Keeping Your Laundry Out of the Living Room

house sideBelonging to and being a part of a community is an important aspect of congregational life. Many of our members think of their congregations as a second home and think of the other members as part of their extended family. The relationships that we create and nurture by sharing the details of our lives are an important part of the glue that binds us.

The problem is that the existing, integrated members’ needs for intimacy is in tension with providing hospitality for those who are newer or even visiting for the first time.  How do we balance that tension?  We can still take our cues from how families operate.

Imagine how a congregation is like an American middle-class house.

Curb Appeal

In a private residence, these are all-access public spaces like the front porch and yard, that are visible to all and should be inviting and clearly marked.

These are the outside parts of our buildings, our parking lots and gardens and our website. We let the world know who we are and what we care about, in language they can understand.

Open House

Then we have inside semi-public spaces where we provide hospitality to non-family such as in an open-house party: the living room and dining room. We provide comfortable seating and make sure people are safe and can participate as they wish. We make sure everyone is included in the conversation without being put on the spot. We refrain from over-sharing. When offering refreshments we make sure that everyone can partake, offering gluten-free, caffeine-free and non-alcoholic choices.

These are our Sunday morning worship and fellowship times. This is where newcomers come to learn about us without being put on the spot. We get a chance to get to know them through engaged–but not too personal–conversation.  This means we try to avoid behaviors that might “creep people out” or make them feel like outsiders.

Dinner with Good Friends

Then we have the close-friends spaces such as the kitchen table and back porch.  These are the spaces for more intimate sharing between people who already have relationships.

These might be covenant groups, chalice circles or cottage meetings in our congregations.

Doing the Laundry

Then there are the family-only spaces (bedrooms, laundry and rumpus room). These are spaces where we can be ourselves, let our hair down, fuss about the neighbors or perhaps whine about whose turn it is to scoop the litter box.

In our congregations, the equivalent spaces might be town hall discussions where we make space to hear one another and meetings of committees, boards and the “congregation in meeting” where decisions are made.

What does this mean for our congregations?

Sunday Mornings

This is your congregation’s “open house” time.  As many of our parents say, “Church is here to remind us that it’s not ‘all about me.'”  Sunday worship is a public expression of who we are (our DNA or core values expressed in our mission) and who we aspire to be (our aspirational values as expressed in our vision and strategic plan).  A competent minister has a finger on this pulse of the congregation.

How we support and care for one another must be expressed in a way that is inclusive and welcoming.  If you have a fellowshipped UU minister who is an active UUMA member, they will have the wisdom to find out the best practices from their colleagues.  (It’s rare that a congregation over 100 members can do this well with an “open mic” Joys & Sorrows format.)

The time of fellowship (often called “coffee hour”) is our opportunity to provide hospitality to the newcomer — not just a chance to connect with dear friends.  Congregations who have a commitment to growth have leaders who covenant (promise) one another to refrain from conducting business and personal conversation until 30-45 minutes after the service ends.

Your Semi-Public Space

Once people walk through your doors, you will want to make sure you have a clear, consistent message, from your signage (where are the restrooms), to your greeters (where should one sit), to how new parents can know how their children will be kept safe.

If your congregation provides gender-neutral bathrooms or accommodations for people with hearing disabilities (such as a loop system) or other initiatives that may be unfamiliar to newcomers, be sure to have trained greeters, ushers and other welcoming volunteers to help new people acclimate.

Tend to the Laundry

If there is an active conflict in your congregation, do not give in to the temptation to process it in the public and semi-public spaces. In fact, any active conflict affects visitors, who can feel the tension when they walk through your doors.

Instead, make sure that you have opportunities to “do the laundry” in your congregation with town hall and cottage meetings when ever there is an issue that is eliciting conflict.

The world need our saving message of rational thought and universal love.  Let’s be sure to open our doors and set our tables so we can invite people to hear that message.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, UUA Congregational Life Staff

Social Media Hygiene

Lori Stone Sirtosky

Social media is a great outreach tool for today’s congregations, but congregational leaders need to be savvy about how to balance the open-source nature of today’s interactive internet with the need to articulate a consistent message in alignment  with your congregation’s mission and vision (and — dare I say — “brand”).

Social media expert Lori Stone Sirtosky offers some tips on best practices for congregations to ensure consistency for your congregational Twitter and Facebook accounts during times of transition:

For Facebook

  • If your congregation has paid staff, make sure at least one staff member has the manager role on your congregation’s page. They can then remove and add volunteers as new people relinquish/assume this role.
  • For congregations with no paid staff, make sure more than one volunteer has the manager role for your Facebook page (and provide training to all managers on how to avoid posting “as the page” accidentally, especially from their phone).

For Twitter

  • To ensure continuity, the email address (e.g., associated with the organization’s twitter account should be controlled by church staff (if you have them). Then even if the social media person walks, the domain admin can reset the password to the email account. This will allow you to use the Twitter lost password feature to get in.
  • For groups that rely on volunteers, building redundancy can be more of a challenge, but it is possible! You can set up the email address as an alias and redirect it to more than one person. This way multiple people are notified when a password reset attempt is made. This builds in a measure of security. It also allows more than one person to reset the password and regain access to the account if needed.

Building redundancy into the system before someone vacates these key tech and social media roles for your congregation is vital.

Good planning now will save you a lot of headache later.



Covenantal Faith in a Transactional World

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Photo credit:

Because our congregations run on money, it’s tempting to bring–along with it–assumptions about how money operates in other parts of our lives.  We go to work and we get a paycheck.  We pay the electric bill and the power company keeps our lights on. We pay at the first window and pick up at the second.

But when we fill out a pledge card, or put together the annual operating budget, the numbers represent more than goods and services.  The numbers represent the ministry that our congregation is called to do in the world, and the numbers represent our financial commitment and accountability to that ministry.

Our covenants are our promises to one another about how we are going to walk together as we do that ministry.

Our pledge cards are promises about how we will help fund that ministry.
Letters of agreement are promises that paid staff and church leaders make to one another about how they will do ministry together and expectations around how they will be accountable to one another.

When we are under financial stress, we are tempted to slip into transactional mode.  The budget looks like any other set of numbers.  The simplest places to cut are the largest line items: staff salaries and benefits.

The financial stress is real, but our responses to the stress can be covenantal instead of transactional.  As you begin a meeting where budget cuts are needed:

  • Remind yourselves of who you are and the good that your congregation is already doing in the world.
  • Remind yourselves of your vision of what more you hope to do to build the beloved community.
  • Remind yourselves of the promises that you have made with one another to support your congregation’s ministry.

Then you will be ready for your discernment as leaders grounded in our covenantal faith.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff




Worst Case Scenarios…and How to Be Prepared

Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001The phone rings.  There is an anxious board president on the phone with a crisis on their hands.  Perhaps their minister has fallen seriously ill, or there is a member who is regularly disrupting the Sunday worship service, or a registered sex offender has expressed interest in attending the church.  Some situations cannot be anticipated or prevented.  But there are many situations where having the right policies, procedures and safeguards in place will help a congregation get through a crisis.

Here is a checklist for your board to use to determine your congregation’s preparedness:

1. Make sure your staff members have adequate insurance.

Having your minister fall ill and not be able to perform their duties would be hard on the congregation.  Having your minister not be able to perform their duties–with no financial safety net–would be devastating.  Make sure that, along with your health plan, you include group insurance plans that include term life and long-term disability insurance.  These are relatively inexpensive add-ons to insurance policies.

2. Make sure your congregation has adequate insurance.

Call your insurance agent for an insurance check-up. Many UU congregations use Church Mutual, because they have an understanding of the needs of liberal religious communities.  Insurance can help your congregation recover financially after a fire, embezzlement or other harmful event.

3. Set up clear expectations about behaviors.

Even if you recite a traditional covenant on Sunday morning (i.e. Love is the Spirit of this church….) you will want to have a behavioral covenant or a covenant of right relations that spells out how members promise to treat one another.  In addition to this, you will want a disruptive behavior policy so that you give your leaders the authority to set limits on particularly damaging behaviors, and a process for restoring right relationship if the disruptive person is willing to abide by the limits.

4. Make sure your congregation has well-communicated “Safer Congregations” policies.

The Religious Institute has well-defined “best practices” for congregations to prevent sexual abuse, sexual harassment and professional sexual misconduct.  They also provide resources on how to include known sex offenders in your community while still protecting your other members and children. Your congregational commitment to sexual safety should be known to every member.

5. Establish and practice emergency evacuation procedures.

In case of a fire, tornado, live shooter or other immediate emergency, you will want to have your staff, greeters/ushers and teachers know what to do and where to go. It’s especially important to practice evacuating once or twice a year so that if — heaven forbid — the real thing happens, everyone knows what to do.  Also make sure your leaders are familiar with the post-trauma response resources from the UUA.


Other resources: (video: 44:53)

Sunrise, Sunset: Generational Trends in Stewardship

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Photo copyright:

Many of our “solid” congregations noticed a drop-off in giving that was not a result of a drop-off of membership during the past two or three years.  We don’t have much data (the trend is too new) but we do have some anecdotal information that seems to align with greater generational shifts.

The Baby Boomers Are Retiring

With the recovery of the stock market, many baby boomers–who were holding off on retiring–are now ready to retire.  Nationally, the Baby Boomers are the largest source of charity gifts.

The good news is that most hold steady on their pledges and have more time to serve in volunteer roles.  The bad news that many of them are moving away from their congregations to be near their grandchildren, resulting in the congregation losing substantial (1st quartile–see below) donors.

There also seems to be a trend where Boomers are not dipping into their nest eggs for their daily living expenses, but instead use that money to splurge on big ticket items or vacations with their children and grandchildren.  This may mean they might be more likely to give to a capital campaign rather than raise their pledge to the yearly operating budget.

Generation X Can’t Possibly Fill the Gap

Nationally, the 76 million Baby Boom was followed by only 55 million babies born who are known as Generation X.  That means that there are around 1/3 fewer Gen Xers than there are Baby boomers.  We don’t have hard data, but I suspect that the ratio of Gen X (roughly age 40-54) to Baby Boomers (55-70) is even smaller in our congregations, if we reflect national trends.

Gen Xers also did not have the financial advantages of previous generations.  Those who went to college often graduated with high levels of student debt. Limited job opportunities, cost-saving employment practices, the reduction of employer benefits, the volatility of the stock market, and the bursting of the housing bubble have all contributed to a sense of financial insecurity that is not always acknowledged in our congregations.

Also, Gen Xers are known as a generation of hackers and slackers (stay with me!).  Their small numbers kept them from having an impact on “stuck” institutions–including our congregations–so they either gave up on the institution (which labeled them as slackers) or found work-arounds within the system (acting as hackers). Their experiences probably affected their sense of loyalty to the institutions.  (Again, this observation is anecdotal.)

 Millennials Have a Different Mindset About Giving

The number of Millennials is eclipsing the number Baby Boomers.  Their job opportunities are a mixed bag, with some Millennials finding great jobs and others struggling.

They are suspicious of institutions, but–at the same time–they appreciate that institutions can be used “for good.”  And yet–they can be generous givers.  They want to know where the money that they donate is going, and that it is changing lives.  If your congregation’s message and actions reflect solid core values, you can invite Millennials to support your work with integrity.

Healthy Pledge Distribution ChartWhat you can do:

  • If possible, do an analysis of the distribution of pledges by quartile (i.e. look at your total amount pledged, divide it by 4, and see how many of your pledge units are in each quartile.   According to Wayne Clark:

The first 25% of total dollars should be coming from the first 10% of the household donors
The second 25% of total dollars should be coming from 15% of the donors
The third 25%of total dollars should be coming from 35% of the donors
The final 25% of total dollars should be coming from the last 40% of household donors

 If you have less than 30% of your members in the top two quartiles, you may be at risk.

  • Make sure your leaders are transparent, trustworthy and act with integrity.  Your donors want to know that your congregation will be a good steward of their financial gifts.
  • Be crystal clear when it comes to your mission and vision.  Let people know how your congregation makes the world a better places and transform lives.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff


Committee, Team or Task Force?

many ways to participateAs we reimagine how to do the work of a congregation, we need to take into account that younger folks (and by “younger” I mean people under 50) are wary of making commitments without fully understanding the implications.  These people want to feel like they are making  a contribution that makes a difference.  Expecting members to attend meetings out of a sense of duty (with no pragmatic objectives) will repel the next generation of leaders.

How should we pragmatically organize the groups that do the work of the congregation? The Rev, Marian Stewart offers this framework:


Long-term groups that have legal and structural responsibilities. In some models, these are referred to as Standing Committees.

For example: Endowment, Finance, Human Resources, Rentals.


Ongoing responsibilities but membership terms/commitments may be informal or formal and can vary from short to long-term. Mostly these  groups are responsible for the church programs and activities. In some  models, this group forms a Program Council that meets several times a year  to do calendaring, find partner groups to sponsor events, etc.

For example: Communications, Membership, Religious Education, Social Justice, Worship.

Task Force:

A group of people who gather around an identified need that  has a defined goal or time-limit.

For example: Bylaws revision, policy creation,  insurance coverage change.

Despite its name, a Search Committee might also  be defined as a Task Force, although it has a much longer impact and  involvement in the life of the congregation.

Event Organizers:

A group of people responsible for one-time or short series of activities.

For example: anniversary party, social gathering, ordination service.

All of these groups have a defined mission and purpose. Each fits into the overriding Long Range Plan, which has very distinct and accountable short, medium, and long term goals.

While the above structures and defined purposes are extremely useful, the real purpose of almost all groups is to learn to work together, build relationships, find meaning or experience spiritual growth, and do something to make this world a little better – even if that world is helping the church operate more smoothly as its fulfills its larger mission and vision.

Want to Develop Church Leaders? Stop Training Them!

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Photo credit:

Let me share a fable of two congregations.

Alpha Congregation has several corporate trainers who work in the not-for-profit world.  Three of them were asked to serve on the newly-formed Leadership Development Team (LDT).  They spent a couple of months designing a fabulous in-house training for potential leaders and a couple more months advertising the program and inviting members to participate.  On the day of the event, they were a little disappointed about the low turnout.  There were a couple of attendees who they thought might be good leaders, but several others were missing some key leadership qualities.  When it became time to fill the slate for the board of trustees a few months later, the LDT asked Kris, one of the promising candidates, if Kris would like to be treasurer.  “Oh I’m awful with finances!” exclaimed Kris.  “What made you think that would be a good role for me?”

Delta Congregation has a couple of community organizers who were serving on their newly-formed LDT.  They suggested that they use a One-to-One model of connecting.  They spent their year connecting with those folk in the congregation who seemed to have a strong sense of belonging but were not in yet leadership roles; a manageable 20% of the people who attended church somewhat regularly. In these one-to-one conversations the LDT members shared about their own commitment and sense of passion toward the mission and vision of the congregation. Next, they inquired about the interviewee’s values, passions and gifts.  Then the LDT member just listened–deeply. After a couple of months of these interviews, this LDT compared notes and followed up with their interviewees, connecting about half of them into various leadership roles that everyone found were good fits.

Many of our UU congregations have been moving from having Nominating Committees (which meet for a few months out of the year to help fill the slate of board members and other key positions) to Leadership Development Teams (which work year-around on leadership development).  This is meant to be a holistic approach to growing leaders in a congregational setting.

There are different facets to leadership development, the “Five I’s:”

  • Identify (Pay attention to people who are involved in congregational activities and how they interact with others.)
  • Invite (Help potential leaders discern their gifts.)
  • Inform (Equip your potential leaders with training)
  • Involve (Help potential leaders find a way to serve the ministry that best matches their gifts and calling)
  • Inquire (Check in annually with leaders to assess how well they are serving and how the role is serving them)

It’s tempting — especially if you have expertise “in house” — to put too much energy into training (i.e. “Inform“), at the expense of the relationship-building activities that–in the long run–results in committed leaders matched to fitting roles.  There are many ways to collaborate to spread the tasks of offering trainings so that your congregation’s Leadership Development Teams can concentrate on the relational one-to-one work that can have the most impact:

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Region

Avoid a Disappearing Act

First UU of San Francisco
Photo by Justin Ennis

Imagine if your church sign was only visible to half of people driving by your building.  What if only half of the local phone books or half of the local newspapers listed your congregation?   If your congregation’s website is out of date, it can’t be easily accessed by half of the people who are looking for you!

We have reached the tipping point where 80% of internet users have a smart phone, and over half of Google searches are performed on a mobile device (including tablets). In response, Google is changing their search protocol beginning April 21, 2015 to use mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.

This means that if your website it not mobile-friendly, it will be practically invisible to more than half of your potential visitors.

What you can do:

  1. Check to see if your website is mobile-friendly.
  2. Share this blog post with your “webmaster” or congregational leaders.



Updating Your Web Presence: Tools and Tips

A free, mobile-friendly UU WordPress Theme (updated 4/19/2015)


The End of Strategic Planning

Smaller congregations in many denominations are struggling to survive. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily “doing church” badly. But it does mean they need to do dead endchurch differently. Intuiting this need, church leaders often begin gearing up for a strategic planning process.

Strategic plans have been viewed as the epitome of responsible church governance since the 1970s, however… That view is shifting. Experts now speak of the “death” of strategic planning so frequently we thought it fitting to summarize their views in the following obituary.  

Mr. Strategic Plan quietly passed away in the first decade of the 21st century. He was born many years ago in a military camp, later adopted by businesses, and then spent his last years among non-profits and churches. He flourished in a time marked by its slower pace and greater institutional resources. He believed that tomorrow would turn out to be much like today and that with enough data and a clear, sure sense of self he could chart the best path forward into the distant future. Upon exposure to social and cultural shifts, Mr. Strategic Plan took ill and went into isolation. He was neglected in his last years and his death is only now being noticed in some quarters.

Mr. Strategic Plan is survived by many agile, shorter-term, best-guess strategic actions launched from a common ground, driven by individual or small group passions and coordinated just enough to reveal the congregation’s evolving understanding of its role in the world.

In this moment, the trend is away from massive, linear, comprehensive plans that define a specific future and the steps to get there, toward agile, bold actions plus reflection that move us now into our destinies. Direct those actions toward creating Beloved Community and practice a reflection that is spiritually centered, and you have the new way of framing congregational strategic planning.

This reframing eliminates the long search for a single set of all-inclusive goals perfectly balanced to achieve unanimous approval by the congregation. Instead, leadership creates a framework that supports groups of congregants passionately engaged in the community to give and receive gifts of service, hope, and love. For church leaders, this reframe is both a shift in thinking and a shift in behavior.

The Big Shifts in Strategic Planning

The biggest mind-shift may be giving up the idea that we can continue to do what we already do­, except more and better. Common expressions of this mindset include, “We just need” [more members, bigger pledges, the right minister, a revised governance structure or bylaws, or a larger draw on the endowment]. Good leaders are already squeezing benefits from doing the familiar. But if we meet only these kinds of needs the future will arrive, welcome or not, and tell us to close our doors for good.  Strategic thinking is a shift in stance from knowing to not knowing and from the familiar to the unknown and maybe even the risky.

With this reframe, the biggest shift in leadership behavior may be away from a top-down approach with the board gathering data and then determining goals. Instead the board equips its members to become instruments of strategic thinking and exploration as they minister out in the community. Shifts are not just top-down to bottom-up but also inward focused to outward engaged.  The most critical strategic information about a congregation’s future lies in active engagement outside of its walls.

This reframe of strategic planning also requires shifting from:

  • Slow and deliberative to nimble and experimental
  • Comprehensive and unanimous to targeted and personal
  • Knowing the “right” path to learning from success and failure

Doug Zelinski
Doug Zelinski

-Doug Zelinski, Leadership Development Director, New England Region



These are a lot of shifts and the question of “How?” surfaces almost immediately. New England Regional staff will share what we are learning about this reframing and answering the question “How?” at our upcoming event “The Future of Small to Mid-Sized Congregations” happening April 18 in Reading, MA and again on May 2 in Springfield, MA . You can read more and register for either of these events on the New England Region website.  




…And That’s Where the Magic Happens

Photo Copyright Brad Bolton
Photo Copyright Brad Bolton

It usually starts with one person with the beginning of an audacious idea.  It has enough form so that others can visualize the possibilities.  It also has enough open possibilities that others can see where they can bring their creativity and energy to help co-create it.  And woven fine within the interactions and planning that lead to the actual “product” is a feeling of there being some mysterious additional energy that enables the group to create something that feels almost magical.

It happened at my home congregation.  One woman, after reading the first couple of Harry Potter books, imagined creating a “vacation church school” based on the books.  Adult teachers would take on Hogwarts alter egos and create a version of Hogwarts where they emphasized liberal religious values.  Each teacher used their creativity and skills to create a unique experience in their classes. “Defense against the Dark Arts” helped the students respond to bullying.  The “Potions” class encouraged the love of science through chemistry.  Children who aged out of the program could become prefects or even professors.  Over ten years after its inception, the program is still filled to capacity.

Camp BeagleSomething similar happened at the congregation in Annapolis, Maryland. A group of UU parents wanted to offer the children of their congregation and the community their own version of a Vacation School, with liberal religious values. Because their church sits on 7 acres of woodland, they developed a nature camp. Their mission was to encourage questioning, active exploration, a respect for interconnectedness of all the earth, a sense of adventure, and—most importantly— a sense of awe!

They named it Camp Beagle, after the H.M.S. Beagle, the ship that took Charles Darwin on the voyage that changed the course of how we view our place in the world.

The adults planning the activities used their creative energy to serve the camp’s mission of exploration and awe. To explore the idea of evolution, children tried out different size binder clips to pick up seed and beans of various shapes and sizes.  To see the effect of meteors hitting the earth, they dropped various rocks into a pan of flour.  Teams of campers competed to come up with ways to recycle and reuse items in a pile of trash.  The camp has become so popular that they fill up soon after they open registration.

I think of these stories as examples of Creative Interchange, as described by UU process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman.  He described it as a sacred inspiration that encourages us to deepen and widen our connections with the rest of creation in service of goodness and love. When we come together with openness to including diverse gifts, the result can be transformative – for the participant and those around them — and even the world!

Our congregations are natural places to nurture opportunities for people to bring their gifts.  The savvy leader can spot where energy is flowing and help turn that into synergy with Creative Interchange.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Region