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 If your congregation’s website is out of date, it can’t be easily accessed by half of the people who are looking for you!
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 church 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, 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.
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.
Something 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
What does it mean to be a member in a congregation? How much can we ask of members? I believe that membership should signify a commitment to the congregation and it’s mission as expressed by the Rev. Michael Piazza.
“Becoming a member of a church means you take off your bib and put on an apron,”
I remember the moment when I really felt I had become a “real” member of my own congregation.
It wasn’t when I started dropping a weekly check into the offering basket.
It wasn’t when I took my first religious education class.
It wasn’t when I signed the membership book.
It wasn’t even when I became moderator (a Universalist church position similar to president) of the congregation.
I felt I became a “real” member when I spent a full Saturday as part of a work party doing a deep cleaning of the church building before ingathering Sunday.
I’m not saying that membership only comes with a scrub brush and mop. But I do believe that when we become a member of a congregation, we should be asked to change our posture from guest to host, from visitor to steward.
As hosts, we make sure the guests find a welcoming and nurturing spiritual community. As lifelong seekers, we grow our own souls though our own continuous faith development. As stewards, we offer our time and money to help sustain and grow that community. As members we agree to serve in these roles and more, in covenant with one another and with our highest ideals.
In dealing with adaptive challenges (e.g. changing demographics or attitudes toward religious institutions) congregational leaders can learn some wisdom from the old folktale about the 7 Blind Men and the Elephant. Each of the men could feel a part of the creature, and each came up with his own interpretation of what he was experiencing: The man touching the tail thought it was a rope, the man touching the ear thought it was a large leaf, the man touching the leg thought it was a tree, and so on.
There is a term in Adaptive Leadership called “getting on the balcony.” It’s a metaphor for the practice of shifting your point of view from the “dance floor” where you can only see what is happening close to you, to a point of view that looks at the whole “dance floor.” In our case, it’s the practice of looking at a congregational system as a whole.
Like the men in the folk tale, congregational leaders need each other to get on the balcony and to help see the big picture and clarify their own thinking. In other words, each member of a leadership team has a line of sight into the congregation and their own personal history that colors their perception. When leaders trust one another, they can ask one another to help check their own biases that might be influencing their perception of an issue.
One useful tool is this simple exercise that will assist you in taking an adaptive challenge and sort out what are your observations, your interpretations and your judgments. On a sheet of paper or newsprint, create 3 columns, one for each kind of thinking.
These are items of observable fact. This list may include data that you’ve gathered or compiled, or anecdotal information from surveys, interviews, etc.
In the example I’ve listed some facts related to a church that is declining in membership.
These are different ways to interpret the observations. This is where it is helpful to have a diversity of ages, cultures and other experiences in leadership. If you have only one interpretation or “story” implied by the interpretations, it may be time to bring some new and different kinds of people into leadership.
In the example I list a couple of different interpretations of what might be happening. In a group, I would hope to have many more.
These include the opinions of how you feel or judge the situation. This will help you to sort out your feelings and biases about different interpretations. How are you judging those involved? Do you see them as good or bad, right or wrong? Does a different interpretation lead to a different judgment?
When faced by an adaptive challenge, it’s often tempting to blame a group of the people involved. It’s important to name what our judgments are (and all of us have judgments!) so that we can focus on the interpretations and use them to help design “interventions” to address the adaptive challenge.
It’s the beginning of the year, and Ministerial Search Committees have just received a list of names of ministers who are interested in learning more about their congregation. Savvy Search Committees know that they are
looking for a good match, not a perfect candidate, and the best way to find a good match is to present the congregation as mindfully and authentically as possible. Taking a cue from the Charlotte Kasl book If the Buddha Dated, here are some suggestions for all leaders of congregations to help them frame themselves while in search:
Be guided by Spirit, not Ego:
Does the congregation have a sense of mission and connection that extends beyond its walls?
Have you discerned a strong forward-looking sense of purpose that enables you to “retire” programs and practices that no longer serve the mission?
Do your leaders feel a sense of call that enables them to partner with the new minister to lead the congregation outside of its comfort zone?
Know thyself as a system: both your strengths and your growing edges
Can you articulate what is at your center? i.e. What are the core, defining values make up your congregation’s DNA?
What does it take to “fit in” with your faith community? Are there barriers around class, education, culture?
How do you handle conflict? Do people communicate directly, or do they tend to triangulate?
Do you set annual congregational ministry goals and assess how the ministries did at the end of the year? Where is the accountability (both for lay and/or professional people)?
Are you able to address your growing edges with humility and/or a sense of humor?
Be mindful of “unfinished business” from your congregation’s recent (and not-so-recent) history
Can you talk openly about uncomfortable parts of your congregation’s history? Can you articulate how that history might have affected the congregation and what might be done to move it forward?
Are there areas of the congregation that operate outside of the official lines of authority? (website/Facebook, ministry programs, social justice, endowment, etc.?)
Where are the past presidents? Are they still active, or burned out?
How did your previous ministries end? If there was conflict involved, what part did your congregation play? How have the leaders responded to conflict since then?
Understand your relationship with power and authority, covenant and stewardship
Do the lines of accountability align with lines of authority? (e.g. Is the minister head of program staff? Is the board fulfilling its fiduciary duties? Does the board trust and treat the minister as a covenantal partner? Are staff who are also members clear about their boundaries?)
Do you have well-established policies and procedures to deal with members who are disruptive or just out of covenant that include strong lay leadership involvement?
What is your relationship to money? Do members and friends pledge generously? Does the congregation compensate staff and contribute to the region and UUA at suggested levels?
What is your relationship to the wider UU movement? Do your leaders interact with other UU leaders? Do you seek out “best practices” of other congregations shared by the UUA?
Practice “beginner’s mind” as part of your own living tradition
Do you have youth and young adults in leadership?
Do you have active leaders with different identities (race, class, culture, ability, gender) who are appreciated for the different perspectives that they bring?
Do you have examples of how you tried something, failed, but no one resigned their leadership position or left the congregation as a result?
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Region of the UUA
The congregational meeting was held right after the Sunday service to guarantee a quorum. There were a couple of important issues to discuss, including passing a deficit budget to help fund a part time membership coordinator in service of their desire for growth. Standard reports were given by the board, the minister, the religious educator and various committee chairs. Bellies were starting to feel hunger and eyes were starting to glaze over. The last report was from the finance committee, presenting the deficit budget and opening up the discussion.
The first member to speak explained that she was retired, debt free, and on a fixed income and couldn’t possibly pledge any more. The next member accused the finance committee of “dropping this bomb” on the congregation at the last minute. The next threatened to withhold their pledge if the congregation passed a deficit budget. Tempers continued to flare until the budget was revised to take out the additional spending. The leaders felt that the congregation’s vision was sabotaged, and that affected their ability to serve with joy for the rest of the year.
We know from brain science that when humans feel that they are threatened, the amygdala become engaged and the higher brain functions such as reason and creativity are overshadowed by flight or fight responses. When the brain has experienced this sort of amygdala hijack, it takes three or four hours to regain full cognitive functioning!
Some congregations understand this and have separated out the presentation and discussion parts from the voting parts of their congregational meetings so that the discussion can happen without the time-pressure of an immediate pending vote. This way members can share their concerns, leaders can listen deeply and decisions can be made with our creative and rational neo-cortex and not our emotionally reactive cerebellum. It turns out that “sleeping on it” does help us make better decisions!
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Regional Group
I often hear the question, “Is there a spiritual practice that is particularly Unitarian Universalist?” I believe that there is–living into our covenantal relationships. Being in community can be challenging. But being in a faith community can give us the opportunity to explore our edges and test our assumptions. Covenant offers us an invitation to be curious and humble, to make room for mistakes by pre-promising that–when we fail–we are willing to forgive and try again.
Recently, the Rev. David A. Miller offered his “Reflections on Right Relationship” in a Facebook post and agreed to let me share it here.
I thought these eighteen questions could be helpful for congregational leaders as a reminder of how we might–as a spiritual practice–remain true to our covenants:
1. Am I assuming the good intentions of the other?
2. Am I communicating directly with the person with whom I am having an issue?
3. Am I resolving issues or am I spreading them through gossip, anger and/or frustration?
4. Am I reflecting on what personal wounds, issues, and tendencies of mine that are contributing to the issue?
5. Am I willing to be an active participant and to work in good faith to clear up issues?
6. Am I projecting on to someone else through my own framework what they are thinking or doing vs. engaging them and asking them to share their thoughts and story?
7. Am I actually trying to live the principles and values of Unitarian Universalism by acting with compassion, respect and a high value of our interdependence?
8. Am I actively listening to what others are saying and not formulating a response or the next comment or question while they are talking?
9. Can I let go of my need to control the situation?
10. Can I graciously leave space for others by letting someone else speak first or by not speaking my mind if the point has been raised or made already?
11. Can I help lift up the life of another or the group in my words and actions?
12. Can I have disagreements with an individual or group, do so in love and respect, and continue to stay in community?
13. Can I take into account the importance of the task in relation to the importance of the relationship?
14. Can I reflect on how my attitude and actions contribute to the tone of our community?
15. Am I willing not to have to be right?
16. Am I being the change I wish to see in the world, and that means really acting the way I would like others to act??
17. Am I willing to be changed?
18. And finally, can I remember to ask the question, “What is the most loving thing I can do or say right now?”
The scholarship fund at the Midwest Leadership School, called “Flame Keepers” was not growing. Sadly, in the summer of 2013 only $10 had been donated to the fund. The volunteer lay staff had all experienced the transformative power of the week-long school and had enthusiastically promoted the fund with skits and songs to help provide that experience for leaders with financial need. This past summer they decided to try something new, based on a lecture about stewardship by visiting faculty member Kathy McGowan. She had said:
People give money to make a difference. People give money to change lives. You need to tell the story of how you are making a difference in the lives of real people.
MLWS Chair Jennifer Thomas reached out to a MWLS graduate, Sayer Johnson, that she had met when she was a student in 2011. Thomas asked for a testimonial that could be shared when they invited the current students to donate to the Flame Keepers fund. This is the result:
MWLS changed my life.
As the week unfolded, I knew I’d never be the same, and I was right. My congregation saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself and they took a chance on me. My congregation was generous with their open hearts. Strangers were generous with their financial support, and because of a Flamekeepers scholarship, I was able to make MWLS a reality.
Two years before stepping foot onto the Beloit campus I was emerging as my authentic self. I was declaring my space as a transgender man. My family and my congregation stood by me, held me up, and eventually challenged me to be here–where you are now–and have this experience at Beloit. My time at MWLS resonates with me still.
My time at MWLS was my first experience with meeting folks who only knew me as Sayer…not by my old name and not as my former self. It was daunting and frightening and overwhelming, but in the end one of the most amazing and soul-inspiring welcomes into my new world as I could have possibly wished for.
Beloit lit a spark… and because of the Flamekeepers, the spark became light. MWLS would NEVER have been possible for me without the generosity of strangers.
Now four years later, I’m still benefiting from my time at MWLS. Upon returning, I was able to facilitate growth in my congregation. I also co-founded a support group for other transgender men in the St. Louis metro area. The impact of MWLS is powerful, intimate and far-reaching.
My story is one of many. And I am grateful.
The response was amazing. People wrote checks. People rounded up their bookstore purchases to donate to the fund. MWLS student and folk musician Darthe Jennings donated all of the proceeds from her CDs sold at the bookstore to the fund. The result? Instead of $10, the fund received over $1000!
Make a difference, then tell the story of how you make a difference.
It happens more often than you think it should. The church seems to be vital, even growing, but the money in the collection plate doesn’t keep up with the growth, or there seems to be a shortfall every month. There might be grumbling about how the new folks aren’t pulling their weight financially. Then someone notices some irregularities, even though a trusted, long-time volunteer has been responsible for the money. And then it comes to light that hundreds, even thousands of dollars are unaccounted for.
Churches are especially susceptible to theft, embezzlement and fraud. We foster an environment that encourages trust and vulnerability in other aspects of congregational life. We are often so desperate for volunteers we don’t ask for the kind of skills or accountability that we should to meet our fiduciary responsibilities. And we often inherit systems, habits and volunteers that would be hard to change without a good reason.
Here are some basic practices and policies that every congregation should have in place:
Two signers for checks
Separate duties of income, check writing, check signing and reconciling accounts to provide checks and balances (e.g. the person who makes the deposits should not write checks)
Reimbursements must have receipts and proper paperwork and signatures
Duplicate Bank Statements that go to non-signers
Mandatory vacations for employees who have financial duties
Have the finance committee or other appointed committee review church financial records annually
Have the finance committee track patterns of giving over time
Permanent financial records should be kept at the church, not in someone’s home
The Collection Plate
Have two unrelated counters of every offering
Rotate count teams
Have 2 copies of the deposit slip. One goes with the money to be deposited, the second goes to another person that can provide a financial check and balance
Immediately deposit the money after the service using a sealed bank security bag. NEVER allow anyone to take the offering home.
Uh-Oh…We Might Have a Problem
If you think that your congregation might be a victim of theft, embezzlement or fraud:
Once the investigation is complete and charges have been files, be as transparent as possible with the congregation. Let them know the amount of the theft and what changes in policy and procedure have been put in place to prevent such occurrences in the future. Your members need to know that their financial gifts are being well-stewarded.