Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA.
I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion. I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.
One of your top donors moves to be closer to their grandchildren. Another major donor gets a new job two states away. And then two or three of your oldest members pass away.
When your annual stewardship drive comes along, your finance folks discover that–in spite of an overall growth in membership–these losses in the top quartile of your pledge distribution can really affect your bottom line.
Two decades ago, you could be pretty sure that people in your church would carry a checkbook, cash, or at least a spare check or two in their wallet. Today, it’s becoming less and less likely that people carry cash or checkbooks. Yet, the ritual of the offering plate continues, and it is less likely to be filled with spontaneous gifts.
Some congregations have been paying attention to this trend, but has yours? Here are some technical ways to make it easier for people to give to your congregation: (Please note that the services mentioned are not meant to be an endorsement!)
Members and supporting friends may already have their banks set up automatic transfers for their pledge payments. But you can make it easier for them by enrolling in a turnkey electronic payment service such as VANCO.
One small congregation has created special “I give electronically” cards that members and friends who pay electronically can put in the offering basket.
Other congregations have set up PayPal, Square, or similar e-giving accounts, and make tablets available for people to give using their credit or debit cards.
Still other congregations (especially those with online streaming) have subscribed to a “text-to-give” service where participants can use their cell/smart phones to send their financial gifts. Here is a partial listing of popular services:
Crowdfunding apps such as GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo seem to be quick and easy ways to raise money for a project or concern. But they also have significant fees that reduce the amount of funds that actually go to your campaign. There is an alternate UU crowdfunding app called Faithify that has a much smaller financial transaction fee that means that more money goes to your campaign!
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Central East Region, UUA Congregational Life
When I first started attending my local UU congregation, I was fascinated by the opportunities for members to share in a part of the service called “Joys and Concerns.” It was an open-mic format where people shared personal anecdotes, milestones, political/social concerns, stories about ailing friends/co-workers/loved ones, and grief and sorrow over the deaths of pets/friends/relatives. Sometimes it was intimate and comforting. Other times is was a bit awkward. And occasionally, someone took over the service with sharing that was almost as long as the sermon.
When I went to seminary, I learned more about the history of this practice. It was started with good intentions, but not with a good articulation of the purpose of the ritual nor with the boundaries of what could/should be shared to keep a sense of reverence for deeper levels of sharing. We had discussions about how to balance the intimacy of the congregational community with the need for Sunday morning to be a public (or “third”) space that is welcoming to the stranger.
This tension was brought into the spotlight for me when I heard this story: A church that had the open-mic format of Joys and Concerns had a Sunday where members shared impersonal concerns about national events and minor concerns about ailing pets. Then one member got up and shared that their child had died that week, and they didn’t know how to share such a deep grief following what had already been said.
That story convinced me that the worship leaders needed to moderate–or even refocus–this element of the Sunday service. I think that the core, generative question is, “how do we balance the need of being a community of care during members’ significant times with the need to be relevant to the newcomer in our Sunday worship services?”
I’ve seen lots of variations and modifications of the “Joys and Concerns” format. But I want to share one model that was so moving, so authentic, and so participatory that I was moved to tears.
The UU Church of Akron, Ohio has developed a ritual where the minister and a member of the Pastoral care team stand by a rack of candles while meditative music plays. Members, friends and visitors line up, and
the pastors connect with each person as they light a candle. Whispered words of gratitude, grief or joy might accompany the lighting. Each person is heard, and each sharing is acknowledged in a satisfyingly personal way.
During that ritual, I could feel how deeply that community loved each other, and how deeply they were open to loving the strangers within their midst.
I’m not suggesting that this ritual is right for every congregation. But I do want every congregation to be as intentional about being a community of care for the newcomers as well as the established members. You can see this ritual in action in the congregation’s welcome video:
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Consultant, Central East Region
“We don’t have enough teachers for Sunday School.”
Are these familiar complaints in your congregation? Do you find that important roles for the core ministries of your congregation are lacking in volunteer support?
I once worked with a congregation with similar problems. We did a simple exercise to help us understand how volunteers were being deployed in the work of the congregation. (If you know me at all, you’ll not be surprised that the exercise involve sticky notes!)
We used red sticky notes for the board and every committee that was involved in governance.
We used green sticky notes for each of the ministry staff positions.
We used yellow sticky notes for each of the “ministry teams” and listed them under the staff member that has accountability for that ministry.
We used blue sticky notes for other various affinity “groups that meet” as a part of the congregation.
We then looked at each committee/team/group and noted the number of members that served on each one.
We discovered that there were large numbers of people serving on the governance committees, and that the ministry committees were lacking in numbers of volunteers.
Why? Because churches tend to mandate the number of committee members for governance in their bylaws (which “need” to be filled by the nominating committee) while letting the ministry teams fend for themselves in filling their volunteer opportunities–roles that are just as essential to the mission of the congregation.
What was the takeaway?
Consider making your governance committees leaner, so that more members are available to serve the ministries of the congregation.
Recognize the importance of those who serve on your ministry teams, such as with commissioning rituals.
I’ve been hearing stories from different congregations where the Social Justice Ministries are re-inventing and re-invigorating themselves by finding out the potential sweet spot where the congregation’s mission, capacity and will meets the needs and potential impact of the community.
Here is a story from the Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, associate minister of the UU Congregation at Asheville, NC.
Once upon a time… There was a congregation whose Social Justice Council met at noon on a weekday. There were a small group of regulars who came to meet, all retirees but one, who came on her lunch break from work. All of them mostly did their own projects in the name of the church. One day, after a lot of convincing, they decided to change the meeting to a more widely accessible evening time. It took a while for the changes to catch on, but eventually, more people came, and more projects got started.
Then, the Earth & Social Justice Ministry (its name had been changed to reflect the intentions of the group) held an Open Space Technology event with childcare provided, in which lots of congregants of all ages got together and decided what issues they wanted to work on together. It was exciting and inspiring.
And then one day the steering committee observed that it was difficult for parents of young children to participate in the congregation’s justice work, so they proposed a weeknight of action (Action Wednesdays) in which groups would all get together and meet at the same time — that way they could provide childcare, and there would be multi-generational interactions and cross-pollination between groups, letter writing, phone banking, etc.
We don’t know yet if they will all live happily ever after, but what we DO know is that the reason this new thing was proposed is that there was a parent with young children on the steering committee, which not only normalized their experiences, but also put the voice of the need for childcare and other support for parents to be in the room where it happens. Five years from the change of meeting time to this new event. Institutional change is slow, but it does happen.
Abridged Excerpt from “The Future of Justice Ministries” by Rev. David Pyle The Keynote for the UU Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network Annual Meeting 2016
I always default to hope. It is the most constant aspect of my personality. And yet, hope has seemed more difficult these last few days. I could not stand here before you to share about the future of Justice Ministries in our congregations and our movement without acknowledging that hope is harder right now, for myself and I think for many of us. And yet, hope is at the center of what I think religion brings to humanity. Hope is at the center of my understanding of this religious movement of Unitarian Universalism.
And so, it is hope that I am committed to bringing to all of us in this moment when for many of us hope is hard. Hope is most powerful when it is difficult. Hope is most transformative when it is challenged. When hope is easy to hold, we take it for granted. I clearly saw that hope can be taken for granted this week, in that the word “hope” did not appear even once in the first draft of this address, written several weeks ago. I did not use the word, because it seemed to me to be assumed. That early draft took a tone of “of course we are living in hopeful times… we have made progress in so many areas, and conversations that have long been avoided are now being engaged.”
One of the spiritual learnings I have had from this moment in our culture is that we should never assume hope. Hope must be created in every moment. And, as a people of liberal faith, it falls to us to create the hope in the future within this world, more than hope for a future once this mortal coil falls away. We of liberal faith, we are called to be the bringers of hope for this world, in these times, for us all.
And, there is reason to hope. Over my years of serving as a chaplain, as a minister, and as a consultant to congregations, I have come to believe that the opposite of hope is not despair. No, the opposite of hope is apathy. It is the belief that nothing can change. The belief that nothing matters. The belief that nothing can be done. When hope seems absent, the most common reaction is for people to throw up their hands and withdraw. Despair is almost better than apathy, because those in despair still care, and care deeply about the outcome. They are still invested. They still believe in the dreamed of future that hope points us to, even if they despair of finding a path to that future at that moment. Despair you can work with… but apathy?
Apathy is no longer caring. It says that hope is not possible, for there is nothing to hope for. No purpose to hope. Hope is a delusion. Hope cannot make any difference. Apathy is one of the most difficult emotions to work with, because there is nothing to draw someone towards.
And this is why I am hopeful in this moment… because I am beginning to see apathy ending all around us. Not among those of us who already gather in the sanctuaries and basements of Unitarian Universalist churches… if you are willing to get up on a Sunday morning, drive into a church (even if we call it something else), and listen to a preacher talk about who knows what, you have probably already pushed your way out of apathy. You have come because you care. Because we care, we are often the ones feeling despair, when we see no clear paths of how we get to the future to which we have committed ourselves and our movement… the future of beloved community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Our challenge is to keep caring, no matter what. From that hope is born.
No, what I see happening around us right now is apathy ending. I see millions of people who have felt as if nothing they did would make any difference, I see them beginning to care. On both sides of the political aisle, I am seeing people awake from apathy to caring. And if they care, then we can be in conversation about what we care about, and where the intersections may be. No such conversation is possible with those who do not care.
In saying that, I do not want to make light of the human cost of that awakening, nor do I want to seem to say that the fear and hatred that has come out of the shadows of our society is somehow a good thing. I will tell you, right now, I’m scared. I am scared for all the people I love who hold marginalized identities. I know that many of my friends and loved ones are scared. I am scared for myself, and for all of the members of our military whom I serve as a chaplain, as well as all the Unitarian Universalists and others out there who have been and will continue to be the target of the racism, hatred, and otherization that has been intentionally released and empowered in our society. People I know and love are going to be hurt. Have already been hurt. Some may even die. Aspects of Justice and of building the beloved community are being seriously damaged. I am scared.
And… I learned long ago that bravery is being scared… and doing your job anyway. Feeling the fear and stepping up to what the world needs from you anyway. If you are not afraid, you cannot be brave.
Hope and bravery… the pastor in me hopes that if you leave here with nothing else today, you leave here centered on these two things. Hope in the inspiration of the Beloved Community that we will build. And bravery for the challenges that lay ahead, no matter how rightfully afraid we are in this moment. And, one more thing… I hope you leave here with an awareness for who we are, and what purpose we, the Movement of Unitarian Universalism, what purpose we are called to play in such times as these.
I will echo my colleague the Rev. Mark Stringer, who said in his Sunday Morning Worship Service sermon at a General Assembly in Providence Rode Island a few years ago that we “Unitarian Universalists are the people who show up”. That when there is a call to something… an action, a protest, a city council meeting, a healing session, a dialogue… no matter what it is, when the spirit of justice is moving somewhere, for some purpose, we Unitarian Universalists show up. We may not even fully know why we are showing up, but we do anyway. We may not have a theology and methodology to justify why we are there. We are just there. Our presence matters more than the why.
I remember a conversation I once had with a Social Worker in Ventura, California, who was a conservative Catholic. As we were talking about how to help one particular family who were experiencing homelessness find their way back into housing, I complimented her on her ability to work with me and our church’s homelessness advocacy program, even though she knew our theologies were so very different.
She looked at me very seriously, and she said, “Well, I learned years ago that you can’t work on Justice in Ventura if you can’t work with the Unitarians. Because you all are everywhere.” We are the people who show up, not just when there is a specific call to action, but also when it is just the every-day work of Justice. Because, one of the commonalities I have found among Unitarian Universalists is that we care. And because we care, we are there.
The second foundation that I think we have brought, and must bring again to the work of building the beloved community, is that we are the infrastructure of the revolution.Michael Moore said that he thanked God for the Unitarian Universalists, because in between all the times that the revolution was out on the streets, it was recovering and being nurtured in the basements of Unitarian Universalist churches. It has happened so many times I have lost count… I would say to some activist that I am a Unitarian Universalist Minister, and they would respond with, “Oh, I’ve been to a UU Church! I was there for a training in non-violent communication and action” or “I was at your church for a panel discussion on low-income housing” or “Hey, you all gave us money to print all those flyers last year” or “I came to a candle-light vigil there when an unarmed black man was killed by the police”.
All revolutions need a sanctuary. They need a place to rest, recover, and organize. They need a place to train. They need a place to build the relationships that hold people fast in the midst of trial and adversity. Our congregations are a part of this sanctuary. We are not the only place, there are indeed other religious traditions that also play this role. But I will make this claim. Of all the religious traditions who serve as sanctuary and institutional support for the work of creating the beloved community, we Unitarian Universalists have a greater ability to draw people into the revolution from the dominant culture than many of our allies do. That is both a blessing and a challenge. It is a blessing in the ways that we can grow and spread the movement. It is a challenge in the ways in which we sometimes express the dominant culture within our efforts for transformation and change. Our work in being that sanctuary is to be of service to the revolution, and to resist the impulse to lead it. We are at our best when we are in partnership and service to the revolution of love and justice.
The third foundation that I think we bring is what I began with. We bring hope. We bring the ability to care about people, the future, and the world. We bring a fierce determination that is rooted in the idea that it is up to us to build the world that we want to live in. A fierce determination that it is our hands that can and will change the world, and a faith that the world can be changed. Our faith is rooted in the here and now… it is rooted in the possibilities within this world. Within humanity. Within our lives and our communities. Unitarian Universalists bring an optimism of immediacy to the revolution of beloved community.
During the work of Ending Homelessness in California, I was sitting with an activist who had fought tirelessly to win a vote in the Ventura City Council. After the vote was taken and we had lost, she talked about her own despair. She then said that the Unitarian Universalists were her inspiration… because we never give up. The moment has stayed with me, for two reasons. First, she was right… my congregation members were standing in the back corner of the room, already planning what our next steps were in light of losing the vote. But second, it struck me that because we would never give up our belief in building a just, sustainable, and peaceful world, neither would she.
We are the people who show up. We are the sanctuary of the revolution. And we are the people who do not give up. And that is who the world needs us to be.
The Rev. David Pyle is a member of the UUA’s Central East Regional Staff, and serves the congregations of the Delmarva Penninsula, Greater Baltimore, and Central Pennsylvania as their UUA Staff Primary Contact. He also serves as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain for the 439th Multifuncitonal Medical Battalion at Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
Following the shock of this week’s presidential election and the social turmoil it has precipitated, UU Churches should expect an influx of first-time visitors and returning old friends. On social media, people are looking for community and are being pointed to our congregations. Gone are the days when a liberals asked with puzzlement, “You’re a Uni-What?”
We need to be ready, this Sunday. We need to be at our best, showing up on the Side of Love, and ready to meet people where they are. We need to encounter one another without assumptions and stereotypes clouding our interactions.
What you can do:
Print and share this 2-sided welcoming tips card with your greeters (both formal in informal) so they can practice open-ended questions.
Add intercultural communication skills to your greeter training, such as this Welcome Table course.
Signal that your congregation includes allies of marginalized groups. Have a bowl of safety pins and a copy of this article explaining what they are for. You may even want to incorporate passing them out as part of the Sunday service of part of our commitment to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, one human encounter at a time.
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.