The world around us is changing at an exponential rate, so it is often difficult to respond to the new reality.  What is true for individuals is even more true for institutions, including our “living tradition” Unitarian Universalist congregations.  I’m not saying this to scold or to shame, but to point out that responding to a changing context is hard….really hard.

Brain science helps us to understand that we create and use mental models of our reality that help us to filter and make sense of our experiences.  But our mental models aren’t always accurate or helpful.  As a white middle-class female, I grew up with a mental model of the world operating in a way that gave men privilege that they didn’t see, especially in my previous career as a mechanical engineer.  My mental model did not enable me to see that I had my own privilege–being white.

I find that metaphors can be helpful in helping us to articulate things that can’t be articulated using rational prose.  The modern metaphor for mental models that resonates with me is exemplified in the movie The Matrix, especially in the Red Pill/Blue Pill scene:  (Thanks to the Red Pill Brethren for inspiring my use of this metaphor!)

Congregatonal leaders who choose the “blue pill” don’t want to challenge their current mental model of how their church is functioning.  They are comfortable with continuing being a church that meets their needs, offering them:

  • community-building social events
  • pastoral care provided by the minister
  • inspiring Sunday services
  • forums for lively discussion
  • space and programming for their children and youth

What we are learning is that most of the churches that continue to operate in this comfortable mode are declining…including Unitarian Universalist congregations.

My invitation is for our congregational leaders to be willing to take the red pill and open themselves to challenging their own mental models of what our congregations could and should be.  We have many Unitarian Universalist congregations in CERG that have done just that and are now vibrant and growing.  Some are new, such as the Wellsprings Congregation in Chester Springs, PA. Others have been around for much longer, such as First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, organized in 1829.  And some started as fellowships back during the post WWII baby boom, such as the UU Congregation of Fairfax, VA.

Here’s a short list of qualities that these vibrant congregations all share:

  • A clear and inspiring mission that guides their ministry
  • Paying attention to the changing cultural context and responding by staying relevant to younger members
  • A commitment to individual spiritual growth–and most importantly–depth
  • A commitment to a high level of lay leader training and meaningful service
  • A commitment to serve needs beyond their walls

I know there are other congregations in CERG and the other regions that are doing similar work!  I would love to hear about them in the comments.

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.

  • Larry Solow

    I like this distinction.

    I wrestle, though, with wanting to ascribe judgement as to one pill being better than another. For many congregants, the blue pill meets their needs perfectly. The rest of their lives provides plenty of challenge, drama, and opportunity. For them, church is where you go “to just be.”

    For others, the opposite is true. Their away-form-church lives may be stagnant and uninspiring. The church provides a safe haven for learning, growth, and experimentation.

    I would like a purple pill, please …

    Take care,

  • Matt

    The phrase “taking the Red Pill” is also used in some online contexts that you will probably take issue with. I thought you might appreciate a heads up.

  • Mary Hunt

    It’s oversimplifying to present differing leadership styles as being categorizable into two opposites. The items on the two lists don’t conflict with each other. Each congregation, or any group of people, is unique. It can create conflict when a leader goes into a leadership position with a pre-conceived idea of a leadership focus, such as a red or blue pill, for a particular group without first familiarizing himself with their wants and needs and being willing to be flexible and adapt.

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  • Rachel Stevenson

    Now that we have an Idea of the Blue Pill and the Red Pill, how do we as Young Adult Leaders in our congregations. Help our congregations to move in a direction of the red pill of changing the way we worship, of how we lead, of how we govern? There is a lot of truth to the idea thta people continue to do things because they are “comfortable” but growth and change are good things. If done in a comfortable manner. I feel that young adult leaders need tools for how to communicate our ideas in working with older adults in our congregations,

    Maybe a forum or a dialog on a saturday morning where young adults and adults come together to discuss our needs and to see where they over lap and how we can ( as congregations and communities) can invest in change. that suits both of our needs as members of the community.

    In peace

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