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Dan Harper | Institutionalism

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A century ago, Unitarians and Universalists used to talk about “churchmanship,” by which they meant the art and science of keeping church organizations healthy and strong. But that old term was both gender specific (and men really did think they were the most important institutional leaders), and it assumed that all congregations were churches. In addition, that old term obscured the ways in which congregations shared many characteristics with other voluntary associations. So now we use the term institutionalism, meaning the art and science of keeping congregations, and other similar voluntary associations, healthy and strong and operating at their maximum effectiveness.

As you build your skills in institutionalism, remember that these skills are transferable to other nonprofits and community groups. Yes, you can go to school and earn a certificate in nonprofit management. But you can also gain most of those those same skills for free by joining a congregation and learning leadership by doing it. I remember talking to a woman who was the president of the California League of Women Voters, a large and influential nonprofit. She said she gained her skills in institutionalism through volunteering with her local Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Teble of Contents

1. Theories and Basic Principles of Institutionalism
2. Introduction to Process
3. Introduction to Congregational Staff Organization
4. Introduction to Volunteer Management
5. Learn More


1. Theories and Basic Principles of Institutionalism

A. The Theology of Institutionalism: Voluntary Associations
B. You Gotta Have a Mission
C. You Gotta Have a Religious Center
D. Some Things You Don’t Need (But Might Be Nice)


A. The Theology of Institutionalism: Voluntary Associations

Back in the twentieth century, a Unitarian theologian named James Luther Adams laid out the theology behind institutionalism. Adams pointed out that congregations are a form of voluntary association — a voluntary association is exactly what the U.S. Bill of Rights was talking about when it guaranteed the right to freely associate. Adams spent time in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and he noticed that one of the first things the Nazis did was to get rid of the voluntary associations; either that, or co-opt the voluntary associations (as when they took over a bunch of churches and made those churches subservient to the Nazi party). Adams came to the conclusion that voluntary associations are one of the bulwarks of democracy.

Voluntary associations may be bulwarks of democracy, but they require volunteer time, and they require volunteers to have some basic skills. (In other words, the freedom to associate has costs associated with it — it requires time and effort.) We Unitarian Universalists claim that one of the fundamental principles of our religion is a commitment to democracy. Institutionalism is how we live out this religious commitment.


B. You Gotta Have a Mission

Back in 1990, management genius Peter Drucker published his book Managing the Non-profit Organization: Principles and Practices. In this very readable and still relevant book, Drucker points out that all nonprifts, including churches, must have a good, memorable mission statement. A for-profit business can judge its success by its profit, but a nonprofit organization needs to judge its progress by whether it reaches its mission. Go read Drucker’s book, and come back here when you’re done.

OK, now that you’ve read Drucker’s book, you get it, right? Everything is driven by mission. Finances are mission driven — we don’t take in revenue merely for the sake of maintaining the institution, we take in revenue for the sake of furthering the mission. Volunteer management is mission driven — volunteers have a purpose and that purpose is contained in the mission. And so on. Everything is driven by the mission.

Every part of the nonprofit organization — every part of a congregation — should be driven by the mission statement. This implies that the institution is not an end in itself. Rather, the institution is a means by which we further our mission.

And now that you’ve read Drucker, you understand how that 3-page long mission statement you came up with five years ago (which you’ve never referred to since) is NOT a mission statement. It might be a long-range plan, but it is NOT a mission statement. A mission statement is brief. A mission statement is direct. A mission statement is specific. Here is a good congregational mission statement: “We transform ourselves, each other, and the world.” Here is an adequate-but-not-great congregational mission statement: “We transform and heal ourselves and our world through reason and love.“ In my personal experience, if a mission statement is longer than ten words, few people will remember it, which makes it utterly useless — the second example above would become a good mission statement if we removed the last four words. When crafting a mission statement, remember the acronym KISS: Keep It Short and Simple.


C. You Gotta Have a Religious Center

Congregations are a specific kind of nonprofit organization — they’re a religious nonprofit organization. So in addition to your mission statement, you’ll also want a statement of your religious center. This can be longer than the mission statement, but it has to be memorable. Yes, you can use the “Seven Principles” of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but honestly they’re hard to memorize. Besides, ideally you want to incorporate this statement of your religious center into every single worship service, and reciting the lengthy “Seven Principles” each and every week feels a little too much like reciting some kind of liberal creed. So below are a couple of examples of good statements of religious center from actual Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In my home congregation, First Parish of Concord, Mass., we used to say a unison benediction at the end of every service. It was memorable, and powerful enough that people printed it, framed it, and hung it on the wall at home. It went like this:

Go out into the world in peace
Have courage
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings.

Several congregations I have served used the following as an affirmation that they said together each week in the middle of the worship service:

Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is its sacrament,
And service is its prayer.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another,
To the end that all souls shall grow
Into harmony with the divine.

I prefer the first example above. It’s easier for children to understand, so you can say it at the end of every Sunday school class, as well as the adult worship service. But the second example is perfectly adequate. Look around, and you may find that your congregation already has a perfectly adequate statement of your religious center.


D. Some Things You Don’t Need (But Might Be Nice)

Covenant: A lot of Unitarian Universalists think a Unitarian Universalist congregation must have a covenant, though it’s not true. Why do they think this? Because Conrad Wright, an influential Unitarian scholar of the mid-twentieth century, told them so, and they unquestioningly believed him. However, while covenants are definitely a part of the Unitarian tradition, they did not feature so prominently in the Universalist tradition — and even in the Unitarian tradition, I’m not aware of many Unitarians who thought about covenants until Conrad Wright’s book on covenants became popular in the 1980s. (My mother, a Unitarian who was the Superintendent of the Junior Department of the largest Unitarian Sunday school in the U.S. in the 1950s, never ever talked about covenant, except maybe to sniff disdainfully at what probably seemed to her a pretentious concept). So a Unitarian Universalist congregation does not REQUIRE a covenant, but a covenant is might be nice to have, if you want one and if it doesn't require too much effort.

Historical covenants: Some congregations do in fact have historical covenants — for example, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Ill., still uses the congregational covenant they first adopted when the congregation was founded as a Unitarian church in 1843. If you have a real, honest, bona fide covenant, great, use it. But learn what a covenant actually is before you long for one — historically, a covenant was a set of promises made between people in a congregation, and between those people and their deity; i.e., a covenant has both a vertical component and a horizontal component. (The Geneva, Ill., congregation edited God out of their covenant in the lat 19th century, but they still have a vertical component, i.e., with something larger than humans.) And the covenant was what you signed when you became a member (so if you become a member of the Geneva, Ill., church, what you do is sign under the covenant to indicate that you agree to abide by it). And a new covenant should require a super-majority vote of the entire membership to adopt. Learn the history of covenants before you decide you need one!

Behavioral Covenant: Please be careful to distinguish between a behavioral covenant and a congregational covenant. A behavioral covenant defines expected norms of behavior for everyone who participates in any way in your congregation. A congregational covenant is less about behavioral norms and more about religious and ethical relationships, and furthermore a congregational covenant typically applies only to formal members. A behavioral covenant needs no religious content, but a congregational covenant does. It’s a spectrum, not a binary opposition, but you need to figure out where on that spectrum you’re going to be. And yes, you can have BOTH a congregational covenant AND a behavioral covenant.

Vision statement and long-range plan: These are staples of nonprofit management. They are definitely worthwhile. But if you’re going to develop a vision statement or a long-range plan, please be sure to read up on the literature of nonprofit management, to find out how different people define these things, to learn about some different processes by which you can develop one — and to learn how to actually carry out a vision statement or long-range plan, instead of discovering that they’re just meaningless words printed on a piece of paper that gets filed away and forgotten. You could start by reading Peter Drucker’s book Managing the Non-profit Organization: Principles and Practices.


2. Introduction to Process

“Process” is a broad term for how we get things done in a congregation. Process most often refers to how you make decisions together.

A. Basics of Good Process
B. Making decisions
C. Group Behavior and Group Dynamics


A. Basics of Good Process

Back in 1970, feminist Jo Freeman started talking about what she called the tyranny of structurelessness, and it is still worth your while to read her original essay on the topic. Freeman argued that supposedly leaderless, structureless organizations actually have a kind of structure, because certain individuals usually wind up holding a great deal of informal invisible power without having to be accountable to anyone else. Freeman said this was A Bad Idea. Because of the tyranny of structurelessness, feminist organizations that were supposedly fighting patriarchy might in fact be rerpoducing patriarchal power structures in a hidden manner.

Fast forward to today: we’re seeing similar kinds of power analysis around white supremacy. A supposedly non-hierarchical organization, like our Unitarian Universalist congregations, can reproduce harmful structures of white supremacy without even being aware of what they’re doing. So when you see a congregation that glories in its lack of structure or boasts about its “flat leadership structure,” start looking for the tyranny of structurelessness. And I’ll bet you find that someone, somewhere has a lot of hidden tyrannical power.

Good process is neither completely structureless, nor overly structured and autocratic. Good process allows everyone to participate in decision making and in community life on a more or less equal basis.

Trust and openness: All your congregation’s decision-making processes should be clearly and simply defined. (This does not mean you have to create long involved policy books, like those called for in John Carver’s Policy Governance model of organization. Indeed, long involved policy books can have a tendency to reinforce patriarchy and white supremacy, privileging well-educated white men.) The best way to have open and transparent process, in my experience, is to build a congregational culture of trust and openness, so that open and transparent decision-making becomes a congregational norm.

Building a congregational culture of trust and openness is conceptually easy, but in practice it’s quite time consuming, requiring constant attention on the part of lay leaders and paid staff. People have come up with all kinds of things that are supposed to help build a culture of openness and trust — congregational covenants, behavioral covenants, Policy Governance, etc., etc. — but in my experience, it all boils down to something quite simple and quite difficult. Everyone needs to understand that congregations are built on relationships; everyone needs to understand that you have to build up or nurture relationships, then once you have relationships you have maintain them, and finally when relationships are damaged (which is inevitable in human communities) you have to repair them.

You also have to pay constant attention to the ways you all work together to get things done in your congregation. As congregational life goes along, with people constantly building up, maintaining, and repairing relationships, you’re going to be constantly renegotiating the norms for getting things done. The big principles will stay the same — openness, honesty, trust — but how you live out those big principles constantly shifts and changes at the micro level.

Considering the trust and openness of your congregation’s process:

  1. Do we have norms that we always follow? Are Those norms easy for newcomers to understand?
  2. When we make decisions, who gets to talk the most? Who doesn’t get to talk much? Is that OK, or is that not OK?
  3. Considering myself: Do I need to talk less, or speak up more?
  4. Are we considering the needs of: children; genders other than men; non-white people; elders; people with disabilities; etc., etc.?
  5. Do I ever see us acting out patriarchy, racism, ableism, or any other form of discrimination?
  6. Do we communicate effectively to all the people who are affected by this decision? What about children and teens?
  7. Is what we do characterized by fairness and kindness?
  8. Are we holding in our minds and hearts the biggest purposes of our congregation?
  9. Are we taking the time we need? Alternatively, is there urgency that requires immediate action?

No one keeps all these questions in mind all the time (or even much of the time). But when you start feeling uncomfortable about a process that you’re part of, these questions may help you figure out what’s making you feel uncomfortable, and how you might change things for the better.


B. Making decisions

Good process centers on how you make decisions. I’ll outline three types of decision-making processes most used by Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Consensus: Consensus is when everyone agrees on the decision. Consensus works well for small groups (fewer than a dozen people) who do things together and who have plenty of time to spend making decisions. For a small group to reach consensus, you may not even need much of a formal decision-making process: if there’s plenty of trust and openness, you just keep talking things through until everyone agrees.

Consensus generally proves more difficult for larger groups. If you hope to reach consensus with a group of fifty or a hundred people, you need formal procedures to structure the process. Formal procedures should include: procedures allowing minority opinions to be heard (a consensus process that shuts down minority opinions before they’re heard is not a good process); procedures for dealing deadlocks; procedures to maintain or strengthen personal relationships; etc. Some quaker groups have been using consensus for generations, and observing their formal procedures at their meetings-for-business might inspire good procedures for Unitarian Universalists.

Most larger Unitarian Universalist groups do not have the patience to use consensus as a regular decision-making process.

Voting: Voting can work well for making important decisions. Indeed, voting may be required by a congregation’s bylaws to make decisions that are recorded formally in a written record (e.g., calling a minister, approving the annual budget, etc.). The board of a congregation may also be required to have a formal vote for legal matters, such as appointing people who are authorized to sign for financial accounts. But what voting process should you use?

Some congregations specify the use of Robert’s Rules of Order. However, this is a book-length document, and few people can take the time to know all the rules and how to apply them. Robert’s Rules can wind up being a way for a small minority to control the voting process to tilt it towards the outcome they desire; communities of color and feminist groups have pointed out that older white men have been known to use Robert’s Rules to shut down women and non-white persons. If you’re committed to educating the majority of the people who can vote in the arcana of Robert’s Rules, they can work.

A less formal approach to voting might look like this: One person is elected or appointed to run the meeting (board president, committee chair, or moderator of an annual meeting); that person has the general conduct of the meeting under their control, so ideally this will be someone who is widely trusted. When a decision that requires a vote arises, the person running the meeting calls for someone to make a motion. Whoever is recording the minutes of the meeting puts this into written form. The motion requires a second, another person who supports the motion exactly as stated (the theory being that if you can’t get at least two people to support a motion, it’s not worth your time). Then the person running the meeting calls for discussion. If discussion goes on too long, the person running the meeting has some options: limit the time people can speak (e.g., limit speakers to 2 minutes); limit the number of times one person can speak on this question; ask the group if they are ready to vote (Robert’s Rules calls this “calling the question” and it is voted on); ask the group if they want to defer this issue to a future meeting (Robert’s Rules calls this “tabling the motion” and it is voted on). When discussion is finished, the person running the meeting asks all those in favor of the motion to say so; all those opposed to say so; and then asks if anyone is abstaining from voting. The person recording the meeting notes down how many people voted for and against and how many abstained; they may also wish to note down some of the main points brought up during the discussion.

Then — and this is a critical step — the person recording the meeting puts their notes into written form, called “minutes,” and distributes the draft of the minutes prior to the next meeting of the group. The minutes are taken up early in the agenda; everyone is asked if they have any corrections to the minutes (common corrections include misspellings of names); then the person running the meeting moves that the group votes to approve the minutes as corrected, and everyone votes. This vote is recorded in the minutes of that meeting. The minutes of meetings are made publicly available — it is wise these days to make minutes available both in electronic format stored in the cloud and in written format — and stored as the formal record of the committee or organization. Keeping a written record in this way maximizes openness and transparency.

For major congregation-wide decisions, the wise congregation will add some elements to this voting process: Well in advance of the meeting, perhaps a month or more, the wise congregation distributes a formal agenda outlining the decisions that will be voted on during the meeting. For decisions where emotions may run high, the wise congregation holds additional meetings where people can air their opinions and listen to one another carefully. For high-stakes decisions, such annual budgets, the wise congregations holds question-and-answer meetings a month or more before the main meeting, so that those who wish can dive into the details (hopefully making it so the main meeting doesn't spend hours and hours on such details). For very high stakes decisions — calling a minister, embarking on a capital campaign, etc. — the wise congregation will hold frequent meetings and informational sessions over a period of many months to allow everyone to understand and buy into the decision — indeed, these very high stakes decisions require a process that comes close to consensus because you’ll something like ninety-five to one hundred percent voting in favor.

Executive decisions: You can’t have everyone vote on every decision that needs to be made. Calling a meeting of the entire congregation to decide what brand of toilet paper to purchase is not a good use of anyone’s time. Thus, you will want to figure out how to delegate authority for lesser decisions, and how to establish lines of accountability so that those making executive decisions are accountable to the wider organization.

In this light, it’s useful to distinguish between the bodies governing the congregation (annual membership meetings, governing board, committees) on the one hand, and staff (paid staff, volunteer staff) on the other hand. Executive decisions are delegated to paid staff and volunteer staff. For a discussion of how to organize staff, see Introduction to Congregational Staff Organization below.


C. Group Behavior and Group Dynamics

Good process goes beyond decision-making processes. Good process can also refer to how we behave with one another, so I’m including a brief discussion of behavioral covenants, and a longer discussion of group dynamics.

Behavioral covenants

Sometimes, for whatever reason, people in a congregation may behave badly towards one another. This is unpleasant, and when it happens you&rsquo'll want to figure out how to control the bad behavior.

Reasons for poor behavior can include buried conflict and unresolved trauma. Two examples among many possibilities: — A poor decision-making process results in a substantial minority of the congregation feeling their voice doesn’t count, so a sense of conflict exists. — A minister commits sexual misconduct in the congregation and is fired, but a sense of trauma remains. Two more examples that might become widespread: — The pandemic which began in 2020 causes unacknowledged trauma. — Racism in the wider society permeates the congregation, resulting in trauma both in persons of color and (in a quite different form) in white people. There are other reasons for poor behavior besides buried conflict and unresolved trauma. But poor behavior always has a cause.

Ultimately, the way to address poor behavior is to address the root cause. However, addressing the root cause may take years. For example, congregations that have suffered from clergy sexual misconduct may take two or more decades to recover from the trauma (depending on how serious the trauma was, and how long it lasted). Racial trauma make take even longer, since racism remains so pervasive in the surrounding culture that there’s really no escaping from it. So by all means look for the root cause of the poor behavior & mdash; but in the mean time, it would be wise to establish some behavioral norms so everyone is clear what constitutes poor behavior, and what the consequences of poor behavior will be. This will probably require formal written behavioral policies.

At a minimum, congregations should establish written behavioral policies that conform to local law, and to denominational norms. To conform with local law, there should be procedures to prevent sexual contact between adults and legal minors, and to report it should it occur; in jurisdictions where clergy are not allowed to engage in sexual relations with congregants, there should be procedures to prevent it; and so on. To conform with denominational norms, there should be procedures such that clergy abide by professional standards; procedures to prevent the congregation from hiring or calling staffers who committed ethical violations; and so on. Areas to be covered by such policies should also include sexual harassment, racial discrimination, ableism, ageism, etc.

In addition, congregations may want to establish formal written behavioral covenants governing how congregants behave with one another. Behavioral covenants vary widely in terms of scope and in terms of mechanisms for enforcing behavioral norms. The wise congregation will take an extended period of time — a year or more sounds about right — and engage as many congregants as possible when establishing behavioral norms. The wise congregation will seek help from outside the congregation, such as regional staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association, outside consultants, and other congregations with excellent behavioral covenants, to help draft behavioral standards. Ultimately, behavioral covenants should be implemented by a vote of everyone who is affected by them.

In the mean time, the congregation should continue to seek out the root causes for poor behavior. The wise congregation will call in regional staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association and outside consultants to help in this search. Once the root cause is found, ways should be found to heal from the scars left by whatever that root cause may have been. This is important, because sometimes behavioral covenants can be misused such that they continue the poor behavior rather than ending it.

One model for group dynamics

Understanding group dynamics can be helpful in maintaining good process in small groups ranging from committees to support groups to Sunday school classes. When a group of people comes together, a series of fairly predictable things usually happens. When a group first forms, there’s a kind of awkward time when members of the group are getting to know each other. As people in the group get to know each other, they can begin to figure out what their purpose is as a group, and begin to accomplish that purpose. Finally, most groups eventually dissolve.

Small groups in congregations go through these same stages. If we, as leaders of such small groups, pay attention to the stages groups go through, we can help guide the group into making positive accomplishments. Knowing that conflict tends to arise at certain stages of group development can help us to resolve that conflict effectively. Below is one widely-used model for understanding how groups work. This widely-used model can be useful for understanding how to get small groups up and running at the beginning of their time together, and for understanding how groups operate over the long haul.

Though this model was originally intended for making support-type groups run smoothly, it works equally well with committees and task forces. Just remember that every time you have someone new join your committee or task force (or your support group), you will have to spend tome time in the earlier stages of forming, storming, and norming. Your goal should be to help the committee or task force to the stage of performing.


The group’s first task is to form as a group. At first, there will be people in the group who do not know each other. The members of the group have to know who all is in the group before anything else can happen. Getting-to-know-you activities are very useful at this stage.


Once the group has started to form, group members will very quickly move into determining the roles and relationships between group members. A good group leader will be ready to guide this process. Group leaders should anticipate a certain amount of conflict, and see it as a natural part of the group process. together. A wise group leader will facilitate the group process by channeling conflict into productive (rather than destructive) channels.

One technique is to develop a so-called covenant, i.e., an explicit agreement of how people will behave together. Such an agreement could be as simple as, “Follow the Golden Rule; what’s said in this room stays in this room; step up and step back.” But even with an agreement, group participants will continue to test limits, and challenge you and each other. This is also the stage of group development where people may decide that they don’t want to participate in the small group, and they simply stop coming. So how do you survive the “storming” stage of group development?

Most importantly, you should expect that there will be a period of some conflict, albeit usually fairly minor conflict. Everything will be easier if you are expecting that group participants will test your limits.

Secondly, realize that normal responses to the “storming” stage are fear, anxiety, and loss of control. You may feel some or all of these things, and the participants certainly will be feeling some or all of these things. Watch for participants who are very assertive, or very retiring. One of the best ways to respond to such participants is to give them love and acceptance “ which can be difficult, but it will help everyone get through the fear and anxiety.

Finally, whether you’re a group leader or a group participant, expect that your group will be a great group. Participants tend to live up to your expectations, and if you expect participants to have deep engaging conversations, and to be fun to be with, they will tend to live up to those expectations.


Developing a group covenant is one way to start the group toward developing productive, positive norms early on. Keep drawing everyone’s attention back to the covenant, and be willing to revise it as necessary. As the “storming” stage proceeds, expect the norms of the agreement of “covenant” to be challenged and broken (sometimes willfully).

Be aware that other norms may develop as participants figure out how they want to relate together. to the covenant with a sense of relief, commitment, and a feeling of renewed commitment. Within the broad behavioral norms set by their agreement or “covenant,” one group may become very talkative and feel comfortable talking over each other; another group may be more reflective and prefer plenty of silence and norms that allow only one person at a time to talk. As a group facilitator, your job is to guide the norming stage in a positive direction. You can expect that as the norming stage moves to its conclusion, participants will start living out their norms without reminders from you.

As norms emerge, you will find that the real work of the group begins in earnest.


At this stage, the group really takes on its group task. A session plan that you had doubts about may take on a life of its own, and take the whole group to a deeper place than expected.

While some groups may prefer to close their group membership, others may wish to incorporate new members continually. Also, you will find that sometimes group members disappear for more than a month, due to travel or personal reasons. A smart group leader will realize that every time you add a new member, or re-integrate an old member, you tend to repeat some of the first three stages. When a new participant joins the group, or when someone returns after a long absence, here’s what you can do to make your life easier:

At the beginning of the session, say hello to everyone, and welcome everyone. This repeats the “forming” stage.

Quickly review the covenant early in the session. Be prepared for some conflict early in the session, and respond gently and firmly. This repeats the “storming” stage.

Finally, have the group quickly review what they have been doing. Asking them for their perceptions of what has been going on (or asking for “the real agenda”) repeats the “norming” stage.

Even without a new person, you may find that sometimes the group needs to back to an earlier stage. You may find that you spend a whole session back at “storming” or “norming.” A savvy group leader knows that this happens on a regular basis, and is willing to let the group spend some time at one of these stages, because it can revitalize the group, and let them get to new heights when they return to “performing.”

In the course of the year, there are times groups tend to drop back to “storming” or “norming.” December tends to be one of those times, because people tend to be under a fair amount of stress at the holidays. The first warm weather in early spring can also prompt a drop back to “storming” or “norming,” and attendance may drop. Watch for these times, and be ready to drop your high-performance plan for a session where you can play a game, or take a walk, or whatever, and help the group through whatever it is they need to do.


At some point, every group faces a time when people have to say good bye (even if temporarily). Examples include when a small group has to get too big and splits into two groups, or when people rotate off committees, or the end of the congregational year when groups end for the summer, or when a task force finishes it’s work. This will lead to a stage that’s usually called mourning.

If the group is ending, plan for a party at the end of the year when you can celebrate the accomplishments of the group, and express any sadness or regret at the end of the group’s time together. If the group is splitting, plan for a party, and have everyone commit to a time six months from now when the two groups will get together for a purely social event.


3. Introduction to Congregational Staff Organization

Key principle: in an era when staff costs are outpacing inflation, all small nonprofits must maximize the effectiveness (not efficiency!) of their paid staff. A healthy trend is for paid staff to share responsiblities with volunteer staff and other volunteers. E.g., worship is probably best led by professional ministers working together with volunteer worship leaders. E.g., youth groups should not be led solely by paid staff, but by at most one paid staffer working side by side with volunteers.

This also means that paid staff need to learn how to lead by working side by side with volunteers. The minister can no longer be a remote personage who has tasks that are distinctly different from volunteers.

This also means congregations must learn how to incorporate volunteer staff into their operations; this will include full accountability for volunteer staff (yes, even annual reviews). Org charts and volunteer job descriptions can help here, by answering these questions: To whom is each volunteer accountable? And then what are the lines of accountability so that everyone, paid staff and volunteers, are accountable to the congregation’s membership?

Org charts: An organizational chart, or org chart, helps visualize the lines of accountability. A useful concept to know is “span of control,” which simply means the number of people that report directly to any given leader or namager. Up to 7 direct reports, including paid staff and volunteer staff, is ideal — if one person has more than 7 direct reports, you’re probably going to see that person exhibit signs of burnout. BUT most congregations below 500 members will find that supervisors need to have more than 5-7 direct reports. For example, a DRE will often have 30 to 50 volunteer teachers and advisors reporting directly to them. A parish minister may have a dozen worship associates, another dozen pastoral care associates, etc., reporting to them. So efficient and effective means must be found for having regular contact with all those direct reports, such as group staff meetings for worship associates, lead teachers for Sunday school classes, etc.

An example of a staff organizational chart, showing the congregational meeting at the top, the Board of Trustees reporting to the congregation, and the Parish Minister supervising all volunteer and paid staff, and reporting to the Board. The chart distinguishes between program staff, who provide actual programs and ministries, and support staff, who keep things running so the programs and ministries can happen.



4. Introduction to Volunteer Management

A. Some basic principles of volunteer management
B. Volunteer Manager Attitude Readjustment
C. Recruiting volunteers
D. Training volunteers
E. Motivating and Caring for Volunteers
F. Retaining volunteers
G. Creating Volunteer Job Descriptions


A. Some basic principles of volunteer management

How do we recruit, train, motivate, care for, and retain all the volunteers we need? This is a major challenge for most congregations today. Most congregations need more volunteers now than 25 years ago because we can afford less staff time per pledging member (due to health insurance costs for employees and other factors.) Yet at the same time, it’s harder to find volunteers because most Americans are working longer hours, while also spending less time volunteering and more time consuming media. Furthermore, it’s harder to motivate volunteers because Americans have gotten out of the habit of participating in volunteer-run organizations, and instead most Americans default to consumer behavior.

Why can’t we hire very part-time employees (e.g. 2-5 hours per week) to replace volunteers? You can, but it’s basically a way to move staff costs away from full-time well-compensated staffers with full benefits — to very part-time poorly paid staffers with no benefits. Aside from the questionable ethics this entails, the problem with very part-time poorly paid staff with no benefits is that such staffers tend to have relatively high turnover, which means you still have to worry about recruitment and training. In addition, most congregations simply cannot operate without large numbers of volunteers. Hire very part time poorly paid staffers if you must. But you’re still going to have to recruit, train, motivate, care for, and retain a lot of volunteers. So why start by becoming a congregation that is excellent at volunteer management? — you can always add very part time paid staff later (though I bet you’ll wind up not needing them).

Also consider that hiring very part-time paid staffers to replace some volunteers may disempower and de-motivate other volunteers. They may feel — Wait a minute, why am I not good enough to get paid? They might think — Hey, I don’t have to show up, the paid person will take care of it. So if you go down this path, be pay careful attention to how your very part-time paid staff affect your volunteers.

Is volunteer management difficult? Conceptually, no. But the hard part of excellent volunteer management is that it requires constant effort — it must become a habit. The outline below will point you in the direction of most of the information you need to become an excellent volunteer manager. The comes the hard part — making excellent volunteer management into a congregation-wide habit.


B. Volunteer Manager Attitude Readjustment

The excellent Volunteer Manager will always remember above all that volunteering is not a chore to be avoided, it is an opportunity that will enrich the lives of the volunteers. This is an adjustment from the typical attitude that volunteering is an unpleasant chore so we have to beg and plead to get suckers, er, other people to volunteer. Here's how to readjust your attitude:

Step One: Recognize that Volunteers May Want To Get As Much Out Of Their Volunteering As They Give. If volunteering is done right, it makes you feel good about yourself. Ask not what your volunteers can give to the congregation, ask what the congregation is giving to the volunteers.

Step Two: Remember that volunteers want to learn new skills and perfect existing skills. Volunteering is like a hobby: the skills you learn may not transfer to your job or home life, but they CAN provide deep satisfaction.

Step Three: Never forget that volunteers want a sense of belonging. They may prefer to work independently, but even then, they will want to feel like what they've done contributes to a bigger effort. Corollary: Never forget that volunteers value the informal connections they get to make with other volunteers and staff.

Step Four: Be sure to appreciate volunteers for what they do. And be sure to appreciate volunteers for who they are.

If you follow this four-step attitude readjustment, you are on your way to becoming the sort of volunteer manager that volunteers want to work for. This will make it easier for you to recruit volunteers. And that brings us to....


C. Recruiting volunteers

When you are recruiting volunteers, target people whom you think will want to do the volunteer job, people who will be good at the volunteer job, people who will enjoy it. If you can't find anyone who will enjoy the volunteer job, and be good at it, and enjoy it — then you’re going to have to rewrite the job description.

As you consider whom to recruit, consider the life stages of potential volunteers, and target your recruitment accordingly:

  1. People in their mid-to-late teens may be looking for one-year commitments during the school year as they build resumes, and explore vocation and avocation
  2. People in their twenties may be building careers and finding life partners and frequently moving; short-term and one-shot commitments may work better for them; however, they may also be looking for ways to explore vocational and avocational possibilities so long-term serious commitments can also be attractive
  3. People in their thirties and forties may be very focused on career and family, and therefore need flexible schedules and/or short-term commitments; because they tend to be so busy, they will appreciate built-in time to socialize; if they find a volunteer commitment they like they may stick to it for many years
  4. People in their fifties and sixties may find themselves with more free time as they send children out of the house, and/or readjust their work-life balance; they may also find themselves sandwiched between children and aging parents, which may mean they will appreciate built-in time to socialize
  5. People approaching retirement or who have just retired may be looking for major volunteer commitments; this is a good group to target for major volunteer commitments
  6. People in their late sixties through early eighties are often the most productive volunteers in a congregation — especially if their volunteer commitments bring job satisfaction and continued personal growth
  7. People late in life may need pull back from volunteer commitments as they spend more time managing their own health; like people in their twenties they may prefer short-term and one-shot commitments, or commitments they can do from home (phone calling, etc.)

Recruiting volunteers is like being a matchmaker: Give people a chance to explore different volunteer possibilities, and help them find the ones that suit their needs and talents.

What to do when someone says “No”: When someone says “No” to a volunteer opportunity, figure out why they said “No.” Did you present them with the wrong kind of volunteer opportunity? — if so, figure out what kind of volunteer opportunity would suit them. Is it difficult or impossible for them to volunteer right now? — if so, figure out when they might be available to volunteer. Did they say “No” because of a health problem or family crisis? — then for Pete’s sake be sure to tell whoever provides pastoral care in your congregation. But “No” pretty much NEVER means “No, Never, I Hate You” — so figure out what it DOES mean, and then figure out how you can turn that “No” to a “Yes” next time you ask.


D. Training volunteers

Once you recruit volunteers, they will all need training. Much training is informal, and informal training can be extremely effective — if you’re intentional about it.

Safety training: All volunteers need basic information about safety. All volunteers should have basic orientation in emergency evacuation procedures, and should know the location of first aid kits, etc. (this can be done with evacuation maps on the walls). Some volunteers need more elaborate training, e.g., volunteers working with legal minors need formal training in child protection. Also make sure volunteers have easy access to sexual harrassment policies, non-discrimination policies, and the like.

In-service training: In-service training is often informal, with other volunteers showing new volunteers how things are done. Therefore, plan your volunteer schedules so that there's plenty of opportunity for new volunteers to interact with more experienced volunteers.

Efficient training: Sometimes you need formal training — actual class-type offerings to train people for specific tasks. E.g., in my congregation we always have a formal training session for all the canvassers who will help out with the annual pledge campaign. Formal volunteer training needs to be efficient, because today's volunteers are time-crunched. But formal training also needs to be fun, so volunteers come out of the training feeling good. Take care planning formal training.

Online training: To increase efficiency, ideally you will always offer formal training online. Online trainings should be scheduled for an hour, and they should always end early. It is best to end early and allow time for socializing. For example: schedule an hour-long training; complete it in 30 minutes; allow 15 minutes for socializing; then end early to give your volunteers a gift of 15 minutes of unscheduled time in their lives.

Self-directed online training: Other volunteer organizations are offering completely self-directed online trainings. If you want to go this route, please recognize that it's actually really challenging to create an excellent training of this sort. Check out FEMA's excellent Emergency Management Institute for examples of GOOD self-directed online trainings. FEMA does a few things well: (1) information presented clearly and with the right amount of detail; (2) they provide logical progression through the different units of the curriculum; (3) training is broken up in time chunks that are manageable for the average person (3 hours); (4) at the end, you get a certificate (recognition), and you get additional privileges in the volunteer organization. Most UU congregations do NOT have the budget or expertise to create this kind of excellent online training. Because of this, most congregations will default to ordinary online meetings to provide training.

Other types of online training: I’ve experimented with offering audio podcasts and video presentations. The audio podcasts were probably most effective, since people could listen to them while doing other things (e.g., commuting). Almost no one looked at the video trainings. Both took a LOT amount of time to do well. So before you invest a lot of time in making audio podcasts or video presentations, be sure it is worth your time.


E. Motivating and Caring for Volunteers

Once you’ve recruited and trained your volunteers, how can you keep them on track and motivated? What’s that you say? Well, yes, you can bake cookies for them once a year, but honestly that’s not what most volunteers are looking for.

Provide goals and give regular feedback: Volunteers need and want to know how they’re doing. In his book The One Minute Manager, management guru Ken Blanchard offers a simple but effective framework for providing feedback: one-minute goals, one-minute praisings, and one-minute reprimands. (Blanchard’s book has sold over 15 million copies, so it will be easy to find a copy in your public library or used book store.) If you internalize this framework, you’ll find it easy to reinforce goals and provide regular (even weekly) feedback — and your volunteers will thrive because they get concrete stated goals and regular feedback! Cookies are great, but volunteers would actually prefer to know what they should do and how well they’re doing it.

Provide situational leadership: Another insight from Ken Blanchard is that managers need to learn how to provide situational leadership. This means that you change your management style depending on where the volunteer is in their development. An Enthusiastic Beginner needs to be Directed — a Disillusioned Learner needs to be Coached — a Capable but Cautious Contributor needs to be Supported — and a Self-Reliant Achiever needs to be Delegated. Learn more at Ken Blanchard’s website.

I owe a great debt of thanks to congregational consultant Alice Mann for teaching me about Ken Blanchard’s management techniques. Alice’s coaching not only made me a better manager, but all my direct reports are happier, too.


F. Retaining volunteers

How to retain volunteers for the long haul: Every volunteer job has gotta be fun, it’s gotta be meaningful, and it’s gotta be cheerful. Being fun means that it’s a volunteer job someone willingly spends their precious spare time doing. Being meaningful might mean the volunteer job effects profound changes in the volunteer and the world, or it might simple mean that the volunteer sees it as something worth doing. Being cheerful means that it’s a pleasure, even a joy, to come be part of the organization.

How to build a congregational culture of making volunteering normal and rewarding: Volunteering is no longer the norm in the U.S. We are now a consumer culture, where the default is to expect to pay for everything. So you’re going to have to work to make volunteering a normal part of congregational life. Making people feel guilty if they don’t volunteer is not a good way to normalize volunteering. Instead, you’ll want to constantly show how volunteering enriches the volunteer, while also improving the world. That means that as you build a positive culture of volunteerism in your congregation, you’ll want to build into that culture as a bedrock value that all volunteer jobs should be meaningful and rewarding.

The volunteer manager plays a key role in retaining volunteers: If you’re losing volunteers in one area of the congregation, you might look at how that volunteer manager is operating. Another way of saying this: volunteer managers also have to be managed. Train all your volunteer managers in one-minute management techniques, and in situational leadership. And make sure your volunteer managers stay cheerful!

Firing volunteers: Sometimes you have to fire volunteers. When that happens, try to reframe it in your mind and heart like this: OK, maybe you’re firing the volunteer from this position, but you're also releasing that volunteer to do something else they’re better suited for.

Empowering volunteers: If volunteers feel disempowered, you won’t retain them. This means the volunteer managers should NOT micromanage their volunteers. A good way to prevent micromanagement is to train volunteer managers in situational leadership. Beyond that, experienced volunteers should be given wide latitude in their volunteer jobs to meet the stated gaosl of their volunteer position. Respond positively to volunteer-initiated innovation.


G. Creating Volunteer Job Descriptions

If you’ve been having trouble recruiting volunteers, consider writing up volunteer job descriptions for the most important volunteer jobs. A volunteer job description can clarify expectations, and help sell the job to prospective volunteers.

Volunteer Job Description Worksheet

Volunteer title: ______

Congregational mission: ______
[Example: “To transform ourselves, each other, and the world.” Or whatever your congregation’s mission statement is.]

Goal of this volunteer position: ______
[List the top-level goals for this volunteer job, i.e., at the end of a year, what do you hope this voluntter will have accomplished? Shorter-term objectives, such as what this volunteer is going to accomplish this week, need not be listed here.]

Time frame: ______
[How many hours per week? Are there specific required hours, or is this a self-scheduled volunteer job?]
[Are there required days? E.g., Sundays, weekdays, etc.]
[Does the volunteer need to do this job on-site, or can it be done from their home?]

Statement of Accountability: ______
[Enter the name and job title of the staff person or committee chair to whom this volunteer position reports. Also list the people who provide major support for this volunteer job, and whom the volunteer will regularly interact with.]
[List other people who can provide additional support, which may include paid staff, other volunteers in the same position, past holder of this volunteer job, etc.]

Responsibilities: ______
[Bulleted list of all tasks and responsibilities.]

Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities: ______
[Bulleted list of required (and desired) knowledge, skills, abilities.]

Benefits: ______
[List what joys and benefits the volunteer might expect from this job.]

[Think about what safety training this volunteer will need.]
[All volunteers should have some minimal safety training on emergency evacuations and building security]
[Will this volunteer be required to undergo annual criminal background checks (for those working with minors)?]
[Will this volunteer need a credit check and financial screen (for those responsible for finances)?]
[Will this volunteer need a driving violations background check (for those who drive others)?]

To apply for this volunteer position, contact: ______


Here’s a sample volunteer job description from the real world, to show you what one might look like when you make it all pretty:

A sample job description, showing how all the information in the template above can be laid out in an attractive manner.