Ain’t Too Proud to Learn

Now I’ve gotta love so deep in the pit of my heart
And each day it grows more and more
I’m not ashamed to come and plead to you baby
If pleadin’ keeps you from walkin’ out that door

Ain’t too proud to beg, you know it sweet darlin’

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg — The Temptations

There are times that my love for our Unitarian Universalist faith is so full that I feel as if my heart will burst. I want every congregation to be vibrant; bursting at the seams with people wanting to make the world a place where every soul has space and encouragement to flourish.

Behind that aspiration is a reality where a congregation has to be “healthy” before they can be “vibrant.”  We consultants who serve congregations stress the need for congregations to send their leaders to systems sensibility trainings such as Healthy Congregations(R) or Smart Church to develop these sensibilities.   Most of our UU leadership schools include a strong component of systems understanding.  Congregational Leaders who have been through the training rave about how helpful it has been.  And yet, I still see a lot of resistance in some congregations about making this training a priority for their leaders.

I had an “aha!” moment about that resistance recently when reading the new Patrick Lencioni book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business(I should note that Lencioni is a favorite among many successful GenX religious leaders.)  Lencioni notes that:

In spite of its undeniable power, so many leaders struggle to embrace organizational health..because they quietly believe they are too sophisticated, too busy, or too analytical to bother with it.  In other words, they think it’s beneath them.

A couple of the cultural challenges within Unitarian Universalism is resisting the temptation to think that we already have the answers, or that some of the simple truths don’t concern us.   I hope that we can transform that attitude into one where we are not too proud to learn what we think we already know.  The Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind.”  The Christian Scriptures invite us to “receive the kingdom of God like a little child.” And our very own James Luther Adams reminds us that “revelation is not sealed.”

Minimal Structure, Maximum Mission

What does it mean to be a “missional church?” The Rev. Joan VanBecelaere shares her insights after attending a “Change the World” conference at one of the most successful missional mainline churches in the country.

By guest blogger, the Rev. Joan VanBecelaere, Ohio-Meadville District Executive and Central East Regional Group (CERG) Lead

One of the most successfully mission-oriented churches in the United Methodist Church is Ginghamsburg UMC in a semi-rural suburb of Dayton OH. This is the fourth largest church in the UMC, one of the most diverse, and has been widely praised as one of the most influential churches in America by news entities ranging from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post.

The 5000 member, 3-campus church is very clear and focused on its missional outreach and message.  They run over nineteen different community service ministries in the Dayton area, including food pantries and car, furniture, clothing, medical equipment, pet care, rent/utility assistance and other ministries.   They run after-school, mentoring and tutoring programs for at-risk children.

They are currently building 24 houses and rehabbing old ones in some of the most impoverished parts of Dayton.  They offer classes on money management, GED, 12 step, employment counseling, English and more.  They have started and continue to support $5.6 million in sustainable relief projects, schools and clinics in Darfur, Sudan, and run regular rebuilding trips to Kentucky, Louisiana and Haiti.   And a whole lot more.  (see their website:

Minimalist Structure:

I was at Ginghamsburg a few weeks ago for their annual “Change the World” conference where I learned that this powerhouse church operates its many transformational ministries with a very streamlined, minimalist structure — a 12-member Leadership Board,  three on-going committees and a number of teams that come and go as needed to do the work.   Just three standing Committees – Human Resources,  Financial Resources and Operations.  This covers the formal needs of the organization and allows them to maximize energy for mission while cutting way back on the need for meetings.  The church also has a 5-member lead staff team that includes the senior pastor, a new church development pastor, an operations exec, a business exec and a discipleship ministries exec.

Keys to Leadership:

There are a also a few simple key components to Ginghamsburg’s concept of leadership.

  • Healthy churches are reliant on their leaders’ being healthy according to senior pastor, Mike Slaughter.   One cannot lead someone farther than you are yourself.  Leaders must continually aspire to grow.
  • Slaughter also urges congregations to be missional rather than attractional.  It’s no good to bring thousands of people into the church building, he says,  if they are not being changed and transformed.  Instead, the leaders must focus the church on the mission, then good news.  “If its’ not good news for the poor, it’s not the gospel” according to Slaughter.
  • At its core, a truly transformational, missional church only works when the leadership lets go of “numbers neurosis” and bureaucracy and frees people to go out into the world and serve without a lot of oversight.  The idea is that people are not looking for meetings; they are looking for meaning and are willing to work for it.

It’s pretty amazing to see what can be accomplished with minimal structure and maximum commitment to mission.


Rev. Joan Van Becelaere has served as the District Executive for the Ohio-Meadville District since July 2007 and currently also serves as the Regional Lead for the Central East Regional Group (CERG). Previously, Rev. VanBecelaere was Vice President for Student Services at Iliff Theological School in Denver, CO where she also taught Unitarian Universalist history and polity classes. More…

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.)

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Outrage, Not Anger

As election day is approaching, I’m noticing that many Unitarian Universalists are out in the community helping to hold the integrity of the democratic process, a value articulated in our fifth principle; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.  Voter suppression has been a big concern this election, especially in the swing states, and in states with large populations of people of color.  Many UU leaders are volunteering to be poll observers, to help make sure that the right to vote is protected, especially in places where they are expecting possible intimidation of Latino and African-American voters at the polls.

How does one keep calm in a situation where a gross injustice is happening?

I recently re-read an interview with veteran and peace activist Paul Chappell in The Sun magazine (April 2011) and this quote has stayed with me:

What do Buddha, Jesus, Sun Tzu, Seneca, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, martial-arts philosophy, and West Point  all have in common?  They all taught me that anger is dangerous. Outrage is my conscience saying, This is wrong! When outrage is not supported by a foundation of patience and empathy for both sides, it quickly descends int yelling, resentment, and a shutting down of reason, which doesn’t effectively advance the cause of peace.  … The way you get rid of anger is through understanding.   As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, founder of Compassionate Listening, said,  “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.”

So how does a leader maintain their “center” in situations that can easily provoke anger?  Here are some tips borrowed from Chappel (and from a few others):

  • Be ready to challenge the underlying myth.  In the case of poll observing, know that voter fraud is rare; disenfranchment is less so.
  • Remain calm.  Chappel recommends the practice of developing empathy for the person you are dealing with–to understand the suffering that is eliciting their behavior.   Respond to their anger with compassion.  Repeat the mantra, I am standing on the side of Love.  Imagine them as a small child, before the experiences that brought them to this place.
  • Speak your truth. Our words are seeds in the world.  Some will take root, others will fall on hard ground. But change starts with tension, and our words can help to introduce that tension.  I still have phrases spoken to me years ago that annoyed me at first, but still influence my current thinking.
  • Don’t attack the other’s worldview. Ours is not a faith of coercion, but of mutuality and persuasion.  (And seriously, have you ever seen it work?)
  • Change the conversation. Learn to understand the worldview of the other well enough to find a place of common ground or a common story.  Once there you can introduce your own competing worldview in a way that they might be able to hear.



Making Space for the Quiet Voices

Excitement filled the meeting room as ideas were bounced back and forth like ping-pong balls.  The chair of the meeting was as enthusiastic as the participants, noting ideas and responding with new ideas elicited by the lively dialogue. The project began taking shape, and it was clear that everyone was looking forward to the implementation.  There was one person in the room who was also engaged with the process.  When called upon to share an idea, the person paused.  Before he could answer, the chair said, “We’ll get back to you” and called on the next person ready to share.

As an observer in the room (I am one of the leaders of this middle school youth group at my home congregation), I called a time out:

“I want to make a process observation,” I told the group.  “And don’t feel bad, because this is something I say to the grown-up leaders that I work with, too.   It’s really important that we make space for people who need a little time to process and answer. They need a quiet pause to gather their thoughts before they are able to speak.  Let’s make sure we give them a chance to share their ideas.”

Although I am an extrovert and love that kind of high-energy exchange of ideas, I’ve learned from experience that some of the best ideas and reflections come from the introverts or the people who might be at the margins of the conversation because of age or culture.

I invite other extroverts to try the practice outlined in this video (from Erik Walker Wikstrom’s book Serving with Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice).

Owing Your Soul to the Company Store

As Unitarian Universalists, we understand freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to be basic to our congregational polity as well as to our understanding of democracy.

The first amendment of the Bill of Rights articulates this right:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Faithful congregational leaders are committed to transparency and to processes that make space for dialogue from the minority as well as majority–from the margins as well as the center.  We bring this ethic to the public sphere as well, in our work–as individuals–in the political arena.  This comes from our theological belief that the will of God (or the movement of the Spirit, or the Arc of the Universe) is best discerned by a group of thoughtful and committed people in dialogue.

In my recent visit to West Virginia’s Coal Country, I toured the Whipple Company Store. Hearing the stories of what it was like living in a company-owned town brought to mind this classic folk song:

But the stories of control were not limited to the economic hole that coal miners found themselves in. We learned how the families were treated by the coal companies.  The pastors and school teachers were all on the company payroll. The companies hired private police agencies (who acted more like uniformed thugs) to patrol the town.  The women were not allowed to handle real money.  Since the company store was only open when the men were in the mines, the women had to shop with company scrip–which was worth less than cash–to buy the goods they needed at the prices set by the company.

The women were not allowed to talk to one another in their yards or homes.  When they were molested or raped, they had no recourse.  They had no privacy: Window shades had to be kept open during the day.  If their husband was killed in the mine, the family had to vacate the company house within 24 hours after the burial.  The only place women could talk to one another was the company store, where their conversations could be monitored.  The store at Whipple was designed like a fortress on the outside with guards posted at all of the entrances.  The inside of the store was designed in a round, so that the acoustics allowed a guard posted in the center to hear every word spoken in the space.  Any open talk or action toward unionizing was dealt with harshly.  Women learned to speak in code, using flower names or quilt patterns to let the others know about clandestine union-planning meetings.  Two of the main demands of the union organizers were to protect the privacy of the women, and to decide on their own preachers.

Unitarian Universalist leaders have often been champions of the human rights codified in the First Amendment.  My favorite story is of A. Powell Davies (minister of All Souls UU Church in Washington D.C.) criticizing the red-baiting of Senator McCarthy back in the 1950s. But it is always helpful to remind ourselves of the need to protect free speech and free assembly to allow the free flow of ideas in service of the Beloved Community.


Financial Barriers to Leadership

“Volunteering to host coffee hour is a great way for newer folks to get involved.”

“We used to have potluck dinners, but we have so many dinners offered in our service auction that we don’t seem to have the interest to plan potlucks anymore.”

“Attending Leadership School helped me to be an effective congregational leader.”

“I’ll just buy it and donate it to the church.”

How many times have you heard (or said) something like this?  For potential leaders (or just people looking for ways to serve or get connected) figuring out the congregation’s way of doing things can create a bit of a learning curve, just as in any organization.  But for those who don’t have much (or any) disposable income, some norms can create a financial barrier against potential involvement.

“Volunteering to host coffee hour is a great way for newer folks to get involved.”

  • Financial implication:
    If you coffee hour host duties include providing snacks, this could be a barrier, especially if some host provide expensive snacks and set the bar a little high.
  • Other ideas:
    -Provide a budget line item for coffee hour snacks
    -Have separate sign-ups for providing snacks and doing the set-up / clean-up
    -Organize hospitality teams, such as the UU Fellowship of Centre County, PA does

“We used to have members host potluck dinners, but we have so many dinners offered in our service auction that we don’t seem to have the interest to plan potlucks anymore.”

  • Financial implication:
    To make social connections in the congregation, there is a cost.
  • Other ideas:
    -Schedule potlucks or game nights in the church social hall rather than people’s homes
    -Offer low-cost fixed-price dinners

“Attending Leadership School helped me to be an effective congregational leader.”

  • Financial implication:
    Many potential leaders don’t have the extra money or time off from work to attend a week-long leadership school.
  • Other ideas:
    -Provide a budget line item for leadership development, especially for young adults.

“I’ll just buy it and donate it to the church.”

  • Financial implication:
    The true cost of programs and committees is not reflected in the budget.  There may be an unspoken expectation that leaders who take on a responsibility cover the incidental costs in order to be successful.
  • Other ideas:
    -Provide a budget line item for each committee with latitude for the committee chairs to spend the money without being micro-managed
    -Insist that volunteers and leaders who do donate report those expenditures (and make it easy to do so!)

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

Taking a Stand on the Mountain Top

I am the keeper of the mountains.
Love them or leave them,
just don’t destroy them.
If you dare to be one too, call…
-Larry Gibson

This past week I visited Kayford Mountain in Raleigh County West Virginia with a group of students from Dalton State College and a group of Unitarian Universalist ministers from the Ohio Meadville District. The visit was part of a coal county pilgrimage organized by the Rev. Rose Edington and the Rev. Mel Hoover, co-ministers at the UU Church in Charleston, WV.

We were supposed to meet Larry Gibson, a well-known mountain top removal activist, but he died on September 9th of a heart attack, less than a month before our trip.   Instead,  Julian Martin and Wess Harris–both authors, historians and environmental activists–showed us around the mountain ridge where Larry’s family–the Stanley clan–have lived and been buried for over 200 years and shared the legacy that Larry’s leadership created.
Until 1986, the ridge was overshadowed by the surrounding tree-covered peaks of Kayford mountain.  Today, what used to be a low ridge is now the highest peak, and the views upward have been replaced by views downward toward bare dirt and earth-moving equipment. The Stanley family ridge is also being coveted for the coal that lies underneath and they have been offered large sums of money for it.  An aerial view of the mountain shows that the green ridge is surrounded by swaths of raw dirt.

Without money, Larry found other ways to preserve his family’s land. He couldn’t actually live on the mountain, because there is no drinkable water, but he built a cabin and encouraged other family members to do the same and to spend as much time as possible there.
He built a visitor’s center and arranged tours so that groups could visit and witness the destruction of the surrounding mountain peaks–one of the few places in Appalachia that can provide such a view without being in some sort of aircraft.


After the desecration of his family’s cemetery when nearby coal extraction intruded on his family’s land, he (and others) tried to get legislation passed to preserve family cemeteries…but to no avail.

Larry faced personal danger as he took his stand.  He received personal threats. His cabin is riddled with bullet holes.  Two of his dogs were killed.  The buildings on the family’s ridge were vandalized.  Supporters raised $10,000 to install a security system.

Like many activists in the spotlight, (Rosa Parks comes to mind) Larry allowed himself to be the public personality that served as the lightning rod for an issue–in this case mountain top removal.  But his death has revealed that there are a network of activists dedicated to continuing his work.

As we Unitarian Universalist leaders look for ways to lead change on social and environmental issues, we can learn some good lessons from Larry Gibson.