Need More Volunteers? Maybe Your Bylaws Are The Problem…

“We don’t have enough greeters!”

“No one wants to host coffee hour.”

“We don’t have enough teachers for Sunday School.”

Are these familiar complaints in your congregation? Do you find that important roles for the core ministries of your congregation are lacking in volunteer support?

I once worked with a congregation with similar problems.  We did a simple exercise to help us understand how volunteers were being deployed in the work of the congregation.  (If you know me at all, you’ll not be surprised that the exercise involve sticky notes!)

We used red sticky notes for the board and every committee that was involved in governance.

We used green sticky notes for each of the ministry staff positions.

We used yellow sticky notes for each of the “ministry teams” and listed them under the staff member that has accountability for that ministry.

We used blue sticky notes for other various affinity “groups that meet” as a part of the congregation.

We then looked at each committee/team/group and noted the number of members that served on each one.

We discovered that there were large numbers of people serving on the governance committees, and that the ministry committees were lacking in numbers of volunteers.

Why? Because churches tend to mandate the number of committee members for governance in their bylaws (which “need” to be filled by the nominating committee) while letting the ministry teams fend for themselves in filling their volunteer opportunities–roles that are just as essential to the mission of the congregation.

What was the takeaway?

Consider making your governance committees leaner, so that more members are available to serve the ministries of the congregation.

Recognize the importance of those who serve on your ministry teams, such as with commissioning rituals.

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff



Sprucing Up Your Spiritual Hospitality

Photo Copyright Brad Bolton.
Photo Copyright Brad Bolton.

I’m a “stealth greeter” in my home congregation. I go up to newcomers after a service and strike up a conversation about what brought them to church that day, and then I listen. What are they looking for? Community, meaning, direction and connection to a purpose greater than themselves.

Most of our congregations are pretty good at the first two. We provide community in our social events and meaning in the Sunday worship service. I think it’s because community and meaning are what our older adults are looking for and our older adults run the show and can make sure those are happening.

But the young adults that I talk to are looking for direction and connection to a purpose greater than themselves. A recent article in the Atlantic starts out telling the story of the young adult ramblings of our venerable Henry David Thoreau and how today’s millennials need to find their way into adulthood, not with predetermined markers (job, marriage, house, children) but within their sense of self.

Congregational leaders who want to create a culture that is welcoming to young adult seekers are facing the adaptive challenge of being a community that not only serves the existing members, but also provides spiritual hospitality. This kind of hospitality is based on the Platinum Rule–an intercultural version of the Golden Rule–of doing unto others what they would have done for themselves.

My congregation uses monthly themes and has different ways for people to connect and engage with them. We also strive to offer life-stage groups (single young adult, parents of young children, parents of adolescents, retiree) and other kinds of groups to help people connect and find their own direction. As I share these concrete possibilities with the visitor, I can see their delight as they see the possibility of this becoming their spiritual home.

What might your congregation do to provide spiritual hospitality?

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Consultant

Theme-Based Ministry
Adaptive Leadership

One Bad Apple CAN Spoil the Whole Bunch

Photo by Jimmy Poon
Photo by Jimmy Poon

The 1970’s heart-throb boy band The Osmonds provided a disservice with their ear-worm hit song “One Bad Apple.” They sang,

“One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl,
Oh, I don’t care what they say, I don’t care what you heard now”

when it fact it really can and will, especially in our congregations.

By saying “bad apples” I’m referring to behaviors of people in our congregations that can act like the ethylene that rotting fruit emits that will eventually rot the fruit nearby. But instead of causing rot, the human version of the bad apple breaks the bonds of community.

Let me be clear that it’s behaviors that I am talking about, not the people themselves. As creatures of free will, we can make choices about our behavior. As communities, we can set standards of behavior to encourage people to be their best selves, at least at church.  As I’ve heard many parents express, “Going to church helps to remind ourselves that “the world does not revolve around me.”

Congregations that are unable to grow, or that are declining in numbers and enthusiasm often have ignored the bad apples among their midst and yet are puzzled about why visitors don’t return or why new members drift away without saying why.  (Even if they did, it’s a rare congregation who would take such feedback to heart.)

I am passionate about this because–every week–someone walks through the doors of a UU congregation who needs the saving message of liberal religion (you are not inherently sinful!) and the saving community of covenant (we pledge to support and encourage one another to spiritual growth). It breaks my heart when anyone is repelled from “the bunch” of healthy, vibrant community by the “bad apple” of an individual or two.

Why do we tolerate behaviors that repel not just visitors but healthy and contributing members? I think it’s because our leaders exhibit a failure of nerve to stand up to such destructive behaviors and sometimes even enable them with excuses or explanations like:

“Oh, that’s just Jack.  He’s always been like that.  Lot’s of people are huggers.  Jack just doesn’t know when to stop.”


“We know that Mary is always criticizing the minister and board, but she is one of our major donors.  We wouldn’t want to risk losing her.”


“We’re the only community that Greg has. He may have some incidents of aggressive behavior, but they’ve never happened at church so it’s none of our business.”


“It’s too bad that we’ve gone through eight administrators in five years because of Pat pointing our every little mistake. Pat used to be our volunteer administrator and is a member of one of our founding families.  They have too much power for the board to do anything.”


“Letting someone like Bill talk for 5 minutes during Joys and Sorrows shows newcomers that we are welcoming and supportive of everyone.”


“A lot of our older members had bad experiences with Christian churches in their childhoods.  People should understand when they condemn Christianity they only mean certain kinds of Christians.”


“If people aren’t sticking around after a few bad experiences with some of our crankier members, it just means there weren’t all that committed to our church in the first place.”

If you currently have a similar “bad apple” situation in your congregation, don’t despair!  There are many resources to help your leadership team (and it takes a team!) to stand up “to bad apple” behaviors:

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





Going With the Flow

go-with-the-flow-thumb26062172In my travels around the region, I sometimes hear members of congregations say something like, “Church shouldn’t be like work.  It should be fun.”  Several current research studies support this contention and might explain one of the reasons that congregational leaders get “burned out.”

In a New York Times (September 7, 2014) article, Paul O’Keefe, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, contends that people who see a task as interesting and enjoyable will work harder on that task and perform better.  Further, knowing that your work will make a difference or has possibilities for changing things for the better will help people to feel energized rather than exhausted, motivated rather than morose.  One of the psychologists cited in the study calls it “flow”, the experience we have when we are in the zone.

The implications for leaders in our congregations, then, is obvious.  The more leaders see their tasks as interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful, the harder and longer they work on the task and the better they will perform at it.

So how do we help leaders to get in the “zone”?  Additional research at the Universities of Virginia and Wisconsin suggest that for most of us, whether we find something interesting and motivating is a matter of whether we find it personally valuable.  We need to help leaders see their work as meaningful not only to the congregation or to our faith, but meaningful and valuable to them as well.  Research also shows that social engagement in activities can foster greater interest and motivation.  Leaders need to know that they are not alone and church activities done in a group rather than in isolation will result in happier, more motivated and more productive leaders.

Perception truly is in the eye of the beholder.  As staff, ministerial and lay leaders, let’s help each other to see things in a positive and meaningful way.  Let’s work together so that no leader needs to feel alone.  Let’s make church fun.


The Path Taken

conflict resolution“Conflict”, philosopher John Dewey wrote, “is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.”

All too many leaders in our congregations, however, see conflict or resistance as inherently evil.  In this way of thinking, the goal is to deny the conflict or suppress it in an effort to maintain the illusion of harmony.  Savvy leaders know that conflict in a healthy congregation is to be welcomed and cultivated; that out of conflict comes creativity and new ideas and energy.  The key is how the leader meets and responds to the resistance that is causing the conflict.

Belgian Luc Galoppin,, a wonderfully inventive organizational change manager, says that we have a choice when our goals or ideas are met with resistance.  We can respond with revenge or we can respond with respect.  Taking the revenge path means pushing harder to get your way when there is resistance.  The result of this tactic is usually greater resistance.  So, in order to meet this increased resistance, one has to push even harder.  Eventually, you reach a state of indifference on the part of the resister.  “Fine, have it your way”, they may say.  “I don’t care anymore.”  “Whatever.”   In this scenario, the leader has created what Galoppin calls an energy drain.  Game over.  Resistance has been defeated.  Congregational life goes on, albeit less inspired, less motivated, and less energized.

The other path that leaders can take when faced with resistance is one of respect.  It begins with remembering that everyone we meet is facing a great battle and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness.  It means listening for why they care about the issue; taking the time to understand the underlying meaning, intentions, hopes and dreams of the other.  It means not taking it personally, even if the reaction of the other was clearly intended to hurt you.  In taking the path of respect, the leader strives for open communication and collaboration in negotiating a solution that will resolve the conflict and move the congregation forward.  The leader commits to staying “at the table” until this work is done.  This process, says Galoppin, is the source of our energy and keeps us in the ballgame.

Following the path of revenge stems from the need to be right.  Following the path of respect stems from the need to be in relationship.

As a Unitarian Universalist, which path makes more sense to you?

Mark Bernstein, Consultant, Central East Regional Group

Think of Yourself as the Visitor

customer serviceMany years ago, I was working with employees of MBNA Bank at their branch headquarters in Newark, Delaware.  Over every door in the building, in big block letters, were the words, THINK OF YOURSELF AS THE CUSTOMER.  I was struck by that phrase and with the idea that putting yourself in the shoes of your customer would enable one to provide higher quality service and achieve mutually satisfying results.

We don’t often think of applying the principles of customer service in our Unitarian Universalist congregations.  It somehow feels too corporate or non-spiritual.  But maybe we should start. In my work as Growth Consultant in the Central East Region, I find that many congregations are not as welcoming as they think they are.  Certainly, across our region and across the country, we Unitarian Universalists are not as welcoming as we need to be.  So perhaps the adoption of a customer service orientation is not such a bad thing.  As my mother used to say, “It couldn’t hurt.”

Here are a few suggestions for enhancing customer service in your congregation:

 1.  Pay Attention

When I was in Virginia recently, I walked into a Boston Market.  As soon as I entered, I heard, “Welcome to Boston Market.  How are you today?”  This refrain was repeated, with some variation, every time a customer walked in.  It wasn’t tiresome because the greeting was sincere.  The employees seemed truly glad to see another customer enter the restaurant …and, truth be told, when it was said to me, I did feel welcomed.  I was immediately reinforced in my decision to eat there.

Visitors to our congregations don’t just want to be greeted.  They want to be welcomed.  Taking an interest in every new person that walks in the door conveys the message that they are special.  The initial encounter doesn’t need to be long, but greeters should smile, shake the hand of the visitor, make eye contact, and say something like, “I am very glad that you are here today.”  Exchanging names is an effective way to make a connection.  “My name is Mark, and you are?”  Providing basic information that the visitor needs (location of the sanctuary; of the bathrooms; where they can drop off their children, etc.) is essential, but inviting the visitor to ask questions (“Is there anything I haven’t told you that you’re wondering about?”) empowers the visitor and assures that their every need is being met.

Paying attention to the visitor, of course, is not the sole responsibility of the greeter.  Those who are serving as ushers should not just hand out the order of service, but should likewise shake the hand of the visitor and greet them warmly.  And in truly welcoming congregations, it is also the responsibility of every member to greet the stranger.  (But what if I’m not sure if they’re a new visitor, you ask?  There’s nothing wrong with saying, “We may have met, but I can’t recall.  My name is Mark and I’m glad you’re here today.”)

 2.  Exceed the Customer’s Expectations

When convenience stores first unveiled the touch screen devices for ordering sandwiches, deli items, soup, and so on, I was struggling one day with the technology and finding it difficult to order my chicken salad sandwich.  The clerk behind the counter noticed my struggle (it must have been my loud whimpering) and asked if he could help.  I told him that I was lost and wanted to start my order all over again.  He asked me to wait a moment and then came around the counter.  He first showed me how to reset the machine.  Then, asking me what I wanted, he proceeded to punch a bunch of screens and complete the order.  The receipt popped up.  He handed it to me and said, “You go pay for this and by the time you get back, your sandwich will be ready.”

What an example of excellent customer service!!  The clerk not only met my expectations.  He exceeded them.  I would have been happy with him just telling me over the counter how to reset the machine.  That would have met my expectations.  But in several ways, he exceeded them.  He left his station and came around the counter.  He showed me how to reset the machine and how to correctly place an order.  And he grabbed the receipt and handed it to me with a friendly “this will be waiting for you when you get back.”

In our congregations, we need to make sure that we are not just meeting the expectations of visitors, but that we are exceeding them.  Visitors expect to be greeted.  Let’s exceed their expectations by truly greeting them with sincerity and authenticity.  Let’s greet them in the parking lot and several other times before they get to the sanctuary.  Let’s recruit our youth and young adults to be greeters to both other youth and to adults.  Let’s ensure that someone in the congregation accompanies the new visitor to the sanctuary or the cradle room or the classroom.  Let’s compel ushers to not only hand out orders of service, but to accompany visitors to a seat in the sanctuary, especially if they are late arriving and seats are hard to find.  Let’s have greeters stationed at the front door after the service for those who don’t stay for social hour to shake their hands and thank them for coming.

Thinking about what we need to do to welcome visitors and then doing one thing more is how you exceed expectations and provide great customer service.


3.     See the Congregation Through New Eyes

You know the clutter that piles up in that one corner of one room in your house?  (Of course, in my house, it’s piled up in several corners of several rooms.)  The clutter that, after a while, you tend not to notice is even there?  This is known as the “dirty sock” syndrome.  Leave a dirty sock in one spot long enough and it becomes invisible.  But when a guest enters your home, it’s usually the first thing they notice.

So it is in our congregations.  Supplies, materials, discarded boxes can accumulate in one part of the building and after a while, we don’t notice it.  But you can be sure your visitors will.  So take a tour of your building and see it as if you are seeing it for the first time.  Notice the sofa in the lounge area that has several cuts in the fabric; the conference table that is fraying at the edges; the stains on the lobby carpet; the artificial Christmas tree lurking in one corner of Fellowship Hall.  And then get to work, sprucing up the place as if guests are arriving any minute…which, by the way, they are.

4.      Follow-Up

We sometimes receive company surveys after purchasing items such as a car or an appliance.  Even if we don’t respond, we appreciate the effort of the company in asking, “How did we do?” Or more importantly, “How are you doing?’.  Following up with visitors to our congregations is another example of excellent customer service.  It’s an opportunity to thank them for coming and to invite them to the next service.  For my money, a postcard is the best way to go.  It’s quick, inexpensive and personal.   A simple message can have a great impact, something like, “Dear Alice, Thank you for being with us yesterday.  I hope you felt welcomed. Next week, our sermon is entitled “Finding Spirituality on the Baseball Diamond”.  I hope you can join us.” And if you can make it more personal, so much the better.  “PS: I hope your son got back to college okay.”

In his book Encounters at the Counter: What Congregations Can Learn about Hospitality from Business, Alan Johnson draws the connection between customer service (hospitality) and spirituality when he writes, “Divine love shapes our lives and the relationships we have with others.  This is true in our congregations; it is true at the counter!  From the web of connection that is made through the disciplines of spirituality, the blessings flow as hospitality is extended.”  Extending ourselves through good customer service practices ensures that a congregation grows in spirit as well as in numbers.