Louise is quite right in what she most of what she says. Where I disagree is that in my experience what happens “on the ground” is far more complicated than the simple model of governance she presents; that of charity (or managing) trustees and holding trustees. Hers is the desired model.
For most of our newer congregations (i.e. those in past century) this model may apply. A democratically accountable congregation will have wanted to purchase existing property or land to erect a church building and will then appoint holding trustees. For the older congregations we need to consider their history and in many cases there are two or even more sets of managing trustees connected with the congregation. How can this happen you might ask? The concept of democracy was not originally practised in many of our churches and the trustees were actually managing not simply holding. They appointed and paid the Minister. We talk of congregations turning Unitarian during the ministry of certain individuals; what we tend to forget is that they often did so with the active support of the trustees, sometimes against the wishes of many in their congregation.
I have come across a range of trustee situations. In many of the older chapels we have trustees, also known as buildings trustees or property trustees who exercise responsibilities far beyond that of holding trustees.
I shall give some examples to illustrate:
In one the congregation has an elected “Council” with a separate group – the trustees - who maintain the building and pay the housing allowance to the Minister. In another both congregation and trustees have their own charity numbers; indeed the congregation is forbidden to have funds over £20k which they must hand over to the trustees. The trustees are responsible for maintenance and contribute to the stipend and manse allowance; the congregation pays the chapel keeper and day to day running expenses.
In another it clearly states in their annual report they have holding trustees accountable to the congregation (well done!) but they also have a separate manse trust (with its own charity number) the trustees of which manage the building as it is rented out; they don’t simply “hold” it for the congregation. They also have separate trust funds from the closure of another congregation.
One of the more complicated situations I have come across is where a congregation thought they were one body, when in fact there were eight connected with them. These were; the congregation (“excepted” charity under the GA), trustees of the chapel building and site (of whom new trustees were appointed by existing trustees not the congregation), two trusts arising from closure of a nearby chapel with the above trustees as managing trustees, trustees of a schoolroom and other land (who are identical to the trustees), and two separate benefaction funds to support the minister’s stipend.
I suspect that in some cases once investments where in the possession of trustees and had to actively managed they moved to a more managing role. Indeed, the existence of separate managing trustees is often seen as safeguard against entryism whereby a small group in a congregation could possibly gain access to considerable resources; thus trustees appointing to vacancies and bringing in Unitarians from outside the congregation is common.
What I was trying to highlight was a situation where over time, perhaps as the size of a congregation fell, they have concentrated work in one group. I was emphasising the need to ensure that everyone was clear of their legal responsibilities. I appreciate that the failure to include a question about holding trustees may have resulted to confusion about what I was actually saying and I should have been clearer.
The issue of holding trustees and custodian trustees in similarly confusing. Louise is right about the benefits of custodian trusteeship but I would not see them as a substitute for holding trustees. Most trust deeds have clauses relating to what action to take in the event of a congregation closing which can only be actioned by the holding trustees from whom the custodian trustee must take instruction. The important thing to stress is to ensure that holding trustees are appointed when numbers fall.