Jake's Tribute to Governance

  • Jake Morrill posted a longer comment on Facebook in response to Tandi Rogers call for suggestions for new ways for churches to measure their success. 

  • Rev. Jake Morrill Oak Ridge UU Church, Tennessee
    and former UUA Board Member
    Jake Morrill To my brothers, sisters, and siblings who don't like metrics, let me say something. In the past, congregations had "their" District Executives and staff, overseen by "their" District Boards--authority and accountability were based in trust and personal relationship. It was a small, pinched, and disjointed way to do things. But congregations let go of that, with the benefit to staff of more creative freedom--more authority. What our system has not yet developed is how, in turn, the UUA staff will be accountable to member congregations, from whom their authority flows. When Districts no longer do governance, this means accountability happens through the President's reports to the UUA Board (which represents the GA through the year), saying "In light of the Ends, X is our standard for 'good enough,' and Y is how we're doing in relationship to X." When the President doesn't do that, the exciting new creative authority of the staff isn't legitimized by accountability. In systems of authority without accountability, the people have no legitimate recourse, so they tend toward reactivity, as a function of powerlessness, freaking out over things like a new logo. This January, in his 5th year, despite a consultant, the President again submitted a report that did not define X ("good-enough") or Y ("how we're doing, in light of 'good enough'"). One might say it can't be done, that you can't measure the impact of human activity on complex systems, because the impact is rarely one-to-one or direct, but that person would have to reject climate change models and all social science. So, it's possible. And important. When authority is paired with accountability, there's democracy. When experiments are tied to desired outcomes, it's possible to learn and to increase likelihood of success. So, that's why my heart leaps when I hear awesome UUA staff members like Tandi [Rogers, UUA Growth Specialist] talk about metrics: because it means democracy and increasing impact for the faith that I love. And possibly, hear me Lord, a little less fighting about things like new logos.
  • Believe me when I say that Jake Morrill is one of my favorite people, but his comment here raises a lot of questions for me.

I sometimes think that there are two parties among UUA Activists, which is the UUA Hive Mind. The HiveMind is not all UU's, but those who actively connected to its working beyond the local congregation. If you are a UU reading this blog, and don't find it incomprehensible, you're in it. 

Anyway, two parties: the "congregationalists" and the "institutional evangelists." 

In the post-merger world, when theological differences became more muted, the congregationalists defined UUism with congregational polity. The Nixon-Reagan counter-revolution accentuated this tendency. The "congregationalist" tendency in UUism was part of an accommodationist response to the hostile culture. At the heart, the congregationalist wanted local churches to set their own course in their local community. It especially wanted our most successful churches to be able to maintain respectability. The congregationalists were often embarrassed by the national UUA structure getting too far out on social and political issues. 

There's some great doctoral theses to be written about the UU political realignments that went on during the period of John Buehrens' and William Sinkford's presidencies. Buehrens' election was a sign of great hope among the congregationalist wing. They thought that here was a President who has served a couple of our largest and most successful churches. Here was a President who lead the UUA in a way that built on our strengths. 

It didn't happen that way, of course. A lot of other things happened, and they are yet to be sorted out and understood. Some of the events that need to be understood in themselves and in relationship to each other, and the overall culture: Buehren's election, Carolyn Owen-Towle's constituency, the turn to anti-racism, Buehrens's break with Prairie Group, the Sinkford election, the election of Free church theoretician Burton Carley to the Board, the transition between Denny Davidoff, Diane Olson and Gini Courter, the controversy over the Katrina fund. 

But somewhere in this process, the congregationalist wing had shifted its hopes from the UUA President to the UUA Board, which was now understood to represent the congregations. (Do they really? Another question. Ask Alice Blair Wesley.) 

Congregational Polity evolved into Policy Governance. The UUA Board took on the task of making the UUA Staff accountable to the Board, which represented the congregations. This is the context of Jake's post above.  

The other side of the contradiction is an Institutional Evangelist tendency. They are more concerned about projecting UUism into the culture overall, giving a public voice to our values and existence. In terms of the overall cultural situation, it is a more resistance/defiance response toward the aggressive conservative hegemony of the Nixon/Reagan/Bush reaction. 

It was the work of the UUA administration: to bear prophetic witness. They assume that it will help local congregations by making us more visible and clearly defined in the public eye. They also want to strengthen congregational functioning, with better governance, better programming, better leadership development. In the Morales administration, they have also been trying to understand the post-congregational environment we are now in. 

The current manifestation of these opposing viewpoints is the impasse between the Board and the Administration. Good people everywhere hope that new Moderator Jim Key can "both/and" a way past it. 

[Now, everybody, don't write to me to tell me that I have overdrawn this opposition, and that there is a middle way and that the situation is really "both/and" and not "either/or" as I have drawn it. I know that. I have been on all sides of this contradiction, and I have sympathy for both.] 

Where these two tendencies come together is that they are both responses to the 40 years in the wilderness of contemporary UU history -- that 40 year period in which the culture out there seemed hostile and unreceptive to liberal religion. Now that era is coming to an end and we can see them for what they were and move on.


  1. Several years ago, my mind began asking the question people always ask of me: "Why do you see this as either/or choice? Are you sure it couldn't become an either/or opportunity?" Imposing this lens first on the history and polity of other religions, to see if there are models we could be using, has opened even more polity frustrations than previously. Inevitably this undercut the spiritual relevance and energy these challenges used to give me. Secondly, and almost inevitably, it has made my musings significantly less relevant to the UU Hive Mind. Ash Wednesday is a good day to ponder what remains.


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