About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
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.

The Red Pill – Mental Models, Part 1

The world around us is changing at an exponential rate, so it is often difficult to respond to the new reality.  What is true for individuals is even more true for institutions, including our “living tradition” Unitarian Universalist congregations.  I’m not saying this to scold or to shame, but to point out that responding to a changing context is hard….really hard.

Brain science helps us to understand that we create and use mental models of our reality that help us to filter and make sense of our experiences.  But our mental models aren’t always accurate or helpful.  As a white middle-class female, I grew up with a mental model of the world operating in a way that gave men privilege that they didn’t see, especially in my previous career as a mechanical engineer.  My mental model did not enable me to see that I had my own privilege–being white.

I find that metaphors can be helpful in helping us to articulate things that can’t be articulated using rational prose.  The modern metaphor for mental models that resonates with me is exemplified in the movie The Matrix, especially in the Red Pill/Blue Pill scene:  (Thanks to the Red Pill Brethren for inspiring my use of this metaphor!)

Congregatonal leaders who choose the “blue pill” don’t want to challenge their current mental model of how their church is functioning.  They are comfortable with continuing being a church that meets their needs, offering them:

  • community-building social events
  • pastoral care provided by the minister
  • inspiring Sunday services
  • forums for lively discussion
  • space and programming for their children and youth

What we are learning is that most of the churches that continue to operate in this comfortable mode are declining…including Unitarian Universalist congregations.

My invitation is for our congregational leaders to be willing to take the red pill and open themselves to challenging their own mental models of what our congregations could and should be.  We have many Unitarian Universalist congregations in CERG that have done just that and are now vibrant and growing.  Some are new, such as the Wellsprings Congregation in Chester Springs, PA. Others have been around for much longer, such as First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, organized in 1829.  And some started as fellowships back during the post WWII baby boom, such as the UU Congregation of Fairfax, VA.

Here’s a short list of qualities that these vibrant congregations all share:

  • A clear and inspiring mission that guides their ministry
  • Paying attention to the changing cultural context and responding by staying relevant to younger members
  • A commitment to individual spiritual growth–and most importantly–depth
  • A commitment to a high level of lay leader training and meaningful service
  • A commitment to serve needs beyond their walls

I know there are other congregations in CERG and the other regions that are doing similar work!  I would love to hear about them in the comments.

It’s How You Respond That Matters….

In my birthplace of Western Michigan, there was a kerfuffle involving a senior class group action.  A large group of graduating seniors of the semi-rural community of Kenowa Hills decided to ride their bikes to school and were immediately suspended by the principal.  As an avid bike-rider, I was immediately outraged, as were many others across the country as the story spread.

The next day, without the same publicity, the principal apologized, realizing that she overreacted.  She visualized her students riding on roads that she perceived were dangerous, without fully processing the information that they had a police escort and other safety precautions.

Leaders often make decisions when they are triggered by flight-or-fight situations that activate the amygdala…what I tend to call the “lizard brain.”  This is human nature.  We are blessed with brains that have higher reasoning functions, but in times of anxiety, these are trumped by our lower mammalian and reptilian functions.  It sounded like the principal’s initial reaction was out of a visceral fear for the students’s safety that triggered her fear reactions.  The local TV station quoted her saying: “If you and your parents don’t have sense enough to know your brains could end up splattered on Three Mile and …Fruit Ridge (roads), then maybe that’s my responsibility.”  Her initial gut reaction should not be a cause of shame or irredeemable consequences.

When I was an engineer working in industry, we had a saying… “We all make mistakes… it’s how you respond that matters.”  Good leadership formation involves developing a sense of humility so that we can gracefully learn from our mistakes.  I use the religious language purposefully — grace can manifest as undeserved forgiveness.  As leaders, we should strive to embody the lovely litany of atonement by the Rev. Rob Eller-Issacs:

We forgive ourselves and each other;
we begin again in love.

#637 – Singing the Living Tradition 


Leadership Development 2.0

What is the future of Unitarian Universalist congregations?   Are we slowly declining, as  hinted at in today’s article UUA membership and attendance declined in 2011 in the UU World? Or are we at the cusp of societal changes where we can be A Religion for Our Time?

I believe that Unitarian Universalism offers a way of being in the world that the world yearns for.  We offer the love of the Universalists, the critical thinking of the Unitarians, both grounded in the covenantal faithfulness of our Congregational Polity.

I also believe that there are millions of people who have gifts and passions, and a desire to serve something greater than their own needs and we could be their spiritual home. 

It is in this context that we at the UUA offer this new blog on leadership development.

In the illustration on the right, there are two groupings of successful and popular “brands” but why they are successful is quite different.

The brands on the left depend on user-generated content (often referred to as Web 2.0), where the brands on the right are content delivered to the user.  I go into more depth in this presentation (about 5-1/2 minutes in).

I believe that our congregations will flourish if we adopt a similar ethos of “user-generated” content, that is, if we find a way to help our members find ways to serve that tap their creativity, their passion and their deepest held values.  This is not your parent’s nominating committee–this is Leadership Development 2.0.