Thinking about our thinking

 

elephant
Photo by Brittany H. https://www.flickr.com/photos/thelivelygirl/

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.

2015-01-19 09.53.22One 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.

Observations:

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.

Interpretations:

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.

Judgments:

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.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

Additional resources:

 

If the Buddha Was “In Search…”

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

Photo by Jan Kunst
Photo by Jan Kunst

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

 

Let Me Sleep on It…

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.  TheWoman Sleeping 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

 

Reflections on Right Relationship

Photo by Paul Barfoot
Photo by Paul Barfoot

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?

Rev. David Miller
Rev. David Miller

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 Difference When You Make a Difference

turtleThe 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:

Jennifer Sayer
Jennifer Thomas reads testimonial by Sayer Johnson. Photo by Darthe Jennings.

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.

Additional Resources:

Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate: A New Vision or Financial Stewardship by J. Clif Christopher

The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multiracial and Multicultural Congregations by Jacqueline Lewis

The Generosity Path: Finding the Richness in Giving by Mark V. Ewert

The Wi$dom Path: Money, Spirit, and Life A Tapestry of Faith Program for Adults  by Patricia Hall Infante and David H. Messner

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, CERG – The Central East Regional Group

 

 

 

There’s a Hole in the Bucket…

bucketIt 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:

Finance Policies

  • 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:

  • contact your attorney immediately
  • contact your District or Regional Congregational Life staff person.
  • consider engaging a Certified Fraud Examiner to assist you with the formal investigation

  • DO NOT confront the person

  • keep the investigation confidential
  • don’t be afraid to press charges
  • 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.

Additional Resources:

Financial Management for Congregations  UUA Website

Subscribe to the UU-Money Email List A forum for congregational money leaders.

A financial pandemic is sweeping the country article from Church Mutual

We’ve Been Embezzled! from Church Law & Tax

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Congregational Life Staff

Going With the Flow

go-with-the-flow-thumb26062172In my travels around the region, I sometimes hear members of congregations say something like, “Church shouldn’t be like work.  It should be fun.”  Several current research studies support this contention and might explain one of the reasons that congregational leaders get “burned out.”

In a New York Times (September 7, 2014) article, Paul O’Keefe, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, contends that people who see a task as interesting and enjoyable will work harder on that task and perform better.  Further, knowing that your work will make a difference or has possibilities for changing things for the better will help people to feel energized rather than exhausted, motivated rather than morose.  One of the psychologists cited in the study calls it “flow”, the experience we have when we are in the zone.

The implications for leaders in our congregations, then, is obvious.  The more leaders see their tasks as interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful, the harder and longer they work on the task and the better they will perform at it.

So how do we help leaders to get in the “zone”?  Additional research at the Universities of Virginia and Wisconsin suggest that for most of us, whether we find something interesting and motivating is a matter of whether we find it personally valuable.  We need to help leaders see their work as meaningful not only to the congregation or to our faith, but meaningful and valuable to them as well.  Research also shows that social engagement in activities can foster greater interest and motivation.  Leaders need to know that they are not alone and church activities done in a group rather than in isolation will result in happier, more motivated and more productive leaders.

Perception truly is in the eye of the beholder.  As staff, ministerial and lay leaders, let’s help each other to see things in a positive and meaningful way.  Let’s work together so that no leader needs to feel alone.  Let’s make church fun.

 

Announcements: A Terrible Death to Die

announcementsI remember my first church family camp, the Ohio Meadville Summer Institute.  At the end of the morning worship, one of the planning committee members would go up to the podium and start singing:

 

 

Announcements, Announcements, An-NOW-ounce-ments!
A terrible death to die, a terrible death to die,
A terrible death, a terrible death, a terrible death to die.
Announcements, Announcements, An-NOW-ounce-ments!

I visit a lot of different congregations in my work, and occasionally this hits a little too close to home!

Fortunately, I also have had other experiences.  I was at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday where the co-ministers announced that the announcements for that Sunday were going to be the last.  The Rev. Kathleen Rolenz announced the change and the Rev. Wayne Arnison articulated the discomfort that such a change will create.

How will people know what is going on?  How will we get more Sunday School teachers if we don’t ask from the pulpit?  How will we let people know that our pledge payments have dropped off over the summer, and we need folks to catch up?

Rich Birch at unSeminary points out in his article 8 Reasons People Aren’t Listening to your Announcements that announcements are counter-productive.  Our goal is to get people’s attention, but instead we get their eyes to glaze over.  The “added noise” of the announcements may actually interfere with the effectiveness of the transformative message that our worship team has worked so hard to provide.  What is our core purpose, to change lives or to staff the rummage sale?

Of course, re-thinking how we communicate to our members will require patience and creativity on the part of congregational leaders.  I think you are up to the challenge!   Please share your ideas of how you communicate more effectively!

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

Additional Resources can be found at:  Communication Skills for Leaders

5 Shades of Ministry

Allegheny UU Church in Pittsburgh, PA has a commitment to shared ministry.
Allegheny UU Church in Pittsburgh, PA has a commitment to shared ministry.

I’ve spent most of my summer working with different programs and events that help to grow lay leaders in our faith.  I have had the blessing of encountering dozens of earnest, committed and evangelical lay leaders wanting to spread the good news of our liberal faith.  Ministry shows up in many forms, and each has high value and an important role in the life of our faith communities.  Often ordained ministry is held up as “real ministry,” relegating other forms of ministry to lesser status.  I think all forms of ministry are important and complementary.

Ministry comes in many shades that, when layered, become a  rich hue. I can think of five — perhaps you might come up with more.

  • Pastoral Ministry is compassion.
    It is offering comfort and care to each other when we are in need.
  • Teaching Ministry is consciousness.
    It is encouraging one another to form our beliefs, live our values and engage our world.
  • Prophetic Ministry is agency.
    It is how we use our religious convictions to transform the world.
  • Ordained Ministry is devotion.
    It is a life devoted to serving the transcendent religious ideal.
  • Shared Ministry is covenantal.
    It is the time and intention that lay people carve out of their busy lives, also in their commitment to partner in serving the transcendent religious ideal. It is the time and attention that the clergy give to the spiritual formation of those leaders. Shared ministry is the greatest of these because it creates space for all gifts of ministry.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant

 

 

 

Art Doesn’t Happen by Committee – Part 2

I had just finished leading a worship service as a guest preacher. This congregation had been experiencing a gentle decline in membership over the past decade. Several congregants came up to me afterward and exclaimed, “It was wonderful how the music, the readings and the children’s story all connected to the sermon. Did you plan for that to happen?”  Actually, I made sure to work with the music director, the religious educator and the worship associate to help that to happen.  I casted my vision of the theme and made some suggestions, and they made other suggestions, and together we created a holistic service.

paletteWorship is a peculiar art form, especially in Unitarian Universalist congregations. The meaning of the word is derived from the Old English weorthscipe: ‘worthiness, acknowledgment of worth.’  In our traditional style of worship, we have a sermon, which is a kind of teaching, and the liturgy, which is the form of the rest of the service.  The meaning of the word liturgy is derived from the Greek lēitos ‘public’ + -ergos ‘working.’

In too many of our congregations’ worship services, there is a disconnect between the elements of the liturgy because the individuals contributing to it do not have a shared vision of the theme, or are not in alignment with the theme.

Similar to when an artist selects a palette of colors for a painting, the worship team should ensure that the elements of the liturgy blend together to achieve the desired overall effect. Having several diverse people contributing and riffing off of one another helps to create a rich experience.  However, there should always be a designated leader of the team who can make the final decision when there is disagreement or lack of direction.  Usually, that leader is the minister — a trained professional in Worship Arts and entrusted with “freedom of the pulpit” by the congregation.

When there is not a leader trusted with being the actual leader of worship for the congregation, or worse yet, there are factions that “control” the different elements of the Sunday service, the quality of worship suffers, and those who come for religious and/or spiritual sustenance leave unfed.

This year, the various worship services at our annual General Assembly had a much more holistic quality than they had in previous years.  The reason?  There was clear leadership by a worship professional who was entrusted with the authority to oversee the worship services and to ensure cohesiveness and connection to the overall theme of “Love Reaches Out.”

To me, the worship also seemed to have a deeper quality, because of the common theme and the variations on that theme that each worship service provided.  (There is a movement among vibrant congregations to use monthly themes for worship, faith development classes and small group ministry for this very reason!)  Reconnecting to our depth is what will help our faith bend the arc of the universe toward love and justice.

In the closing worship service, Nora Collins shared a reading from “Reimagining the American Dream”, an essay by Marilyn Sewell that captures the need for depth:

I [am] intrigued by…words often attributed to Rudolf Behro, an East German dissident: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” I…[think] about us as Unitarian Universalists. This is who we are—we are not afraid to be insecure. We are not afraid to search, to go deeper, to find the truth, even when the truth is unpalatable. We are seekers who want to live out of that truth….

 

Unitarian Universalists, though few in number, can be the yeast in the loaf. However, let us be wary of the usual distractions and follies of our movement. It’s grown-up time now. We [can] no longer prioritize petty quarrels about how “religious” our language should be, conflicts between the humanists and the more spiritually inclined, or squabbles about who is in charge. The mission of the church is not to meet our needs; the mission of the church is to heal our world. It is to give ourselves to something larger than ourselves. Ironically, when we give of ourselves in this way, we find that our deepest needs are met.

Resources for Worship:

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG (The Central East Regional Group)