CEO? Nope. PM? Yes, like it or not.

In a previous post, I wrote about the psychological centrality of the chief executive in nonprofit organizations. Applied to congregations, that would mean that a primary role of the parish minister is to enable and facilitate the board in carrying out the mission and goals of the congregation. So what does this mean in an actual congregation?

Congregations are a very specific subset of the much broader category of nonprofit institution. All Unitarian Universalist congregations, for example, have relatively small budgets and relatively small staffs, compared to the rest of the nonprofit world (much smaller, say, than the United Way or a nonprofit hospital group like Kaiser Permanente). All Unitarian Universalist congregations can be classed as membership organizations, where ultimate authority is vested in the membership (on paper, at least), where the primary funding comes from the membership, and where most of the work is done by volunteers rather than by paid staff. All Unitarian Universalist congregations are fairly constrained in their mission goals, by virtue of being a religious institution, and by virtue of being Unitarian Universalist.

Thus, to say that a parish minister is the chief executive of a congregation means something very different than saying someone is the chief executive of Kaiser Permanente. I’m using “chief executive” in a very broad sense here. In recent years, some Unitarian Universalists have taken to calling their minister a “CEO,” short for “chief executive officer.” This strikes me as ludicrous. The chief executive of Kaiser Permanente is a CEO; a parish minister is a parish minister. We can call both the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, and the half-time parish minister of a small congregation in Hoople, North Dakota, a chief executive — but the only two things they hold in common are their psychological centrality, and the fact that each should serve enable and facilitate the board to carry out the mission and goals of their respective organizations. So when someone refers to a Unitarian Universalist minister as a “CEO,” that makes me embarrassed — embarrassed for the person speaking, and embarrassed for the poor parish minister that person is trying to push into such an unlikely role. A parish minister may be a chief executive, but a parish minister is a PM, not a CEO.

Now let’s get down to specifics. As chief executive, what specific tasks should the parish minister take on? Answers will vary widely depending on the size of the congregation, and whether the parish minister is a full-time employee or not. For the sake of simplification, I’m going to focus on parish ministers in mid-size Unitarian Universalist congregations, that is, congregations with a year-round weekly average attendance of about 150 to about 300 adults and children. (Maybe some other time I’ll write about smaller congregations.) When a congregation gets above 150 average attendance, there is no way the parish minister can do everything him- or herself, and there will almost certainly be other paid staff members, which means that the parish minister is going to have to supervise other staff members in order to carry out the mission and goals of the congregation.

A primary task of a mid-size Unitarian Universalist congregation is to hold regular worship services (you can’t affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Association unless you do this, and our tradition demands regular worship services, preferably every week). Therefore, a primary task of the parish minister is to enable and facilitate the board to carry out this primary task of the congregation. And we know from long experience that the parish minister will be blamed for bad worship services (even when led by a guest or lay worship leader). Therefore, it makes sense to me that the parish minister should be in charge of all staff who have a part in the worship service. This includes all music staff, sexton/custodian, office staff who produce orders of service, etc. As a corollary, we can consider all rites of passage — child dedications, weddings, memorial services, etc. — to be a subset of worship services; here again, the parish minister is ultimately in charge of rites of passage.

In our tradition, another primary task of mid-size congregations, of equal importance to that of holding worship services, is the task of educating young people in our faith tradition. Here again, we know from experience that if the religious education program is terrible, people in the congregation will blame the parish minister — it may not be direct blame, but you’ll hear people saying things like, “I wish the minister would address the RE problem.” So if the parish minister is going to be blamed, and if the parish minister is supposed to enable and facilitate the board in carrying out this central task of religious education, then it seems clear to me that in a mid-size congregation the parish minister should supervise the religious education staff.

OK, I can hear your questions and objections already. I know what you want to say:– What happens when you have a parish minister who is musically illiterate? –so many of our Unitarian Universalist ministers are musical illiterates who can’t read musical notation and have only the vaguest understanding of the vast field of sacred music. What happens when you have a parish minister who knows from nothing about religious education? –too many of our Unitarian Universalist ministers have no real training in religious education, and are actually scared of children and/or teens. What happens when you have a parish minister who knows nothing about supervision, administration, or management? –far too many of our Unitarian Universalist ministers know nothing about nonprofit management and are even resistant to learning anything.

Well, you should be making these objections and asking these questions. And I have a two-part response to these objections and questions. First, parish minister doesn’t need to know everything about every employee’s tasks — parish ministers do not, for example, need to know how to unblock drains, and they don’t need to know classroom management. Parish ministers need to enable and facilitate the board in carrying out regular worship services and religious education programs; if the parish minister is not enabling and facilitating the board in these ways, then the board needs to hold the parish minister accountable for his/her inability.

Second, supervising someone does not not require expertise in that person’s job. I know of parish ministers who are musically illiterate, scared of children, and unable to read a balance sheet, and they are still good and competent parish ministers — those parish ministers work with their boards to hire people who are already competent, and then they hold those people accountable for meeting the board’s mission and goals. And what if the parish minister has no training in supervising employees? Well, most people who wind up as supervisors have no training in supervising employees — it’s something you learn on the job, with appropriate support and opportunities for in-service training.

If you want your congregation to drop down below an average attendance of 150, I don’t care so much if the parish minister is not head of staff — the congregation will be a much simpler organization that can function more organically — but even then, if anything goes wrong the parish minister will be blamed, so why not give the parish minister a little bit of authority to maybe make things go right more of the time? But once your congregation gets over 150 average attendance, I think you get to a level of organizational complexity where the board no longer has time to adequately supervise all staff and do planning, take care of mission, set goals, do evaluation, fulfill legal requirements, supervise committees, etc.

Everything I’m saying here is based on 15 years of empirical observations while working in a wide variety of congregations. I’m not spinning out theories here, I’m trying to tell you what has, in my observation, actually worked the best — whether or not if happens to fit in with what I personally believe.

7 thoughts on “CEO? Nope. PM? Yes, like it or not.

  1. Scott Wells

    Let me call you out — saying a congregation must worship because it’s required by the UUA bylaws is the baldest appeal to authority I’ve seen in ages — and even that’s not quite so; the reference is to Rule 3.3.5.d. “balanced program of religious activity including adult worship and/or discussion” — and that’s a “shall” without an “or else”.

    Surely there are other reasons — if nothing else, custom — fitting Unitarian (and) Universalist theology.

  2. Dan

    Scott @ 1 — Yes, you’re right, bad way to buttress my argument. The thing I’m most embarrassed about is that I didn’t check the bylaws, but just relied on my notoriously faulty memory (me, a bylaws geek!).

    I still believe the central thing that Unitarian Universalist congregations do is to hold worship services. Come to think of it, I believe pretty much everything should follow from that central act. So I guess this whole post is just my way of trying to justify this assumption of mine….

  3. Bill Baar

    This is the kind of post I’m going to need to read a few times… but, before that… are there any (many) UU Churches that would fail the balanced program of religious activity? Or have sought affiliation but failed that test? I’m curious.

  4. Dan

    Bill Baar @ 3 — There was the case of the UU congregation in Chicago that got taken over by a cabal that wanted the building. There were lawsuits to try to oust them, and one thing they did to keep the lawyers at bay was to hold regular “services” where someone would come out and mumble a few words and then disappear (this is the way it was told to me, anyway).

    This, by the way, is why so many UU churches have changed their bylaws so that not just anyone can sign the membership book, and require all new members to be approved by the board and to have a longish waiting period before they can vote. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to get a bunch of people to join a small church, go into the annual meeting, vote in a new set of bylaws, and take over the property.

  5. Scott Wells

    The building takeover problem was recognized by the Universalists at least a hundred years ago. The Universalist General Convention solution was to deed the building to the UGC, thus insuring it would always be Universalist. Not sure how common that was, but it has lead to the Universalist folk-wisdom that “Boston wants to kill us for our money [or building].” And I’d be prone to believe that, to a point.

  6. Amy

    “a small congregation in Hoople, North Dakota”


    If there’s a UU congregation in Hoople, I’m sending them my resume right now.

    P.D.Q. Bach Fan

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