Bored of directors

The Thinker by Rodin

You can only dodge the bullet for so long. Somehow I dodged it for sixteen years.

That’s how long I’ve been attending my local Unitarian Universalist church. And that’s how long I’ve not been on its board of directors. Not that I never did anything more than put money into the collection plate. Over the years I’ve taught religious education, helped with a youth group, took kids on field trips, spent a night in a lockdown so youth could play all night and even went to our denomination’s general assembly. I’ve ushered, helped put together lunches for annual meetings, cleaned up the church kitchen after services, put away lots of chairs and hymnals after services and drank copious amounts of coffee after services too. I’ve attended church auctions, church dinners, facilitated rummage sales, painted walls, cleaned out closets and showed youth how to pray toward Mecca.

That was then. This weekend I find myself on our board of directors, although my three-year term does not start officially until July. I tried to talk them out of it. I said usually directors were chosen from an elite inner circle, not from the next circle in, which is where I saw myself. That’s probably where they saw me too except after sixteen years they could no longer not call me. They had run through the usual suspects too many times. So I am on the board of directors, somewhat unwillingly, but mainly because I could not think of a good enough excuse to get out of it.

In truth I have plenty of other commitments already. This would be one more and anecdotally it was likely to evolve into one of these unappreciated, time consuming and open-ended commitments. The sad truth about non-profit operations like churches is they don’t run themselves. They are complex organisms of relationships. Bill Gates once famously said that trying to manage programmers was like trying to herd cats. Managing churches is like trying to nail Jello to the wall.

There are all sorts of challenges in our church, none of which are likely to get solved no matter how much we flagellate ourselves or how much time I give it. Membership is declining. Our minister of just three years is leaving, for reasons she will not explicitly state, which of course pumps the rumor mill. As I once noted, churches are human institutions, and ours certainly is. We have a long and storied history of settled ministers leaving us for greener pastures or in strange circumstances, and this latest episode is just one more that feeds the fear, is there something intrinsically wrong with us?

Supposedly we have institutionalized trust issues but it seems that we really have ministerial issues. Our first minister was later revealed to be philandering with the congregants he was supposed to be counseling. His replacement left abruptly after less than a year. One of our interim ministers wrote a letter purporting to be from our board of directors endorsing himself for a permanent ministry elsewhere. He was, of course, quickly sacked. The last interim minister complained that we were a surreal congregation, happy enough to listen to sermons but reticent to challenge him on them, something he saw routinely in other congregations. Not that all of our ministers have been bad. Most recently we had a husband/wife pair that spent nine happy years with us.

The Catholics at least have a pragmatic solution to these organizational problems: the priest gets to decide. His decisions may be imperfect, but at least they tend to be final. In a covenantal church like ours everything is done democratically, which means that consensus is usually needed and usually hard to achieve, even though we are quite similar to each other in categories like race, income levels and politics. A building expansion consumed ten years, all but two of which involved in coming to consensus on whether then what to build. Curiously, once we finally broke ground it all went swimmingly: delivered on time and on budget but for a lot more money than had we done it in year one instead of year eight.

All these details and institutional detritus were on display this weekend as I and eight other members of the board huddled at the church for our annual retreat. It’s an opportunity to talk about big picture things, and for new members like me to get acquainted and subsumed in the church issues of the day. You would think that after forty years we’d have a refined governance structure, but we haggled through issues like whether we should micromanage or empower committees, and how to oversee the myriad committees that we have. Some things are clearer: slowly declining membership is probably due to some cliquishness in the congregation but mostly due to the pressure on members to do church work, and then do more church work. If you aren’t on a couple of committees already, you are a considered some sort of slacker. Being a member is more about taking a second, unpaid job than getting spiritually enlightened. It’s not surprising then that many who come through the door don’t want to stay.

So maybe we need to do less as a church, but no one seems to want to give up any programs. They are all vital. No hypothermia project? How can we let homeless people freeze on cold winter nights? No social action committee? Fighting for issues like gay marriage is in our DNA. And yet it is clearly too much and everyone is exhausted, including me, their newest board member, from just listening to it all. The sandwiches for our retreat from PotBelly were at least tasty, but except for sleep spending twenty-four hours on church business was exhausting, as is the stack of action items I received as I am now the board member overseeing education. I will no doubt be petitioned to attend all these related committee meetings, and the monthly board meetings plus follow up on an ever changing list of action items.

I get to do this and a full time job and nurture my wife back to health after her accident and help my daughter transition from degree to productive employee somewhere and monitor a declining cat who needs regular doses of drugs and special cat foods and all the other stuff in life like finishing painting downstairs. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

So what’s the point? The point is to change the world for the better, one small step at a time. It takes a lot of energy to heal a broken society, which is the whole purpose of our church. It is made harder when our own church is rife with purely predictable human dramas and institutional malaise. It seems so pointless somehow, until you see the success of the Alternative Gift Market and that realize families in third world countries are getting cows, which means they have a path toward a better life. It seems pointless except a church brings people together who volunteer to help out at the homeless shelter. It seems pointless except for the youth group bonding for life at a weekend at Chincoteague, or the passing out of sandwiches to the homeless on alternate Friday nights. Then you realize there is a point to all of it, exhausting and inefficient though it may be. And you realize that while being on the board of directors is a hassle and our means are far from perfect, there is some value from all these committees, although it is hard to see while you wallow in organizational mess bordering on chaos.

And so you keep pulling at the institutional oars, though you don’t know if you are going in the right direction, though the efforts seem microscopic in comparison to the size of the problems to be addressed. You hope that your unreasonable faith in what you cherish most highly through your church results in outcomes you will mostly not see that matter and that will leave the world a better place.

So you pick up the phone and dial that member and ask them if they are interested in being in the next ministerial search committee. And you find yourself in your off hours looking at the church’s web logs to see what could be done to bring in new members. And you get in email threads with other directors on the minutia of this stuff. And you keep going, despite frequent deficiencies in both interest and energy. You don’t really know why you do it, but you do it. It is both an expression of your faith and absurdity, but you keep going.