Mistakes in implementation

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from Lyssa Jenkins, First Unitarian Church of Dallas - 2002

I am now at the end of a two year term as president of a large congregation in Dallas, Texas, with five and one-half years on our board. We have spent the entire five plus years making a full conversion to policy governance. We have struggled mightily and made plenty of mistakes along the way--some small, some significant and will real consequences for our congregation. But, is it worth it! I feel that our board is at a very high level of functioning these days and our church is absolutely 'on fire' with a mission and vision.

I'd like to address three important mistakes that may have broad application to other congregations. First, we spent several years when we were both committed to change--our bylaws were amended to accommodate policy governance--and, yet, we were unwilling or unable to let go of the old ways of "doing church." We lost momentum and time. More importantly, though, our ability to govern was compromised as we careened between one model and the other, doing neither well. Our real progress began when we became totally focused on developing the basic policy infrastructure needed to become a fully functional policy governance organization. This was a good and necessary step and, yet, it led directly to mistake number two.

After years of vacillating between old and new governance models, we did not have good safeguards in place when we focused our attention on developing our policy infrastructure to the exclusion of almost everything else. As a result, we later discovered financial issues that were not handled as we would have wanted over several years. The consequences for the congregation are several, including projects that will not get finished as planned or expected and operating budget difficulties due to various unexpected adjustments.

The third significant error was that we did not bring the congregation along with us. At our last Parish meeting it became painfully obvious by the questions members asked and the way issues were presented that most members had little understanding of the way our church works now! It was a real awakening.

The lessons learned are pretty straight forward. (1) Bring the full board to a common level of understanding and commitment--then move! The basic policies (Executive Limitations, Executive-Board Linkages, Board Governance or Process) are fairly accessible--they are in the Carver books and other congregation's documents--so get them in place as quickly as possible and move on to the high level Ends policies. (2) Make sure adequate safeguards are in place to sustain the organization through the early stages of policy development, implementation and monitoring. Key areas are financial management and controls as well as basic personnel policies and any other issues that significantly affect the physical and fiscal safety and welfare of the people and the institution. (3) Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Make sure the congregation is getting the same education as the board. I now have a presentation called "First Church 101 or How do I get my issue on the board's radar screen?" that starts with an org chart! But, it ends when folks have a "church map" of which person or group is most likely to respond to which issues and concerns.

That's my take on recent years in Dallas. I hope some of you will find some help (and some shortcuts!) in these experiences.