Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Alligators and Congregation Board Presidents

One of the primary tasks for a board is to "link" with our "sources of authority and accountability", referred to as "moral owners" (analogous to stockholders in a for-profit organization) in the Carver model. In a previous post I listed these sources and explained the UUA Board's decision to not use "ownership" because of the painful history of ownership and slavery in the United States.

Congregations are, of course, at the top of the list. After all, we are an "Association of Congregations". But who, exactly, do we talk to when we "link"? Far too often it is the most vocal ones who contact us, which is why the Board has created a "Linkage Working Group" to set up a systematic way to be informed and collect information that the Board can then act on.

I asked four people who the Board should be talking to in the congregation, and got four answers:
- Simple. It's the board president.
- Easy -- it's the minister.
- But of course congregations are represented by their GA delegates!
- Anyone who is elected or called.

This question then became the basis for "cafe conversations" (a cross between small discussion groups and speed dating) between eight UUA Board members and the District Presidents at the last General Assembly. It was a very rich discussion, as the District Presidents have a similar issue, especially if they are also under Policy Governance.

What became clear was how difficult it is for many congregation presidents to get out of the role of "customer". Linkage is not only about who you talk to, but what you talk about: our congregations are both "customers" of services provided by the UUA (a conversation held most appropriately with the UUA staff), and "sources" (moral owners) who care deeply about what the institution of Unitarian Universalism provides to the world (conversations with the UUA Board). Congregation presidents are often so caught up in the crises of church life (even as a policy governance board) that asking them what differences they want the UUA to make in the world can not only catch them cold but also seem irrelevant.

In speaking to about 150 congregation presidents at GA, I used the classic metaphor of being "hard to remember your aim was to drain the swamp when you are up to your whatever in alligators". Lots of heads nodded, as they did when I recounted mythical survey results that said congregation presidents spend "49 hours attending congregation board meetings, 96 hours attending meetings they didn’t realize they were expected to attend before they agreed to be president, 47 hours either explaining why they were transitioning to policy governance or why they were NOT transitioning to policy governance, and a whopping 117 hours wondering why can’t we all just get along."

Is there time in there to be talking to their district trustee about their dreams for the larger vision?