National boards creep closer to single body, but future of deliberations uncertain

National boards creep closer to single body, but future of deliberations uncertain

April 14, 2008
Written by Bennett Guess

The boards of the UCC's Executive Council and four Covenanted Ministries moved closer to agreement on a single governing body for the church's national setting, although a dispute over the size and composition of the new board remains unresolved and the timeline and mechanisms for future deliberations remain uncertain.

During four days of meetings in Cleveland, the Executive Council and three of the four Covenanted Ministry boards – Local Church Ministries, Wider Church Ministries and Justice and Witness Ministries – voted on April 12 to approve an amended proposal for governance reform. The Office of General Ministries board withheld approval, but also signaled readiness to work further on remaining disagreement.

It remains unclear, however, whether or not the five boards will be able to take up the issue again at their fall meetings, as hoped, given a decision yesterday (April 14) by the Executive Council to restrain any work of the to-be-reconstituted Governance Follow-up Team — possibly until as late as July 15 — to allow time for the UCC's historically underrepresented groups and others to hold gatherings to discuss representation and structure issues and to appoint members to the governance task force through their own internal processes.

This means the next-stage Governance Follow-up Team may not have adequate time to organize and propose next-step proposals by the fall, which was necessary in order to meet a timeline geared to move the proposal for consideration by delegates at General Synod 27 in Grand Rapids, Mich., in June 2009.

The board-size disagreement centers on whether the new governing body will have 85 members, as originally proposed, or as many as 169 as amended. Supporters of a larger board believe it will be more representative and allow for greater participation, while others argue that the larger group will not be as nimble as originally envisioned in the received document.

Some also pointed out that a 169-member board would be too large to conduct its meetings at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland or be accommodated at the adjacent UCC-owned Radisson Hotel.   

In reporting each body's deliberations, each signaled support for a single directorate that would be led by a General Minister and President and three Executive Ministers. The proposal strengthens the authority of the church's General Synod over the national setting, but does not affect the autonomy of the church's 5,700 local congregations or its 38 regional Conferences.

Currently, the UCC's four Covenanted Ministries are separately incorporated. As proposed, the Office of General Ministries would cease to exist as a separate corporation, while the remaining three corporations – LCM, WCM and JWM – will continue as independent corporations governed by a single elected body.

Other features of the proposed new structure include:

  • Eliminating one executive officer – Associate General Minister – and transfer many of its duties to a professional Chief Administrative Officer reporting directly to the General Minister and President.
  • Guaranteeing that endowments and other restricted funds will be spent on the purposes for which they were designated.
  • Providing for increased representation by historically underrepresented groups in the UCC, including people of color, people with disabilities, youth and young adults and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Pressure for a reformed national setting has been building in recent years. The previous restructure in 2000 reduced 10 governing bodies to five, when nine autonomous instrumentalities were merged into four Covenanted Ministries. The new structure attempted to increase efficiency and reduce duplication of effort, but maintained the UCC's historic tradition that each of its national ministries would be separately governed by an autonomous board.

In time, the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers issued a joint statement calling for a further-streamlined governance, saying they each found it nearly impossible to serve and be accountable to two different boards: the Executive Council and their respective Covenanted Ministry board.

Decision-making is often a slow and laborious process, the Collegium has argued, and extensive negotiations between the separate boards are needed to make decisions that affect the church as a whole. Strategic planning – especially around financial health, communications and programmatic priorities – is especially difficult, the Collegium insists.

A unified governing body "will be more appropriate for current financial realities, more nimble in addressing and claiming ever changing mission opportunities, and more capable of altering its own internal life to deal with rapid change within and beyond the church," according to the report that accompanied the restructure proposal considered last weekend.

"Members of our local churches may not have a deep interest in these governance questions," the report continues, "but they do expect the national setting to be marked by faithfulness, courage, excellence, relevance, and responsiveness."

"These expectations must be the horizon against which all our governance discussions take place," the report says.

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