Is Your Congregation Feeling Contractions?

Photo © summerbl4ck (Flickr)
Photo © summerbl4ck (Flickr)
  • 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, UUA Central East Region

Resources:

Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism

Partner and Multisite Congregations

Love Reaches Out resources

UUA Resources on Mission

UU Leadership Institute

Congregational Fitness for Ministry

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

Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson
Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson

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.

Mission

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

gathered people.

Participation

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.

Pay

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.

Balance

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.

 

Covenantal Faith in a Transactional World

Photo credit:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/zizzy/89696604/
Photo credit:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/zizzy/89696604/

Because our congregations run on money, it’s tempting to bring–along with it–assumptions about how money operates in other parts of our lives.  We go to work and we get a paycheck.  We pay the electric bill and the power company keeps our lights on. We pay at the first window and pick up at the second.

But when we fill out a pledge card, or put together the annual operating budget, the numbers represent more than goods and services.  The numbers represent the ministry that our congregation is called to do in the world, and the numbers represent our financial commitment and accountability to that ministry.

Our covenants are our promises to one another about how we are going to walk together as we do that ministry.

Our pledge cards are promises about how we will help fund that ministry.
Letters of agreement are promises that paid staff and church leaders make to one another about how they will do ministry together and expectations around how they will be accountable to one another.

When we are under financial stress, we are tempted to slip into transactional mode.  The budget looks like any other set of numbers.  The simplest places to cut are the largest line items: staff salaries and benefits.

The financial stress is real, but our responses to the stress can be covenantal instead of transactional.  As you begin a meeting where budget cuts are needed:

  • Remind yourselves of who you are and the good that your congregation is already doing in the world.
  • Remind yourselves of your vision of what more you hope to do to build the beloved community.
  • Remind yourselves of the promises that you have made with one another to support your congregation’s ministry.

Then you will be ready for your discernment as leaders grounded in our covenantal faith.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

 

 

 

Putting on the Membership Apron

Put on your apronWhat does it mean to be a member in a congregation? How much can we ask of members?  I believe that membership should signify a commitment to the congregation and it’s mission as expressed by the Rev. Michael Piazza.

“Becoming a member of a church means you take off your bib and put on an apron,”

he declared to a group of UU ministers at the recent UUMA Institute.

I remember the moment when I really felt I had become a “real” member of my own congregation.

It wasn’t when I started dropping a weekly check into the offering basket.

It wasn’t when I took my first religious education class.

It wasn’t when I signed the membership book.

It wasn’t even when I became moderator (a Universalist church position similar to president) of the congregation.

I felt I became a “real” member when I spent a full Saturday as part of a work party doing a deep cleaning of the church building before ingathering Sunday.

I’m not saying that membership only comes with a scrub brush and mop.  But I do believe that when we become a member of a congregation, we should be asked to change our posture from guest to host, from visitor to steward.

As hosts, we make sure the guests find a welcoming and nurturing spiritual community.  As lifelong seekers, we grow our own souls though our own continuous faith development.  As stewards, we offer our time and money to help sustain and grow that community.  As members we agree to serve in these roles and more, in covenant with one another and with our highest ideals.

As Brother Sun says, we do what must be done.

 

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Region

Resources:

Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church  by Michael Piazza

Belonging (PDF, 166 pages): The Meaning of Membership, with Study Guide  (2001 Commission on Appraisal report)

http://www.uua.org/growth/membership/index.shtml

 

Duck, Duck, Goose!

Ducks and Geese on Manhasset Bay in Winter
Ducks and Geese on Manhasset Bay in Winter

Last week, I was walking along a Long Island bay during a snow storm.  The day before, it had been a balmy 50°, but that day I found myself trudging to the grocery store through a several inches of snow.  As I looked toward the bay, I saw a group of waterfowl through the relentless snowflakes.   What first caught my eye were the ducks, who found the open water and were swimming — as if it were a chilly fall day.  Then I noticed the geese, with their heads wound sideways and buried beneath a sheltering wing.

“Ha!”  I thought.  “Look at those ducks, going  with the flow!  Look at those geese, resisting the new meteorological order. What an instructive metaphor for our congregations!”

But then I noticed that there were some geese swimming in the open water.  And then I saw there were some ducks hiding their heads beneath their wings.  My generalizations about my observations were suddenly inaccurate.

We humans are driven to make sense of the universe, but as we make meaning, we are tempted to make generalizations.  Those generalizations then feed into our perceptions and interfere with our objectivity as we are presented with new information that might not fit our working framework.  Luckily, with the ducks and geese, my framework was freshly formed and easily corrected.  But in other parts of my life my existing frameworks can prevent me from taking in new information.  This happens most often after someone has made a first impression on me.  If that impression was positive (someone was generous or helpful) I tend to use that characteristic to color later actions, even if the person starts exhibiting the opposite behaviors.

One way of describing this phenomenon is the Ladder of Inference (developed by Harvard’s Chris Argyris).

Much of the work my colleagues and I are doing around multiculturalism, intercultural sensitivity, generational theory and systems thinking is encouraging all of us to question the assumptions upon which we base our (interpretations of) our perceptions.

One of our core theological foundations is that truth is always subject to examination and to reinterpretation or even revision.  As James Luther Adams said in The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism:

Religious Liberalism depends first on the principle that “revelation is continuous.” Meaning has not been fully captured.  Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism. … At best, our symbols of communication are only referents and do not capsule reality.  … They point always beyond themselves.

I would argue that–as covenantal religious liberals–how we provide critique is as important as the critique itself.  I resonate with the kinds of discussions where people are engaging together to create a shared meaning or understanding, especially when no one of us can really claim to have the “right” answer.

I really don’t care for the kind of righteous verbal sniping, sparring or nit-picking that sometimes creeps into our congregations.  It especially annoys me whenever I see someone get verbally attacked after unknowingly using a word or phrase that has an arcane or minimal association with oppression.  There are better ways of helping us to “interrupt” our “ladders of inference.”

I have appreciated the model of the accountability group that has recently been serving at our General Assemblies.  They share stories of where and how we have acted on incorrect assumptions that have been hurtful to others of us, not as a rebuke, but as a lens to help each of us to “interrupt” our reflexive loops on our own ladders on inference.

I believe that part of our covenant with one another is to help to interrupt each other’s reflexive loops, with humility and love.

 

 

 

 

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

In It for the Long Haul

Bless the ImperfectOn this Thanksgiving Day, I wish to extend my own gratitude to all of those committed members who bless their congregations with their steadfast support.  As you read this, many of them are probably in the church basement, washing up after the community Thanksgiving dinner for those who don’t have a family dinner to attend.

I recently read a wonderful description of such members in Skinner House’s new meditation manual for congregational leaders, Bless the Imperfect.  I hope you see yourself here, and know that you, too, are a blessing.

 

Long-Haul People

 

by Rudy Nemser

 

You find them in churches
when you’re lucky;
other places too, though I mostly
only know ecclesiastical varieties.

Long haul people
upon whose shoulders
(and pocketbooks and casseroles
and daylight/nighttime hours)
a church is built and maintained
after the brass is tarnished and
cushions need re-stitching.

They pay their pledges full and on time
even when the music’s modern;
support each canvass though the sermons aren’t always short;
mow lawns and come to suppers;
teach Sunday School when
there’s no one else and they’ll miss the service.

Asked what they think of the minister,
or plans for the kitchen renovation,
or the choral anthem, or Christmas pageant,
or color of the bathroom paint,
they’ll reply: individuals and fashions
arrive and pass.
The church—their church—will be here, steady and hale.|
For a long, long time.
It will.
For long haul people bless a church
with a very special blessing.

 

From Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders, Kathleen Montgomery, Editor.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

 

May We Give Thanks…

This week, in honor of the holiday of Thanksgiving, I wish to express my gratitude for our liberal religious communities. We who persist in creating and maintaining authentic communities of liberal faith do so in a culture that is facing increased anxiety, fragmentation, isolation, disconnection and hyper-individualism.

friendsIn American culture, most of us have only 2 close friends.  Yet, I see how small group ministry and other aspects of congregational life enable those in our congregations to have the possibility for many more close friends than the national average.

I’ve noticed that being intentional about fostering community has been a topic of interest among many Unitarian Universalists in the past decade (if not longer).  An unofficial “common read” book among this group as been Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging.  (This book helped to inspire Mark Bernstein’s workshop at the 2013 General Assembly, Beyond Contentment: Motivating Members to Do More.)  One of my big “a ha” moments in reading the book is that a large number of people in a community who experience individual transformation does not necessarily lead to the transformation of the community itself. The practices that lead to community transformation are practices of the community as a whole. And Peter Block reminds us that dialogue is the best community-builder.

As Unitarian Universalist, we know this.  In the May 2005 Commission on Appraisal report Engaging Our Theological Diversity, 82% of lay folk and 91% of ministers responded that: “We deepen our wisdom in community when we share our stories and engage in dialogue across our differences” was “Highly Important.” (page 68)  It is in our practices of deep listening and the creative interchange of rich dialogue that we can offer a saving message to the world in the form of being communities of these practices.

Please let me share a glimpse into my own faith community where we practice living our faith authentically:

http://youtu.be/4M-bBKB_Gzo

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

 

The Dance of Shared Ministry

I’m sharing my “charge to the congregation” for the installation of Rev. Meredith Garmon at the Community Unitarian Church of White Plains, NY on  November 10, 2013.

You begin with your body leaning slightly forward.  It’s an intentional way to move in the world, really, with your body’s center of gravity taking the lead, and the rest of your body poised to follow.  Your steps are deliberate and measured. You stay in tune with your partner so that when it is time to move in a different direction, you will be able to move together.

The dance of shared ministry invites both of you to pay with the edgeshoess of your comfort zones.   The leader steps forward, paying attention and responding to both potential obstacles and opportunities. The follower’s corresponding steps are dependent on trust in the leader.

The leader attends to the body language of the follower so that the follower feels guided and not pushed. The follower learns to live into the discomfort of not seeing the path as clearly as the leader.   This dance requires both partners to communicate clearly.   But in spite of even the best communication, the dancers will have missteps, …entanglements, …unintended pauses.

Some of the steps may be familiar, even habitual, but other steps might feel awkward at first.  But when you are able to step into the flow of give and take, of awareness and adjustment, the dance of ministry becomes fluid and organic.

The embodied experience that I describe is taken from my experience of learning how to tango.

Being in covenant together is a lot like a dance.  There is give and take.  Occasionally you step on someone else’s feet or they step on yours.  As my charge to the congregation, I’d like to share some Dance Floor Etiquette that might guide you in this new shared ministry.

1.    Always try to enter the floor from an area that will not interrupt the flow of the other dancers already on the floor.

The ministry of a congregation is organic, holistic.  As you make space for new programs and ministries, make sure they fit the mission and vision of your congregation.

2.    Always move counter clockwise around the dance floor.

The most effective congregations have all of their leaders leading toward the same vision.  You need to make sure you don’t have a leader or ministry that is not in alignment with your goals.

3.    No parking on the dance floor.

If you there is a ministry that you are not excited about but there is energy and flow among others, please move off the dance floor and learn to enjoy watching others flourish even when it’s not your passion.

4.    Stay in your lane.

Set up clear expectations and understandings about the roles of minister, board, staff and other leaders.  Even with shared ministry, you need clarity about who is ultimately responsible for the different areas of your congregation.

5.    Do not lift your elbows.

On the dance floor, having your elbows up is an aggressive way to claim your space.  You want to have good boundaries between ministries outlined with covenants, bylaws and some key policies.  Poor boundaries can function as institutional landmines.

6. Do not stop dancing if you make a mistake.

In the movie Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino reassures his dance partner before they step out on the dance floor – “There are no mistakes in tango. Not like life. If you get all tangled up you just tango on.” The same is true of your covenant with your new minister.  If you get all tangled up, you just forgive yourselves and one another and begin again in love.

-Rev. Renée Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG