About the Author
Mark Bernstein
Growth Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I believe that when congregations grow in strength and vitality and spirituality, they grow in numbers. It doesn't work the other way around. More information about me can be found on the CERG regional website www.cerguua.org

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.


Blessings in the New Year

cordiceJohn W.V. Cordice, M.D. died recently, four days after Christmas to be precise.  A native of Durham, North Carolina, he earned his medical degree at New York University in 1942.  Formally an attending surgeon and chief of thoracic surgery at Harlem Hospital Center, he practiced medicine in New York for 40 years. 

On September 20, 1958, Dr. Cordice was off duty when a young but already influential minister and civil rights leader by the name of Martin Luther King was brought into the Harlem Hospital with a 7 inch steel blade stuck in his chest, millimeters from his aorta.  Dr. King had been signing books in Harlem when a woman stabbed him with a letter opener.  So close to death was Dr. King that if he had sneezed before surgeons had a chance to remove the object, he would have died.  Rushing to the hospital, Dr. Cordice and an associate, Dr. Emil Naclerio performed the operation to save Dr. King’s life.  14 days later, Dr. King was discharged from Harlem Medical Center and resumed a career and a passion that would change the lives of millions of people.

 As leaders in our Unitarian Universalist faith, we never know what acts we may perform that will change the course of the lives of others.  As ministers, staff and lay leaders, each time we deliver a sermon or coordinate a fund drive or attend a community rally, we change history.  Each time we sit down to a Board meeting or teach a religious education class, or lend an ear and a heart to someone who is hurting, we save lives.

As we enter a new year of service together, we must never underestimate the importance of what we do nor overestimate the blessings we receive in having the opportunity to do it.

Happy New Year

 -Mark Bernstein, CERG Consultant


Opening Our Presents

opening presentsAs we enter this holiday season, the thoughts of many of us turn to gift giving and receiving. Certainly, the assault by advertisers on our senses, through print, TV and radio ads, offers their suggestions for what we should give or receive. The true gifts, though, are already there before us. As Unitarian Universalists, we should celebrate this season by remembering and acknowledging the gifts that others have given to us and the gifts that we give to each other. Nowhere is this more eloquently expressed than in the hymn We Sing Now Together, words by Edwin T. Buehrer.

We sing now together our song of thanksgiving, rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought, for Life that enfolds us and helps and heals and holds us, and leads beyond the goals which our forebears once sought.

We receive the gift of knowledge and wisdom and foresight that our Unitarian Universalist predecessors left us so that we can create a faith that goes beyond even their wildest dreams.

We sing to of the freedoms which martyrs and heroes have won by their labor, their sorrow, their pain; the oppressed befriending, our ampler hopes defending, their death becomes a triumph, they died not in vain.

We receive the gift of inspiration from those who gave their lives to defend our faith and the principles for which we stand. People like Francis David, Michael Servetus, and James Reeb, who paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

We sing of the prophets, the teachers, the dreamers, designers, creators, and workers, and seers; our own lives expanding, our gratitude commanding, their deeds have made immortal their days and their years.

We receive the gift of innovation and risk-taking from those Unitarian Universalist ministers and leaders who moved our faith forward through collaboration, partnerships, and teamwork. People like Frederick May Eliot, A. Powell Davies, and Homer Jack, who worked to bring people and groups together to strengthen Unitarian Universalism and its influence in the wider world.

We sing of community now in the making in every far continent, region and land, with those of all races, all times and names and places, we pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.

We receive the gift of community within and across our Unitarian Universalist congregations, grounded by the promises we make to each other and lifted by the love and respect we have for each other.

Empowered and inspired by those who went before us, we move forward together as a great and powerful faith to fulfill their dreams, our dreams, and the dreams of those who will follow us. These are the gifts we give and receive this holiday season.

-Mark Bernstein, CERG Growth Development Consultant

The Path Taken

conflict resolution“Conflict”, philosopher John Dewey wrote, “is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.”

All too many leaders in our congregations, however, see conflict or resistance as inherently evil.  In this way of thinking, the goal is to deny the conflict or suppress it in an effort to maintain the illusion of harmony.  Savvy leaders know that conflict in a healthy congregation is to be welcomed and cultivated; that out of conflict comes creativity and new ideas and energy.  The key is how the leader meets and responds to the resistance that is causing the conflict.

Belgian Luc Galoppin, http://www.slideshare.net/lucgaloppin, a wonderfully inventive organizational change manager, says that we have a choice when our goals or ideas are met with resistance.  We can respond with revenge or we can respond with respect.  Taking the revenge path means pushing harder to get your way when there is resistance.  The result of this tactic is usually greater resistance.  So, in order to meet this increased resistance, one has to push even harder.  Eventually, you reach a state of indifference on the part of the resister.  “Fine, have it your way”, they may say.  “I don’t care anymore.”  “Whatever.”   In this scenario, the leader has created what Galoppin calls an energy drain.  Game over.  Resistance has been defeated.  Congregational life goes on, albeit less inspired, less motivated, and less energized.

The other path that leaders can take when faced with resistance is one of respect.  It begins with remembering that everyone we meet is facing a great battle and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness.  It means listening for why they care about the issue; taking the time to understand the underlying meaning, intentions, hopes and dreams of the other.  It means not taking it personally, even if the reaction of the other was clearly intended to hurt you.  In taking the path of respect, the leader strives for open communication and collaboration in negotiating a solution that will resolve the conflict and move the congregation forward.  The leader commits to staying “at the table” until this work is done.  This process, says Galoppin, is the source of our energy and keeps us in the ballgame.

Following the path of revenge stems from the need to be right.  Following the path of respect stems from the need to be in relationship.

As a Unitarian Universalist, which path makes more sense to you?

Mark Bernstein, Consultant, Central East Regional Group

If You Build What?

field of dreamsIn a scene from the movie, Field of Dreams, the protagonist Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner and the fictional writer and social activist, Thomas Mann, played by James Earl Jones, are at Fenway Park in Boston.  They’re talking about the reasons why Mann dropped out of mainstream society when Kinsella asks him, “What do you want?” “ I want them to stop looking to me for answers”, Mann responds. “Begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. And I want my privacy!”

Pointing to the concession stand, Kinsella hesitantly says, “No, I meant… what do you want?”

“Oh!”, Mann laughs, “A dog and a beer.”

Similarly, when congregations contact me asking for assistance in growing, now my first response is “What do you want?”  Do you want to grow in numbers?  Do you want to be free from conflict?  Do you want to make a difference in your local community?  Do you want members to be more involved in congregational life?  Do you want a greater sense of spirituality in your worship services and in your interactions with each other?  What do you want?

Often, looking to their mission as a guide for determining what a congregation wants is ineffective.   Many mission statements try to say so much that they wind up saying virtually nothing about what the congregation wants.  Here’s one of my favorite samples: The mission of name withheld to avoid possible lawsuit or at least having that congregation angry with me  is to build and sustain a welcoming, caring, inclusive community for all ages that nurtures each person’s lifelong journey of faith informed by reason.  Dedicated to peace and celebration, our sacred space provides a supportive environment in which we can create lives of integrity, service, and joy.  We call upon ourselves and one another to live our Unitarian Universalist principles in our communities and in the larger world, striving for social justice and caring for our planet Earth.

Huh?  I’m sorry. What is it you want???

The concept of congregational polity as a Unitarian Universalist concept doesn’t just mean that congregations have the right to govern themselves as they see fit.  It also means that they can be whatever they want to be.  That’s why there is no pat answer to the question, “How can we grow?”  The question that congregations must wrestle with is, “What do you want?”

The answer may not be as simple as “a dog and a beer”, but it doesn’t have to be much more complicated.



Think of Yourself as the Visitor

customer serviceMany years ago, I was working with employees of MBNA Bank at their branch headquarters in Newark, Delaware.  Over every door in the building, in big block letters, were the words, THINK OF YOURSELF AS THE CUSTOMER.  I was struck by that phrase and with the idea that putting yourself in the shoes of your customer would enable one to provide higher quality service and achieve mutually satisfying results.

We don’t often think of applying the principles of customer service in our Unitarian Universalist congregations.  It somehow feels too corporate or non-spiritual.  But maybe we should start. In my work as Growth Consultant in the Central East Region, I find that many congregations are not as welcoming as they think they are.  Certainly, across our region and across the country, we Unitarian Universalists are not as welcoming as we need to be.  So perhaps the adoption of a customer service orientation is not such a bad thing.  As my mother used to say, “It couldn’t hurt.”

Here are a few suggestions for enhancing customer service in your congregation:

 1.  Pay Attention

When I was in Virginia recently, I walked into a Boston Market.  As soon as I entered, I heard, “Welcome to Boston Market.  How are you today?”  This refrain was repeated, with some variation, every time a customer walked in.  It wasn’t tiresome because the greeting was sincere.  The employees seemed truly glad to see another customer enter the restaurant …and, truth be told, when it was said to me, I did feel welcomed.  I was immediately reinforced in my decision to eat there.

Visitors to our congregations don’t just want to be greeted.  They want to be welcomed.  Taking an interest in every new person that walks in the door conveys the message that they are special.  The initial encounter doesn’t need to be long, but greeters should smile, shake the hand of the visitor, make eye contact, and say something like, “I am very glad that you are here today.”  Exchanging names is an effective way to make a connection.  “My name is Mark, and you are?”  Providing basic information that the visitor needs (location of the sanctuary; of the bathrooms; where they can drop off their children, etc.) is essential, but inviting the visitor to ask questions (“Is there anything I haven’t told you that you’re wondering about?”) empowers the visitor and assures that their every need is being met.

Paying attention to the visitor, of course, is not the sole responsibility of the greeter.  Those who are serving as ushers should not just hand out the order of service, but should likewise shake the hand of the visitor and greet them warmly.  And in truly welcoming congregations, it is also the responsibility of every member to greet the stranger.  (But what if I’m not sure if they’re a new visitor, you ask?  There’s nothing wrong with saying, “We may have met, but I can’t recall.  My name is Mark and I’m glad you’re here today.”)

 2.  Exceed the Customer’s Expectations

When convenience stores first unveiled the touch screen devices for ordering sandwiches, deli items, soup, and so on, I was struggling one day with the technology and finding it difficult to order my chicken salad sandwich.  The clerk behind the counter noticed my struggle (it must have been my loud whimpering) and asked if he could help.  I told him that I was lost and wanted to start my order all over again.  He asked me to wait a moment and then came around the counter.  He first showed me how to reset the machine.  Then, asking me what I wanted, he proceeded to punch a bunch of screens and complete the order.  The receipt popped up.  He handed it to me and said, “You go pay for this and by the time you get back, your sandwich will be ready.”

What an example of excellent customer service!!  The clerk not only met my expectations.  He exceeded them.  I would have been happy with him just telling me over the counter how to reset the machine.  That would have met my expectations.  But in several ways, he exceeded them.  He left his station and came around the counter.  He showed me how to reset the machine and how to correctly place an order.  And he grabbed the receipt and handed it to me with a friendly “this will be waiting for you when you get back.”

In our congregations, we need to make sure that we are not just meeting the expectations of visitors, but that we are exceeding them.  Visitors expect to be greeted.  Let’s exceed their expectations by truly greeting them with sincerity and authenticity.  Let’s greet them in the parking lot and several other times before they get to the sanctuary.  Let’s recruit our youth and young adults to be greeters to both other youth and to adults.  Let’s ensure that someone in the congregation accompanies the new visitor to the sanctuary or the cradle room or the classroom.  Let’s compel ushers to not only hand out orders of service, but to accompany visitors to a seat in the sanctuary, especially if they are late arriving and seats are hard to find.  Let’s have greeters stationed at the front door after the service for those who don’t stay for social hour to shake their hands and thank them for coming.

Thinking about what we need to do to welcome visitors and then doing one thing more is how you exceed expectations and provide great customer service.


3.     See the Congregation Through New Eyes

You know the clutter that piles up in that one corner of one room in your house?  (Of course, in my house, it’s piled up in several corners of several rooms.)  The clutter that, after a while, you tend not to notice is even there?  This is known as the “dirty sock” syndrome.  Leave a dirty sock in one spot long enough and it becomes invisible.  But when a guest enters your home, it’s usually the first thing they notice.

So it is in our congregations.  Supplies, materials, discarded boxes can accumulate in one part of the building and after a while, we don’t notice it.  But you can be sure your visitors will.  So take a tour of your building and see it as if you are seeing it for the first time.  Notice the sofa in the lounge area that has several cuts in the fabric; the conference table that is fraying at the edges; the stains on the lobby carpet; the artificial Christmas tree lurking in one corner of Fellowship Hall.  And then get to work, sprucing up the place as if guests are arriving any minute…which, by the way, they are.

4.      Follow-Up

We sometimes receive company surveys after purchasing items such as a car or an appliance.  Even if we don’t respond, we appreciate the effort of the company in asking, “How did we do?” Or more importantly, “How are you doing?’.  Following up with visitors to our congregations is another example of excellent customer service.  It’s an opportunity to thank them for coming and to invite them to the next service.  For my money, a postcard is the best way to go.  It’s quick, inexpensive and personal.   A simple message can have a great impact, something like, “Dear Alice, Thank you for being with us yesterday.  I hope you felt welcomed. Next week, our sermon is entitled “Finding Spirituality on the Baseball Diamond”.  I hope you can join us.” And if you can make it more personal, so much the better.  “PS: I hope your son got back to college okay.”

In his book Encounters at the Counter: What Congregations Can Learn about Hospitality from Business, Alan Johnson draws the connection between customer service (hospitality) and spirituality when he writes, “Divine love shapes our lives and the relationships we have with others.  This is true in our congregations; it is true at the counter!  From the web of connection that is made through the disciplines of spirituality, the blessings flow as hospitality is extended.”  Extending ourselves through good customer service practices ensures that a congregation grows in spirit as well as in numbers.






Is Leadership Wasted on the “Young”?

baby leaderThe Unitarian Universalist Church of Somerset Hills, New Jersey (UUCSH) recently did a fascinating analysis of former Trustees of the Board and their tendency to stay or leave the congregation after the completion of their terms.  The findings have significant implications for whom we choose to serve on our Boards in the first place.

The major finding was this: 80% of those who joined the board after having been a member for 4 years or less left the congregation after their terms. At the same time, 100% of those who became trustees after having been a member for more than 4 years are still members today.

Peter Hansch, who ran the numbers and did the analysis, speculates on several reasons why this is so.

– Newer members may not have fully decided if UUCSH is the right fit for them.

– Newer members are not as “invested” in the congregation and may not have established as many personal connections yet. The feeling of UUCSH being their “family” has not been formed as strongly yet.

– Trustees may have to make unpleasant or unpopular decisions. Without a stronger sense of ownership and commitment to UUCSH any rough times on the board may be too much to handle.

– The majority of the board typically consists of long-term members who have a shared history that goes back to the beginning of our congregation. Is it possible that references to past events create a feeling that new members are not part of the ‘in-crowd’?

These findings and Peter’s analysis of the reasons certainly underscores  the importance of a sense of ownership as a pre-requisite for taking a major role in the congregation, whether it’s as a member of the Board, a committee head, or other significant leadership position.   In order to deal with the stress and responsibility of leadership, one must be convinced, as Peter Block contends in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging that the congregation is theirs to create; that they as leaders are cause, not effect; that they are accountable to lead the congregation forward.  Believing this takes experience and a strong sense of confidence, things that can only occur after considerable time spent as a member of the congregation.

Leaders must also must belief in the transformative power of our Unitarian Universalist faith which can sustain them through rough times and compel them to stay with the congregation after their period of leadership has ended.  Again, it takes time, sometimes years, to understand and embrace this concept.

Certainly there are members in our congregations who are ready to take the leadership reins well before four years, but the Somerset Hills study cautions us not to rush people into leadership roles just to fill a void or because that person looks “promising”.  We may meet a need in the short run, but in the long run we may have lost a valuable member of the congregation.

My thanks to Peter and to Ann Perry, President of the Board of UUCSH, for granting permission to share this information.

With respect,

Mark Bernstein

CERG Growth Consultant