How would you tweet your mission?

Having a clearly articulated mission statement helps to guide a congregation’s leaders in deciding where to put their energy and resources.  But often such statements are put together by a committee and can be a bit….(I hate to say it)…wordy.

Last year I visited Western Michigan, where the rest of my family still lives. The area has strong Dutch Reformed roots.  Grand Rapids (where I grew up) is the home of Calvin College, several Bible colleges and a some well-regarded Christian book publishers. The Grand Rapids Press has a weekly religion section (not just a page) and there are three full pages of church advertisements vying for the attention of the unchurched.

Most of the churches who advertised articulated their mission—who they were in the context of the wider community—in a clear, short statement; one that could easily fit into the 140 character limit of a twitter message. The theology of the congregation wasn’t always apparent in the mission statement.  I thought it might be fun to look at the different mission statements removed from their denominational affiliation.

  1. A Multi-Ethnic Church
  2. Rooted in Truth, Reaching Out with Grace
  3. The Church on the Hill
  4. We Welcome and Celebrate Diversity
  5. 96 years in ministry
  6. A place where devotion and compassion meet
  7. Alive in the City – Embracing the World
  8. An Inclusive, Progressive Community of Faith
  9. Authentic Church for the Modern World
  10. Be aware. Be grateful. Be kind.
  11. Classic Worship, Liberating Theology
  12. Come and enjoy our traditional style worship services.
  13. Come Share the Spirit
  14. Cultivating Religious Freedom, Diversity, Inquiry, and Community
  15. Free the Mind…Grow the Soul…Change the World
  16. From 1849 to today.
  17. Join us in worship this weekend
  18. Seeking God, Following Christ, Serving Others
  19. Spiritual Growth, Fellowship, Support and Service Opportunities for All Ages
  20. Spiritual without being religious
  21. The Church with a Heart
  22. Your church home

What assumptions might you make about each faith community?

What is their mission—i.e. the work that God is calling them to do in the world?

Is it their mission one that calls to you as well?

May we find ways to articulate our own missions (whether on the church website’s homepage, a church Facebook® page or even in a newspaper ad) in a way that those who are not yet a part of our faith communities are inspired to join with us.

(For the curious, here are the denominational identities of the churches whose mission statements I shared above.)

  1. Assembly of God
  2. Christian Reformed
  3. Congregational
  4. Church of God in Christ
  5. Lutheran
  6. The Salvation Army
  7. United Methodist
  8. Trinity United Methodist
  9. Undenominational
  10. Interfaith
  11. Reformed Church in America
  12. Baptist
  13. Lutheran
  14. Unitarian Universalist
  15. Unaffiliated Liberal
  16. Congregational
  17. Undenominational, Bible-based
  18. United Methodist
  19. Presbyterian Church
  20. Unity
  21. Presbyterian
  22. Assembly of God

Tip: Justice GA Workshop “Quick Picks”

This year’s Justice General Assembly is not business as usual when it comes to workshops, which is apparent when you look at the program topical guide. But  there are still plenty of workshop options that will help you build on your foundation of leadership, especially in the areas of:

• multicultural sensibility
• contextual sensibility
• generational sensibility
• change skills
• communcation skills
• being mission-focused as a leader

We’ve created a list of GA workshop “quick picks” that have a secondary focus of leadership development:

Thursday, June 21

10:30 am – 11:45 am

#204 – Shift Happens  – Rm 224 B Join us for a story-based workshop examining our frameworks and turning points in our lives. We live our lives viewing the world through a certain lens or framework, we reach a critical moment, our perspective changes and shift happens.

#212 – Justice Ministries: Into the Heart of Your Congregation – Rm 124 Do the social action efforts in your congregation tend to be scattershot, depleting or marginal to congregational life? Participants will explore current realities in their congregations and consider the transformative power of engaging social justice as 1) congregationally-based 2) justice 3) ministry.

5:00 pm – 6:00 pm

 #246 – How to Build Meaning-Full Social Justice Ministry Teams – Rm 224 B It takes more than passion to save the world. Learn how to build sustainable, theologically grounded, strategically based Social Justice ministry teams that will engage your whole congregation. Explore a method for developing or focusing your concerns about immigration, ARAOM, peace, poverty, the environment and more.

#249 – Context Is Everything: Life in the Borderlands – Rm 226 Unitarian Universalists visualize a multicultural future, but many UU’s are living the vision today. Hear multicultural UU’s, beyond the black/white binary whose intersecting identities inform their journey in a dominant culture, as they navigate a society where race is socially constructed and borderlands shift accordingly.

Friday, June 21

9:00 am – 10:15 am

#317 Get A Grant From The UU Funding Program – Rm 232 C The UU Funding Program awards $1,000,000 in grants to UU projects that strengthen institutions and community life, increase UU involvement in social responsibility, and to non-UU groups organizing for social and economic justice. Come meet the people who give it all away and see if your project fits our guidelines.

10:30 am – 11:45 am

#321 – Energizing the Reluctant Activist – Rm 224 B Are you having a hard time figuring out how to balance personal responsibilities and limitations with the values that call you to activism? Want to get involved but don’t know how? This compassionate, informative and practical workshop will address issue-burnout and help you identify your path to making a difference.

#327 – Getting Unstuck: New Directions in Catalytic Leadership – Rm 226 Inflexible and linear models of leadership are ineffective for a world wherein multiple voices and multiple realities hope to co-exist.  Explore new understandings of the types of ministerial and lay leadership required to structure congregational life and facilitate culturally competent lay leadership.

#334 – Taking it Home: Youth in the Lead – Rm 221 Come learn practical and applicable skills for organizing around immigration and other justice issues in your youth group, congregation and wider community. We’ll explore ways youth can create change, from deciding what issues are pressing in your community to how to reach out and find allies.

3:15 pm – 4:30 pm

#344 – Crossing Political Borders, Breaking Down Barriers – Rm 125 How can we do viable social justice work if we don’t agree politically? A play on the unheard voices of UU conservatives and a multifaceted lecture will engage participants in an exploration of the political barriers as well as the opportunities for transformational justice work that exist in our congregations.

#349 – Getting Unstuck: New Directions in Cross-Cultural Partnerships – Rm 226 A celebration and exploration with congregations that are creating authentic, transformative cross-cultural ministries. We will explore both the joys and challenges that accompany living at the frontlines of our multi-racial, multicultural and theologically diverse world.

#354 – Engaging Young Adults in Social Justice Ministries – Rm 222 A Take the message of Justice GA home to your community. This workshop panel and discussion will highlight the young adults who are engaged in social justice work in their communities. Come learn about opportunities to get involved in existing justice projects and/or how to start a social justice ministry project in your community.

Saturday, June 22

9:00 am – 10:15 am

 #409 – Young Leaders Visioning for Justice! Planning for Action! – Rm 121 Youth and young adults will envision a future together and work separately to create action plans for moving forward. An interactive, participatory, and fun workshop where young leaders will find their voices and the power to create their own future within their congregations, schools, and communities.

#412 – Understanding & Developing Multicultural Competencies in Congregations – Rm 222 BC Learn how identity work is essential for building our capacities to create a fair and just world! Through panel presentation, resources and experiential learning, participants will engage with six identities— class, ethnicity/languages other than English, race, gender identities, abilities, affectional orientation.

#417 – Organizing 101: Recruitment & Leadership Development – Rm 125 In this interactive workshop, we’ll focus on why people must be central in justice work and learn a framework for assessing who’s in your activist crew to help you do effective and spiritually grounded recruitment and leadership development, two key and often-neglected pieces of our justice work in congregations.

#418 – Partnering Congregations and Community Organizations – Rm 231 How do I connect my congregation with community groups leading campaigns for justice? What are the steps to building meaningful relationships between congregants and partner groups for successful actions and for building community? Hear from UU ministers, social justice leaders, and community activists about what works and what hasn’t.

10:45 am –  12:00 pm

#423 – Building Cultural Competence in Congregations – Rm 229 For many, “cultural competency” is a theory or a hope. In this workshop, clergy from three congregations share examples of the steps members took toward establishing multicultural ministries. Lessons learned, challenges met, and the resulting surprises and rewards as their congregations continue to grow and deepen in cultural competence and spirit.

#425 – Organizing Campaigns: Power Analysis and Successful Building Blocks – Rm 122 Don’t know where to start? Learn from National Day Laborer Organizing Network the fundamentals of putting together a campaign that builds a group, wins demands, and improves conditions for the members of your community.

#427 – The Road From Misappropriation to Cross Cultural Engagement – Rm 222 BC Engagement formed in response to oppression experienced in worship at GA 2007. The group committed to create conversation space that could hold multiple truths, witness pain and focus on deepening relationships across cultures and organizations. The story continues. We each hold a part. Join us.

#429 – Collaboration and Accountability for Racial Justice Empowerment – Rm 125 This workshop will share the story of how institutional sponsorship and collaboration in the planning and organizing of a standalone, multi- generational People of Color gathering in the Southeastern District served as a tool for community building, empowerment, racial justice and reconciliation surrounding the district name change process (from Thomas Jefferson to Southeastern District).

#430 – Storytelling, Mobilization, and Social Media – Rm 232 AB Stories are a powerful tool for social change. Use online communication to tell your story, build relationships with partner organizations, and win legislative and consumer-advocacy victories. Panelists include speakers from Standing on the Side of Love, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the statewide networks.

Leadership Development – “It’s Complicated”

“Get Religion. Grow Leaders. Cross Borders.” This has been the theme of our president Peter Morales since last year’s General Assembly.  As the only UUA staff member who has leadership development as a full time portfolio, I’ve taken seriously the second item. For such a simple sentence, “Grow Leaders” is a complicated proposition.

How might we develop a common understanding about how to develop the needed skills and sensibilities for lay leaders, without creating a new credentialing program? Credentialing offers a certain appeal to those who value standards and consistency, but such programs can be inflexible, burdensome and expensive.

Having recently gone through the preliminary ministerial fellowshipping process, I felt a certain attraction to the idea of competencies.  However, in conversations with seasoned lay leaders, the word has an implication of mastery that would be hard to measure.  Instead, we’ve identified and are in the process of describing and refining 12 areas that should provide a solid, faithful foundation for leadership development, which is found under one of the tabs at the top of this blog.

I’ve already been using this list to design workshops, webinars and other programming. It is my dream that existing and aspiring leaders would use these building blocks to design their own learning/serving plan and that congregations would help their leaders to do so.

This is a model of leadership development that is used by evangelical church planters, because it is designed to equip and send leaders in a way that enables them to respond creatively to different contexts. The ideas are well-articulated in the book The Starfish and the Spider by Pri Brafman.  I talk about using these ideas briefly in this workshop excerpt:

What I love about the starfish model is its potential faithfulness to the ethos Unitarian Universalism.  We are the Living Tradition. We believe that when we come together in covenantal and accountable community, our expressions and acts of faith can be creative and life-affirming.


Kicking the “Blue Pill” Habit

“Unitarian Universalists sometimes revere the past, debate the present, and ignore the future.”   At a recent regional gathering, Metro NY District president Ted Fetter shared this statement, but then talked about his optimism about the possibilities that our faith offers for the future.  I’ve asked Ted to share these thoughts as today’s guest blogger as part of our red pill/blue pill series.


By guest blogger, Ted Fetter, President of the Metropolitan New York District

(Note: This is an excerpt from a talk Ted gave at the Central Nassau Congregation in Garden City, NY in April 0f 2012.  It’s a little long, but I couldn’t bear to edit it.)

The future of Unitarian Universalism is not assured.  There are issues and concerns, but there are also great possibilities.  I’m on the side of optimism.  I am confident we can succeed, seize our opportunities for growth, be able to get our message out to all kinds of people and make them glad they found Unitarian Universalism.

Let me first share some sobering trends.

In the way we traditionally count our numbers, we’re a shrinking faith.  Not by a lot, but we’re not growing.  As many of you know, each congregation reports their membership number and other data to the UUA each year, and for several years in a row we’ve been declining in membership.

You know, as UUs we are mired in tradition.  Now, many of us, myself included, love a lot of that tradition.  Our humanist heritage, our passion for justice, our openness to diverse religious paths, our embrace of multiculturalism, our work to overcome the blights of racism and sexism and homophobia  — all these are the very things that bring so many of us to the faith.  We dream about a time that we’ll come together in one strong vibrant religious community as one, rejoicing in our diversity and learning from each other.

But there’s another side of tradition, too.  We often like things as they are.  We can be insular and isolated.  In fact, I think sometimes we revere the past, debate the present, and ignore the future.  We revere the past, and celebrate our heroes who did great things for religious freedom and for historic causes like civil rights.  We debate the present, and you may have your own list, whether it’s children in the worship service or maintaining our physical plant or funding outreach programs.  And we ignore the future, by just not thinking much about the demographic changes in our congregations and wider communities, not asking much about the needs of our youth and young adults, and not doing much in leadership development in our own congregations.  I think those things are part of our tradition, too, and they worry me.

Okay, that’s enough about our problems, because I believe our potential outweighs our problems by a lot.  What are some of these great opportunities?

A major report came out about three years ago called “Faith Formation 2020.”  Maybe you already know it.  The report cited eight major trends or driving forces affecting America’s religious outlook over this decade.  At least five of those driving forces, it seems to me, actually support the potential for vigorous growth in Unitarian Universalsim as distinct both from traditional denominations and from the evangelical churches.  Here they are:

  • Fewer persons identify as Christians, and there’s a marked increase in persons who report no religious affiliation.  Between 1990 and 2009, the number of Americans reporting no religious affiliation doubled.  And for those between 18 and 29 years of age, that percentage is 25%.
  • More people described themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Again, the survey responses grew by 50% just between 1998 and 2008 to 14%, especially among young adults.  A direct quote from the report is “Individuals mix their own spiritual potpourri.”  Does that sound like us, or what?
  • The report cited increasing diversity and pluralism in the country, giving rise to a lessened sense of “truth” in any particular denomination or dogma.  Sound right?
  • They worry about an increasing influence of individualism in American culture, a feeling that no one should tell the individual just what they should believe.  Now let me ask you, who’s more individualistic than UUs?
  • And finally the report notes the changing patterns of marriage and family life, with later marriages, fewer children, and more religiously-mixed marriages.  They don’t even consider issues of marriage equality!

My point is that if these are the major forces affecting religion in America right now, we should capitalize on them!  The ball is in our court!  We ought to be able to attract thousands of these folks — the religiously unaffiliated, those who have spiritual feelings but don’t want to be part of a traditional denomination, those who reject a simple truth from any one source, and so on.  We want the individual thinkers!  We want people to “mix their own spiritual potpourri!”

Beyond the Faith Formation 2020 findings, other trends are positive for us.  More recent surveys show that people think religious teachings are getting too political, priests and ministers are directing their congregants on how to think in political campaigns.  This trend is especially important when some church leaders are reopening policies that most of us thought were decided decades ago — women’s rights, access to birth control, reasonable immigration policies, health care rights, to name a few.  I’m very sure that thousands and thousands of churchgoers are rejecting the pressures of these clergy to vote the right way.  People want a religion that will respect their political and social views, and let them decide these things for themselves.

Another big observation for me is the very clear trend among younger Americans.  People under 35 or so are so much more open and tolerant on issues that we UUs care about — LGBT rights, marriage equality, environmental sustainability, and so on.  The people who are coming into their prime right now are much less fearful of “the other,” the person not like themselves, and they are much more willing to support their demand for full participation in American life.  These younger persons, when they search for a religious home for themselves or their families, will be more likely to want to find a faith like ours, one that respects everyone.

A related point is that I’m convinced Unitarian Universalism has staked our claim, made our presence known, in the key human rights and social justice issues of this generation.  I’m thinking specifically of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, the clear priority of fair and compassionate immigration reform, and the all-important emphasis on building sustainability into our use of the Earth’s resources.  There are lots of other issues, of course, and all of them are crucially important.  And UUs are involved in them.  We can name some of them just to make sure they’re not forgotten — antiracism, economic justice,  education, peace.  UUs are present for these, but so are many other faiths, many coalitions.  My point in SSL, immigration, and Green Sanctuary is to say that here our faith is known, we’ve made these campaigns especially our own, and I believe that these are three of the crucial issues of our time.

Finally, I believe we’re on the right track in faith development and spirituality.  Now I can’t claim any special expertise here, but it seems to me that in an era of growing religious pluralism, of people wanting to find answers to their deep questions and find support in their own spiritual journeys, our faith is ready to respond.  We offer them a free faith, an opportunity to explore, to share ideas and test out beliefs.   We do this more easily and more naturally than any other faith I know.  And, we teach their children to explore for themselves as well.

So, if these are some trends that look hopeful and promising for UUs, how can we capitalize on them?  What should we be doing to brighten the future of Unitarian Universalism?

First, we need to look seriously at updating our worship style and our music.

The future is with the young.  We need to find ways to bring them into our worship community.  A few congregations are experimenting, becoming more interactive, with participation well beyond just the responsive reading.  A few are using video technology to make the service crisper and more open.  And a lot are moving into a wider range of music, with more rhythm, more participation.  Even when I think I might not want all of that, at least not all the time, I should join in and spread my own wings.  So should we all.

We need to focus on social justice and outreach works that attracts followers to our programs.

As I said, I think the Standing on the Side of Love campaign and others are right for our time.  We need to be fully engaged in them, showing our commitment to greater justice for every person.  But we need to be careful about how we advocate.  Just as I’m convinced the Catholics and evangelicals are losing adherents by making their message too political, we can’t go the other way and make our message of liberal religion too political either.  We should firmly root our advocacy in clear moral principles so it’s easy to see how we got to our positions.  And we should refrain from directing anyone else to see that one solution is the best one or the only moral one.  In our tradition of an open faith we need to make room for those who come to other conclusions.

We need to make much greater use of social media.

That’s how the younger folks communicate, how they find themselves in groups.  Virtual communities are full communities, and we need to learn about them and find ways to offer UU virtual communities in Facebook and twitter and so many different vehicles.

We need to redesign much of how we operate.

For example, the role of districts in our governance and service delivery is changing.  The districts are combining for many services into regions, which allow specialists with greater expertise to serve our congregations.  And in governance there is more and more a sense that the whole Association needs to get on the same path, with a smaller middle piece making policy decisions.

We need to develop an intentional and focused statement on faith development.

As a whole Association we should agree on how to foster adult RE programs and how to respond to the needs of young adults for their spiritual support.  Individually we can be focused as well.  To me the idea of an “elevator speech,” a quick summary of our own beliefs and approaches to life’s big questions is excellent.  Each of us should practice an elevator speech so we can share our own faith — the most vital parts of it to us, knowing they might change — with our friends and co-workers.

We need to get beyond our congregations, beyond the bricks and mortar of our buildings.

There are about 160,000 UUs who are members in our congregations right now.  But there are about 600,000 persons who identify as UUs, who call themselves religiously-affiliated and see themselves as UUs.  Who are they?  Where are they?  Why aren’t they part of our congregations?  Could it be that we are recognizing only about a quarter of our fellow UUs?

We’ve tried lots of ways to get those wanderers into our congregations, and not much seems to work.  We should keep trying, I’m sure.  After all, the congregations are at the center of how we come together, how we identify ourselves.  But maybe in addition to urging them to come to us on Sunday mornings, we need to think of ways to partner with them, to bring them into a wider grouping, where they can find community — in campus groups or in virtual communities or in partnerships that work in the wider community.  I don’t know what the potential is here, but I’m sure we should be open to ways to attract these hundreds of thousands of our fellow UUs.

Friends, we have a saving faith.  We offer a message of openness and welcome, of giving and forgiving.  We are compassionate and inquisitive and caring.  We don’t necessarily offer eternal salvation, but we do offer joy and redemption right now, a sense of worth and dignity, of service and calling, of mutual support and comfort.  We have a life-affirming, positive message that everyone should get to hear.  One of my favorite quips comes from Gini Courter, the Moderator of the UUA.  I’ve heard Gini say that we as Unitarian Universalists aren’t sure about life after death, but we are sure about life before death.  In other words, we want every single person to live their lives fully, with all the potential and all the joy and all the love they can bring.  It’s this eternal message, a message about life that we offer.  How can we not share it, now and in the future?

Ted Fetter is the president of the board of the Metropolitan New York District.  He has led the national District Presidents Association and chaired the UUA Moderator nominating committee.   Ted earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1974 followed by a 34-year career in judicial administration. He is a member of the UU Congregation of Princeton, NJ.

A “Red Pill” Response – Walking Away

How many of our congregations offer programming that isn’t working, or has only a very small group of the “usual suspects” participating?  In a recent article in The Christian Century, LeeAnne Watkins.  Titled This Just Isn’t Working: When PeopleDon’t Show Up,  the article describes how her congregation has tried different ways of offering programming:

Over the years I’ve found myself seduced by whatever the latest idea is for getting people to flock to church. And every single time I’ve been disappointed. What’s more, in the last few years I’ve developed some inner snarkiness toward the people who don’t show up, even though I otherwise adore them. I worry that I inadvertently pass this resentment along to them. Great—as if what people really need is more shame about the status of their spiritual lives.

Finally, she realized that–instead of resenting the people she was serving–she needed to be honest with herself about the changing context of congregational life.  As much as she was attached to what her vision of programming should look like, the reality was that–in her church community–mid-week activities had gone the way of the dinosaur. In an earlier post I talked about how leaders need to pay attention to their mental models, and this is a great example.

Identifying and engaging with our mental models is only half of the challenge.  The other half is responding.

These challenges are adaptive challenges, that is, they are challenges that don’t have technical fixes.  (Ronad Heifetz explains the difference in the video below.) One part of an adaptive strategy is designing low-risk, high-learning experiments. If people aren’t showing up in the building during the week, perhaps they might be interested in a webinar format where they can participate from home.  Maybe they would like to have a discussion in a closed Facebook group.  Try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.  And even when something does work, be prepared for the reality that it may stop working in a few years.

Note: Tandi Rogers talks about why the UUA “walked away” from the Breakthrough Congregation program in this blog post.

Hacking into Congregational Leadership

I’ve seen a disconnect between generations in our congregations when it comes to leadership.  Baby Boomers, who populate the majority of our leadership positions, ask me how they can recruit more younger people for their volunteer positions.  Younger Generation Xers and Millennials have a lot of energy and ideas, but often feel marginalized or even invisible because the existing leadership aren’t ready to really perceive them as leaders or even to take their ideas seriously.

This experience is not unusual, and not limited to young adults.  People whose culture or economic status are not in alignment with the congregational norms also experience this kind of marginalization.

I recently attended a workshop with other UUA field staff members:  The Vision and Practice of 21st Century Faith Formation.    (We are learning to adapt and use technology to curate and share programming and to create learning communities.)  Supporting our younger adults as they try to participate in congregational leadership is a concern that we all share.  As we were ideating (similar to brainstorming), Ian Evison mentioned the book Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results written for young adults’ work lives.  We had an aha moment…that is what they are also experiencing in our congregations!  We create firewalls but don’t offer passwords…thus the need for potential leaders to “hack” their way into leadership.

You may not think of our congregations as having “stupid rules” but we often do have some institutional systemic issues that resist anything innovative.  Most institutions gravitate toward hierarchical, command-and-control structures that serve to perpetuate the institution.  The younger generations are more interested in serving something greater than the congregation itself:

It’s not that our young adults don’t want to serve, rather they want to serve in a way that they find meaningful and that makes a difference in the world.  If we can shift our congregations from command-and-control institutions to institutions with a clear mission of serving needs beyond the church walls, we can be more permission-giving and create openings in our faith communities that engage the gifts and passions of those under 40 so they don’t need to hack their way in.

It’s All About You – Mental Models, Part 2

As  leader, it is all about you, just not in the way we usually use that phrase.

As leaders we must always be finding ways to improve our own understanding of what is going on around us and how our personal functioning–good or bad–is contributes to the situation.  As I mentioned in a previous post on mental models, we need to be aware of our own biases, limitations and assumptions.  We could be stuck in a way of thinking that is keeping the congregation from going forward.  We could be responding to a symptom rather than a deeper root cause.

The best way–and I would argue the only way–of testing our own mental models is to truly hold our ideas accountable to critique by others.  A key part of the scientific method is peer review, a method used in academia to maintain standards, improve performance and provide credibility.

Our congregational polity has this same ethos.  Our forebears believed that the will of God, (those of us who operate out of a process theology might call this the persuasive direction of the Holy Spirit) was best determined by a community of people of good will and forbearance, bound by covenant to each other and to God.

Faithful leadership becomes a covenantal relationship when congreational leaders become–as Peter Senge states in his book The Fifth Discipline–fearless in their openness.  Senge quotes former Harley Davidson CEO Rich Teerlink:

You have to believe in your heart that people want to pursue a vision that matters, that they want to contribute and be responsible for the results, and that they are willing to look at shortfalls in their own behavior and correct problems whenever they are able.  These beliefs are not easy for control-oriented managers, and that is why there remains a big gap between the “talk” and the “walk” regarding developing people.  (pp. 262-3)

Our theology and p0lity were founded in resistance to the corruption inherent in hierarchical structures that include bishops and presbyteries that one might describe as “control-oriented managers.”  To be faithful leaders in the congregational tradition, we must create and nurture communities that have a clear mission and that encourage their members to hold themselves and each other accountable to that mission…and to do so in love.

Still, it takes much courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, but the results can be transformative.


The Red Pill – Mental Models, Part 1

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.

It’s How You Respond That Matters….

In my birthplace of Western Michigan, there was a kerfuffle involving a senior class group action.  A large group of graduating seniors of the semi-rural community of Kenowa Hills decided to ride their bikes to school and were immediately suspended by the principal.  As an avid bike-rider, I was immediately outraged, as were many others across the country as the story spread.

The next day, without the same publicity, the principal apologized, realizing that she overreacted.  She visualized her students riding on roads that she perceived were dangerous, without fully processing the information that they had a police escort and other safety precautions.

Leaders often make decisions when they are triggered by flight-or-fight situations that activate the amygdala…what I tend to call the “lizard brain.”  This is human nature.  We are blessed with brains that have higher reasoning functions, but in times of anxiety, these are trumped by our lower mammalian and reptilian functions.  It sounded like the principal’s initial reaction was out of a visceral fear for the students’s safety that triggered her fear reactions.  The local TV station quoted her saying: “If you and your parents don’t have sense enough to know your brains could end up splattered on Three Mile and …Fruit Ridge (roads), then maybe that’s my responsibility.”  Her initial gut reaction should not be a cause of shame or irredeemable consequences.

When I was an engineer working in industry, we had a saying… “We all make mistakes… it’s how you respond that matters.”  Good leadership formation involves developing a sense of humility so that we can gracefully learn from our mistakes.  I use the religious language purposefully — grace can manifest as undeserved forgiveness.  As leaders, we should strive to embody the lovely litany of atonement by the Rev. Rob Eller-Issacs:

We forgive ourselves and each other;
we begin again in love.

#637 – Singing the Living Tradition 


Leadership Development 2.0

What is the future of Unitarian Universalist congregations?   Are we slowly declining, as  hinted at in today’s article UUA membership and attendance declined in 2011 in the UU World? Or are we at the cusp of societal changes where we can be A Religion for Our Time?

I believe that Unitarian Universalism offers a way of being in the world that the world yearns for.  We offer the love of the Universalists, the critical thinking of the Unitarians, both grounded in the covenantal faithfulness of our Congregational Polity.

I also believe that there are millions of people who have gifts and passions, and a desire to serve something greater than their own needs and we could be their spiritual home. 

It is in this context that we at the UUA offer this new blog on leadership development.

In the illustration on the right, there are two groupings of successful and popular “brands” but why they are successful is quite different.

The brands on the left depend on user-generated content (often referred to as Web 2.0), where the brands on the right are content delivered to the user.  I go into more depth in this presentation (about 5-1/2 minutes in).

I believe that our congregations will flourish if we adopt a similar ethos of “user-generated” content, that is, if we find a way to help our members find ways to serve that tap their creativity, their passion and their deepest held values.  This is not your parent’s nominating committee–this is Leadership Development 2.0.