Developing Institutional Trust
Jeremiah 11:19 But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; And I did not know that they had devised plots against me
Unitarian Universalists have mistrust built into our institutional DNA. Many congregations’ bylaws are far more explicit about how to terminate their relationship with their ministers than how to call them. Those bylaws almost always keep the minister away from budgeting and any check writing authority. Rarely, if ever, are ministers voting members of congregational governing bodies. Almost all ministers have freedom to say what they are inspired to say in the pulpit. If they want to stay in relationship with their congregation they are very careful about what they preach. In our tradition, ministers speak, advise, persuade, counsel, support, and encourage but don’t direct congregational action or allocate congregational resources.
Our congregation comes by this distrust through our Protestant institutional heritage. The abuses of authority and power outlined in the 95 theses Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenberg Church door point at a very long history of institutional abuse by the Roman Catholic Church. The recent controversies in the church around sexual misconduct by priests are just the latest round in that betrayal of the trust of the laity. From the pulpit on January 13th, Philomena Moriarty pointed to the abuses of the Irish Catholic Church against unwed pregnant women and their babies you’d need a heart of stone not to be outraged about.
The specific line of Protestant mistrust we inherit came through the Pilgrims and Puritans who came to Massachusetts after rejecting and being persecuted by the Church of England. That system gave priests a great deal of power to run the church. The Puritans thought the power of God was in the people themselves, the Elect or the visible saints they called themselves. To correct the human tendency to want to accumulate power, they thought it better for the people to lead a church rather than the priest. Power should be shared and distributed rather than concentrated in one person. In 1648 they created a document called the Cambridge Platform to run their churches. The template Unitarian Universalist congregations use today has its roots in the Cambridge Platform though we are long separated from Puritan theology and doctrine.
This is all well and good. We are still using it almost 400 years later because it works well enough. But there are disadvantages too. It actually can embed distrust in a congregation that can prevent it from acting and being effective. It also can lock a congregation into a status quo that it can be very hard to get out of. If the status quo is healthy and dynamic, that would be a good thing to protect. But institutions must change and adapt with the people and the times. If the governance model prevents that change, it can set up an inward focus that can eventually weaken and destroy a congregation. When congregations are not about serving the new people coming to our doors excited by Unitarian Universalism but with newer, more contemporary ways to do it, trouble is brewing. Striving to address white supremacy culture, for example, is stretching us beyond our status quo in challenging ways.
For these reasons and others, our congregation is considering a new approach to governance. In the new design, the Board will be creating a subsidiary body called the “Program Team.” It will be composed of three paid staff members and four lay leaders. Its job will be to take the vision of ministry of the Board, the future direction for congregational growth, development and action, and turn it into concrete plans for action. The Program Team will also support and interconnect the ongoing work of the congregation.
The minister will be the convener of the Program Team.
Some may have read about a congregation in Athens, Georgia in the last UU World who also has done governance change. Much of what they have done is parallel to our congregation’s design. Their minister, the Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen, said something very interesting for that article that got the Governance Working Group’s attention:
“It takes a fair amount of trust for both the board and the minister to let go of some of the responsibilities they had,” Eskildsen cautioned. “And you can’t have a board that is antiauthoritarian. If people have those kinds of issues, it’s not going to fit.”
Historically, trust has been a big issue for our congregation in their relationship with ministers. There was a major breach of trust with my predecessor. For the last twenty years, front and center in my work with our congregation has been to build trust and offer respect to the Board and its leaders. My hope is that I have demonstrated that ministers can be trusted, through shared ministry, to put the interests of the congregation first in their work, leadership and their service.
I support these governance changes because I believe they will allow our congregation to focus its energies and enable more effective outreach and action. These changes will help us break free of aspects of our status quo that make us less attractive to a younger generation of potential UU’s. And more important than anything else, I anticipate this new governance model will create a virtuous upward spiral of energy and enthusiasm. When we are effective in the use of our limited energy and resources, more is generated than is consumed.
And that is the kind of exciting congregation almost all of us want to be part of.