A Few Words About Ice Cream

I’ll confess right up front: I’m not going to talk much about ice cream. I am going to talk about what I’ve recently learned about how the Board of Trustees operates, and how this might help you the next time you find yourself talking with a Board member. More on the ice cream angle in a minute.

I had reservations when being asked to serve on the Board; I imagine most people do. I had heard horror stories of the time required, including six-hour board meetings. However, after talking with several current and former board members, I was reassured that the time commitment really wasn’t that bad and I agreed to serve.

It was then that I realized that I knew very little about how the Board does its job, and it was then that I really started learning about Policy Governance. Please don’t stop reading! It’s a scary term, but I’ll explain. I had heard the term Policy Governance plenty of times back when I was posting content to the UUCA website, but it seemed like bureaucratic gobbledygook, and I didn’t pay much attention. My eyes would glaze over just thinking about it. That’s why I think maybe it needs a new, friendlier name – too bad ice cream is already taken. However, the concept is simple and powerful. The Board acts as the Congregation’s representatives and articulates the congregation’s vision, goals and values. These are the Ends Statements you’ve heard so much about; “the difference we will make in the world”. How we accomplish our ends is left in the capable hands of the Senior Minister, who in turn empowers the staff. The Board monitors progress towards those ends, and ensures they are accomplished using acceptable means (within the bounds of ethics, fiscal responsibility, and so forth). And the Board speaks with one voice, or not at all.

That’s it. To use a bit of hackneyed corporate-speak, this is a “win-win” for everyone. The Board spends its time and energy making sure that UUCA’s vision and high-level goals are being fulfilled without getting bogged down in the details. Board members actually have time for their families, day jobs, and hobbies. The ministers and staff are given clear goals, but are also given wide latitude to meet those goals, and don’t have to worry about Board members meddling in their day-to-day operations. The Congregation can be assured that “the family jewels” (whether and how we are achieving our ends) are being watched very carefully. Finally, lines of accountability are clear and unambiguous.

Despite the fact that I’ve tried to turn this into “Policy Governance for Dummies,” I realize it still may sound a bit like “inside baseball.” You may be thinking, “that’s all fine, but I’m not a board member, so it really doesn’t affect me.” My goal here is to give you a realistic set of expectations of what Board members can and can’t control. As a hypothetical example, if you approach a Board member and tell her you have a great idea for improving childcare sign up, don’t be surprised if she refers you to Pat Kahn. It might be the greatest idea ever, but it’s just not in the zone of where the Board focuses. Even if it were, a single Board member can’t endorse or reject an idea (remember, the Board speaks with a single voice). To be clear, I’m not saying don’t discuss your ideas with Board members—on the contrary, listening to the congregation is a big part of our job. I’m just saying that we might not be able to give you a concrete answer, but we will definitely consider you ideas carefully and pass them along as appropriate.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on any topic you might wish to share. Especially if you can come up with a better name than “ice cream.”

Eric Pohl
Board of Trustees