The Unique Role of Settled Ministers

I’d been looking for this for months–maybe years! It explains the relationship of the minister in a UU congregation to the Board and the congregation. It lays out the differences from what most people know–the model of a not-for-profit board and CEO–and the covenant of ministry. I was beginning to think I’d made all this up. I knew they taught me this in seminary, but I couldn’t find the document. Relief. It is a part of “Assessing Our Leadership: Promoting Effectiveness in Congregational Leadership.”

Most people are more familiar with models of governance (the ways that authority is exercised) in non-profit organizations than in our congregations, and more familiar with standard business employment relationships than with the unique covenant between a minister and a congregation. Here are five areas where a civic non-profit organization and a Unitarian Universalist congregation differ in terms of governance especially related to the role of settled ministers.

1. A non-profit organization hires employees to do its bidding in exchange for payment. A non-profit determines the time and place and manner and amount of an employee’s labor.

By contrast, a congregation calls a minister to be in a covenanted relationship with it, not to complete a list of specified tasks.

2. In a non-profit setting, the employee is likely to have a supervisor with a fairly extensive knowledge of the job and familiarity with the employee’s work.

By contrast, most of the minister’s work is unseen and mysterious to most of the congregation. The priorities are anything but clear. Indeed, managing the complex priorities of ministry is one of the main professional challenges of a minister. And there is no one in the organization with broader responsibility or fuller accountability. Further, it is essential to congregational vitality that ministers be empowered to lead and challenge, rather than act as “hirelings.”

3. Both non-profits and Unitarian Universalist congregations have governing bodies, with broad responsibility to guide the organization toward its mission (Board of Trustees, Board of Directors, Parish Council, etc.). The non-profit Board typically hires a chief executive officer (CEO) and charges that person to hire other staff and carry on the work of the organization. It follows naturally that the Board evaluates the success of the CEO in carrying out that charge.

By contrast, a settled minister is not hired by the Board. Just as the congregation elects its trustees, it calls its minister. In terms of governance, the settled minister is on the same level of authority as the Board, though there are distinctions regarding their specific areas of leadership. One does not appoint, dismiss, or oversee the other. By contrast, almost all other entities of the congregation (committees, staff, etc.) are under the authority of either the Board or the minister.

4. In a non-profit organization, the Board is the definer of the mission and the CEO is the prime implementer.

By contrast, in Unitarian Universalist congregations, both the Board and the settled minister are definers of the mission in conjunction with the congregation. And both the Board and the minister are involved in its implementation. The roles are less distinct. This may be a challenging governance structure, but it is our tradition.

5. In a non-profit organization, the CEO is an employee in the organization. The Board has the responsibility to hire, evaluate and fire the CEO as it sees fit.

By contrast, a congregation and its settled minister are in a covenantal relationship. They promise to walk together in mutuality. They are accountable to one another. They give their loyalty and trust to one another. It can be helpful for a minister and a Board to develop a written agreement regarding their respective roles and responsibilities in the congregation. District field staff may be able to facilitate a process of developing such an agreement.

Maybe it will be helpful to some of you. Or start a great discussion…


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