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.

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.
  • I have both attended Far hills and Southbrook. They are deilintefy a different type of animal. But we can not dismiss them or their mission. We are all part of the body of Christ, and each part can and does do different things for our Lord. It is impossible to know everyone in those settings. But they have different groups: small groups, volunteers, studies, etc and know each other that way. Different groups reach out to help the community both local and far.The sad news is a lot of churches are declining around the U.S. So it is good to see growth. They do need to be careful about it just being a status symbol though.Most people gravitate toward a church they are comfortable with some large, some small or inbetween. I remember one of the awesome things about Southbrook was the level of volunteers in that church. It was a staggering amount of people, which allowed the growth. We members participate and help share their talents, the growth comes naturally.One other thing to think about. Even in our church, we are at times like 3 separate churches. We each attend one service and may or may not volunteer for the other service. A few of us attend classes far to few IMHO. Even with our size of church, there are so many people that do not know the others because of little or no contact. So the key is what are the people doing? Are we reaching out to the community: local and far, for Christ. I say we are so this is a good thing for our Lord.My last comment would be that if the people in the larger churches are like us, then they are fine and doing stuff for the Lord . they just have a whole lot more people doing it. And these churches should grow or start new churches as the Lord leads them.[]