept entirely out of the consideration of means–at least at the strategic level, if not at the level of where to find more rakes for the work next work party?

Some years ago Chuck Olsen did a study (Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders) of the experience of congregational board members and came to the startling and disturbing experience that a high percent of board members and an even higher percent of board chairs find the experience of serving so draining and disillusioning that they leave the congregation . As younger leaders move onto boards they have been even less willing to tough out a bad board experience and have demanded that it be a quality experience, if not a “spiritual” experience. The impulse for policy governance doubtless began in part as a wish to do something about this. Yet, does it really improve matters if things are taken to the other extreme–having boards limit themselves to setting ends and holding the executive or executive team accountable to these ends? Once the end statement is set, experience on such a board can feel more like being an outside auditor than being a participant in a community of leaders.

Recently many people struggling with this have been reading Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor. For congregations who have been trying to “do” Carver, the first piece that has been freeing is the clear claim that governance should be leadership. Beyond this people are finding very helpful Chait’s the division between the three areas in which board have roles: fiduciary, strategic, and generative. Each can be framed with a question:

  • fiduciary: How do we hold ourselves accountable? How do we measure ourselves against the ends we have set? What measures should we use? How do we handle issues of accountability in ways that work for us?
  • strategic: How do we learn to think two steps out? How do we move beyond responding to the issues that come before us–first in terms of our own work at a board and then in our work at leaders in helping the congregation?
  • generative: How do we see our situation in larger perspective? Chait observes that this is the wisdom function. Congregational boards, at least the best of them, find a way to move beyond being responsible and beyond being strategic to serving as a wisdom voice.

I have been impressed how useful it has been for boards, especially boards who have been diligently working policy governance for a while, to ask themselves these questions and see where it leads. I sincerely hope (dare I say “pray”) that Chait does not become our new governance guru the way Carver has been the past few years. Yet, it does seem that Chait’s questions are ones that our congregational boards are finding very useful to ask themselves as they struggle to find a way make their fullest contribution without descending into discussion of detail that others are far more capable of handling.


PS — Thanks to Stefan Jonasson who introduced me to Chait at a presentation to the staffs of the large congregations of Central Midwest District. Anyone interested in more in this general line of thinking should consult the online article about Stefan’s recent GA presentation on governance and emotional systems.