How we govern at FRS: congregational polity

During this time of transition the FRS has begun a process of looking inward, as we explore who we are, who we were, and who we wish to be. We are getting to know each other all over again; refreshing our collective memory and perhaps learning a few things along the way. In service of this exploration, the Governance Committee, which serves the Parish Board, is reflecting on the FRS governance structure. Between congregational meetings, and the many other activities that the church will be engaged in over the next year and a half, we want the congregation to be better informed about governance; what it is, how it works and how the congregation participates in it. This is the first of many articles that will feature the FRS governance model and how it works.

To understand how we govern, we have to go back to the beginning. Our church dates back to a time before this country gained independence from England. Our founders were among the original settlers who took a huge risk to come to this country, but whose passion for independence and autonomy drove them to take those risks. They wanted to worship without restrictions, and they wanted autonomy over how they worshiped. A doctrine that was established in 1648, called the Cambridge Platform, established the basis of how the early church in this country would be structured and with its emphasis on Congregational Polity; it became the bedrock for how we govern.

Congregational polity is a system of church governance in which a church congregation is independent, sovereign and autonomous. For the FRS this means that we govern ourselves without answering to a “higher” authority, such as the Unitarian Universalist Association. Although we are a member of the UUA, we are not bound to their authority. They act as any dues-collecting association would, by giving guidance and providing best practice guidelines, however the FRS takes full responsibility for its own decisions and system of governance.

Each church in the UUA tradition has its own version for governing its congregation based on its own needs and experience. The common thread is the adherence to Congregational Polity. Our Parish Board, which is the body that represents the membership, states has a philosophy of governance that it states in its policies, which reflects Congregational Polity. Here is the FRS policy that states the Board’s Philosophy of Governance.

The FRS uses democratic processes throughout its governance. That governance begins with statements of vision and mission as expressed by the congregation and voted on in congregational meetings. The Parish Board uses those statements to guide its own strategic decision making and to formulate clear, written policies to delegate management decision-making. These policies are carried out by FRS staff members, officers of the church, committees, appointed task forces and subcommittees, and program volunteers.

The aim of this policy approach is to enable good works to be accomplished without unnecessary obstruction or intervention and to foster creativity in church life. 

Specifically, in these policies, the Parish Board strives:

  • To unlock the energies of senior staff, volunteers and committee members
  • To free the congregation to expand its aspirations and to undertake shared acts of compassionate service

The Parish Board devotes its own attention to discernment, strategy and oversight. Thus, it governs primarily by

a.)  Understanding the congregation's vision and mission statements and overseeing the periodic reevaluation of those statements.

b.)  Setting goals and making strategic choices based on the congregation’s vision and mission.

c.)  Writing policies that guide the church’s governance and care of its resources.

d.)  Evaluating the congregation's leadership, including that of the Parish Board.

Originally adopted by the Parish Committee on November 10, 2010. Amended 1/13/2011

This policy guides the Parish Board in all that is does. In the next article in this series we’ll look at the Parish Board – who they are, and what they do.

Marie Murphy, Governance Committee Chair