Could the “Nones” Become Unitarian Universalists? Part 3

Part 2 is available here.

So the leaders of the UUA have identified the “nones” as a possible growth area for UU congregations.  Now what? What is the UUA doing to reach out to the “nones?”

The first thing to realize is that this is an emerging challenge that doesn’t have any ready solutions, and all religious denominations are in the same boat.  The population of the “nones” has a lot of variety (from new-age spiritual to atheist) so no one answer could be the answer.  There is no “program” that will “fix” this challenge.

We do know that congregations need to re-think aspects of how they “do church.”  We do have some bits and pieces of information from current studies.  In other words, this is a classic adaptive challenge where we need to function as a learning community, with high-learning, low-risk experiments.

That’s why the Congregations and Beyond initiative may be disappointing, maybe even confusing.  We are expecting a program.  We are hoping for a program. Instead we have a framework and tools that are helping us to creatively address the challenge with innovation and cross-pollination.

The 2014 General Assembly theme of “Love Reaches Out” will provide an opportunity to continue the conversation.  The GA Program Application (Due November 1) instructions specifically asks for innovation:

Because this is an adaptive challenge, there is an understanding that there are no easy or sure answers, so we encourage the spirit of experimentation, e.g. learning from mistakes as well as from successes. Workshops that share examples of something that you are currently trying are encouraged—even if your experiment doesn’t feel “ready for prime time.”

If you don’t want to wait for General Assembly, here are some tools that you can use immediately:

From the information gleaned from the Pew and Barna research (mentioned in the first two parts of this series) we understand there are two areas of young adult ministry that we need to pay attention to.  One is facilitating opportunities for developing relationships with other people in the congregation.  The other is innovating to provide the engagement and depth in addressing the questions and needs of young adults in today’s context.  The UUA Young Adult office has created a handy self-assessment and other resources to help your congregation, especially in the relationship-building area.




Could the “Nones” Become Unitarian Universalists? Part 2

Part 1 is available here.

The descriptions of  the values of many “spiritual but not religious” people line up pretty nicely with what our UU Man and a Woman with Their Heads Together Smilingreligious communities could be, or at least what they should at least aspire to be.   We have young adult UUs living out UU values in newly-formed “beyond congregation” communities such as the Lucy Stone Cooperative and Beloved Café.  But we are have hundreds of traditional congregations–communities of people with checkered histories and institutional baggage.

Another study, by the Barna Group has discovered what is working–at least with Millennials–to enable young adults to stay connected to church.  Here are some highlights from the article (translated for UU theology) that can help inform our existing congregations of ways to help our congregations be relevant for younger generations (though the Barna study focused on Millennials, many of these are also true for younger Gen Xers):

    1. Making room for meaningful relationships.  …Seven out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.
    2. Cultural Discernment.  …Millennials need help learning how to apply their hearts and minds to today’s cultural realities. In many ways, pop culture has become the driver of religion for Millennials, so helping them think and respond rightly to culture should be a priority.
    3. Shared Ministry.   “Effective ministry to Millennials means helping these young adults discover their own mission in the world, not merely asking them to wait their turn.”
    4. Vocational Discipleship. Taking shared ministry a step further, today’s young adults are more interested in making their faith a part of their daily lives.  (See the “beyond congregations” examples above)
    5. Faith Formation. Provide opportunities for young adults to “go deep” within the church’s own faith development programming.  Many large congregations (such as First Unitarian Rochester) have created programs that are available by subscription.

Next:  What does this mean for UU congregations?

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Consultant


Could the “Nones” become Unitarian Universalists? Part 1

Young Adult ministry has been a challenge for congregations of all liberal protestant denominations for decades but the game is changing in ways we couldn’t have imagined back in the post WWII chufourteen year old teenage with aggressive bully expressionrch building boom.  There has been a lively conversation on the UU-Leaders email list about how to address the rise of the “nones,”  i.e. people who do not identify with any religious denomination.  Many of our leaders believe that this is a fertile ground for UU evangelism.  In this blog series I will share why I agree.

The UUA does not have the financial resources to do our own research. However there are plenty of other organizations that do have the resources, and we pay close attention to their findings.

The latest research from the Pew Institute shows that close to 20% of the population and 30% of the Millennial generation (born after 1985) state “no religious preference” i.e. “none.”  40% of those who identify as politically liberal also can be labeled as “nones.”

This is not to imply that these rising number of “no religious preference” means there is a corresponding rise in atheism or even in humanism.  Indeed, a year ago, in research published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, they found that:

that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

(The study elaborates that many of the social political issues, such as protesting gay marriage and reproductive rights, are the ones that most concern this group.)

Churches have potential to meet the spiritual needs of this group, but they have developed a bad reputation.  Conservative churches are too restrictive.  And the liberal churches have not been all that compelling (What is the “there” there?) as an alternative.  This is changing.  Books such as Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church by Michael Piazza help congregational leaders to imagine frameworks for liberal religion that allow for transformational ministry, not institutional maintenance.

Next:  What is working to keep Millennials in church?

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Consultant

“Edit”ability vs. Accountability

accountAssessment of a congregation’s ministry is a very important aspect of religious leadership and is one of the roles of a Committee on Shared Ministry.  We often use the term “accountability” as in “accountability to mission” to describe the purpose of such assessments.

The word “accountability” can be problematic because of it’s relationship to the precise nature of the accounting profession and does not create space for grace or the movement of the spirit that happens in faith communities.  In his book Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect, Joseph R. Myers suggests that using the term “edit-ability” might be a more accurate way of describing how congregational leaders can stay true to mission:

An accountant’s way to reconcile is through precise conformity to rules; reconciliation comes by way of compliance. Accountants are concerned with reconciling you to a list a desired behaviors. An editor is less concerned with compliance than with communication. Sometimes this means going against rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. A good editor want the author’s voice to be the best it can be and thus enforces rules only when they help the author to be heard. An editor reconciles not to rules, but to the reader.

(Of course, we still want accountability for fiduciary responsibilities like finance and safety policies.)

When it comes to ministry, the approach of the editor rather than the accountant has consistency with our Unitarian Universalist theology that assumes that people have a goodness that can be developed editrather than a sinfulness that needs to be corrected.  It emphasizes the grace and relationships that are embodied in our covenants.

This should result in an ongoing conversation about how we are serving our mission and continual adjustment to programs and other ministries in response.

This difference is an especially important understanding for congregations that operate under Carver-Style Policy Governance® where ends statements and compliance reports have the hazardous potential of displacing covenantal dialogue that organically serves the larger purpose of the church.


-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Central East Regional Group

The Law of Fried Potatoes

potatoesOur congregations often have habits, traditions, or attitudes that are in tension (or even in conflict) with their mission and vision.  These are grounded in “accidental values” that may be invisible to the members but glaringly obvious to the newcomer.

An accidental value is something that we have a strong emotional attachment to and probably inherited from our ancestors (either from biology or tradition) but does not really serve our core purpose and aspiration of who we want to be in the world.

Part of our own faith formation–especially as leaders– is bringing awareness to our own emotional attachments and whether or not these attachments serve who we aspire to be. This is a part of becoming self-differentiated.

Church consultant and author Peter Steinke offers a metaphor for this phenomenon:

Self-Differentiation is the capacity to “like the way your mother fried potatoes but not to be overwhelmed by anxiety if someone else’s mother fried them differently. This means you don’t try to convert others to your mother’s fried potatoes, nor do you give in to another’s need for fried potatoes of a certain kind. And you do not disconnect from another until they fry their potatoes your mother’s way.”

Here are some examples of “Fried Potatoes,” (i.e. “accidental” congregational habits or traditions that might be interfering with what the congregation hopes to become):

  • I had a bad experience in a Christian church so I don’t want any Christian language used in my congregation.
  • The Beatles and Bob Dylan are great for worship but there hasn’t been any new music since 1980 that would be.
  • The donated furniture in our social hall looks awful, but we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the members who dropped it off in the middle of the week.
  • The only way to be a committed member is to serve on a committee and attend meetings faithfully.
  • You need a car (preferably a hybrid) to participate in the life of our congregation.

What are some other examples of fried potatoes?

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

Late Summer Reading for UU Leaders

20130822_094043How Not to Stay on Top, a recent article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, outlines how Blackberry and Wang both went from dominating their markets to being irrelevant.  Why?  They both “stubbornly clung to what they thought they were instead of what they needed to be.”

Keeping our faith communities what they need to be–healthy, relevant and sustainable–is one of the most important roles of congregational leaders.  Forward-thinking boards are also learning communities.  They pay attention to the changing context of the society around them and respond faithfully and strategically. They study trends and strategies as a group and then implement them as a team.

Here are some of my favorite titles that I’ve encountered over the past  year that your board may find useful:

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

(Berrett-Koehler, 2008)

Although Block doesn’t use the language of covenant, he describes the idea of how communal commitment and accountability can help organizations–such as our faith communities–invite people to serve our of a sense of possibility, generosity and gifts.   This book helped to inspire the standing-room-only workshop at the 2013 General Assembly: Beyond Contentment: Motivating Members to Do More by Mark Bernstein.

Connect: How to Double Your Number of Volunteers by Nelson Searcy

(Baker Books, 2012)

This book is helping me to re-think how we set up leadership development programs in our congregations.  The current wisdom is to catch someone early in the membership process, work with them to assess their gifts and passions, then match them to a ministry.

Searcy recommends that–instead–you create a “ladders and lakes” system where congregants can swim in different “lakes” of ministry opportunities to discern their passions.  You do this by creating many different low-responsibility points of entry with time-limited commitments.  The next part of the process is developing “ladders” where congregants are given opportunities for roles of increasing responsibility and commitment.


The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else By Patrick M. Lencioni

(Jossey-Bass, 2012)

This is–hands down–my favorite organizational health and development book (so far).  Lencioni (author of Five Dysfunctions of the Team, Death by Meeting and Getting Naked) is clear, pragmatic and directive.   This book has two key points:

  • Build a cohesive team
  • Create and communicate clarity of mission and vision

The rest of the book provides the “how.”

The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multi-Racial and Multi-Cultural Congregations by Jacqueline J. Lewis

(Abdingdon Press, 2008)

Lewis is a former Alban Institute Consultant and currently the Senior Minister at the Middle Collegiate Church in lower Manhattan–an intentional and successful liberal multicultural faith community.  This book reinforces that notion that the method and the message of leadership need to be in alignment.  If you want to be a congregation that is inclusive of other cultures, we need to learn how to lead using the communication styles of those cultures.  In this case, Rev. Lewis shares that she spends 25% of her time mentoring the other leaders in her congregation, and encourages them to do likewise with the next tier of leaders.

Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All by Landon Whitsitt

(Alban, 2011)

This is another book that has offered a game-changing model of how we may want to structure our congregations in the future.   You can read an early draft of chapter 2The Church as Wikipedia.  (I have this as an e-book so it’s not in the picture above.)

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

“Cruel Summer” Services

Sky at SunsetHas something like this ever happened to you when you’re travelling during the summer and decide to check out the local UU congregation?

You check their website, find out the service time and see that the topic is “The Secret Life of Bees,” the title of one of your favorite novels.  But when you arrive, you realize that the speaker is a professional bee-keeper, and the service feels more like a commercial for beekeeping than a worship experience.  The person playing along with the hymns gets the right notes, but the tempo makes it hard to sing.

If you are already a committed UU, you might just roll your eyes or curse under your breath. But if you are someone looking for a spiritual home, you will likely cross this church off your list — even if other members give you the standard not-so-great-lay-led-service caveat “We pride ourselves on having many voices in the pulpit. We hope you come back because the service is different each week.”

In a recent conversation on Facebook about a similar experience, the Rev. Jake Morrill shared this story:

My sister and I both grew up very active as UU’s.  When she and her new husband moved to (a new community) twenty years ago, she took him to a summer service that featured a chemistry professor giving a dry lecture and a slide-show.  They never went back.  Now, she’s a dynamos for the Methodists, organizing mission trips, community-wide justice projects, etc.  Theologically, she’s as Universalist as they come.  I always think what a loss it was for Unitarian Universalism that we lost my sister and her family  that summer Sunday…

As I read this story, I began to think about the covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and in relation to our covenant with our highest values and commitments.

When someone walks through a Unitarian Universalist congregation’s doors for the first time–after having read the promise of the “free faith” on UUA and congregational websites–don’t we have an obligation to offer the best expression of Unitarian Universalism that we can muster?  And if one of our congregations falls short of that promise, don’t we have an obligation–as Unitarian Universalists committed to our best expression of who we are– to share our observation of this disappointment and invite them to do better?

And if we are leaders or members of a congregation who receives such feedback offered with a loving heart and an eye to our highest aspirations, isn’t it our obligation to hear it with an open a humble heart?

Being in covenant with one another requires both courageous truth-telling and open-hearted listening.  Our UU leaders need to develop both skills…


Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

Here comes the judge! Learning to cultivate curiousity…

gavelI grew up eating a lot of ethnic northern European foods. I would often get comments in the workplace lunch room about the leftovers I had brought in that day.  I remember one comment about “what a strange food combination” I was eating (sauerkraut with a dollop of sour cream) that made me feel really defensive and reactive. Both the person who made the comment and I were perplexed by my reaction at the time, but I’ve recently been given a framework that has helped me make sense of that incident.

The framework is from a recent Intercultural Competency Training that I took, the same model that is being used in the Who Are Our Neighbors program being offered to ministers (and will later be offered to others) by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) .

The co-worker was perplexed because she thought she was just expressing curiosity about food she had never seen before.  What neither of us understood at the time was that she was doing so from a place of judgment — i.e. that she held the framework of what foods were “normal” and what foods were “strange.”  I now understand my own reactivity as being seen as “strange” and “not normal” by eating food that was very much a part of my cultural identity.

The lesson I’m trying to learn as I cultivate my own intercultural competence is that the “new normal” is that there is no “normal,” at least when it comes to the expressions of our Unitarian Universalist faith that are cultural. Instead of being judgmental from our own cultural lens, we can practice dialogue that helps us to listen to and understand how others live in and interpret the world.

How might this look?


“You used the word “God” 14 times in that sermon.  Isn’t that a bit excessive?”


“I notice you used the word “God” a lot in your sermon.  What is your understanding of that word?”


“It’s alright to have folk music every once in a while, but it’s important that we not deviate from the excellent classical music that is part of our reputation.”


“Folk music is not my favorite type of music in the service, but I notice that you were enjoying it.  Tell me about what you were experiencing.”


“You brought Styrofoam cups?!?  Don’t you know how damaging that is to the environment?”


“I see you brought some cups.  I’m curious as to why you chose that particular kind.”

Developing this practice of starting from a place of curiosity rather than judgment creates an atmosphere where dialogue can create a shared, negotiated understanding because we can learn about the underlying identities and values that support our preferences.

-Post by Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

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

Learning as a UU Virtue

William Ellery Channing

…self-culture is possible, not only because we can enter into and search ourselves. We have a still nobler power, that of acting on, determining and forming ourselves. This is a fearful as well as glorious endowment, for it is the ground of human responsibility. We have the power not only of tracing our powers, but of guiding and impelling them, not only of watching our passions, but of controlling them, not only of seeing our faculties grow, but of applying to them means and influences to aid their growth.
-from “Self Culture” by William Ellery Channing

“Faith Formation” is a topic that has been geting a lot of attention lately.  Most of the UUA field staff have attended a Faith Formation 2020 training to enable us to adapt to changing culture and new technology.  Implicit in the idea of faith formation is that part of being faithful is to be a life-long learner.  We are works in progress and can always improve ourselves.

This striving for perfection is part of our DNA that we inherited from the Puritans, and shows up in the writings of William Ellery Channing.  I would even say that there is a moral imperative to improve our minds while living into our ideals.

A recent editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times–“The Learning Virtures”– contrasts differences between how the Chinese and Westerners approach learning.   He summarizes:

The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.

When I read this, I thought of Channing, and his essay “Self Culture.”   When I read it, I hear a moral imperative for self improvement.   It was written as introduction to the Franklin Lectures in Boston, which was created as an opportunity for young men (because only men were thought worth educating at the time) to improve themselves.

I would like to think that, as leaders, we commit to lifelong learning so that we continue to improve ourselves as we serve the faith.