Reconnecting to the Source

I’m often asked, “What makes religious leadership development different than contemporary models of leadership development used in not-for-profit and progressive companies?”

I think there are two main differences.  The first is that our purpose goes beyond short-term and even long-term goals.  We are not just growing congregations, we are building our vision of the Beloved Community.  We are not just working for immigrant rights, we are bending the arc of the universe toward justice.  These are transcendent goals that we are working toward but are not “deliverables” (using corporate language).

Woman Closing EyesThe second difference is where we find our spiritual grounding and how we stay connected to it.  As Unitarian Universalists, we are open to different ways of defining and expressing that grounding.  The weakness of this gift of choice and is that the openness of so many possible paths often leads to cherry-picking and cultural misappropriation from other traditions, ill-fitting or shallow practice, or a general benign neglect of the spiritual life.  These pitfalls are widened for our leaders who are often overwhelmed with the minutiae of the work-a-day (or should I say volunteer-a-day?) world.

Years ago, I used a book by Peter Tufts Richardson called Four Spiritualities: Expressions of Self, Expressions of Spirit to understand my own spiritual temperament and to develop my own spiritual practices.  (It is based on the Jungian dimensions of personality.)  The book suggests there are four spiritual paths:

  • The Journey of Unity
  • The Journey of Devotion
  • The Journey of Works
  • The Journey of Harmony

Leadership in our congregations can be its own spiritual practice, touching on Unity, Works and Harmony.  The practice of Devotion is a little trickier, especially since the word devotion implies–for many– a personal god/goddess or other transcendent object.

For me, the practice of devotion is my attempt to connect–in an embodied way–to the core foundations of my faith.  And singing is my most effective way of creating this embodied connection:

When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love…  (Singing the Journey #1009)

Open my heart to all that I seek; let me be part of the Love You give….  (Singing the Journey #1013)

There is more love, somewhere. There is more love, somewhere. I’m gonna keep on ’til I find it. There is more love, somewhere…  (Singing the Living Tradition #95)


The Exceptional Moment of Our Unique Faith

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 Newsletter of the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts.

If the crux of Unitarian Universalism were reduced to a few points in space and time, they would be those potent moments just before and just after we keep a promise, or we break it. All that is exceptional about being human and becoming whole is crystalized in these decisive microseconds:

  • Will I say “hello” to the visitor standing awkwardly near the sanctuary door or not?
  • Do I stay connected to Miguel even though he just voted against my idea?
  • Do I acknowledge the tug on my heart and wallet that asks me to really wrestle with the amount of my pledge?
  • Will I or will I not risk feeling unsure and uninformed as I step outside my comfort zone and spend time with those of  other races, classes or generations on their terms rather than mine?
  • Will I expose my need for wholeness, my hope for forgiveness, my longing to belong, and my desire to matter?

People in all faith communities face microseconds like these.  Sometimes we “live into” these moments and consciously wrestle with our instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Rising above these instincts to respond rather than react is what makes us human and what moves us toward wholeness.  That this power to become whole is so concentrated in these common moments of experience is what makes them extraordinary.

Sometimes we subconsciously squelch these moments by automatically retreating into the ideology of our particular belief or non-belief. We may then spend time feeling wounded or righteous, debating, competing or even warring over religion.

Unique among the faiths, Unitarian Universalism proclaims the ordinary but decisive moments of human agency as its center rather than a particular system of belief. Instead of aiding a retreat into ideology, UUism invites the moral codes of religions and ethics to inspire and support individuals, but it refuses to let those codes blur or distract from the key questions of all humanity: how do we strive for communities of wholeness, with ourselves and with creation; what must we promise to make this so; how do we “begin again” after we break our promises? These are the questions of covenant.

The exceptional moment of our unique faith is not only the microseconds when we decide to make and keep covenant, but also this larger cultural “moment” in history. Worldwide social media has made it abundantly clear that we are connected to and reliant on each other despite our religious differences. Increasingly, people are looking beyond institutional religion for communities that matter. Unitarian Universalism speaks most directly to the covenantal necessities of these emerging communities. We are not exceptional in our perfection of covenanted community, but we are called to be exceptional in our promotion of it.

And this is why it is important for us to shed the historic (and justified) fear of “exceptionalism” as vain individualism and adopt the humbling realization that because our Faith is, as proclaimed by UUA President Peter Morales, “the faith beyond belief,” we are the stewards of a great gift desperately needed in this day and age.

To share this gift we need to extend ourselves further into new and different kinds of communities, bringing the message of covenant. And to share this message with humility, we need to remember how difficult it can be for us all to rise above our instincts during the extraordinary microseconds of living in covenant and to marvel at the Grace that makes it possible at all.

Doug Zelinski has been serving as the Director of Leadership Development for the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts since May of 2010.  Before that he served for three years as the Leadership Development Consultant  for the Metro New York District of the UUA. Prior to that, he honed his  skills during 20 years of organizational development work with human  service nonprofit agencies as well as city and county government.

A New Scarlet Letter

“She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”
―    Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

As someone who aspires to be a good white ally, I’ve had mixed experiences with anti-racism, anti-oppression, multiculturalism (ARAOMC) trainings that I have taken over the years.  Some trainings felt like we were just going through the motions.  A few made me feel shame and guilt.  Still others were transformational.

What the shaming and transformational trainings had in common was their relational nature.  The people leading and participating in the training made all the difference.

The transformational trainings had an atmosphere of humility and curiosity.  I felt an invitation to authentically engage with the work together, and a covenantal sense that provided permission to begin again whenever anyone made mistakes.

The trainings that made me feel shame and guilt had a judging atmosphere; sometimes through subtle non-verbal cues, sometimes through people (often other participants) calling one another on the carpet when someone made an unwitting statement or some other multicultural misstep.  I wonder if there isn’t some old Puritan DNA in the UU culture, as if there is temptation to mark one another with a big letter “G” for guilt, much like Hester (in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter) was marked with an “A” for adultery.

Fortunately, we UUs are the keepers of the Living Tradition, so we have the agency to choose–to change our habits and customs.  And I think those in leadership  are learning how to do so.

I had the pleasure of taking a training on intercultural sensitivity with Beth Zemsky at a staff meeting earlier this month.  It was a transformational experience.  What I really like about her model is that it is developmental — it assesses the ways in which we experience and respond to difference (somewhat unconsciously) while it also accounts for our aspirations and encourages continued growth.  (We are the Living Tradition!)  For me, engaging with this Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) provided an ARAOMC experience where I was not burdened with the weight of guilt and shame.

Beth Zemsky will be one of the presenters (along with the fabulous musician Matt Meyer) at the Allies for Racial Equity Annual Conference March 15-17, 2013.

The “Snap” of Emotional Triggers

As we head into the holiday season, it’s a good time to bring attention to the practice of self-management.  Time together with relatives often elicits old memories and deep emotions.

The practice begins by first becoming self-aware when ugly emotions start to swell up and our amygdalae (lizard brain functions) take over our higher cognitive functioning.  We can’t stop or prevent these emotions: They are a part of being human.  Sometimes we may even need to indulge them a bit so that the emotions have a chance to run their course.

During the time of heightened emotion, remember that it is just a stage in your biological process that enables you to react quickly to a threat or other danger.  Be curious when you first notice it. Know that you  have the ability to take back control.  Breathe deeply while counting to ten, go for a walk, or do whatever else works to help you create space between you and the intruding emotions.  I like to crack jokes or to poke fun at myself even as I am fretting and fuming, knowing that “this, too, shall pass.”

Our relationships in our congregations also have the potential to trigger strong emotions.  A large number of us love and care about our church communities, so this is only natural.  But as leaders, we are at our best when we are able to think clearly and respond thoughtfully rather than react automatically.

For a short overview of Emotional Intelligence theory, check out this video by author Daniel Goleman:

Leading from the Bubble

As I watched the election results roll in on Tuesday night and the responses of the various commentators, it became apparent that many of the Republican leaders and spokesmen (e.g. Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and George Will) were flummoxed by the results that conflicted with their predictions, even as the numbers confirmed the president’s re-election.  In contrast,  the predictions using Nate Silver’s political calculus (published at were incredibly accurate.  Political pundits have been pointing out how the “bubble” that the Republican leadership has been in has prevented them from seeing the changing political and social contexts that influenced the results.

With my own feelings about the politics aside, I want to focus on some of the leadership assumptions and mistakes that led to the misjudgments of the Republican leadership, and the lessons they have for us in our congregations.

  • There is a small elite group who have the best answers and are meant to lead.
    In our congregations the small elite group may be the subset of the congregation who “know how we do things here.”  New leaders tend to be recruited from a similar demographic since the existing leaders have an easier time imagining them as leaders.
  • White, straight, male culture and privilege is the foundation of the “real America.”
    Our congregations have made huge strides in being inclusive of women and LGBTQ members, but most of our congregations still have a dominant WASP culture that is apparent to any person of color that walks through its doors.  This bubble of white privilege is one of the biggest challenges facing UU leaders.  The bubble of white privilege is reinforced when we don’t insist that our congregational leaders attend Anti-Racism/Anti-Racism/Multiculturalism trainings with the same enthusiasm that we send them to other leadership trainings.
  • We have all the knowledge we need — listening to people with different views or experiences is a waste of time.
    Congregational leaders often don’t think to look beyond their congregation’s walls for ideas or answers.  They may believe that their own congregation is unique in their situation, but there is likely a congregation down the road (or in another district) that has similar challenges.  Part of the goal of cluster-building and regionalization is to help congregations connect to one another and access the wisdom of the wider UU movement.
  • If someone presents a theory or idea that is not in perfect alignment with our worldview, its premise must be faulty or the evidence questionable.
    In the case of UU congregations, many of our leaders are resistant to learning from other denominations because of the Christian language or the way they articulate organizational wisdom with theological (rather than scientific) language.

Our congregational roots are based on the theological assumption that the will of the spirit is determined by the discernment of the whole body of the community, not by the proclamations of a few leaders.  Our liberal roots are based on the scientific method where theories are openly shared and tested.  In the world of paradigm-shifting problem-solving, the solutions often come from the margins and borders, and often sound a little off-the-wall at first to those near the center.  (One practice is to treat every idea as “a good idea” for five minutes to give is a fair hearing.)  We are called to have those holy conversations of creative interchange — conversations that need a climate of openness and trust that won’t happen when one group is marginalizing another group.

(Our democratic government is based on similar beliefs about the free interchange and discussion of competing ideas to solve real problems, as MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow reminds us in her post-election commentary on the election results.  Please excuse the partisan slant.)

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Feeding a Spiritual Hunger

(image taken from

Today’s guest blogger is the Rev. Tera Little.

If you’ve ever been to a Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, or a District Assembly, or read many of our blogs and Facebook pages, you know we are very focused on the idea of growth. We love our faith, and we want others to love it with us! We get a little stymied in the “how” of growth, though.

So a recent USA Today article about the growth of Unitarian Universalist churches in the last ten years made my heart go all aflutter.

And if that weren’t enough excitement, right on its heels was a response from noted scholar Martin Marty. He talked about us!

I encourage you to read the entire article (it’s not long). But one line I found especially thought-provoking:

“… The little growth bubble of UUA churches will soon pop up as potential members find the fare and the commitments too lean.”

Amen. I couldn’t agree more. I’m in my first few months serving as a half-time consulting minister of a historically Universalist church in Pasadena, CA. We are blessed with a creative music director and a congregation that loves to sing and worship. Sunday mornings feel vibrant, alive, and joyful, and for that I am thankful. But I will admit, on Sunday afternoons, I find myself thinking, “What next?”

Not what next as in, what will the next worship topic be, or what will the congregation be doing. But how are we intentionally creating Unitarian Universalist disciples, steeped in our faith, grounded in spiritual practice and ready to go love the world?

(photo by Rev. Stefanie Etzbach-Dale)

I don’t have a full answer (when I do, I’ll write a book). But I see some first steps.

  1. Ministers and religious professionals need to develop and maintain their own rich interior lives and minister out of that. Believe me, I know it’s hard to maintain a spiritual practice while leading a church. But this is essential. A must. More important than adding another committee meeting to your plate or attending one more community gathering.
  2. Our churches must be places where the spiritually hungry can come and find nourishment. I’ve been surprised – and delighted – by the number of people who come to my church looking for a place to engage in social action AND spirituality. And I’ve also noted that many current members tell me about their own prayer and meditation practices, which they feel they can’t really talk about in church.
  3. To that end, spiritual practice and prayer need to be part of the familiar language of your congregation. I’m encouraging my people who pray and meditate to be more “out,” to find ways to talk about it with others in church, in the hopes that more congregants will start sharing about their own practices, and that newcomers will see there is a depth that moves beyond worship into the everyday, real lives of our people.

I know this isn’t only happening in my congregation. I see a new wave of people coming into our churches – folks who already enjoy a meaningful spiritual practice but who want to go deeper, folks who want to join with like-minded souls to do good works in their communities, folks who want to have fun together. If we pay attention, follow and encourage that energy, I think our “little growth bubble” will become something with too much momentum to pop.


Rev. Tera Little serves Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena and works as Field Staff for the Unitarian Universalist Association. Ministry, Spirit, sustainability, motherhood, and justice have porous borders in her life and impact each other. Motherhood led her into the church; justice work (among other things) led her into ministry; sustainability forms a core of her theology. God – the sacred energy that connects all human and non-human beings – makes itself manifest in her life when she is loving the world in one form or another.

Follower her on one of her blogs or on Twitter

What’s Faith Got to Do with It?

I’m sometimes asked about the difference between leadership development in the business (or not-for-profit) world and in the faith world.

I’ve been a regular subscriber and reader of The Nation magazine for almost 30 years.   I love the fact that they are independent of most of the news conglomerates and that they break stories that no one else will touch.  The articles are skillfully written and their politics are unapologetically progressive.  And yet…

There was something missing for me, something that I found when I first walked through the doors of a Unitarian Universalist Church.  Issues in the political world (and in the press) are often treated as silos or as competing areas of concern.  As a faith community, we are called to approach all of our justice work holistically.  The means are as important as the ends — both must reflect our core values.

Even the governance and management of the congregation should be grounded in core values.  Our budgets should reflect our mission or purpose statements.  Our commitment to diversity should call us to seek ways to become antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural, multigenerational institutions.  As a living tradition, our institutions must be flexible for new ideas and new cultural expressions to take root.

Most importantly, I see the need to articulate transcendent values and commitments, so that as we–as religious humanists–bend the arc of the universe, we are doing so with integrity and shared vision.

Twilight of the Lectern

Walking past the local Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, I noticed a portable oak lectern sitting next to the dumpster, which was overflowing with broken parts of old dressers. “Wow!  Should I ask them if I could have it?” I thought to myself, flooded with memories of class presentations from similar wooden stands.

But then I realized that I probably would never use it.  The only time that I read from a lectern any more is when I am preaching a sermon.  Most of my seminars and workshops include visual aids, music, activities, case studies and games.

In some ways the lectern is a symbol of the classical learning model of knowledge being something that we transfer mechanically and only in one direction, like a pitcher of  water filling the vessels that are our brains.  But we now understand–from American Pragmatist John Dewey–that learning is a process that is best done relationally and interactively.  More recently, education experts such as Howard Gardner have encouraged us to engage with a range of intelligences and learning styles.  Our Tapestry of Faith curricula reflects this understanding.   As Unitarian Universalists, we aspire to a wholeness of our humanity, paying attention to our bodies and our creative expressions as well as to our acquisition of facts.

But there is still resistance and a clinging to the old model, symbolized by the lectern:

How can we be intentional about moving our church communities away from the habit of the lectern?

All the world’s a game….

and we are just players…

This paraphrase of the line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It comes to mind as I am reading Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

She points out the fact that people will voluntarily spend hours and hours overcoming arbitrary obstacles to achieve unnecessary goals, whether it be knocking a golf ball around, playing World of Warcraft or coming up with a perfectly spiced Palak Paneer.  What do games have that real life doesn’t have?

She mentions several qualities, but one stands out for me.  Games offer a feedback system that is intrinsically enjoyable and helps to focus our energy on our goal.  How close to par was that last hole?  How many dexterity points does your avatar have?  Was that version as tasty as the one at the Bombay Café or did it need more Fenugreek?

I’m probably predisposed to her message–not because I’m a gamer–but because I’m someone who looks for those kinds of feedback loops and finds them rewarding.

I’m also reading the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.  In it he describes how our brains release dopamine as an internal reward mechanism, but that our brains also release the pleasurable chemical in anticipation of a pleasurable experience.  I’m guessing that the reward system in a good game elicits the same process.

I remember being in 4th grade where our teacher created a bookworm game to encourage us to read.  We each had a construction paper bookworm head with our name on it.  With every book we read that year, we could add a segment to our worm. It was fun watching our worms grow throughout the year.

I am imagining a leadership development program with some sort of feedback system where participants have a visceral expression of their work and accomplishments.  Many professions look to Continuing Education programs that offer nice paper “certificates of completion,” but I’m imagining something with a little more flexibility.  I’m intrigued by the Open Badge system from Mozilla.

I’d love to hear what kinds of feedback loops you might find rewarding….

Leadership “Cairns” for Next Generation

I spent several days hiking in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia for my vacation.  (It was a good opportunity to get away from the technology that is my constant companion during the rest of the year, since there are few cell phone towers in those mountains.)   Many of the trails we hiked were poorly marked due to the ravages of time and budget cuts.  Trail blazes were missing or on fallen trees.  Signs were rotted.  The wear from foot traffic was light, so it was sometimes hard to tell the trails from the pathways made by the wildlife.

Luckily, others had left other kinds of indicators to help us discern the way.  My favorite is the cairn, a pile of rocks that has been obviously arranged by human hands and means “the trail is this way.” Some are quite elaborate, and others are just four or five stones in a simple pile.  A second marker is less charming but just as important.  If there is something that looks like a trail, but isn’t, a pile of brush is laid across it like a fence or in the shape of an X as if to say “this is not the way.”  Unfortunately, many of the trails we tried to hide did not have such markers, and we took a wrong turn more than once.  If the materials were at hand, we would add a cairn or brush pile (or both) once we backtracked to the wrong turn.

Being a leader in the relentlessly changing times we live in is like trying to find our way where the path isn’t clear, or maybe doesn’t exist yet.  A favorite quote in the UUA work of regionalization is:

Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar.
Searcher, there is no road. We make the road by walking.

Antonio Machado, Selected Poems ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)

When facing challenges that have no historical precedent, we need to make our own way.  But luckily, we do not need to do it alone.  In order to build our own and our congregations’ capacities to meet new challenges, we are forming intentional learning communities, on the model proposed by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organizations.  The ideas in the book are more complicated that I’m describing in this post, but one key element is to learn how to learn as a community.  Senge calls this “team learning”–developing the skills to look for the larger picture beyond individual perspectives.  This is done through dialogue and–I would suggest–other forms of communication.

With the explosion of Web 2.0 technology (such as this blog) we can share information and ideas across a wider learning community of UU leaders.   From this blog, to webinars, to Facebook groups, we have the ability to set up virtual cairns to highlight a path that worked for us, and piles of brush to warn of a that leads nowhere (or worse).

So as you try new things in your congregations, share your successes and failures with other UU leaders.  If you find a great resource or training video, pass it on.  Let us make the road by walking together.