What’s Your Q?

Your congregation’s annual stewardship campaign has gotten a little flat.  This year, the board wants to add a part-time membership coordinator to your paid staff, which will require a significant increase in pledges.  You’ve been asked to recruit members to serve on a re-formed stewardship team. What qualities should you look for in potential team members?

Assembling an effective committee or team can be difficult, especially when dealing with an adaptive challenge like stewardship (or growth, or faith formation or ……).

Ronald Heifetz, in his model of Adaptive Leadership, tells us that we need the energy, expertise and creativity of a group of people affected by the challenge to tease out adaptive solutions. Such a group needs to be empowered to imagine possible approaches and test them in low-risk/high-learning experiments.

You want a team that is experienced, but you don’t want a team that is too set in its ways to be responsive to new situations or to try new approaches.  You want people who will work well together, but you don’t want them to be insular.

Groups working well together can perform better than the sum of their individual performances. Researchers have shown that good, balanced teams tend to be the most innovative.  In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer notes that the best journal articles (“home run” papers that have been cited at least 1000 times) are six times more likely to come from a team of scientists than from one or two.

Lehrer also shares another study by Northwestern Sociologist Brian Uzzi, who, along with studying the creativity of academics, looked at another population: those involved with the production of Broadway musicals.  He was able to access a century’s worth of data, cross referencing who worked on what musical, and how successful it was.

Uzzi developed a metric that paid attention to how connected the individual team members were to one another, i.e. how often and how closely they had worked together in the  past.  He measured the social intimacy of each musical’s cast and crew, and assigned  a numerical designation that he called Q.  A team that had worked together many times before would have a high Q, a team of strangers would have a low Q.

He found that when the Q was too low the team members struggled to work together, and weren’t able to develop the trust to freely exchange ideas.  If the Q was too high, the team tended to stagnate and innovation was next to impossible.  Star power of individuals with successful track records was compromised when they worked over and over again with the same people.

The best musicals were produced by teams that had a mix of established relationships and new blood.  This ideal Q had enough trust and structure to smooth interactions, but also some productive discomfort that enabled the group to allow some innovation.

Taking this idea back to our recruiting process, we would want to assemble a team with the ideal Q.  We want part of the team to have experience working with one another (perhaps on a different committee or project), some folks who have experience or knowledge around stewardship but also some folks who have different views and life experiences that can help the team approach their challenges with a fresh perspective.

Something Epic…

As I watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, I could see the effort that the city of London was exerting to make the event “epic.”  The pomp, the traditional elements and the pageantry all were designed to give this Olympics the feel of both timeliness and timelessness.

There seems to be a yearning in us humans for epic-scale stories, from the ancient Greeks (and earlier) to modern tales like the Lord of the Rings or the Hunger Games. I think part of the appeal of modern video games is being able to participate in epic-scale quests or battles.  These stories have the ability to weave the smallest of actions into a larger tapestry of meaning.

When we field staff folks work with congregations on creating mission statements, we help them to discern their transcendent shared values, then use those values to inform their mission work.  A good mission–articulated gracefully and served faithfully–can help the members of your congregation feel like they are part of something epic.





All the world’s a game….

and we are just players…

This paraphrase of the line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It comes to mind as I am reading Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

She points out the fact that people will voluntarily spend hours and hours overcoming arbitrary obstacles to achieve unnecessary goals, whether it be knocking a golf ball around, playing World of Warcraft or coming up with a perfectly spiced Palak Paneer.  What do games have that real life doesn’t have?

She mentions several qualities, but one stands out for me.  Games offer a feedback system that is intrinsically enjoyable and helps to focus our energy on our goal.  How close to par was that last hole?  How many dexterity points does your avatar have?  Was that version as tasty as the one at the Bombay Café or did it need more Fenugreek?

I’m probably predisposed to her message–not because I’m a gamer–but because I’m someone who looks for those kinds of feedback loops and finds them rewarding.

I’m also reading the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.  In it he describes how our brains release dopamine as an internal reward mechanism, but that our brains also release the pleasurable chemical in anticipation of a pleasurable experience.  I’m guessing that the reward system in a good game elicits the same process.

I remember being in 4th grade where our teacher created a bookworm game to encourage us to read.  We each had a construction paper bookworm head with our name on it.  With every book we read that year, we could add a segment to our worm. It was fun watching our worms grow throughout the year.

I am imagining a leadership development program with some sort of feedback system where participants have a visceral expression of their work and accomplishments.  Many professions look to Continuing Education programs that offer nice paper “certificates of completion,” but I’m imagining something with a little more flexibility.  I’m intrigued by the Open Badge system from Mozilla.

I’d love to hear what kinds of feedback loops you might find rewarding….

The Free *and* Responsible UU

I spent last week at the Ohio Meadville District’s Summer Institute, a lovely multi-generational camp held at Kenyon College.  Unitarian Universalists from the all over the district (and beyond) spend a week there in intentional community.  We have historically given our children and youth a lot of latitude and freedom at this event, but recently the volunteer planning committees tightened up some of the rules and policies to align with recommended Safe Congregations practices.

The rule changes surfaced the perennial tension UUs have in the balance between freedom and responsibility.  Freedom tends to gets the most press and elicits the most passion, especially since the tumultuous 1960’s.  Authority is treated with suspicion, and sometimes with outright contempt.  Responsibility can be a spoilsport, a bummer–as outdated and curious as buggy whips and button hooks.

Rumors flew that the new rules were imposed by “those in authority.”  The youth articulated their desire for “more freedom” in the Youth Vespers they presented to the community. Their theme emphasized that the adults should let them make their own choices and learn from their mistakes.  The topic heated up and petitions started to circulate.

After that Youth Vespers, as I was heading back to my room, I saw a older grade-school-age child climbing on a 15 foot tall sculpture.  I went over, saying to him “Hi!  I’m the grumpy adult that is letting you know that it is both against the rules and dangerous to be up there.”  He politely descended.  At that point a younger child–maybe 7 or 8–rode up on her bicycle and asked, “Were you at Youth Vespers?”  “Yes, I was!” I replied.  She then said, “Didn’t you get the message that you adults need to back off?”

When I told this story to my college-age son, he replied, “It sounds like they should be heading for the Island of the Lord of the Flies.”  I laughed, but because his statement hit a little too close to home.  When our congregations lose their way, when covenant and mission are displaced by factionalism and inertia, we repel the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd that we should be attracting.

This story at the OMD Summer Institute had a happy ending.  Skilled leaders arranged for an open discourse for all of the youth about the new rules and how they were developed.  The reasoning of the youth planning committee was shared, understood and affirmed.  Those involved trusted the process and the process worked.

My experience reminded me of the importance of articulating what makes any particular community Unitarian Universalist.  I believe we need to intentionally yoke the values of responsibility and freedom as interdependent equals.

I was also reminded that making time and space for good process is essential even when it might seem redundant and inconvenient.

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.

Leadership “Cairns” for Next Generation

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.

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!).

To Be “Bona Fide”

There has been a lot of press lately about Generation Y—often referred to as the Millennials—since they started to come of age around the year 2000. It’s a generation that doesn’t fit the old stereotype of rebellious youth that began with the Baby Boomers; articulated in the movie Rebel without a Cause, or by slogans like “don’t trust anyone over 30.”   The early Generation Xers rebelled against the idealism of the Boomers (my favorite example being a line from a Sex Pistol’s song: “never trust a hippie”).

In his book American Grace, sociologist Robert Putman points out that the Millennials are less likely to have been raised in a particular religion than any previous generation, and they are even less likely to believe that any one religion holds exclusive access to the Truth.  Religious affiliation has been has been dropping off since the mid-1960s, due to religious intermarriage—which tends to negate exclusive truth claims—and cultural shifts on social issues—which make church dogma appear quaint and irrelevant.

As someone who has one foot in the Boomer generation and another in Generation X, I’ve been watching my children’s generation with astonishment. Although they are the first generation that will probably have a lower standard of living than their parents, they are not nihilistic. Instead, I see a combination of cynicism and conservatism.  They are cynical because they have been immersed in a culture of hyper-consumerism that is more promise than substance.  In other words, traditional advertising doesn’t work on them. They are conservative in that they are less willing to jump into debt or marriage unless they feel confident about the reasons for doing so.  They yearn for authenticity and have little patience for hypocrisy…i.e. when someone says one thing and does another. They certainly don’t want to affiliate with a religion that will embarrass them. They are also firmly post-modern: they don’t buy into the grand, triumphal stories that only serve to reinforce existing power structures.

I find it interesting that bona fide, the Latin phrase for genuine, is directly related to bona fides, the Latin phrase for good faith.  A good faith is a genuine faith. It’s saying who we are, and then being who we are.

Other religions are experiencing this same shift with their younger adults.  A recent book by David Kinnaman called You Lost Me explores some of the reasons.  (There is a short video on the Amazon page.)

I believe this is good news for Unitarian Universalism. The promise of our faith is the promise of a living tradition, not the dry bones of old, irrelevant texts.  The promise of our faith is the promise of personal wholeness; from our identity-based ministries to our anti-racism, anti-oppression and multi-cultural work. And the promise of our faith is the promise of being connected to something greater than ourselves—whether we call it the universe, the Spirit of Life or the interconnected web of all existence.  The best gift we can give each generation is to embody that promise, to invite each new generation to join us, to nurture them as they become a part of our communities and grow in their own faith and commitment, and—most importantly—to step back and allow them to transform our living tradition as generations before have done.

May our good faith be this kind of genuine faith, where the way we act in the world reflects our highest aspirations.

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:

Shadows and Light

Japanese Garden in Jackson Park (Chicago, IL)

One of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs begins:

Every picture has its shadows And it has some source of light
Blindness, blindness and sight…

When I talk about leadership qualities, I find that many of the qualities can be either strengths or weaknesses—or somewhere on a continuum between the two—depending both on the intensity of the personality and the dynamics of the situation. Here are a few examples:

Self Confident…………..Arrogant Good leaders need to be clear in their mission and their direction, but they also have to be open to other possibilities.

Knowledgeable about the Organization…………..Micro-Managing Good leaders have a good “birds-eye” view of the organization and how it operates and where it is headed, but they also need to empower others to use their own creativity to work out the details.

Responsible…………..Over Functioning Good leaders don’t just take all the responsibility upon themselves; they empower other leaders so that everyone can be a part of making the mission a reality.

Mentoring…………..Bossing Good leaders don’t teach others how to be carbon copies of themselves, they help other emerging leaders find their own leadership style and to work with their own strengths and weaknesses.

It is important that we learn how to not be blind to the shadow sides of our leadership qualities, and to find our own source of inner light so that we can transform our weak spots into new strengths.