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Who's in Charge Here?

Governance in Unitarian Universalist Congregations

By John B. Bennett

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Unitarian Universalist Congregations and Societies

Membership: As in a town meeting, each member of a Unitarian Universalist society is a voter and participant in the society’s affairs. At the Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church of Farmers Branch, Texas, for example, the church’s bylaws state: “The ultimate responsibility for all matters pertaining to the operations of the Church shall rest with the Congregation. Any powers of authorities not specifically delegated in these Bylaws…shall be reserved to and for the Congregation.”


The members of Horizon UU Church meet at least once a year to receive and discuss reports from their officers and committees and from their minister to approve a budget and to elect officers for the coming year. Since the church is autonomous, decisions made at the meeting are not subject to review by any higher authority. Similarly, the congregation’s bylaws are written, adopted, and from time to time changed by its members with no outside intervention.

Congregation Officers: Unitarian Universalist societies elect officers, usually a president or chair, a treasurer, a clerk, and a board of trustees to manage the congregation’s affairs, funds, and property—the church building and sometimes a parsonage. Officers are usually elected and changed with specific responsibilities according to rules established in a church’s bylaws. To perform their duties, these officers hold regular public meetings. (A lay member of the congregation, not the minister, presides at these meetings and at the annual meeting of the congregation.) Because each Unitarian Universalist congregation is autonomous, bylaws differ from church to church. To understand how your own congregation operates, you should familiarize yourself with its bylaws.


The bylaws of the 300-year-old First Parish in Cambridge provide that its governing body “shall cause Warrants to be issued for all business meetings of the Parish; superintend the property and buildings of the Parish, and cause all necessary repairs to be made; appoint the Sexton and determine his duties and compensation; approve bills and draw orders upon the Treasurer for the payment of salaries and other expenses…; and in general shall manage all the concerns of the Parish.” The officers are also instructed “to choose a Board of Investment…which will exercise full power over the investment and re-investment of the trust funds of the Parish.”


In addition to managing the congregation’s affairs, officers also ensure that religious education is provided for children and adults, raise funds to meet the needs of the society, and certify the society for the annual assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.


Church staff may consist of one or more parish ministers and other ordained professionals such as an associate or an assistant minister and a minister of religious education (MRE). The latter is entrusted with the religious growth and development of church members, both young and old. In the absence of an MRE, these functions may be performed by a director of religious education (professional, but not ordained) or—in a small society—a qualified lay volunteer. Sometimes, a community-based minister is affiliated with the congregation. A typical staff may also include an administrator, a custodian, and a music director. In Canada, each congregation appoints one or more chaplains, who are lay people registered to perform rites of passage.


Congregation Staff: The parish minister is not an officer of his or her own Unitarian Universalist society. In and out of the pulpit, the minister’s first concern is the spiritual well-being of the congregation. The constitution of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, California, specifically states the following expectations: “A minister is a religious leader of the Church and performs all ministerial duties as outlined in his or her contract, including those prescribed by law. Ministers shall be non-voting members of the Board, Church Council, Standing Committees, and such Special Committees as the Board may designate. Ministers shall consult with and advise the Board on management of church affairs and administration of church policy.”


The exact duties of a minister vary from one congregation to another, but they usually involve pastoral and ministerial functions such as preaching and leading services of worship; counseling; officiating at rites of passage (child dedications, marriages, and memorial services); and performing certain administrative duties such as meeting with officers of the congregation and relevant committees and daily staff supervision.


Last but not least, a minister also serves as the voice and visible presence of the congregation in the community and in the denomination.

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