The Hundred Thousand Dollar Question

How are we to evaluate the performance as Moderator of Gini Courter? 

How do we apply the lessons of her tenure to the choice between Jim Key and Tamara Payne-Alex to succeed her?

Gini Courter has been an extraordinarily ambitious Moderator, attempting to make the UUA Board the real leadership of the Association.  By establishing Policy Governance, her plan was that the Board would begin to evaluate the work of the Administration and Staff, holding it accountable for effective work toward the goals of the Association.

You could say that it is a plan to increase the power of the Board.  You could also say that it was a plan for the Board to step up to a Board's expected duties.  After all, Boards are supposed to evaluate the work of the organization to make sure that it is fulfilling its mission.

Behind the plan was an analysis that the problems of Unitarian Universalist drift was the a problem of governance: the people who worked for us were largely self-directed and unaccountable, even though they were talented and committed people.  This analysis meshed with the concerns of those that saw the UUA staff as insufficiently concerned with actual congregational life.  The Board, which represented the congregations, would assert its authority over the administration, making for a more democratic and effective association.

It did not work out as expected.  The Board and the Administration have not been able to work out a system of right relations with each other, which has surfaced as disputes over reporting.

It is tempting to just say "a plague on both your houses" and "get your act together".  That's cheap and shallow analysis, akin to shallow analysis that holds Barack Obama and John Boehner equally culpable for the deadlock in Washington DC.

Our collective leadership are adults, acting consciously to reach the goals they think are important.  They are also in a conflict which has its own dynamic.

Here are my questions:

What was the problem that reforming the governance of the UUA supposed to fix?  What are the other dimensions (not governance) of the necessary solutions to that problem?

Did Gini Courter move too aggressively toward imposing policy governance on an administration that had serious reservations about it?

Has the Morales administration resisted being evaluated by the Board?  Why?

How do each party see their mandate from the rank and file, as expressed in their respective election?

Are their technical issues outstanding about how to set measurable goals for the association, and how to report on progress toward them?  

I can't help but notice that the Board has emphasized accountability to the congregations, while the Administration is talking about "beyond congregations." Is this a real difference?

Now that Gini Courter is approaching the end of her service, how does she evaluate her success in bringing better governance to the UUA?  How do Jim Key and Tamara Payne-Alex see the situation now?

I invite others to offer their perspective on this situation.


  1. The first mistake, it seems to me, was made by every person who served on the board, and that was to not notice that doctrinaire policy governance doesn't fit the reality of our Association's life, which has an elected, not a hired president. When your governance doesn't match reality, it "works" only when you don't need it because everything is going well. I don't understand how the Board could have been so blind and I don't know if Gini is mainly to blame for it. I do blame her for a rigid and alienating approach to the president and staff, but once again, a majority of the board was apparently with her.

    Both candidates need to be asked hard questions about how they will manage this mess, and so do those running for the board. If the right people are elected, the consultant's job will be relatively straight-forward. Shared governance models do exist already and seem to have worked pretty well in our churches.

  2. Is there a real or meaningful difference between Gini's focus on congregational accountability and Peter's emphasis on "congregations and beyond"? Probably not. After all, the board's list of "sources of authority and accountability" includes not just the member congregations but also "current and future generations of Unitarian Universalists," and the board has been particularly interested in how youth and young adults are being served.

    Furthermore, the bylaw revisions that opened the way for non-local "congregations" to join the UUA also came from the board.

    I don't see a huge difference on that point.

  3. Clyde Grubbs11:41 AM

    Did Gini do this all by herself, or was this the work of the Board which has a collective wisdom accumulated over several decades.

    Most Board alumni think "about time." Wonder why?

    But it is easier to see it as the work of "Great Women and Men" and not understand that the moderator is a facilliator of a group. The incoming Moderators will bring different facilliative skills, different than Gini, different than each other. But the Board will develop its consensus.

  4. Clyde Grubbs6:56 PM


    You seemed to be respnding to the rumor that 1) the consultant is supposed to mediate the differences between the BoT and the President and 2) that persistant differences between the BoT and the President are due to differences in policy governance.

    The Consultant is being contracted to help the administration with constructing ways to measure the efficacy of programs, so that the administration can better report. This was a response to administration concern over their capacity to construct such evaluations at present.

    The consultant is for capacity building, not conflict resolution. If you or other collegauge argue that we should not invest in capacity for evaluation, then argue that and present facts.

    Arguing that the Association is not governable by policy is simply your opinion.

  5. Anonymous9:10 AM

    Off to the side of any of the polity or organizational questions, and I think more important when we think of our mission, is the question of how we understand and what we offer and expect our congregations and other services to offer in the way of support for having a rich and vital and growing spiritual life. This question gets crowded out of the central position it ought to have in a religious institution when we get too focused on structures and rules for keeping ourselves accountable and also when we get too focused on social ministry. Some serious attention to these is appropriate, and at the same time neither accountability systems nor social ministry efforts can reach their potential when those working within them don't have a strong inner compass and good support for keeping it strong.

    I think policy governance (necessarily modified) was a good idea for the UUA, and much has been achieved - albeit sometimes rather roughly if not rudely - by putting it in place. I think we are better for it. We are also bruised, and there are questions remaining to address and fine-tuning to do. What I want to hear a moderator candidate say is that they will put the past in the past and work from where we are to - as Christine put it - bring our governance in line with reality, and work always toward the best loving and respectful relationships we can. And I want to see evidence that the candidate has some genuine, demonstrated ability to connect with others effectively to do all that.

    Thanks, Tom, for this thoughtful, provocative post.

  6. Clyde Grubbs10:10 AM

    Tom asks "What was the problem that reforming the governance of the UUA supposed to fix? What are the other dimzensions (not governance) of the necessary solutions to that problem?"

    The AUA (the House that Sam built) was a strong President organization in which the Board was an old boys club of prestiguous flunkies and big donors. The UUA by laws however put all the policy formation policy in the General Assembly and into the Board that was "the GA" between meetings. However, the "tradition" of Sam Eliot's strong Presdient persisted and gave us the disaster of 1969.

    The Board is trying to live into the bylaws. Presidents come and go. Vision should be owned by the whole Association and it may take more than one administration to realize. We need a vision, strategic plan, and ends for administration who should be elected not on their "platform" but their understanding of how we can together live into that shared vision.

  7. Clyde Grubbs11:05 AM

    Tom asksL "Did Gini Courter move too aggressively toward imposing policy governance on an administration that had serious reservations about it?"

    Let me reframe, is the Board going too fast in goernance reform? (I have already objected to the idea of the Moderator as Boss.) For some the Board's work is like a glacier. For others, who have an idea "what our Assocation's life is and isn't and then the need for the Board taking any initiative is suspect. After all we have an elected President, why bother with governance?

    The Fact is, the Board began this process well before Peter Morales was elected and the transition to governance by shared ends and policy is still in transition.

    The UUA administration has not been relationally accountable in the past and no one should realistically expect that we will have completed this transition without developing a new culture at all levels of governance. (GA in which delegates are accountable and prepared, Visionary Board in linkage to our Sources of Accountability, and Administration that deeply shares the vision of the whole Association and seeks participation from the deep talents within our Unitarian Universalism to make that vison real.

  8. Anonymous12:36 PM


    Are you speaking as a member of the Board in these comments?

  9. What was the problem that reforming the governance of the UUA supposed to fix? What are the other dimensions (not governance) of the necessary solutions to that problem?

    Full disclosure: I serve on the UUA Board. I'm also a minister. I speak for myself.

    Liberals fear granting authority to others. So, if liberals joined together to create an organization, they might design one that produces no clear authority for anyone to do anything. They might create confusion in the system, so as to undermine the attempt of anyone to exercise authority. Because accountability and authority are two sides of the same coin, a system built to undermine clear authority will also lack clear accountability. You end up with an organizational chart that looks like a bowl of spaghetti. You end up with people who are timid in their roles, unsure of what power the role actually has. Even the president of such an organization must tip-toe around, gaining buy-in of power-brokers and seeking harmony, before launching an initiative. Now and then, a powerful figure might rise up and exert authority. But that exercise in authority would not come with its concomitant accountability. The Unitarian Universalist Association, built by liberals, has left deep questions of mission, vision, and impact unresolved for a very long time because it is not clear in the system who has the power to authoritatively name or assess these things. Absent a functional organizational process, the UUA has developed a small-church culture (albeit, one sustained nationwide) in which personalities and personal relationships are tended to, and harmony in personal relationships is prized above organizational performance.

    As I understand it, governance does three things: names the Promised Land (the vision/goals); authorizes who will do what on the way to the Promised Land (“you’re empowered to do these 12 things, but not these other 4”); and assesses progress toward the Promised Land (“are we there yet,” “how much farther,” “are we headed in the right direction—and how do we know?”) An Association unable to fulfill these tasks is an Association unable to govern itself, an Association unable to name the Promised Land, authorize leadership, or understand whether our attempts are working, or whether it’s time to change course.
    As an Association, we are committed to democratic process. There are other processes an organization might use to fulfill the tasks of governance. But, as long as we say we’re democratic, we’re obliged to connect the people’s dreams into goals into plans into impact. To accomplish this connection between people’s dreams and organizational impact requires a system of clear roles and responsibilities. Without that clarity, we are attempting an ongoing Town Meeting, where it is never clear how decisions are made.

    Some might say that the attention to governance comes at the cost of focus on mission and ministry. And, it is true that good governance is not the ultimate dream. It is only the vehicle through which an organization can sustain the ultimate dream. But, if we were to focus only on questions of mission and ministry, and our voices were disconnected from a process through which decisions are made, would we be only talking? What would participatory, functional democracy look like for our people?

  10. Clyde Grubbs6:22 PM

    I am a member of the Board and being a member of the Board privileges me with a little experience in the practical problems of governance. But the Board speaks as a Board, and members speak as members.


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