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Editorial  

Why we need an ombudsman

July 2, 2021

No letters-to-the-editor were received in time for this first issue of Chalice Connections so I’ll kick things off with an editorial, “Why we need an ombudsman at the UUFCC.”

The word “ombudsman” comes from the Swedish where it means a representative. Well, a representative for whom? In our case the role of the ombudsman, or more accurately an advocate ombudsman, would not be to represent the membership – we have plenty of committees for that. Instead it would be to represent individual members and to put forth their views to the appropriate people and, in some cases, to advocate for such views.

The first question you might ask is, “Why would I need an ombudsman to speak for me? Our congregation is small – if I have a suggestion, I can just go up to the responsible person and speak to them directly. I don’t need to go through an intermediary. What value could an ombudsman offer?” That question goes to the heart of why our Fellowship needs to establish an official position of ombudsman.

An ombudsman has these inherent advantages:

(1) With access to each committee the ombudsman would have a wider range of knowledge than the individual and would bring that perspective to represent a member’s views.

(2) When you speak with a member of a committee they represent the committee, not you. They might listen. They will undoubtedly be cordial. But at the end of the day they don’t represent you. Their assignment, or role, within that committee is, understandably, not to advocate for you or your views, but to consider the membership at large in light of the work of their committee. Which is appropriate. And worthy. But an ombudsman has an entirely different role – they are there to hear your thoughts and, in some cases, to bring those views forth to the appropriate person or committee.

(3) Also, the ombudsman provides a layer of social separation between the member and the committee. Because of the dynamics, and close knit fabric, of a small congregation it is much less likely that you would feel free to bring up certain issues with a committee chair. It might be taken as a personal criticism or attack. Or maybe a criticism about one of their close friends. Hurt feelings, or feelings of perceived offense, can last a long time. Using an ombudsman allows the suggestion to be made in an objective and non-personal way.

(4) Finally, an ombudsman would have access to every committee, and would help the committees be more diverse. The common rule in organizations is that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the members. The downside of that is that the same group of people serve with one another on many of the very important committees in our Fellowship. This becomes the de facto “power group.” The result is not the diversity there might otherwise be. And that spawns an insular perspective where decisions are made by the same group of people, over and over. The ombudsman forces change into that power circle.

Responsibilities and duties of the ombudsman

  • The ombudsman would not be a member of any committee.
  • The ombudsman would be entitled to attend and speak at every committee, whether the committee is open, closed, or meeting in executive session, but would not be entitled to vote in any such committee.
  • The ombudsman would be required to present a report twice a year to the Fellowship on the State of the Fellowship.
  • Nominations for the position of ombudsman would come solely from the members in attendance at the Annual Meeting (i.e. not from the Nominating Committee).
  • The ombudsman would serve for two years.
  • The ombudsman could be removed by a 2/3 vote of the Board along with a majority of the members.
  • Because of the sensitive nature of some committees, the ombudsman would be expected to uphold the highest standards of ethics, to be a trusted member of the Fellowship, to exercise his or her responsibility with great integrity and discernment, and “to be perceived as fair, safe, accessible, and credible.” [International Ombudsman Association]

Other views are very much encouraged as well as letters-to-the-editor on other subjects. Please email them to me. All such submissions should remain in covenant with the goals and aspirations of the Fellowship. Published letters will appear in this area of Chalice Connections.

Fred Parmenter