The Mission-Driven UU Leader

What is the role of lay leaders in a mission-focused congregation?  What is the role of the minister? Our guest blogger today has experience and success leading mission-focused congregations.  In this post he shares some of his insights.


The distinction between lay and clergy roles is a key element in being a successful mission-driven congregation.

It is the role of clergy to give articulation to the mission, and the role of laity to live out the mission.  By role, I do not mean that clergy don’t live out the mission and laity don’t talk about it, etc.  But in my experience, laity who try to give the mission articulation usually do it through committee work.  Then, a few years later, when the committee completes its work,  the mission statement is presented and five years later is mostly or completely forgotten and nowhere integrated into the life of the church.  I’ve seen it in too many of the churches I consulted with.

Clergy who conceive of their role primarily as living out our faith can easily (though not necessarily) see themselves as the archetypal model of the faith.  The danger is that the congregation might conceive its work primarily, if not exclusively, through what the pastor does rather than find their own way to live out the mission.  And the pastor gets affirmed being so “out front” of the congregation!

When I use the term role I mean also accountability, so that if the mission is not clearly understood by laity it is because the clergy are not giving sufficient, understandable, and frequent articulations and analysis of it; and, if the mission isn’t clearly being lived out in the congregation’s activity it is, in part, because the laity don’t regard the responsibility of living a life of faith to be theirs.

Clergy give articulation through sermons (mission should be at least used as a phrase in 1 sermon every 28 days, though the more frequent the better), committee work (as in the comment, “Here’s how you might conceive of this event in terms of our mission, ___”), leadership training (Clergy should explain how mission-centered congregations work in general, and yours in particular with your particular mission, as a part of every retreat), and fund raising (Clergy connect money given to activities of congregation, making the connection explicit and explaining it in terms of the mission).  The key thing for Clergy to note is that it is the clergyperson’s role to cast the mission and listen to how congregants respond and gradually, over three or so years, adjust the mission such that it becomes a collaborative creation.  And then, the clergyperson repeats is again and again and again, and gradually lay leaders come to assist in giving it articulation.

Meanwhile, laity live out the mission of the church through the activities in common.  These particular activities should be ones which clergy can identify with the mission, and do so publicly.  This becomes the compliment to the congregation’s activity, and helps build spiritual identity in all.

The clergy’s role is not to create the congregation’s activity, but the theological challenge of giving justification of the activity that comes forth relative to the mission of the congregation and the larger aims of our faith tradition.  Gradually, over several years, the activities that are not tied to mission usually fall away (in part because the clergy are not talking about them in the same way as activity that clearly fulfills and lives out mission); and, those activities that remain, simply remain.  But, in the long view the congregation deepens its identity, as do individuals, because there is “common cause and aim” to activity, and Clergy have interpreted/justified it relative to faith identity.


Rev. Dr. Brent Smith was in the parish for 26+ years before joining faculty at Grand Valley State University (Western Michigan) where he now teaches Religious Studies.  He served as Senior Minister at four churches, Unitarian Church North (Milwaukee), All Souls Tulsa, Fountain Street Church (Independent), and All Souls Grand Rapids (MI).  He received leadership training at Willowcreek and The Leadership Network.  For more information, click here.

Summer Reading for UU Leaders

One habit of leaders in vibrant congregations is to choose a book that they will use as a group study resource for the church year.  They read a book in common over the summer, then discuss it by chapter or by theme during the August-May months.

I often get requests for suggested titles…here is a list of recommended titles and descriptions.  Choose one depending on your leaders’ focus and congregation’s mission, and create your own learning community!  (Some may need a bit theological translation, but that shouldn’t slow you down! 🙂 )

Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church by Michael Piazza  (Pilgrim Press, 2011)

This book uses the experience and success of the missional and church planting movements and suggests ways that established churches can renew themselves with that wisdom. The key word is “transformational.”  If your congregation is ready to rethinking they way they “do church” (with a red pill sensibility) but just starting, this is the book for you.  Written for a liberal Christian audience, Unitarian Universalists will not have to do much theological translation.

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What by Peter Steinke (Alban, 2006)

One of our Foundations of Leadership is thinking systemically, and this book is one of the best for congregational leaders to understand how their congregation functions as a system and how anxiety can interfere with our higher brain functions.  If you have taken a Healthy Congregations(R) or Smart Church workshop, this is a great refresher.  Steinke uses biblical as well as congregational stories as examples.

Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel (New Society, 2011)

Another Foundation of Leadership is Multicultural Sensibility. This book explores the evidence that race is still a marker that effects the outcomes of people’s lives across the United States and provides an introductory framework for understanding how racism can exist within systems and institutions (including our congregations) and how congregational leaders can work to change this.

Moving On from Church Folly Lane: The Pastoral to Program Shift by Rev. Robert T. Latham (Wheatmark, 2006)

No theological translation is necessary for this classic by a UU minister specializing in interim work.  If you congregation’s membership numbers are hovering around the 175 mark, this is the book for you.  The main focus is on developing a mission-based culture of share ministry with practical tips and tools.

The Growing Church: Keys to Congregatinal Vitality edited by Thom Belote (Skinner, 2010)

Ministers of some of the fastest-growing UU congregations share how they serve their mission and vision for Unitarian Universalism.  There is also a companion DVD: Listening to Experience: 12 Visionary Mnisters Discuss Growth (this may already be in your church library!).

Tip: Recruiting Volunteers

One of the most frequent requests we hear from congregational leaders is: “How do we recruit fresh volunteers?”

Our religious educators have a lot of experience since they need to recruit a multitude of teachers each year.  The religious educator from my home congregation is a master at recruiting teachers–including me!  (I’m already signed up to be on the middle school teaching team for next year.)  She uses a technique from the workbook Sharing the Ministry: A Practical Guide for Transforming Volunteers into Ministry by Jean Morris Trumbauer, which I’ve adapted:

  1. Connect the volunteer role to the mission or vision of the congregation
    Be clear about how the volunteer role serves the congregation’s core purpose or mission.  This assumes that a) you have a clear mission and b) the role serves that mission.
  2. Be clear about why this particular person is a good fit for the role
    Be able to articulate the gifts that you see in this particular person that will be of service to the congregation’s mission as they serve in this role. It may be their open heart, their organizational skills or their particular knowledge on a topic.
  3. Benefits to the potential volunteer
    How will serving is this role enrich the volunteer?  You should know the person well enough to know what their interests and growing edges are.  Those recruiting volunteers in our congregations sometimes look no further than the profession of the potential recruit.  You’re an accountant?  Would you like to serve on the finance committee?  You’re a teacher? ….you get the idea. The accountant might have an interest in world religions or may wish to plan the Halloween party.  The teacher might like to sing in the choir.
  4. Accurately describe the role
    Be brutally honest about the time commitment and other responsibilities that are required to be successful in the role.  You should have a written job description describing the position in detail.
  5. Describe how the congregation will support the person in the role
    First and foremost, give the person as much latitude as possible in their position. Encourage the volunteer to participate in training, both in your congregation and that offered by the district and region.  I also recommend that you have an annual assessment process that includes the components of a) how well the ministry of the congregation is being served and b) a reflection on how serving in this role has helped the volunteer to grow and learn.  There should always be a mutual benefit.

Here’s a video showing an example of such a conversation:

Tip: Justice GA Workshop “Quick Picks”

This year’s Justice General Assembly is not business as usual when it comes to workshops, which is apparent when you look at the program topical guide. But  there are still plenty of workshop options that will help you build on your foundation of leadership, especially in the areas of:

• multicultural sensibility
• contextual sensibility
• generational sensibility
• change skills
• communcation skills
• being mission-focused as a leader

We’ve created a list of GA workshop “quick picks” that have a secondary focus of leadership development:

Thursday, June 21

10:30 am – 11:45 am

#204 – Shift Happens  – Rm 224 B Join us for a story-based workshop examining our frameworks and turning points in our lives. We live our lives viewing the world through a certain lens or framework, we reach a critical moment, our perspective changes and shift happens.

#212 – Justice Ministries: Into the Heart of Your Congregation – Rm 124 Do the social action efforts in your congregation tend to be scattershot, depleting or marginal to congregational life? Participants will explore current realities in their congregations and consider the transformative power of engaging social justice as 1) congregationally-based 2) justice 3) ministry.

5:00 pm – 6:00 pm

 #246 – How to Build Meaning-Full Social Justice Ministry Teams – Rm 224 B It takes more than passion to save the world. Learn how to build sustainable, theologically grounded, strategically based Social Justice ministry teams that will engage your whole congregation. Explore a method for developing or focusing your concerns about immigration, ARAOM, peace, poverty, the environment and more.

#249 – Context Is Everything: Life in the Borderlands – Rm 226 Unitarian Universalists visualize a multicultural future, but many UU’s are living the vision today. Hear multicultural UU’s, beyond the black/white binary whose intersecting identities inform their journey in a dominant culture, as they navigate a society where race is socially constructed and borderlands shift accordingly.

Friday, June 21

9:00 am – 10:15 am

#317 Get A Grant From The UU Funding Program – Rm 232 C The UU Funding Program awards $1,000,000 in grants to UU projects that strengthen institutions and community life, increase UU involvement in social responsibility, and to non-UU groups organizing for social and economic justice. Come meet the people who give it all away and see if your project fits our guidelines.

10:30 am – 11:45 am

#321 – Energizing the Reluctant Activist – Rm 224 B Are you having a hard time figuring out how to balance personal responsibilities and limitations with the values that call you to activism? Want to get involved but don’t know how? This compassionate, informative and practical workshop will address issue-burnout and help you identify your path to making a difference.

#327 – Getting Unstuck: New Directions in Catalytic Leadership – Rm 226 Inflexible and linear models of leadership are ineffective for a world wherein multiple voices and multiple realities hope to co-exist.  Explore new understandings of the types of ministerial and lay leadership required to structure congregational life and facilitate culturally competent lay leadership.

#334 – Taking it Home: Youth in the Lead – Rm 221 Come learn practical and applicable skills for organizing around immigration and other justice issues in your youth group, congregation and wider community. We’ll explore ways youth can create change, from deciding what issues are pressing in your community to how to reach out and find allies.

3:15 pm – 4:30 pm

#344 – Crossing Political Borders, Breaking Down Barriers – Rm 125 How can we do viable social justice work if we don’t agree politically? A play on the unheard voices of UU conservatives and a multifaceted lecture will engage participants in an exploration of the political barriers as well as the opportunities for transformational justice work that exist in our congregations.

#349 – Getting Unstuck: New Directions in Cross-Cultural Partnerships – Rm 226 A celebration and exploration with congregations that are creating authentic, transformative cross-cultural ministries. We will explore both the joys and challenges that accompany living at the frontlines of our multi-racial, multicultural and theologically diverse world.

#354 – Engaging Young Adults in Social Justice Ministries – Rm 222 A Take the message of Justice GA home to your community. This workshop panel and discussion will highlight the young adults who are engaged in social justice work in their communities. Come learn about opportunities to get involved in existing justice projects and/or how to start a social justice ministry project in your community.

Saturday, June 22

9:00 am – 10:15 am

 #409 – Young Leaders Visioning for Justice! Planning for Action! – Rm 121 Youth and young adults will envision a future together and work separately to create action plans for moving forward. An interactive, participatory, and fun workshop where young leaders will find their voices and the power to create their own future within their congregations, schools, and communities.

#412 – Understanding & Developing Multicultural Competencies in Congregations – Rm 222 BC Learn how identity work is essential for building our capacities to create a fair and just world! Through panel presentation, resources and experiential learning, participants will engage with six identities— class, ethnicity/languages other than English, race, gender identities, abilities, affectional orientation.

#417 – Organizing 101: Recruitment & Leadership Development – Rm 125 In this interactive workshop, we’ll focus on why people must be central in justice work and learn a framework for assessing who’s in your activist crew to help you do effective and spiritually grounded recruitment and leadership development, two key and often-neglected pieces of our justice work in congregations.

#418 – Partnering Congregations and Community Organizations – Rm 231 How do I connect my congregation with community groups leading campaigns for justice? What are the steps to building meaningful relationships between congregants and partner groups for successful actions and for building community? Hear from UU ministers, social justice leaders, and community activists about what works and what hasn’t.

10:45 am –  12:00 pm

#423 – Building Cultural Competence in Congregations – Rm 229 For many, “cultural competency” is a theory or a hope. In this workshop, clergy from three congregations share examples of the steps members took toward establishing multicultural ministries. Lessons learned, challenges met, and the resulting surprises and rewards as their congregations continue to grow and deepen in cultural competence and spirit.

#425 – Organizing Campaigns: Power Analysis and Successful Building Blocks – Rm 122 Don’t know where to start? Learn from National Day Laborer Organizing Network the fundamentals of putting together a campaign that builds a group, wins demands, and improves conditions for the members of your community.

#427 – The Road From Misappropriation to Cross Cultural Engagement – Rm 222 BC Engagement formed in response to oppression experienced in worship at GA 2007. The group committed to create conversation space that could hold multiple truths, witness pain and focus on deepening relationships across cultures and organizations. The story continues. We each hold a part. Join us.

#429 – Collaboration and Accountability for Racial Justice Empowerment – Rm 125 This workshop will share the story of how institutional sponsorship and collaboration in the planning and organizing of a standalone, multi- generational People of Color gathering in the Southeastern District served as a tool for community building, empowerment, racial justice and reconciliation surrounding the district name change process (from Thomas Jefferson to Southeastern District).

#430 – Storytelling, Mobilization, and Social Media – Rm 232 AB Stories are a powerful tool for social change. Use online communication to tell your story, build relationships with partner organizations, and win legislative and consumer-advocacy victories. Panelists include speakers from Standing on the Side of Love, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the statewide networks.

A “Red Pill” Response – Walking Away

How many of our congregations offer programming that isn’t working, or has only a very small group of the “usual suspects” participating?  In a recent article in The Christian Century, LeeAnne Watkins.  Titled This Just Isn’t Working: When PeopleDon’t Show Up,  the article describes how her congregation has tried different ways of offering programming:

Over the years I’ve found myself seduced by whatever the latest idea is for getting people to flock to church. And every single time I’ve been disappointed. What’s more, in the last few years I’ve developed some inner snarkiness toward the people who don’t show up, even though I otherwise adore them. I worry that I inadvertently pass this resentment along to them. Great—as if what people really need is more shame about the status of their spiritual lives.

Finally, she realized that–instead of resenting the people she was serving–she needed to be honest with herself about the changing context of congregational life.  As much as she was attached to what her vision of programming should look like, the reality was that–in her church community–mid-week activities had gone the way of the dinosaur. In an earlier post I talked about how leaders need to pay attention to their mental models, and this is a great example.

Identifying and engaging with our mental models is only half of the challenge.  The other half is responding.

These challenges are adaptive challenges, that is, they are challenges that don’t have technical fixes.  (Ronad Heifetz explains the difference in the video below.) One part of an adaptive strategy is designing low-risk, high-learning experiments. If people aren’t showing up in the building during the week, perhaps they might be interested in a webinar format where they can participate from home.  Maybe they would like to have a discussion in a closed Facebook group.  Try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.  And even when something does work, be prepared for the reality that it may stop working in a few years.

Note: Tandi Rogers talks about why the UUA “walked away” from the Breakthrough Congregation program in this blog post.