The Privilege and Responsibility of Membership


This month, the Board has been preparing an agenda for the Winter Congregational Meeting, which will be held on Sunday, January 24th. At this point, it looks like the agenda will include votes on adopting the new Vision Statement, the proposed Covenant of Right Relations, and bylaw amendments; an update on church finances; and opportunities to get involved in keeping us going, among other things.

Not getting a rush of excited anticipation yet? Well, here are some realizations that have helped me stay engaged and less dismissive of all this governance stuff.

First, a little context. What we are today—a Unitarian Universalist congregation—came about from the 1961 consolidation of two faith traditions: Unitarian and Universalist. Each faith had its own history, yet they shared in the tradition of congregational polity.

The phrase “congregational polity” has come to denote a free church—one without ecclesial hierarchy and, consequentially, one on its own, responsible for its own survival. Such a congregation has to determine its own form of governance.

As UUs, we are guided by egalitarian and democratic values. No one person is above the others. All members are a part of the governing process. Yet the autonomy that arises from congregational polity does not free us from authority; it challenges us to create authority ethically within our community.

As a body, the congregation is the highest authority in its own governance structure. It can delegate powers and accountability to the Board for greater agility of action, and for the same reason, the Board can then delegate powers and accountability to committees, which can create subcommittees, and so on. Within its area of accountability, each of these church bodies is free to discern the best means to fulfill its mission.

Likewise, as individuals we have the right to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”; and as a congregation, we are free to discern for ourselves the best common means to exercise our religious freedom. Through careful listening, thoughtful evaluation, and respectful relation, we seek the high purpose and the deep commitment necessary to fulfill our mission by transforming ourselves, our community, and our world.

When fulfilling our mission involves formulating bylaws, policies, and procedures, it helps to remember that all of these “rules and regulations” exist to support and enhance the functioning of our congregation. They are a legacy and a resource, providing direction and counsel, offering roadmaps into the future, and guiding key decisions.

Done well, our rules provide the structure we need to fulfill our mission and work together efficiently. In particular, bylaws, which are established and changed only by vote of the congregation, allow us to:

  • form a legal entity,
  • apply for not-for-profit religious status (affecting tax deductibility of pledges and other assets),
  • find insurance,
  • establish financial accounts and credit,
  • show good faith in fiduciary (trustee) issues,
  • purchase and sell property, and
  • determine the extent and limits of the Board’s authority.

Although bylaws and policies can seem tedious and less than critical, the creation and maintenance of a good system of governance actually offers many wonderful benefits, and that is well worth the time and attention of all the members of our congregation.

The benefits include the following:

  • providing continuity through hard times,
  • having a framework that ensures that all members will be represented,
  • offering stimulation for meaningful member participation,
  • creating methods for urgent action that can foster responsiveness,
  • building in methods of review that help avoid unproductive reactivity among members, and
  • allowing leadership to be transferred with continuity.

Soon, members will be receiving an information packet to prepare you to make informed decisions on items that will be addressed at the Winter Congregational meeting on January 24th. Consider taking a look at it ahead of time, formulating questions, and bringing your perspectives to the upcoming meeting.

Membership has privileges and responsibilities. Taking part in governance is both.

Susan Webb

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