Sometimes, living in a bubble can be a good thing. It can create a barrier between harmful things on the outside and precious things on the inside.
In some ways, our congregational covenants operate in this way. They articulate that “in this community, this is how we will be together.” We promise to treat one another not only with respect, but with a sense of mutuality so that every one of us can flourish. We promise to work toward becoming our best selves, to learn from our mistakes and to help one another learn and grow.
As religious liberal communities, especially in the current climate of hateful rhetoric, we have a responsibility to model to the rest of the world how we believe people should treat one another. When our congregations are at their best, the are truly communities of people who care deeply and feel cared for.
The funny thing about bubbles is that–no matter how beautiful they may be–it’s human nature to want to pop them. It’s also not uncommon in human nature for some of us to want to pop the fragile bubble of beloved community. This is why our congregations must keep and renew our covenants with the same patience and persistence as a parent blowing bubbles for a toddler.
But sometimes more than a gentle reminder is needed when one of us is out of covenant. If someone persists with a behavior that is hurting the community, congregational leaders need to rely on good, faithful policies to address disruptive behavior. If someone is using racist, sexist, sexual or threatening language, the leaders have a responsibility to step up and stop the behavior, and the members of the congregation has a responsibility to support them in setting those limits.
Now might be a good time to review and refresh your congregation’s covenant as well as your safety policies, especially around disruptive behavior. Let’s keep our bubbles intact.
Is your congregation’s attendance flat or declining?
Are the results from your stewardship campaign disappointing?
Are you dipping into an endowment to help cover your operating expenses?
Are you thinking about cutting the budget by reducing the working hours of your program staff (e.g. minister, religious educator, music director, membership coordinator)?
Are the same leaders and volunteers doing everything that they have been doing for years, perhaps even decades?
These are all signs of a congregation in decline.
There are many forces at play for today’s congregations, many of them outside of the control of congregational leaders.
Fewer people belong to a church. In fact, fewer people feel the need to claim any particular faith tradition.
The changing context of religion in America has been well-documented by the Pew Forum and other research agencies.
The demographic bubble of the Baby Boomers is not bursting, but it is deflating slowly.
Boomers are retiring in droves and have more time to volunteer, so they may not be making room for or accommodating the needs of the younger generations. Boomers are moving into a different financial phase of life.
There are not many Gen Xers in our congregations.
This is partly because there were fewer babies born between 1960 and 1980. When Xers did show up to church, they often got frustrated when the church seemed stuck in old habits. Xers had learned to be adaptable to survive in a contracting economy but those skills weren’t always welcome in our congregations. And that contracting economy has left Xers with more debt and lower wages so they are often not able to give at the levels that the retiring Boomers have been giving.
The Good News
The message that Unitarian Universalism offers is attractive to emerging adults and to those who have found the faith of their childhood hypocritical or just stale. We also have a lot of other UU congregations and leaders who are already imagining or experimenting with ways to renew existing congregations or to plant new faith communities. We have congregations who have grown in spite of the changing context.
What to do:
Although it may be tempting for leaders to go for the technical fixes (like reducing staff hours), the real challenge is adaptive, calling for the church as a whole to struggle with a process of renewal so that it can “give birth” to a new iteration of itself.
Start with some deep group spiritual discernment.
What is your congregation’s “center?” What is your vision of the “Beloved Community?” What are you called to do in the world? How are you in covenant with one another and with the expanse of our interconnectedness with the universe?
Practice detachment when it comes to outcomes
Find a way to ground yourselves during the process so that you make room both for the synergy and surprising possibilities of renewal and for the prospect that the congregation has run its course and the conversation should turn to ending well and leaving a legacy.
Find the courage to “Experi-fail” and make it a new part of your congregational culture Adaptive challenges require a lot of experiments and learning opportunities for the community as a whole.
Become a “learning community Learn more about the changing context and what is working for growing congregations. Look to nearby congregations for ideas, possible partnerships or sharing of resources. Your UUA Regional staff can help connect you, if you don’t already have those relationships.
Congregations often look to the corporate and not-for-profit worlds for models of leadership, organizational development, fundraising and volunteer management. Unfortunately, they also look there for models of governance to the detriment of their core purpose. Congregations are ground in covenant, not bound in contract, so the relationship between minister and governing boards should not copy the relationship between a CEO and a corporate board.
Rev. David Pyle, Congregational Life Consultant in the Central East Region, recently shared what congregational governance should look like on his Facebook Page:
1. The purpose of church is not governance.
The purpose of church is mission. The purpose of church is transforming lives to transform the world. Governance is important only as it helps you to live your mission in the world. If you are spending more time on governance than you are on mission, something is wrong. Governance should free your congregation for mission, not serve as a replacement for mission.
2. Corporate style governance systems were not designed for religious community.
Neither were traditional non-profit governance systems. Both import an adversarial mindset between the Governing Board and the Executive that is detrimental to religious mission. Both depend on the Board’s ability to terminate the Executive, which Congregational Boards often cannot do (called ministry). You can make corporate or traditional non-profit governance systems work in congregations, and it takes significant energy and effort, often detracting that effort and energy from mission.
3. There is no perfect governance system.
Governance is about providing some order to the power relationships amongst human beings working together for a common purpose… and human beings are endlessly creative, messy, and chaotic. Governance is far more art than science, because human beings are infinitely complex. Good governance is a creative compromise, and it takes leaders who keep their eye on mission. Good governance is about how can we best all build the “world made whole”.
4. There are many forms of good governance.
Almost as many as their are churches. I am not picky. If Policy Governance helps you best fulfill your mission, then Amen Hallelujah! If having an Operational Board works best for you, then Amen Hallelujah! I even know a Portfolio Board or two that achieve mission well, and a few Family Model congregations who kick serious mission butt. I am not a Governance Fundamentalist. Because it is your religious mission that is vital, not necessarily how you get there. Whatever you do, do what best leads you to mission.
5. Institutional structures come, and institutional structures go.
They are tools, not talismans. They must change as time and culture changes. It is religious mission that remains. Neither Jesus nor Buddha founded significant church structures or governance, they left that to their followers. They focused on religious mission. If your governance is supporting your religious mission, amen. If not, then change tools. But realize they are only tools (including Congregational polity). Letting governance or polity replace mission as the center of our religious focus is a form of idolatry. Our eyes must be on the mission of transformed lives that transform the world, and we must craft tools that best help us to achieve that.
Today’s post was written by the Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson, Senior Minister of the UU Church in Rockford, IL.
Given the increasing shortage of UU ministers, congregations might wish for a simple
way to evaluate their own fitness for ministry. Ministers, likewise, might find an objective scale helpful in discerning whether a congregation is ready for them. This scale is similar to the hoped for outcomes of interim ministry, though not identical. This is not a scale of comprehensive congregational health – that would look at things like theological maturity, generosity, anti-oppression, and more. (More about that, below). This is simpler.
How do you use this? A board, search committee, and/or committee on ministry might do a self-assessment, with their minister. Do folks agree on where they are placed? If not, why not? Where can you move up easily, and what will be harder?
Ministers in search can assess a potential match — though what is presented from the outside might not be what’s true on the inside – in either direction. A low score doesn’t mean that a congregation is unhealthy and a high score doesn’t mean they are. A minister might choose a congregation that seems less ready for a variety of reasons — including a sense that helping such a place is part of their call.
There are five categories, with a 1-4 rating. A score of 10 or below probably means developmental ministry. A score of 15 or more is very ready. I would not choose a church that didn’t have at least two “4’s” or had more than two “2’s” or less.
4. The church has a strong sense of mission, to change lives in and out of the church.
3. The church is a beacon for liberal values, and many people are engaged in outward ministry.
2. The church is a refuge for liberal people, and some work in the community for good.
1. The church is a club-house and resists any effort to change the world, let alone the
4. Many people joyfully participate in worship, leadership, and social activities. The minister has strong partners in the ministry.
3. There is a core of active leaders in many areas.
2. Though there are some good leaders, the minister is expected to drive most of the ministry.
1. Members see themselves as consumers of the ministry, not co-creators or owners of the church. (Unless there is conflict with the minister.)
Respect for Authority
4. The church values the minister’s expertise and authority in theology, leadership, worship, and care. The minister is the clear chief of staff.
3. Most members respect the minister most of the time, but an undercurrent of suspicion may be present.
2. Members often question the minister’s authority and judgement. Some act out, and leaders let it go unchallenged.
1. The minister is seen as a service provider whose job is to make people happy. They are regularly critiqued and attacked. They are not consulted about important decisions.
4. The congregation is joyfully fair-compensation.
3. Though some members grumble about it, the congregation is fair-compensation and committed to remaining so.
2. Many leaders want to be fair-compensation, but the congregation isn’t there yet.
1. The congregation is not fair-compensation and doesn’t really see why they should be.
4. The congregation insists that the minister maintains a healthy work-life balance, and joyfully welcomes the minister’s family, if any, at the level they wish to be engaged.
3. The congregation respects the minister’s boundaries and need for time off.
2. Though most members respect the minister’s time off, some do not, and the congregation sees this as the minister’s problem to solve.
1. The congregation regularly invades the minister’s time off, privacy, and family life.
Your total score__________.
Note: Again, this is not a comprehensive scale of health.
A minister and a congregation might look at other key factors as well, for example (not a complete list):
Anti-racism and anti-oppression: A “4” would have commitments to intercultural competency and a systemic understanding of oppression. A “1” wouldn’t want their minister to talk about it too much and an implicit commitment to minimization.
UU identity: A “4” might mean they embrace their UU identity and relationships whilea “1” would mean little to no understanding of, or connection to, Unitarian Universalism. [Thanks to Rev. Erika Hewitt for this one!]
Financial Health: A “4” would have clear policies, transparency and inclusion of the minister in financial affairs (including full access to pledging data) and so forth.
Theological maturity: A “4” would embrace mystery and metaphor with grace, a “1” would be excessively literalistic and reactive to any religious language.
Generally speaking, if a congregation scores well on the basic measure they can make progress together on these things. But a congregation that isn’t very “fit for ministry” will have a hard time making sustained progress on other measures of health and vitality.
One last note: A congregation that gets a lower score might really need a good minister. Indeed, they might be more “in need” than one who scores well. If a congregation that has a lower score can be honest and self-reflective about how they need to grow, a minister will be much more likely to work with them. So, if you’ve got a score under 12, but the congregation knows that it needs to change and is on the right path, give yourself a few bonus points. You can do it! Congregations become healthier all the time. The shortage of ministers just gives you one more reason to do so.
Congregational governance is an art. Church leaders need to learn how to navigate the line between governance and ministry. In other non-profits, there are different parties to consider:
The Board sets mission & vision, makes policy and assures fiduciary responsibility
The CEO and staff carry out the mission
The Donors help support the mission with their financial gifts
The Beneficiaries are the “object” of the non-profit’s mission
In the congregational world, members of the board don’t just govern, they are also donors and beneficiaries and–at times–staff (when they are also serving as part of a ministry such as being a worship associate or being a pastoral visitor). In other words, church governance is a little bit messy.
There is no one-size-fits-all kind of governance for congregations, but there are resources to help UU congregations navigate a governance change. One is the consultants at Unity Consulting, who have adapted John Carver’s Policy Governance® for congregations.
Another is Dan Hotchkiss, former Alban Institute consultant and UUA staff member, and the author of Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership. Rev. Hotchkiss has just released a second edition ofGovernance and Ministry. I had the opportunity to interview him about what he learned since writing the first edition, and about the significant changes compared to the first edition:
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, UUA Congregational Life Consultant
Additional resources mentioned in this blog and interview:
January is always a good time for a church to take stock of its fiduciary responsibilities. Rev. Richard Nugent, the UUA Church Staff Finances Director, has some important advice for UU congregations, in particular about how congregations administer their retirement plans:
Congregations are legal entities required to comply with all sorts of legal requirements. While religious institutions
might be exempt from a FEW legal requirements, churches are NOT exempt from most. This includes many requirements stemming from being an employer.
Today’s post pertains to the UU Organizations Retirement Plan. Our plan is a 401(a)/401(k) non-electing church plan. It is governed by IRS and US Labor Department rules. It is also governed by a plan document that every participating congregation has adopted/re-adopted in 2014 or 2015. In adopting our plan, by motion of your governing board, your congregation committed to abide by the rules of the plan (and hopefully federal regulations).
What does this mean:
1) All employees (and all means all) must be offered enrollment in the plan for purposes of making their own employee contributions toward their retirement.
2) All new employees, who never worked for a UUA-related organization before, MUST receive employer contributions after meeting the requirement of 12 months of employment during which they worked 1,000 hours or more. If someone previously worked for a UUA-related organization and was enrolled in our plan, then they must receive employer contributions from day one of employment. New ministers who completed a UUA-related internship are also eligible immediately. After meeting the 1,000 hour/12 month requirement, if anyone’s hours are reduced, they still receive employer contributions. Essentially, once in our plan, always in our plan.
3) Personnel policies that limit eligibility for retirement benefits to certain employees DO NOT TRUMP THE UUA REQUIREMENTS. Our requirements rule, and congregations agreed to that when they signed on to our plan. .
4 All employees eligible for employer contributions must receive the SAME percentage contribution. THE MINISTER CAN NOT RECEIVE 10% OR MORE WHILE EVERYONE ELSE RECEIVES 5%. This is not allowed by our plan and in violation of IRS regulations. I am happy to discuss this with anyone who finds their congregation in this situation.
5) The minimum employer contribution is 5%. 86% of congregations contribute 10% or more. Fair Compensation requires an offer of 10% or more. People need to put away 14% of their salary to ensure the possibility of retirement.
6) If you believe your congregation might be in violation of these policies, please contact me to discuss how you can legally come into compliance.
7) For any questions about our plan, the very helpful and informative Linda Rose directs our retirement plan. As a spouse of a UU minister, Linda understands congregational dynamics. Linda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We at the UUA are appreciative of all the hard work you do, and the challenge of keeping up with administrative details.
I’m a “stealth greeter” in my home congregation. I go up to newcomers after a service and strike up a conversation about what brought them to church that day, and then I listen. What are they looking for? Community, meaning, direction and connection to a purpose greater than themselves.
Most of our congregations are pretty good at the first two. We provide community in our social events and meaning in the Sunday worship service. I think it’s because community and meaning are what our older adults are looking for and our older adults run the show and can make sure those are happening.
But the young adults that I talk to are looking for direction and connection to a purpose greater than themselves. A recent article in the Atlantic starts out telling the story of the young adult ramblings of our venerable Henry David Thoreau and how today’s millennials need to find their way into adulthood, not with predetermined markers (job, marriage, house, children) but within their sense of self.
Congregational leaders who want to create a culture that is welcoming to young adult seekers are facing the adaptive challenge of being a community that not only serves the existing members, but also provides spiritual hospitality. This kind of hospitality is based on the Platinum Rule–an intercultural version of the Golden Rule–of doing unto others what they would have done for themselves.
My congregation uses monthly themes and has different ways for people to connect and engage with them. We also strive to offer life-stage groups (single young adult, parents of young children, parents of adolescents, retiree) and other kinds of groups to help people connect and find their own direction. As I share these concrete possibilities with the visitor, I can see their delight as they see the possibility of this becoming their spiritual home.
What might your congregation do to provide spiritual hospitality?
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Consultant
By saying “bad apples” I’m referring to behaviors of people in our congregations that can act like the ethylene that rotting fruit emits that will eventually rot the fruit nearby. But instead of causing rot, the human version of the bad apple breaks the bonds of community.
Let me be clear that it’s behaviors that I am talking about, not the people themselves. As creatures of free will, we can make choices about our behavior. As communities, we can set standards of behavior to encourage people to be their best selves, at least at church. As I’ve heard many parents express, “Going to church helps to remind ourselves that “the world does not revolve around me.”
Congregations that are unable to grow, or that are declining in numbers and enthusiasm often have ignored the bad apples among their midst and yet are puzzled about why visitors don’t return or why new members drift away without saying why. (Even if they did, it’s a rare congregation who would take such feedback to heart.)
I am passionate about this because–every week–someone walks through the doors of a UU congregation who needs the saving message of liberal religion (you are not inherently sinful!) and the saving community of covenant (we pledge to support and encourage one another to spiritual growth). It breaks my heart when anyone is repelled from “the bunch” of healthy, vibrant community by the “bad apple” of an individual or two.
Why do we tolerate behaviors that repel not just visitors but healthy and contributing members? I think it’s because our leaders exhibit a failure of nerve to stand up to such destructive behaviors and sometimes even enable them with excuses or explanations like:
“Oh, that’s just Jack. He’s always been like that. Lot’s of people are huggers. Jack just doesn’t know when to stop.”
“We know that Mary is always criticizing the minister and board, but she is one of our major donors. We wouldn’t want to risk losing her.”
“We’re the only community that Greg has. He may have some incidents of aggressive behavior, but they’ve never happened at church so it’s none of our business.”
“It’s too bad that we’ve gone through eight administrators in five years because of Pat pointing our every little mistake. Pat used to be our volunteer administrator and is a member of one of our founding families. They have too much power for the board to do anything.”
“Letting someone like Bill talk for 5 minutes during Joys and Sorrows shows newcomers that we are welcoming and supportive of everyone.”
“A lot of our older members had bad experiences with Christian churches in their childhoods. People should understand when they condemn Christianity they only mean certain kinds of Christians.”
“If people aren’t sticking around after a few bad experiences with some of our crankier members, it just means there weren’t all that committed to our church in the first place.”
If you currently have a similar “bad apple” situation in your congregation, don’t despair! There are many resources to help your leadership team (and it takes a team!) to stand up “to bad apple” behaviors:
Call your Regional Staff. They will be good partners in helping you figure out how to address the behaviors.
Belonging 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.
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.
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?
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 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:
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).
To ensure continuity, the email address (e.g., email@example.com) 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.