Nagging Carver Model issues

Can you be free to think when you subsume another’s thoughts? When the structures of that thought literally belongs to someone else? When the model excludes all others?

That’s my problem with the Carver Model, which has taken the Unitarian Universalist ecosphere by storm. I choke every time I come to one of its registered trademarks or the glowing tales of its utility. It’s the same choke I feel ever time I run across a GTD, Franklin-Covey or Amway true believer. Don’t try to tell them there’s another way, either.

At the very least, I think there should be clarity about where and when it should work, and when and where it would work less well. Unitarian Universalists have a terrible collective habit of getting on a bandwagon 10 or 15 years after business does, adopting it to the exclusion of other models, and riding a trend long past when industry or other religious institutions have moved on. Take church growth and planting for instance. So I feel it’s valid to point this out here.

“Die Gedanken sind frei” indeed. How might free innovation apply to board leadership?

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Yep.

    Our fellowship adopted concepts–elements–of policy governance, but developed our own governance scheme and model. Among other things, we’re not large enough to have even made Carver Model policy governance make sense, I think… even for those who might have been inclined.

    But my own take, as one of the architects of what we did, is that the Carver Model in some ways strains against our polity tradition, and in others… well… we’re churches, not businesses. There’s a key and critical difference, and the Carver Model doesn’t have space in it for THAT, that I can find. The answer seems to be to just apply the pure model, because it’s the model. And that’s not someplace I’m going.

    So what we did was adopt the IDEA. The idea that the board works best setting policy and staying mostly out of the day to day governance–which we’ve pushed out to the committees and other structures. It’s done in a strongly ‘leveling’ tradition that is in accord both with our historic polity practices AND the traditions of the fellowship. It’s worked pretty well, so far–and we’re into our third year, with all the evidence being that we’re getting comfortable with it and working the kinks out.

  2. I guess that’s another thing that bugs me about Carver: it gets its cachet from being a gestalt of other practices, that on their own, don’t seem that revolutionary.

    For instance, there have always been policy-making boards which are not working boards, which is fine if you have the staff to make it work. (And, indeed, I’m staff in my day job and I make it work.)

  3. Patrick – Carver wonks would say that your fellowship committed a huge no-no with your limited application of the model. I’ve been told in training sessions that you must “do the whole model. Because when Carver fails, 90% of the time its because you didn’t strictly follow the model.” Which has always felt like a bit of a dodge to me.

    Scott and others – My other beef with Carver surrounds its strict division of those who make policy, from those who must actually carry it out. Unless the policy makers are very sensitive to the realities of the staff/volunteers who carry out their policy, strict division is going to promote conflict and unrealistic expectations. The model requires the organization’s executive staff member to promote this understanding, but my experience with this in my UUA District, and at a former non-profit job, has been that only very gifted executives succeed in bridging the gap and promoting understanding between the policy makers, and the volunteers/staff.

  4. Derek, the wonks be damned…. I doubt that more than a half dozen of us have really even heard “Carver Model” (including myself and the minister). So we missed that ‘programmed to fail’ device. It has worked–not perfectly (but then, I’ve talked to essentially purist Carver Model congregation members who are still working into it three and four years later, so…).

    Our hybrid has actually asked for those in the implementation realm to draft policies for their areas. The board’s written relatively few from scratch, and those are mostly rather high level. You’re right that the model expects staff. Maybe for a larger congregation, with more staff. Maybe.

  5. My church’s board (I’m a board member) is considering formulating policies using the Carver model. Our senior pastor has provided us with two books by Carver to read. As I understand the model after only reading the books, we board members establish Ends (values, costs) and Means (limitations). The board then essentially “gets out of the way” of the CEO (pastor) until/unless one of the limitations is violated or goals change. Am I getting it?

  6. I think you have it right, except that the pastor/CEO isn’t the only one carrying things out. The pastor/CEO bridges the END-MEANS directive to the wider group of volunteers and staff who carry out the policy. The problem I’ve seen is not one of violating the limitations or of changing the goals; but that a Board can set unrealistic goals and/or provide inadequate means (it is bad if they do one of the two, and terrible if they do both). This then prompts conflict between the policy makers and those who do the work. The policy makers may believe that those carrying things out are negligent or incompetent when goals are not met. The workers can feel they’ve been over-burdened, or under supported, or that they are being unfairly criticized. It is the place of the skilled CEO/pastor to bridge the divide in cases where policy makers are not sensitive to the realities of those who carry out implementation. And alas, not all pastors are gifted in this way.

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