Wednesday 9 November 2011


How we choose to regulate our common life is an important question. Whether it's a nation, a family or a church, the way we make decisions says a lot about who we imagine ourselves to be. How much meaningful participation are various people allowed in the normal decisions that affect their lives? What is the balance between routine decisions about which the mass of the governed don't really care and the decisions in which they are really invested - and who decides which is which?

These are not just abstract philoophical ramblings. They could be applied at different places in Canada. But my focus is much more narrow - namely my denomination. I'm pretty involved in the governance life of the United Church at all levels - national, regional and local. It's one of the subjects I teach. So shifts in govenance policy interest me more than they might the average person. In recent years there has been a shift in the UCCan to a form of "policy governance." The problem with that shift is that, like many incremental movements, it has been quite subtle. Suddenly we (the vast majority of the governed) wake up to find ourselves in a very different place and wonder how we got there.

Policy governance is also known as the "Carver Model" and it is employed successfully in a variety of not-for-profit and large educational bodies across Canada. In essence, the policy governance model works like this: the elected representatives set broad policy objectives and the senior employee of the organization is reponsible (through the other staff) for achieving those goals. In its purest form, the governing body sets objectives and names the ways that are not acceptable, and the senior employee goes to it. For example, "Our organization needs to break even financially in the next year. You may not employ any means that are illegal or immoral." From that point, the senior employee is free to choose the method(s) to achieve the goal and, if the objective is realized, then they have done their job and the governing board has no grounds to quibble. The model relies on the expertise and initative of that senior employee and other staff.

It has a lot to recommend it. Most importantly, it compels volunteer boards to do the "high level" work of goal and direction setting that we often find so difficult. Volunteer boards, at just about every level, gravitate to the minutae and the maintenance. Vision casting and looking to the future is tough stuff. Most of us don't do it in our own lives a lot of the time. Why would it be any more natural or automatic in an organization? It also leave the employees of the organization the freedom to respond in a nimble and effective fashion to various realities in a fast-paced culture without constantly checking in with often far-flung and infrequently gathering boards.

So what's my problem? Simply that, without any decisions actually being made and without any consultation occuring, the UCCan has moved, fairly rapidly, to a form of the policy governance model. That may be the right decision. That may be the model we need to employ. However, when an organization, like a church, makes such a shift it seems important that we think together about the theological and ecclessiological components of such a move. A church is not like any other "not for profit" organizations in important ways. Models and methods of church governance are not neutral nor are they prescribed in the New Testament. But an episcopal system (based on bishops) is different from a congregational system (where each local body has high degrees of autonomy) is different from a presbyterial system (where governance in many important matters is vested in a regional gathering of laity and clergy) and so on. No system is automatically holier than another, and the occupants of each model often look longingly at what they imagine are the benefits of all the others! But the models are different - not just in form. How churches govern ourselves is not neutral. It speaks volumes about our convictions regarding God, our shared call to serve God's mission in the world and how we believe the Spirit communicates truth and guidance. It effects the very nature of who we are as a community of Christ in the world. It's not enough to be effective and efficient we must also be faithful as we understand faithfulness. It's a decision that all need to share.

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