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  • Writer's pictureNancy Rexford

Forward Chats - May 12, 2019


Since today was Mother’s Day, we did not expect a large crowd and were surprised to have 16 people present.

Background from April 28 meeting:

Today’s Forward Chat grew out of the April 28 meeting, when we discussed ways to improve decision-making in this church, such as:

· Encouraging broader input

· Keeping the group from shutting down ideas too soon

· Creating a better-informed congregation

Toward the end of that meeting, we presented a chart that shows the inverse relationship between expertise and representativeness:

One of our problems when preparing to make a decision is how to move:

· information and expertise held by the lower layers UPWARD into the more representative layers, and also

· input and feedback from the more representative layers DOWNWARD toward the more expert layers.

We also talked about the importance of having more representation (and more expertise) for the decisions that have higher stakes, while lower-stakes decisions can be made with less representation.

Notes from today’s meeting (May 12):

Building on that foundation, the plan for today’s Forward Chat was to dig deeper into one part of that question: which decisions should get made by which group? This is a question that the bylaw committee is grappling with as it develops what we hope will be a “leaner and meaner” system of governance.

The first part of the Forward Chat involved explaining the changes the bylaw committee is contemplating (nothing is set in stone):

* “Lay Board” is a temporary stand-in name. We are waiting for genius to strike someone with a better one.

Explaining the new suggested system took the better part of an hour, with all the questions it raised. It is clear the bylaw committee needs to get better at explaining the new system and to allow plenty of time for the congregation to absorb the changes before they are asked to vote. But once the Forward Chats group understood the concept of the new system . . .

The question put to the group was which decisions should be reserved to:

· The Congregation (listed in bylaws)

· The Lay Board (the elected central body that handles “major” decisions)

· Working Teams (ad hoc groups that make “minor” decisions)

· Staff (though we did not really talk about staff decisions today)

The powers of the Congregation are itemized in both the current and the proposed new bylaws. The new bylaws collect them all in one place. They include such decisions as calling a pastor, selling or mortgaging property, approving the annual budget, and making public statements to the media, as well as electing the people who do the work of the church.

The more difficult question is which questions should be handled by the Lay Board, with its more formal process, and which should be handled by the Working Teams, which are not elected and operate very informally. We don’t want to clog the Lay Board with trivia, but we don’t want ad hoc working groups making big decisions for the whole church.

Nancy proposed the following decision-making template suggesting criteria to help us distinguish between major (Lay Board) and minor (Working Group) decisions. The purpose of today’s meeting was to find out whether the template would help us assign decisions in a way that would be upheld by public opinion, so that both working teams and Lay Board could feel confident about which kinds of decisions were in their scope of authority.

The group suggested three “case studies” to test the template:

Case Study 1: Banners

The first was the trickiest. Would the decision template tell us where the decision to put up the rainbow banners should be made under the new system?

1. Effects are mostly on outsiders, so they are hard to measure. Feedback we did receive was mixed and ranged from very positive to very negative with a lot of confusion in the middle.

2. Consequences are hard to measure – we see the visitors encouraged by the banners, but we don’t see the people who choose not to come because of them.

3. Not difficult or expensive to reverse.

The template could be used to justify giving the decision to either the Lay Board or a Working Group, but everyone in the meeting agreed that a working team is not representative enough and its process is not sufficiently open to handle a decision like this. This showed that the decision template above was missing at least one, perhaps two, important testing criteria:

1. Does the decision affect the message we send to the outside world? If yes, then Lay Board needs to weigh in (and if the “message” is to the press, it goes to the congregation).

2. Is the decision likely to be very controversial? Controversy requires a more careful process than is possible within a Working Team

Case Study 2: Moving the Pews

Again, would the decision template tell us who should have the authority to decide whether to remove the pews under the new system? The answer here was clear – the decision would have to go before the Lay Board:

1. Removing the pews would affect many people more or less permanently

2. Consequences were partly political/social (the donor name-plates on the pews), and partly practical: to use the area for coffee and hospitality might require the expense of installing a kitchen in the cloak room.

3. Reversing the decision (by replacing the pews) would not be easy or cheap since the original pews might have to be sold or discarded (it being difficult to find space to store them)

One person wondered if removing the pews might qualify as a “structural change.” The bylaws reserve to the congregation the right to approve “structural changes and major capital expenditures.” However, in widely accepted accounting terminology, a building’s “structure” is distinguished from its “furniture, fixtures, and equipment” (FFE). FFE are movable items that have no permanent connection to the structure of a building or utilities, and it would be inventing a new definition to include the pews as part of the building’s structure, even if they are screwed down!

While the “structure” argument may be a dead end, the controversy around issues like the banners and the pews still has to be reckoned with in our decision-making process. There are two procedural solutions to this kind of controversy:

1. The first is to recast the question so that it is no longer a “whether or not” question.

a. Instead of asking “do we remove the pews or not?” we ask people to “List 25 ways we could make our church more hospitable, and then rank them in order of effectiveness and cost.” Moving the pews might get on the list, but other things would be more likely to get DONE, and we would become more hospitable, which is the actual goal.

b. Instead of asking “do we hang rainbow banners or not?” we ask “How do we want to tell the community what kind of church we are?” That means coming to a consensus about what kind of church we ARE? And then, what means do we have to get the word out? Rainbow banners would appear on the list of options, but a more nuanced and effective campaign would probably be developed.

2. The second solution is to build into our governance a process for soliciting input when ideas are still in the development stage. This can be done both through discussions in Forward Chats and by encouraging Working Teams to bring potentially controversial ideas to the Lay Board. If the Lay Board is doing its job, it will have skill and wisdom that can help a Working Team get the underlying mission accomplished while avoiding unnecessary conflict

Case Study 3: Terminating a Pastor’s Contract

The proposed new bylaws (unlike the old ones) are clear that the power to hire and fire non-pastoral staff lies with the Lay Board, but the Pastor is a different case. In a Congregational Church, the Congregation always calls the pastor. Does that mean that a Congregational vote is also required to terminate a pastor’s contract? The current bylaws use the passive voice to avoid answering this question, so we asked the people in the room how we should handle it in the new bylaws.

After some discussion, the group reached a consensus that terminating a pastor’s contract should be done not by Congregational vote but by the Lay Board. The deciding factor was the need for confidentiality. If a pastor is being asked to leave, the parties will probably have to discuss difficult and sensitive issues. Assuming criminality is not in question, it is not fair to any pastor tor require that all these details be discussed publicly in the congregation at large.

Next Forward Chats

May 19 no Forward Chat since we have the annual meeting after church.

May 26th TBD – this is Memorial Day Weekend and attendance would be light

June 2 Forward Chat topic will probably be Open and Affirming

June 9 Forward Chat topic TBD – possibly disaster response

June 16 no Forward Chat since we will all be at the reception for Fred’s last day

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