Is Your Congregation Feeling Contractions?

Photo © summerbl4ck (Flickr)
Photo © summerbl4ck (Flickr)
  • Is your congregation’s attendance flat or declining?
  • Are the results from your stewardship campaign disappointing?
  • Are you dipping into an endowment to help cover your operating expenses?
  • Are you thinking about cutting the budget by reducing the working hours of your program staff (e.g. minister, religious educator, music director, membership coordinator)?
  • Are the same leaders and volunteers doing everything that they have been doing for years, perhaps even decades?

These are all signs of a congregation in decline.

There are many forces at play for today’s congregations, many of them outside of the control of congregational leaders.

  1. Fewer people belong to a church. In fact, fewer people feel the need to claim any particular faith tradition.
    The changing context of religion in America has been well-documented by the Pew Forum and other research agencies.
  2. The demographic bubble of the Baby Boomers is not bursting, but it is deflating slowly.
    Boomers are retiring in droves and have more time to volunteer, so they may not be making room for or accommodating the needs of the younger generations. Boomers are moving into a different financial phase of life.
  3. There are not many Gen Xers in our congregations.
    This is partly because there were fewer babies born between 1960 and 1980. When Xers did show up to church, they often got frustrated when the church seemed stuck in old habits. Xers had learned to be adaptable to survive in a contracting economy but those skills weren’t always welcome in our congregations. And that contracting economy has left Xers with more debt and lower wages so they are often not able to give at the levels that the retiring Boomers have been giving.

The Good News

The message that Unitarian Universalism offers is attractive to emerging adults and to those who have found the faith of their childhood hypocritical or just stale. We also have a lot of other UU congregations and leaders who are already imagining or experimenting with ways to renew existing congregations or to plant new faith communities. We have congregations who have grown in spite of the changing context.

What to do:

Although it may be tempting for leaders to go for the technical fixes (like reducing staff hours), the real challenge is adaptive, calling for the church as a whole to struggle with a process of renewal so that it can “give birth” to a new iteration of itself.

  • Start with some deep group spiritual discernment.
    What is your congregation’s “center?” What is your vision of the “Beloved Community?” What are you called to do in the world? How are you in covenant with one another and with the expanse of our interconnectedness with the universe?
  • Practice detachment when it comes to outcomes
    Find a way to ground yourselves during the process so that you make room both for the synergy and surprising possibilities of renewal and for the prospect that the congregation has run its course and the conversation should turn to ending well and leaving a legacy.
  • Find the courage to “Experi-fail” and make it a new part of your congregational culture
    Adaptive challenges require a lot of experiments and learning opportunities for the community as a whole.
  • Become a “learning community
    Learn more about the changing context and what is working for growing congregations. Look to nearby congregations for ideas, possible partnerships or sharing of resources.  Your UUA Regional staff can help connect you, if you don’t already have those relationships.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, UUA Central East Region


Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism

Partner and Multisite Congregations

Love Reaches Out resources

UUA Resources on Mission

UU Leadership Institute

Thinking about our thinking


Photo by Brittany H.

In dealing with adaptive challenges (e.g. changing demographics or attitudes toward religious institutions) congregational leaders can learn some wisdom from the old folktale about the 7 Blind Men and the Elephant.  Each of the men could feel a part of the creature, and each came up with his own interpretation of what he was experiencing:  The man touching the tail thought it was a rope, the man touching the ear thought it was a large leaf, the man touching the leg thought it was a tree, and so on.

There is a term in Adaptive Leadership called “getting on the balcony.”  It’s a metaphor for the practice of shifting your point of view from the “dance floor” where you can only see what is happening close to you, to a point of view that looks at the whole “dance floor.” In our case, it’s the practice of looking at a congregational system as a whole.

Like the men in the folk tale, congregational leaders need each other to get on the balcony and to help see the big picture and clarify their own thinking.  In other words, each member of a leadership team has a line of sight into the congregation and their own personal history that colors their perception.  When leaders trust one another, they can ask one another to help check their own biases that might be influencing their perception of an issue.

2015-01-19 09.53.22One useful tool is this simple exercise that will assist you in taking an adaptive challenge and sort out what are your observations, your interpretations and your judgments.  On a sheet of paper or newsprint, create 3 columns, one for each kind of thinking.


These are items of observable fact.  This list may include data that you’ve gathered or compiled, or anecdotal information from surveys, interviews, etc.

In the example I’ve listed some facts related to a church that is declining in membership.


These are different ways to interpret the observations.  This is where it is helpful to have a diversity of ages, cultures and other experiences in leadership.  If you have only one interpretation or “story” implied by the interpretations, it may be time to bring some new and different kinds of people into leadership.

In the example I list a couple of different interpretations of what might be happening.  In a group, I would hope to have many more.


These include the opinions of how you feel or judge the situation.  This will help you to sort out your feelings and biases about different interpretations.  How are you judging those involved? Do you see them as good or bad, right or wrong? Does a different interpretation lead to a different judgment?


When faced by an adaptive challenge, it’s often tempting to blame a group of the people involved.  It’s important to name what our judgments are (and all of us have judgments!) so that we can focus on the interpretations and use them to help design “interventions” to address the adaptive challenge.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

Additional resources:


Reflections on Right Relationship

Photo by Paul Barfoot
Photo by Paul Barfoot

I often hear the question, “Is there a spiritual practice that is particularly Unitarian Universalist?”  I believe that there is–living into our covenantal relationships.   Being in community can be challenging. But being in a faith community can give us the opportunity to explore our edges and test our assumptions.  Covenant offers us an invitation to be curious and humble, to make room for mistakes by pre-promising that–when we fail–we are willing to forgive and try again.

Recently, the Rev. David A. Miller offered his “Reflections on Right Relationship” in a Facebook post and agreed to let me share it here.

I thought these eighteen questions could be helpful for congregational leaders as a reminder of how we might–as a spiritual practice–remain true to our covenants:

1. Am I assuming the good intentions of the other?

2. Am I communicating directly with the person with whom I am having an issue?

3. Am I resolving issues or am I spreading them through gossip, anger and/or frustration?

4. Am I reflecting on what personal wounds, issues, and tendencies of mine that are contributing to the issue?

5. Am I willing to be an active participant and to work in good faith to clear up issues?

6. Am I projecting on to someone else through my own framework what they are thinking or doing vs. engaging them and asking them to share their thoughts and story?

7. Am I actually trying to live the principles and values of Unitarian Universalism by acting with compassion, respect and a high value of our interdependence?

8. Am I actively listening to what others are saying and not formulating a response or the next comment or question while they are talking?

9. Can I let go of my need to control the situation?

Rev. David Miller
Rev. David Miller

10. Can I graciously leave space for others by letting someone else speak first or by not speaking my mind if the point has been raised or made already?

11. Can I help lift up the life of another or the group in my words and actions?

12. Can I have disagreements with an individual or group, do so in love and respect, and continue to stay in community?

13. Can I take into account the importance of the task in relation to the importance of the relationship?

14. Can I reflect on how my attitude and actions contribute to the tone of our community?

15. Am I willing not to have to be right?

16. Am I being the change I wish to see in the world, and that means really acting the way I would like others to act??

17. Am I willing to be changed?

18. And finally, can I remember to ask the question, “What is the most loving thing I can do or say right now?”

Announcements: A Terrible Death to Die

announcementsI remember my first church family camp, the Ohio Meadville Summer Institute.  At the end of the morning worship, one of the planning committee members would go up to the podium and start singing:



Announcements, Announcements, An-NOW-ounce-ments!
A terrible death to die, a terrible death to die,
A terrible death, a terrible death, a terrible death to die.
Announcements, Announcements, An-NOW-ounce-ments!

I visit a lot of different congregations in my work, and occasionally this hits a little too close to home!

Fortunately, I also have had other experiences.  I was at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday where the co-ministers announced that the announcements for that Sunday were going to be the last.  The Rev. Kathleen Rolenz announced the change and the Rev. Wayne Arnison articulated the discomfort that such a change will create.

How will people know what is going on?  How will we get more Sunday School teachers if we don’t ask from the pulpit?  How will we let people know that our pledge payments have dropped off over the summer, and we need folks to catch up?

Rich Birch at unSeminary points out in his article 8 Reasons People Aren’t Listening to your Announcements that announcements are counter-productive.  Our goal is to get people’s attention, but instead we get their eyes to glaze over.  The “added noise” of the announcements may actually interfere with the effectiveness of the transformative message that our worship team has worked so hard to provide.  What is our core purpose, to change lives or to staff the rummage sale?

Of course, re-thinking how we communicate to our members will require patience and creativity on the part of congregational leaders.  I think you are up to the challenge!   Please share your ideas of how you communicate more effectively!

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

Additional Resources can be found at:  Communication Skills for Leaders

You are not the boss of me!

combine1My father-in-law was a no-nonsense businessman who worked a 600 acre farm. Fiercely independent, he liked to play by his own rules.  When he bought a new piece of machinery, he would remove all of the pesky shields and other safety devices that slowed him down or got in the way during maintenance or repair.  It was a family farm, so it was unlikely that OSHA would have investigated or intervened — at least until there was an “incident.”

In some ways, our UUA board, staff and professional organizations (UUMA, LREDA etc.) operate like OSHA:  We are Congregational Safety and Health advisors.

  • We recommend best practices for governance, finance, growth and leadership development.
  • We offer leadership schools and other trainings to help our leaders foster healthy systems and behaviors in their congregations.
  • We advise on how you might implement safety policies to keep your children safe from predators and your community safe from disruptive behavior.
  • We do our best to make sure our religious professionals are equipped to serve and are held accountable to professional guidelines and actionable codes of conduct.
  • We provide a process where ministers and congregations have the opportunity to learn deeply about one another before a call or a hire.

And yet, we still have congregations who–in the name of congregational polity–circumvent the safety and health recommendations.  Then, when conflict or other trouble erupts, the “Congregational Safety and Health advisors” are called in.

How do these patterns happen?

My father-in-law felt that the farm was always in danger of going under, so he did everything he could to avoid losing money or productivity.  The danger might have been real in the early years, but the habits remained when the farm was consistently profitable.

The story behind a congregational habit of stubbornly rejecting “best practices” is a bit more complex.  Part of rejecting solid advice is a pervasive allergy to authority that still lurks in some of our liberal religious communities.

Being suspicious of authority is part of our congregational birthright and is reflected in our polity.  We rejected the authority of bishops and presbyteries because of they held power and power tends to corrupt.  We kept the power and authority in the gathered body community — not to be a “majority rules” democracy but a covenantal community.  We choose our own leaders to teach and guide us and  we discern together to test our assumptions and beliefs. We organize as an association of congregations, and hire staff (like me) to help share knowledge, experiences and resources.

Holding ourselves accountable to one another in service of our transcendent values is also a part of our congregational birthright. When it is done well, the sense of purpose in the community is joyful and palpable to the visitor.   This accountability is our ultimate safety shield.  Without it, a liberal faith community is in peril.

A recent article on pointed out five dysfunctional liberal tendencies that plagued the Occupy movement.  These tendencies also show up in our troubled congregations.  The one that resonated the most for me was the tendency of Liberal Libertarianism:

“The Liberal Libertarian would rather see our collective efforts grind to a screeching halt than see one person “silenced” for any reason under any context. The Liberal Libertarian doesn’t actually care about collective power; they simply seek individual self-realization.”

In our congregations, the Liberal Libertarian is not interested in what it means to be “free” in a faith community.  They do not want any kind of accountability for their behavior.  The article recommends:

“We need to be vigilant against the attempts of isolated people to impose their priorities on everyone else in the name of their individuality (after all, the beauty of free association implies the option of free disassociation) and use organizing structures that are durable and designed to withstand interference.”

In other words, we need to trust the leaders that we choose to hold the boundaries that will keep the congregation healthy. This will enable the congregation to put its energy into building the beloved community rather than dealing with disruptions.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

Congregational Resources:


Do you have “Committee Alphabet Soup?”

one brainI often use General Motors as an example of the top-down model of organization and leadership that is the opposite of what our congregations need to be nimble and vital (and I might add, attractive to Gen-Xers and Millennials). Today’s story from Bloomberg “GM Recalls Stalled in 10 Years of Committee Alphabet Soup” exemplifies how–even though GM has rallied since the bailout back in 2009–GM still has a culture that stifles communication and slows response time.

Inherent in the GM culture is the foundational notion that the brains are in the boardroom, and the rest of the organization’s role is to receive commands and send back reports.

Brian Johnson, an auto analyst for Barclay’s states some of the results of this model:  “The committee culture of the old GM was rooted in organizational paralysis and characterized by a lack of accountability.”  “I’m amazed that even the government bureaucrats couldn’t understand GM’s plodding processes.”

Tom Stallkamp, a former president of Chrysler, adds that top executives often don’t hear about internal recall investigations, especially since there is inherent tension between engineers and safety/quality folks as they chase reports back and forth.   Speaking as an executive he says: “If you tried to react to every single issue coming in, or every dozen issues spread over a dozen cars, you’d go crazy.”

My short hand for this style of organization is “one brain, many hands.”  It’s also been described as a “spider” organization in the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman et al.

“Spider” organizations are very structured and invest most of the power and authority in the “brain” or top leadership. Congregations organized on this model have:

  • lots of committees with no one willing to staff them
  • committees that have people willing to staff them, but there is no energy at the meetings
  • a requirement for committees to send reports to the board, but they seldom do
  • committees that have had the same chair for over 5 years
  • turf wars
  • silos between ministries
  • annual reports from committees that show little difference from year to year
  • understanding of the mission is held only by a few people in leadership

“Starfish” organizations look to share power and authority (with accountability) throughout the organization. Congregations organized on this model have:

  • A clear sense of mission throughout all of the leadership, including those on committees and task forces
  • Attention to alignment with the mission as well as accountability structures
  • leaders who reinforce that sense of mission through annual goals based on strategic planning
  • committees where some people plan, and task forces where other people can just “do” without showing up to a committee meeting
  • a permission-giving culture that encourages and supports new ministries that are in alignment with the mission
  • good communication between leaders of various ministries that don’t need to go through the board

Another handy checklist for your congregation might be this list of qualities of growing and stalled congregations developed by

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG

Duck, Duck, Goose!

Ducks and Geese on Manhasset Bay in Winter
Ducks and Geese on Manhasset Bay in Winter

Last week, I was walking along a Long Island bay during a snow storm.  The day before, it had been a balmy 50°, but that day I found myself trudging to the grocery store through a several inches of snow.  As I looked toward the bay, I saw a group of waterfowl through the relentless snowflakes.   What first caught my eye were the ducks, who found the open water and were swimming — as if it were a chilly fall day.  Then I noticed the geese, with their heads wound sideways and buried beneath a sheltering wing.

“Ha!”  I thought.  “Look at those ducks, going  with the flow!  Look at those geese, resisting the new meteorological order. What an instructive metaphor for our congregations!”

But then I noticed that there were some geese swimming in the open water.  And then I saw there were some ducks hiding their heads beneath their wings.  My generalizations about my observations were suddenly inaccurate.

We humans are driven to make sense of the universe, but as we make meaning, we are tempted to make generalizations.  Those generalizations then feed into our perceptions and interfere with our objectivity as we are presented with new information that might not fit our working framework.  Luckily, with the ducks and geese, my framework was freshly formed and easily corrected.  But in other parts of my life my existing frameworks can prevent me from taking in new information.  This happens most often after someone has made a first impression on me.  If that impression was positive (someone was generous or helpful) I tend to use that characteristic to color later actions, even if the person starts exhibiting the opposite behaviors.

One way of describing this phenomenon is the Ladder of Inference (developed by Harvard’s Chris Argyris).

Much of the work my colleagues and I are doing around multiculturalism, intercultural sensitivity, generational theory and systems thinking is encouraging all of us to question the assumptions upon which we base our (interpretations of) our perceptions.

One of our core theological foundations is that truth is always subject to examination and to reinterpretation or even revision.  As James Luther Adams said in The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism:

Religious Liberalism depends first on the principle that “revelation is continuous.” Meaning has not been fully captured.  Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism. … At best, our symbols of communication are only referents and do not capsule reality.  … They point always beyond themselves.

I would argue that–as covenantal religious liberals–how we provide critique is as important as the critique itself.  I resonate with the kinds of discussions where people are engaging together to create a shared meaning or understanding, especially when no one of us can really claim to have the “right” answer.

I really don’t care for the kind of righteous verbal sniping, sparring or nit-picking that sometimes creeps into our congregations.  It especially annoys me whenever I see someone get verbally attacked after unknowingly using a word or phrase that has an arcane or minimal association with oppression.  There are better ways of helping us to “interrupt” our “ladders of inference.”

I have appreciated the model of the accountability group that has recently been serving at our General Assemblies.  They share stories of where and how we have acted on incorrect assumptions that have been hurtful to others of us, not as a rebuke, but as a lens to help each of us to “interrupt” our reflexive loops on our own ladders on inference.

I believe that part of our covenant with one another is to help to interrupt each other’s reflexive loops, with humility and love.





Do You Have Zombie Programs?

The new year offers a new opportunity to take stock of how your congregation is serving its mission.

By Matt Erasmus
Photo by Matt Erasmus


Invite your leadership team to take stock of your current program offerings.

  • Is the program bringing in new life in the form of new participants?
  • Is the program a brain-drain or money pit, or is it using resources in proportion to its impact?
  • Does the program have a connection to Unitarian Universalist core values, ethics or theology?
  • Is the program encouraging people to spiritual growth?
  • Does it set yearly goals and stretch goals, then work to meet them?

After all, we are the “living tradition,” not the “living dead” tradition.  😉

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke CERG Leadership Development Consultant



Adaptive Measures

sustained growthYour congregation is committed to growth and understands that growth in numbers results from other kinds of growth. You also know it is important to set goals and measure how well you are doing.  But you are wise enough to know that it is impossible to link attendance numbers to any one “cause” from your growth initiatives.  What should you measure?

When facing adaptive challenges, it can often be counterproductive to use old measurements.

Instead, brainstorm the kinds of behaviors you want people to have to help you meet your yearly ministry goals:

  • How many first-time visitors received hand-written notes?
  • How many people talked to each visitor at coffee hour?
  • What percentage of adult members participate in small group ministry?
  • What percentage of your youth serve on ministry teams?
  • What percentage of your board members are under 40?
  • How many youth and adults participate in events/initiatives organized by your social action team?
  • What is the ratio of pastoral visits by the minister(s) to those by your lay pastoral visitors?

The only way to help change the culture in our congregations is to figure out how to help the members develop new behaviors that will lead to that culture change.

 -Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

You Talkin’ to Me?

listenAs leaders of a congregation, it may be tempting to assume everyone else has (or should have) the same level of commitment to the institution of the church as we have.

This can have unfortunate results in everything from volunteer recruitment to stewardship conversations–even to mission and vision work.

Let me suggest a different way of framing .

People in congregations have different levels of commitment and belonging, and it’s important to host conversations and frame messages differently for each different level.

Here is an overview of those levels:

  1. Staff  refers to paid staff and lay leaders with “high commitment” who hold themselves accountable to the congregation’s mission. They have a good understanding of the congregation’s history and culture (“DNA”) and are willing to “stay at the table” through thick and thin as the congregation grows and changes.
  2. Committed leaders and volunteers care about the mission or the institution and help keep the church functioning by filling needed roles. They have a general understanding of the history and culture, but may have particular ministries that they feel they need to advocate for.  Committed leaders can become burnt-out if they serve in roles that aren’t a good fit for them.
  3. Those who Belong are members or pledging friends who attenddifferent levels of commitment 1  worship and some programs and volunteer at various levels.  Folks in this group may need some attention and direction around understanding the history, culture and mission of the congregation and in discerning how to serve using their own gifts and passions.
  4. Those who are Interested are occasional attendees to church programs who are still in discernment about whether or not the congregation is a good fit for them.  They may not have much understanding about the history and culture and aren’t really clear about mission.
  5. Those who are Oblivious are people who are in your community, or who may stumble across your website or attend a program held in your building, but don’t really know (or care) much about your congregation.

Using this framing can help you craft different messages for the different groups during your stewardship campaign or when you create volunteer roles and recruit for them.

This framing is also extremely useful when you are crafting and implementing mission and vision work.  There is often a suggestion that everyone who has any connection to the congregation be equally involved in the process.  I suggest that–because the inner circles of leaders have such a deep connection to the history and culture and they come the closest to embodying the DNA of the congregation–it makes sense that they get general input from the congregation (using powerful questions) then take the lead in crafting mission and vision draft statements before having the circles of “belonging” and “interested” folks try them out.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant