Who's in Charge Here?
Governance in Unitarian Universalist Congregations
By John B. Bennett
You’re in Charge!
Unitarian Universalism challenges you to develop a belief system of your own. Membership in a UU society allows you to join with others whose beliefs may radically differ from your own to accomplish common goals of worship, fellowship, and socially responsible action. At the same time, you bear the responsibility for taking an active part in the affairs of your congregation—the unique entity in which you have sought and accepted membership. One of our seven UU Principles calls for the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
Who’s in charge here? In every sense, you are!
Autonomy of the Congregation
Let’s assume that you are a newcomer to Unitarian Universalism. Before you join a Unitarian Universalist congregation, you probably want to know how it is governed and what voice you will have in the affairs. This describes the polity of typical UU congregations, as well as the connection between congregations and the district and continental services of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Because Unitarian Universalist congregations are self-governing, self-supporting, and wholly autonomous, each society may differ from these examples.
Although most societies are active participants in a community of congregations, each Unitarian Universalist society is bound by no authority other than that exercised by its members. The minister is an influential participant in all the affairs of the society, but has no special power in congregational decisions. This type of American congregational polity evolved from early New England town-meeting government where congregation and town were overlapping entities. In this system, voters meet regularly to elect town officers and to discuss and vote on matters of importance. Between meetings, the day-to-day affairs are handled by the town’s elected officers. (Such congregational polity is also the form of governance in Baptist, United Church of Christ, and Jewish congregations.)
Other denominations have other forms of governance. Presbyteral polity (in Presbyterian churches) divides authority between the church and an assembly of regional clergy (the presbytery). Local ministers exercise substantial control in their congregations. Administrative authority rests with a representative body elected by parishioners.
Lutherans govern themselves under a blend of polities, sometimes called “presbygational.” Under episcopal polity, the bishop who presides over a diocese (Protestant Episcopal) or an annual conference (Methodist) shares authority with each local church. Parish authority is divided between the clergy and elected officers. How diocesan or conference control is divided and how it is exercised vary from one diocese or conference to another.