baby leaderThe Unitarian Universalist Church of Somerset Hills, New Jersey (UUCSH) recently did a fascinating analysis of former Trustees of the Board and their tendency to stay or leave the congregation after the completion of their terms.  The findings have significant implications for whom we choose to serve on our Boards in the first place.

The major finding was this: 80% of those who joined the board after having been a member for 4 years or less left the congregation after their terms. At the same time, 100% of those who became trustees after having been a member for more than 4 years are still members today.

Peter Hansch, who ran the numbers and did the analysis, speculates on several reasons why this is so.

– Newer members may not have fully decided if UUCSH is the right fit for them.

– Newer members are not as “invested” in the congregation and may not have established as many personal connections yet. The feeling of UUCSH being their “family” has not been formed as strongly yet.

– Trustees may have to make unpleasant or unpopular decisions. Without a stronger sense of ownership and commitment to UUCSH any rough times on the board may be too much to handle.

– The majority of the board typically consists of long-term members who have a shared history that goes back to the beginning of our congregation. Is it possible that references to past events create a feeling that new members are not part of the ‘in-crowd’?

These findings and Peter’s analysis of the reasons certainly underscores  the importance of a sense of ownership as a pre-requisite for taking a major role in the congregation, whether it’s as a member of the Board, a committee head, or other significant leadership position.   In order to deal with the stress and responsibility of leadership, one must be convinced, as Peter Block contends in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging that the congregation is theirs to create; that they as leaders are cause, not effect; that they are accountable to lead the congregation forward.  Believing this takes experience and a strong sense of confidence, things that can only occur after considerable time spent as a member of the congregation.

Leaders must also must belief in the transformative power of our Unitarian Universalist faith which can sustain them through rough times and compel them to stay with the congregation after their period of leadership has ended.  Again, it takes time, sometimes years, to understand and embrace this concept.

Certainly there are members in our congregations who are ready to take the leadership reins well before four years, but the Somerset Hills study cautions us not to rush people into leadership roles just to fill a void or because that person looks “promising”.  We may meet a need in the short run, but in the long run we may have lost a valuable member of the congregation.

My thanks to Peter and to Ann Perry, President of the Board of UUCSH, for granting permission to share this information.

With respect,

Mark Bernstein

CERG Growth Consultant

About the Author
Mark Bernstein
Growth Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I believe that when congregations grow in strength and vitality and spirituality, they grow in numbers. It doesn't work the other way around. More information about me can be found on the CERG regional website www.cerguua.org
  • Interesting! Thanks for sharing, Mark. I believe our church requires someone to have been a member for 2 years (not entirely sure…possibly just 1??) before being nominated to serve on the board. The statistics from UUCSH are certainly eye-opening as to whether it is wise to recruit newer members. I always thought it beneficial to have chaired a committee at church before being on the board.

  • I think our congregation has had some similar experiences putting new-ish members into committee chair positions. I suspect too much responsibility too soon makes the congregation feel like work instead of like community (and possibly lead to burn out).