Why start with a Powerful Question? Three reasons:
from Laura Park, Managing Director
I was recently in Colorado working with Foothills Unitarian Church, a vibrant, growing congregation with an engaged and thoughtful board. They had completed the congregational conversation process about values and mission outlined in my book The Nested Bowls: The Promise and Practice of Good Governance. One of the exercises in that process asks small groups of congregants to consider what difference they want their congregation to make in people’s lives in the future. These small groups have already discovered their congregation’s strengths and shared their individual wishes for their congregation’s future. This exercise asks them to imagine what might change in people’s lives if the congregation used its strengths to make two or three of the wishes that they all want together to come true. Participants create a magazine cover (or a website landing page!) talking about their future congregation and how it is changing lives.
The magazine covers people create in this exercise are often very powerful, filled with images that are aspirational and yet grounded in the strengths of the congregation as it is. The Foothills board took the images their participants created and made beautiful quilts from them, quilts that they hung around the church to share what congregants saw as possible for the future. The board immersed themselves in these images and used what they learned from them to write ends statements describing what difference the church will make in people’s lives. These ends statements will guide everything the congregation does in the next five years, and the board will be engaged in determining what progress is being made on making the ends statements real.
If you've worked with Unity Consulting, you'll recognize our metaphor of the nested bowls as the foundation of a covenantal, fruitful governance practice. (If you haven't worked with us, please see below!) How have congregations answered these powerful questions? Here are three examples.
From Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, MN
The mission of Unity Church-Unitarian is to engage people in a free and inclusive religious community that encourages lives of integrity, service and joy.
From the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, CA
The Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, a loving community of seekers:
Living with integrity, we:
From First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, MN
We believe in:
In the Universalist spirit of love and hope, we give, receive, and grow.
First Universalist Church.
What's the Intersection of Beloved Community and Church Governance?
One of the powerful questions of effective governance is the question of moral ownership. Who are your sources of authority and accountability as a board? With whom do you validate your work as trustees? Whose input do you have no moral right to ignore? In essence: whose are you?
Getting clear about our moral owners was a turning point in the life of Unity Church-Unitarian. In the past, the board had understood itself as deriving its authority from and being accountable to its members. Ten years ago, this policy came up for review, and the board chair wondered if we didn't risk self-perpetuation if the board continued to see its primary relationship being with the church's members, even if those members were the church's legal owners. The board decided to study the theologies of Beloved Community to see if that would better describe their true accountability.
Unity Church's board now understands its source of authority and accountability as "All those who yearn for the Beloved Community, and see Unity Church as one instrument for its realization. Beloved Community is community at the highest level of reality and possibility, where love and justice prevail."
The board invested six months of careful study, reflection and discernment before they crafted these two simple sentences. Despite their simplicity, these sentences catalyzed a turning outward of the church over the following ten years:
Alignment and focus. Clarity and commitment. These are just a few of the benefits congregations can realize from a succinct and powerful mission, particularly when established within an effective governance system. Effective governance makes it clear who articulates the mission (the board), what the mission needs to articulate (what's our transcendent purpose-what overarching difference are we here in the world to create and for whom?), and how the means for achieving the mission will be established (through the minister or executive team).
Effective governance also raises the powerful question, "Whose are we?" Who are our sources of authority and accountability-on whose behalf do we do this work? Is it just our members, or do we draw our authority from and experience our accountability to a broader set of sources? How can we get and stay in contact with these sources as we do this work? Who else needs to inform our articulation in order to do our best work on their behalf?
Despite the clarity effective governance brings, developing a mission isn't easy. How can you have an inspiring and powerful congregational conversation to inform your mission development? How can you take all your congregational input and then say, simply and beautifully, what difference you're in the world to create and for whom? How can you create the powerful alignment that an effective mission can bring to all your congregation's work?
Unity Consulting has worked with several congregations to design powerful congregational processes to inform their mission articulation, and then worked with them on the questions of "Whose are we?" and mission. In the words of one of our clients, "The appreciative inquiry process, which you and your colleagues at Unity Consulting have adapted so skillfully for use in churches, was the perfect way for us to approach the renewal of our mission and ends. The positive nature of the process and its focus on the future were just what was needed. Yesterday's retreat proved that what we had learned from the AI workshops really could be distilled into succinct and powerful values, mission, and ends. And it really did have some "magic" in it!"
Please contact us if you'd like to explore how we might help you tap into the power of mission!
"If someone had told me twenty years ago," the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs began our workshop The Promise and Practice of Good Governance, presented at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in June 2013, "that the most exciting, most inspiring aspect of my ministry had to do with governance, I would have laughed in their faces. But the truth of the matter is that when we are able to align our decision-making, align the way in which we operate with our covenantal theology, leadership is liberated. Lay leadership is strengthened, ministerial leadership is liberated, and congregations can move forward in new and transforming ways."
He went on to say that "Covenantal theology is a becoming. It's better perhaps to refer to covenanting, to use the participle form, because it holds us to a practice, a way of being together religiously. Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian, taught that covenantal community is made up of promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, and promise-renewing people. Policy-based governance. . .provides us with a framework for living into the practice of covenant. It's not a thing we do once, for all, it's a way of putting our full faith into a continuing conversation, a conversation which, when practiced with patience, and discipline, when allowed the time it needs, gives form and direction to our faith and helps us remember what matters most. Policy-based governance is a unique way of church which brings our decision-making into alignment with our theology and our heritage."
If you'd like to learn more about promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking and promise-renewing in congregational governance, more about developing a covenanting practice in congregational governance, check out the following resources on our website:
Participant booklet from The Promise and Practice of Good Governance
Recorded Webinar: Principles of Good Governance
Recorded Webinar: The Nested Bowls of Values, Mission and Ends
Recorded Webinar: Role Clarity for Visionary and Operational Leadership
Recorded Webinar: Leadership Cycle in the Mission-Focused Congregation
When was the last time your board agenda moved you to a wide-open consideration of the future of church and the implications for your mission and Ends? Three recent blog posts might help you open up this time and space for your board:
From a July 14 post by Tom Schade at TheLivelyTradition:
I'm Back with One Big Thought on Ministry in the 21st Century: "The big problem for 'Ministry in the 21st Century' will be anticipating the social, political, economic and cultural conditions of the times to come, and discerning what liberal religious leaders are called to be and do in those conditions."
From a July 15 post by Carey Nieuwhof (lead pastor of Connexus Community Church):
5 Things Netflix Is Showing Church Leaders About the Future: "As much as people want individualized access to content, they also want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Mission-driven, mission-focused and relationally rich churches will. . .draw in people longing for something bigger and more significant than themselves."
From a post by Rich Birch at UnSeminary:
8 Charts That Explain How Our Culture is Changing. (& 24 questions about the impact on your church): "One of our roles as church leaders is to have our pulse on the shifting cultural around us so we can serve our community better. We need understand the times so we can have clarity on what actions we should be taking as a church. Below are some "signs of the times" and some quick thoughts on what impact I believe these will have on us in the coming years."
When you're focused on fruitful governance, you're using resources like these to inform your understanding of the future, ensuring that your articulation of the difference your church is here in the world to make remains relevant and meaningful. Contact us if we can help you develop a systematic approach to fulfilling this essential board function.
Our thinking about the role of governance in congregational life.