Governing “Just Right”

Governing “Just Right”

Dear members of the Trinity family,

One of the important conversations we had at our Annual Meeting a few weeks ago was about our governance model and our decision-making processes. As I heard that conversation, and from what I have heard in follow up one-on-one conversations, there is a curiosity about how “open” or how “rigid” our governance model is.

This article does the best job I’ve seen at explaining approaches to this question. Using the labels the author sets out, here is my take: For most of the past thirty years, Trinity has lived in the “soft” zone. Then, during the last decade with the focus on revitalizing the ministry of the congregation through Hurlburt, there was a sense for some that Trinity had tripped over into the “too hard” zone. Our current governance model is aiming for the “sweet spot” of “just right,” avoiding the pitfalls of either a “too soft” or a “too hard” approach.

Here’s the thing: with such a long experience of life in the “soft” zone, that approach to ministry is seen as the normal, or default, approach to ministry. It’s also the only approach that many people at Trinity know! And, as this is a continuum, positions are relative: so, from the perspective of the “soft” end of the spectrum, any movement in the direction of increased “firmness” or “structure” can be perceived as a potential move in the direction of a “too hard” stance.

Please have a read. I’d love for us to have a conversation about this – here on Facebook, and/or in person.

Blessings,
Jeff

4 Comments

    Patricia Hesketh

    Hi Jeff:

    Can you give me examples of “hard” and “soft”. Does it apply to the running of the Church, our religious beliefs and/or our spiritual growth? I am a little confused.
    Thanks
    Patricia Hesketh

    Rev. Jeff Seaton

    Hi Patricia,

    So glad you took the time to read the article and comment. In terms of the article, and how I see it as applying to Trinity, the focus is on our governance style. So, yes, it is about the running of the church, and how the church makes decisions about ministry initiatives.

    A “soft” approach would essentially say that the ministry of Trinity is the sum total of the passions and callings of its members; and that there is no further refinement or discernment. The ministry is what the members as individuals feel called to do.

    A “hard” approach describes a very strict, top-down, decision-making structure that determines the ministries of the church. It would be if the Board said, “These are the only permissible ministries of the church, and you must do these and only these!”

    Our approach is trying to be a “just right” approach in that it seeks a middle way between these two approaches. It is not as completely open as the “soft” approach, because it does set some boundaries. However, those boundaries are not as tightly drawn as in the “hard” approach, and they are based on the vision as discerned by the congregation as a whole; they are not handed down from on high by congregational leaders.

    In our current model, the congregation’s vision is really the guide for all of us at Trinity, and the role of leaders (the Board and Lead Minister) is to help guide the congregation to work within the vision. This is based on the idea that the congregation is more than just a collection of individuals, with individual gifts and passions. It is a body–the body of Christ–and its collective vision sets the guidelines for ministry.

    Our hope is that this model will allow Trinity to focus on a few key ministry goals, and then to measure our progress towards achieving those goals. The focus on a few major goals, however, still leaves lots of room for a variety of ministries to continue to thrive.

    nadine poznanski

    Hello Jeff:
    I sincerely appreciate the efforts you are making to help our congregation make the VISON- or Mission Statement as we used to call it- a practical reality.
    Following a second reading of this article and your comments, I am still not clear in my understanding of what it means for our congregation.
    To make it easier to understand, could you please give us one example illustrating the “soft” governance model we are told we experienced in the past and why could such an example not necessarily be compatible with our Vision and ” just right” governance today ?

    Whichever : soft, hard, or just right structure, if the congregation is to be supportive of its leaders, governance must be transparent.

    A concern which has not been transparent ( perhaps it is an example of harder governance?): What is the defining difference between the previous Ministry & Personnel committee versus the new Personnel team, and why was it necessary to change this structure ? It was not specifically explained to the congregation last Fall when we were presented with the advantages of the new governance structure. Some of us waited to have access to the Ministry and Personnel Committee report in the AGM package.. But there was no such report, nor were there any thanks given to the people who had served on the Committee. The only report was that from the transition appointee. Upon inquiry, I discovered there had been a report from Ministry & Personnel but it did not make it into the Annual Report because it had not been “accepted “.

    AS I stated earlier in thse comments- regardless of which governance structure we are working with- if there is no full transparency or accountability to the whole congregation, the VISION will not become a practical reality.
    Nadine

      Rev. Jeff Seaton

      Dear Nadine,

      Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and to offer your own reflections and questions. I will try to answer your questions here, but it may prove more helpful for us to have a a face-to-face conversation.

      I think the key thing to recognize is that the various approaches to governance are not necessarily right or wrong; a softer approach indeed may have been the right approach in the past. It’s a question of finding the most appropriate model for the situation. The soft approach generally was followed at a time when congregations were bigger, and more accurately reflected the community in which they existed. For example, thirty years ago Trinity had on average 300 people attending on a Sunday. Today that number is 180, a 40% decline. Thirty years ago, Trinity was a generationally diverse congregation with participation across the full age spectrum. Today 90% of our participants are over the age of 60 with the largest number of those over the age of 75. Our demographics of thirty years ago lent themselves to more of a participatory model, with a “department-store” variety of ministries.

      A few things have changed over the past thirty years, including the disappearance of department stores! All together, we now have an older and smaller congregation, less able to participate in “staffing” and supporting the ministries we once engaged in; and the cultural patterns have shifted, in the direction of increased specialization and focus in organizations. As I said in the presentation of this model last January, in the past it was enough for us to just “be the United Church of Canada congregation in Vernon.” That identity brought us a steady stream of participants.

      In recent decades, Trinity has not been able to attract or retain the engagement of people under the age of 50. I believe that this is in part due to our congregational culture and practices. The changes to our model are an attempt to enable us to become a congregation that is a better fit for our current culture.

      On the subject of transparency, this has really been a cornerstone for my time in ministry at Trinity. I spoke of the importance of transparency and accountability in an early sermon at Trinity, and this remained a central focus for me ever since. The main difference between this model and our previous model is a vast increase in transparency and accountability. In the model we had been using for the past decade, decision-making authority had become very widely dispersed in the system, and it had become hard to trace lines of accountability. In the system Trinity used before 2000, the old Council model, lines of accountability were somewhat clearer, but the model had become cumbersome.

      The model we now use is very streamlined and final authority resides with the Board, as per The Manual. Board Liaisons (successors to the previous Core Ministries) working in partnership with the Lead Minister, exercise authority over day-to-day operational decisions. This is based on the ideas that it is important for the Board to be primarily concerned with strategic direction, and that operational decisions are best made by those closest to the day-to-day realities of the church.

      As to the particulars of the situation involving the transition from the former Ministry and Personnel Committee to the current Personnel Team, confidentiality and pastoral concerns set limits to what can be said in a public forum. From a transparency standpoint, I can state very clearly that your Board sought and followed the advice of the appropriate staff people and bodies of the church, in particular the staff of BC Conference who oversee all Ministry and Personnel work. As to the specifics of the report of the former Ministry and Personnel Committee in the Annual Report for 2015, that is a matter that was handled by the Board as part of its overall responsibility. Once again, without going into details, I can assure you that your Board followed appropriate guidelines and sought appropriate advice. It is my understanding that thanks were not offered at the Annual Meeting at the request of the former members of the Committee, who indicated that they felt they received their recognition at the time that they stepped down from the Committee. Once again, please be assured that your Board members are acting with appropriate care, concern, and love for their fellow Trinitarians.

      The key difference between the previous approach and the current one is that in the current model, the Lead Minister has supervisory responsibility for the other staff. This was done following the recommendations of consultants who have provided guidance to Trinity in the areas of personnel work and conflict resolution over the past few years, including Susan Nienaber and, more recently, John Wimberly (both former Alban Institute consultants). The main notion here is that supervision is best done by the individual(s) who have direct experience of staff performance.

      I appreciate your questions and concerns, and more than that, I honor and salute your obvious love for the well-being of Trinity. It is the well-being of Trinity that is always at the very centre of my focus as your minister. What these changes and conversations show us is that we will not always agree on what are the right decisions, or the correct changes to make. There will be times when we simply cannot agree, and someone may indeed feel unhappy with the changes we make. That is unavoidable in any group larger than one. What we must strive to do is to understand one another’s point of view clearly, so that we do not misunderstand or, worse, misrepresent the views of others. If we can trust that we each hold the well-being of Trinity as our priority, then that will help I think.

      Blessings,

      Jeff

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