The Dance of Shared Ministry

I’m sharing my “charge to the congregation” for the installation of Rev. Meredith Garmon at the Community Unitarian Church of White Plains, NY on  November 10, 2013.

You begin with your body leaning slightly forward.  It’s an intentional way to move in the world, really, with your body’s center of gravity taking the lead, and the rest of your body poised to follow.  Your steps are deliberate and measured. You stay in tune with your partner so that when it is time to move in a different direction, you will be able to move together.

The dance of shared ministry invites both of you to pay with the edgeshoess of your comfort zones.   The leader steps forward, paying attention and responding to both potential obstacles and opportunities. The follower’s corresponding steps are dependent on trust in the leader.

The leader attends to the body language of the follower so that the follower feels guided and not pushed. The follower learns to live into the discomfort of not seeing the path as clearly as the leader.   This dance requires both partners to communicate clearly.   But in spite of even the best communication, the dancers will have missteps, …entanglements, …unintended pauses.

Some of the steps may be familiar, even habitual, but other steps might feel awkward at first.  But when you are able to step into the flow of give and take, of awareness and adjustment, the dance of ministry becomes fluid and organic.

The embodied experience that I describe is taken from my experience of learning how to tango.

Being in covenant together is a lot like a dance.  There is give and take.  Occasionally you step on someone else’s feet or they step on yours.  As my charge to the congregation, I’d like to share some Dance Floor Etiquette that might guide you in this new shared ministry.

1.    Always try to enter the floor from an area that will not interrupt the flow of the other dancers already on the floor.

The ministry of a congregation is organic, holistic.  As you make space for new programs and ministries, make sure they fit the mission and vision of your congregation.

2.    Always move counter clockwise around the dance floor.

The most effective congregations have all of their leaders leading toward the same vision.  You need to make sure you don’t have a leader or ministry that is not in alignment with your goals.

3.    No parking on the dance floor.

If you there is a ministry that you are not excited about but there is energy and flow among others, please move off the dance floor and learn to enjoy watching others flourish even when it’s not your passion.

4.    Stay in your lane.

Set up clear expectations and understandings about the roles of minister, board, staff and other leaders.  Even with shared ministry, you need clarity about who is ultimately responsible for the different areas of your congregation.

5.    Do not lift your elbows.

On the dance floor, having your elbows up is an aggressive way to claim your space.  You want to have good boundaries between ministries outlined with covenants, bylaws and some key policies.  Poor boundaries can function as institutional landmines.

6. Do not stop dancing if you make a mistake.

In the movie Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino reassures his dance partner before they step out on the dance floor – “There are no mistakes in tango. Not like life. If you get all tangled up you just tango on.” The same is true of your covenant with your new minister.  If you get all tangled up, you just forgive yourselves and one another and begin again in love.

-Rev. Renée Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG

Show and “Tells”

tell“Your actions are speaking so loudly, I can hardly hear what you are saying.”  This is a quote from a webinar on the presence of leaders that I took recently.

A leader’s presence reflects their underlying values — it’s how they wear their values.  A leader with integrity embodies the values that they articulate.  We often have inner narratives that help us make sense of and respond to the world around us.  If we believe one thing on the inside and say another thing on the outside, our actions often provide “tells” that point to the discrepancy.

These “tells” may be obvious actions like habitually showing up late for or mentally “checking out” during meetings for a committee we don’t really want to be on.  But they may also be micro-actions that are more subtle, like body language or facial expressions.

Sometime we aren’t even aware of our inner narrative, let alone how that narrative might be showing up in our actions.

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, leadership guru Patrick Lencioni describes a phenomenon called the Fundamental Attribution Error:


We human beings tend to falsely attribute the negative behavior of others to their character, while we attribute our own negative behaviors to our environment.  In other words, we like to believe that we do bad things because of the situations we are in, but somehow we assume that others do bad things because they are predisposed to being bad.

In the same way, we often attribute other people’s success to their environment and our own success to our character.  That’s because we like to believe that we are inherently good and talented, while others are merely luck, beneficiaries of good fortune.

In other words,  if I am late for a meeting, I might blame it on needing to finish helping the kids with homework or that there was an accident causing a traffic back-up.

However, the first time someone else is late for a meeting, I may create an inner narrative explaining their behavior.  I might make the assumption that they are undependable or don’t care. I may make assumptions about lateness related to the person’s culture or identity or mental health.

And if this is happening internally, you can be pretty sure that there is something in my actions, especially my micro-actions, that will reveal a “tell” about this internal narrative.  And if you participate in “complaint-fests” with other leaders, you can be pretty sure that the folks you are “complaining” about will pick up on that vibe.  (Habitual tardiness, on the other hand, should be reason for a direct conversation with the person about commitment and whether this particular service is a good fit.)

A good guiding rule to is to remember that an important part of being a faithful, self-differentiated leader is to resist diagnosing or pre-judging others.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Consultant

Could the “Nones” Become Unitarian Universalists? Part 3

Part 2 is available here.

So the leaders of the UUA have identified the “nones” as a possible growth area for UU congregations.  Now what? What is the UUA doing to reach out to the “nones?”

The first thing to realize is that this is an emerging challenge that doesn’t have any ready solutions, and all religious denominations are in the same boat.  The population of the “nones” has a lot of variety (from new-age spiritual to atheist) so no one answer could be the answer.  There is no “program” that will “fix” this challenge.

We do know that congregations need to re-think aspects of how they “do church.”  We do have some bits and pieces of information from current studies.  In other words, this is a classic adaptive challenge where we need to function as a learning community, with high-learning, low-risk experiments.

That’s why the Congregations and Beyond initiative may be disappointing, maybe even confusing.  We are expecting a program.  We are hoping for a program. Instead we have a framework and tools that are helping us to creatively address the challenge with innovation and cross-pollination.

The 2014 General Assembly theme of “Love Reaches Out” will provide an opportunity to continue the conversation.  The GA Program Application (Due November 1) instructions specifically asks for innovation:

Because this is an adaptive challenge, there is an understanding that there are no easy or sure answers, so we encourage the spirit of experimentation, e.g. learning from mistakes as well as from successes. Workshops that share examples of something that you are currently trying are encouraged—even if your experiment doesn’t feel “ready for prime time.”

If you don’t want to wait for General Assembly, here are some tools that you can use immediately:

From the information gleaned from the Pew and Barna research (mentioned in the first two parts of this series) we understand there are two areas of young adult ministry that we need to pay attention to.  One is facilitating opportunities for developing relationships with other people in the congregation.  The other is innovating to provide the engagement and depth in addressing the questions and needs of young adults in today’s context.  The UUA Young Adult office has created a handy self-assessment and other resources to help your congregation, especially in the relationship-building area.




Could the “Nones” Become Unitarian Universalists? Part 2

Part 1 is available here.

The descriptions of  the values of many “spiritual but not religious” people line up pretty nicely with what our UU Man and a Woman with Their Heads Together Smilingreligious communities could be, or at least what they should at least aspire to be.   We have young adult UUs living out UU values in newly-formed “beyond congregation” communities such as the Lucy Stone Cooperative and Beloved Café.  But we are have hundreds of traditional congregations–communities of people with checkered histories and institutional baggage.

Another study, by the Barna Group has discovered what is working–at least with Millennials–to enable young adults to stay connected to church.  Here are some highlights from the article (translated for UU theology) that can help inform our existing congregations of ways to help our congregations be relevant for younger generations (though the Barna study focused on Millennials, many of these are also true for younger Gen Xers):

    1. Making room for meaningful relationships.  …Seven out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.
    2. Cultural Discernment.  …Millennials need help learning how to apply their hearts and minds to today’s cultural realities. In many ways, pop culture has become the driver of religion for Millennials, so helping them think and respond rightly to culture should be a priority.
    3. Shared Ministry.   “Effective ministry to Millennials means helping these young adults discover their own mission in the world, not merely asking them to wait their turn.”
    4. Vocational Discipleship. Taking shared ministry a step further, today’s young adults are more interested in making their faith a part of their daily lives.  (See the “beyond congregations” examples above)
    5. Faith Formation. Provide opportunities for young adults to “go deep” within the church’s own faith development programming.  Many large congregations (such as First Unitarian Rochester) have created programs that are available by subscription.

Next:  What does this mean for UU congregations?

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Consultant


Could the “Nones” become Unitarian Universalists? Part 1

Young Adult ministry has been a challenge for congregations of all liberal protestant denominations for decades but the game is changing in ways we couldn’t have imagined back in the post WWII chufourteen year old teenage with aggressive bully expressionrch building boom.  There has been a lively conversation on the UU-Leaders email list about how to address the rise of the “nones,”  i.e. people who do not identify with any religious denomination.  Many of our leaders believe that this is a fertile ground for UU evangelism.  In this blog series I will share why I agree.

The UUA does not have the financial resources to do our own research. However there are plenty of other organizations that do have the resources, and we pay close attention to their findings.

The latest research from the Pew Institute shows that close to 20% of the population and 30% of the Millennial generation (born after 1985) state “no religious preference” i.e. “none.”  40% of those who identify as politically liberal also can be labeled as “nones.”

This is not to imply that these rising number of “no religious preference” means there is a corresponding rise in atheism or even in humanism.  Indeed, a year ago, in research published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, they found that:

that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

(The study elaborates that many of the social political issues, such as protesting gay marriage and reproductive rights, are the ones that most concern this group.)

Churches have potential to meet the spiritual needs of this group, but they have developed a bad reputation.  Conservative churches are too restrictive.  And the liberal churches have not been all that compelling (What is the “there” there?) as an alternative.  This is changing.  Books such as Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church by Michael Piazza help congregational leaders to imagine frameworks for liberal religion that allow for transformational ministry, not institutional maintenance.

Next:  What is working to keep Millennials in church?

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Consultant

Hide it under a Bushel? No!

Are all of the members and friends of your church aware of all of the outreach ministries of your church?  Is the wider community aware of who you are serving and how?  Churches need to tell their stories, advises a recent article in the Christian Century. Author George Mitrovich explains

When my liberal friends dismiss church and people of faith, I realize that part of what is going on is that they are just ignorant about all that churches do.  They are ignorant in part because churches are silent about what they are doing.

Here are some tips and examples of how to share your good works with your members, friends and community.

  • Have a page on your website that mentions your outreach efforts.  Include items such as:
    • A list of “Share the Plate” recipients and amounts donated
    • Community affiliations (NAACP, Interfaith Groups, Social Services, Community Organizing groups, legislative groups, LGBTQ groupsBushel
    • Donated/discounted space for other groups (12-step, scouts, homeschoolers, concerts, plays)
    • Participation in community events (CROP Walk, arts events, county fairs, farmers markets)
  • Regularly send press releases to your local news outlets sharing your stories.  (See the Public Relations Resource page on
  • Write stories about your members’ experiences with your outreach ministries and publish them in your newsletter and on a blog linked to your website, Facebook page and Twitter account.
  • Post stories on your Facebook page and encourage your members to share the stories on their own pages

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant
Central East Regional Group

One Voice

One of the most important keys to congregational health and vitality–along with a clear purpose–is a cohesive leadership team.  Many of our UU congregations struggle with power and authority to a point where they don’t empower leaders to lead, i.e. to make decisions in the best interest of the congregation’s mission and shared vision.

Front view portrait of four business executives sitting in a lineHow well does  your congregation do?  One indicator is how your board (and other committees) operate.  Are you able to speak with one voice even when there is some disagreement among committee members when making a decision?  Or do you always try to reach consensus?

“Speaking with one voice” means that everyone around the table can say “All of my concerns been heard and considered in this decision. I can support the process and decisions that have been made by the group and can represent the decisions that the group has come to as my own outside this room.”

If someone on a committee cannot agree ahead of time to speak with one voice after everyone has been heard and a decision is made, then that person should not serve on that committee.  There is an assumption that good, visionary leaders come in not with an agenda ahead of time, but a willingness to make a decision that will help move the congregation forward in alignment with their mission toward their shared vision.

This is different than consensus, which requires everyone to be in agreement with the decision.  Consensus tends to keep an institution in homeostasis because it is next to impossible to be visionary or innovative when you need 100% buy-in before making a decision.

Patrick Lencioni offers a great on-demand webinar on the inter-related topics of organizational health, purpose and cohesive leadership:

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

Vision: Make sure it “tastes good”

Congregational leaders are often tempted to go through the motions of creating mission, vision, planning and covenant documents without taking a holistic view of the process.  Do the congregations systems support the process?  How do we reflect the core values and personality of the congregation as well as invite them into articulating their aspirations of who they want to be as a faith community?

I was recently reminded of the story of Crystal Pepsi, a product from the early 1990’s that received a large marketing launch, including a Superbowl ad, but that flopped. In a 2007 interview, the Pepsi executive whose idea it was reflected:

It was a tremendous learning experience. I still think it’s the best idea I ever had, and the worst executed. A lot of times as a leader you think, “They don’t get it; they don’t see my vision.” People were saying we should stop and address some issues along the way, and they were right. It would have been nice if I’d made sure the product tasted good. Once you have a great idea and you blow it, you don’t get a chance to resurrect it.

There is only one chance for a person to make a good first impression.  Similarly, we leaders have once chance to introduce a change or a process in a way that will give it a high probability of success. Here are some suggestions to make the processes of creating mission statements, shared visions, strategic plans and covenants “tasty.”

  • Communicate how the end product will enable the congregation’s leaders to lead with purpose in a shared Healthy Snackdirection
  • Avoid the bitterness and shame of bringing up old conflicts as a reason to do this work
  • Make sure that the leaders who are facilitating the process have integrity and trust of the congregation
  • Set up a reasonable timeline and stick to it — your people will be willing to provide input along the way, but don’t want to feel like they’re mired in an unending process
  • Once the guiding documents are created and approved, communicate regularly how they are guiding the leadership of the congregation

 -Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

“Edit”ability vs. Accountability

accountAssessment of a congregation’s ministry is a very important aspect of religious leadership and is one of the roles of a Committee on Shared Ministry.  We often use the term “accountability” as in “accountability to mission” to describe the purpose of such assessments.

The word “accountability” can be problematic because of it’s relationship to the precise nature of the accounting profession and does not create space for grace or the movement of the spirit that happens in faith communities.  In his book Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect, Joseph R. Myers suggests that using the term “edit-ability” might be a more accurate way of describing how congregational leaders can stay true to mission:

An accountant’s way to reconcile is through precise conformity to rules; reconciliation comes by way of compliance. Accountants are concerned with reconciling you to a list a desired behaviors. An editor is less concerned with compliance than with communication. Sometimes this means going against rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. A good editor want the author’s voice to be the best it can be and thus enforces rules only when they help the author to be heard. An editor reconciles not to rules, but to the reader.

(Of course, we still want accountability for fiduciary responsibilities like finance and safety policies.)

When it comes to ministry, the approach of the editor rather than the accountant has consistency with our Unitarian Universalist theology that assumes that people have a goodness that can be developed editrather than a sinfulness that needs to be corrected.  It emphasizes the grace and relationships that are embodied in our covenants.

This should result in an ongoing conversation about how we are serving our mission and continual adjustment to programs and other ministries in response.

This difference is an especially important understanding for congregations that operate under Carver-Style Policy Governance® where ends statements and compliance reports have the hazardous potential of displacing covenantal dialogue that organically serves the larger purpose of the church.


-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Central East Regional Group

The Law of Fried Potatoes

potatoesOur congregations often have habits, traditions, or attitudes that are in tension (or even in conflict) with their mission and vision.  These are grounded in “accidental values” that may be invisible to the members but glaringly obvious to the newcomer.

An accidental value is something that we have a strong emotional attachment to and probably inherited from our ancestors (either from biology or tradition) but does not really serve our core purpose and aspiration of who we want to be in the world.

Part of our own faith formation–especially as leaders– is bringing awareness to our own emotional attachments and whether or not these attachments serve who we aspire to be. This is a part of becoming self-differentiated.

Church consultant and author Peter Steinke offers a metaphor for this phenomenon:

Self-Differentiation is the capacity to “like the way your mother fried potatoes but not to be overwhelmed by anxiety if someone else’s mother fried them differently. This means you don’t try to convert others to your mother’s fried potatoes, nor do you give in to another’s need for fried potatoes of a certain kind. And you do not disconnect from another until they fry their potatoes your mother’s way.”

Here are some examples of “Fried Potatoes,” (i.e. “accidental” congregational habits or traditions that might be interfering with what the congregation hopes to become):

  • I had a bad experience in a Christian church so I don’t want any Christian language used in my congregation.
  • The Beatles and Bob Dylan are great for worship but there hasn’t been any new music since 1980 that would be.
  • The donated furniture in our social hall looks awful, but we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the members who dropped it off in the middle of the week.
  • The only way to be a committed member is to serve on a committee and attend meetings faithfully.
  • You need a car (preferably a hybrid) to participate in the life of our congregation.

What are some other examples of fried potatoes?

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant