May Day! Budget Crisis! What To Do

One of your top donors moves to be closer to their grandchildren. Another major donor gets a new job two states away. And then two or three of your oldest members pass away.

When your annual stewardship drive comes along, your finance folks discover that–in spite of an overall growth in membership–these losses in the top quartile of your pledge distribution can really affect your bottom line.

Here’s what you can do:

How to meet the budget in a time of distress

by Patricia Infante, UUA Congregational Life Consultant, Central East Region


  • Reduce variable and discretionary expenses
  • Raise income from within the congregation
    • Increase pledges, even incrementally
    • Increase pledge units, turn friends into members
    • Special “fill the gap” campaign
    • Large donor matching gift program
    • Legacy Gift program
  • Raise income from sources beyond the congregation
    • Facility rental: generate new
    • Facility rental: renegotiate tenant agreements
    • Sell gift cards (bought at a discount) from local grocers
    • Seek entrepreneurial opportunities
    • Grants, crowdfunding campaigns
  • Ensure you have technology to catch money from all sources
    • Online donation capacity on your website
    • Electronic Check capacity for recurring donations
    • Onsite electronic payment tool (such as Square) for one-time payments or  collections at special events
  • Renegotiate debt
  • Scale back ministries
  • Cut staff benefits
  • Cut staff hours
  • Layoff staff
  • Sell real property
  • Merge or close

Additional Resources:


Re-Invigorating Social Justice Ministries

Photo Copyright Peter Bowden/UUA
Photo Copyright Peter Bowden/UUA

I’ve been hearing stories from different congregations where the Social Justice Ministries are re-inventing and re-invigorating themselves by finding out the potential sweet spot where the congregation’s mission, capacity and will meets the needs and potential impact of the community.

Here is a story from the Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, associate minister of the UU Congregation at Asheville, NC.

Once upon a time… There was a congregation whose Social Justice Council met at noon on a weekday. There were a small group of regulars who came to meet, all retirees but one, who came on her lunch break from work. All of them mostly did their own projects in the name of the church. One day, after a lot of convincing, they decided to change the meeting to a more widely accessible evening time. It took a while for the changes to catch on, but eventually, more people came, and more projects got started.

Then, the Earth & Social Justice Ministry (its name had been changed to reflect the intentions of the group) held an Open Space Technology event with childcare provided, in which lots of congregants of all ages got together and decided what issues they wanted to work on together. It was exciting and inspiring.

And then one day the steering committee observed that it was difficult for parents of young children to participate in the congregation’s justice work, so they proposed a weeknight of action (Action Wednesdays) in which groups would all get together and meet at the same time — that way they could provide childcare, and there would be multi-generational interactions and cross-pollination between groups, letter writing, phone banking, etc.

We don’t know yet if they will all live happily ever after, but what we DO know is that the reason this new thing was proposed is that there was a parent with young children on the steering committee, which not only normalized their experiences, but also put the voice of the need for childcare and other support for parents to be in the room where it happens. Five years from the change of meeting time to this new event. Institutional change is slow, but it does happen.

People Get Ready, Part 2

Abridged Excerpt from “The Future of Justice Ministries” by Rev. David Pyle
The Keynote for the UU Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network Annual Meeting 2016

I always default to hope. It is the most constant aspect of my personality. And yet, hope has seemed more difficult these last few days. I could not stand here before you to share about the future of Justice Ministries in our congregations and our movement without acknowledging that hope is harder right now, for myself and I think for many of us. And yet, hope is at the center of what I think religion brings to humanity. Hope is at the center of my understanding of this religious movement of Unitarian Universalism.

And so, it is hope that I am committed to bringing to all of us in this moment when for many of us hope is hard. Hope is most powerful when it is difficult. Hope is most transformative when it is challenged. When hope is easy to hold, we take it for granted. I clearly saw that hope can be taken for granted this week, in that the word “hope” did not appear even once in the first draft of this address, written several weeks ago. I did not use the word, because it seemed to me to be assumed. That early draft took a tone of “of course we are living in hopeful times… we have made progress in so many areas, and conversations that have long been avoided are now being engaged.”

One of the spiritual learnings I have had from this moment in our culture is that we should never assume hope. Hope must be created in every moment. And, as a people of liberal faith, it falls to us to create the hope in the future within this world, more than hope for a future once this mortal coil falls away. We of liberal faith, we are called to be the bringers of hope for this world, in these times, for us all.

And, there is reason to hope. Over my years of serving as a chaplain, as a minister, and as a consultant to congregations, I have come to believe that the opposite of hope is not despair. No, the opposite of hope is apathy. It is the belief that nothing can change. The belief that nothing matters. The belief that nothing can be done. When hope seems absent, the most common reaction is for people to throw up their hands and withdraw. Despair is almost better than apathy, because those in despair still care, and care deeply about the outcome. They are still invested. They still believe in the dreamed of future that hope points us to, even if they despair of finding a path to that future at that moment. Despair you can work with… but apathy?

Apathy is no longer caring. It says that hope is not possible, for there is nothing to hope for. No purpose to hope. Hope is a delusion. Hope cannot make any difference. Apathy is one of the most difficult emotions to work with, because there is nothing to draw someone towards.

And this is why I am hopeful in this moment… because I am beginning to see apathy ending all around us. Not among those of us who already gather in the sanctuaries and basements of Unitarian Universalist churches… if you are willing to get up on a Sunday morning, drive into a church (even if we call it something else), and listen to a preacher talk about who knows what, you have probably already pushed your way out of apathy. You have come because you care. Because we care, we are often the ones feeling despair, when we see no clear paths of how we get to the future to which we have committed ourselves and our movement… the future of beloved community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Our challenge is to keep caring, no matter what. From that hope is born.

No, what I see happening around us right now is apathy ending. I see millions of people who have felt as if nothing they did would make any difference, I see them beginning to care. On both sides of the political aisle, I am seeing people awake from apathy to caring. And if they care, then we can be in conversation about what we care about, and where the intersections may be. No such conversation is possible with those who do not care.

In saying that, I do not want to make light of the human cost of that awakening, nor do I want to seem to say that the fear and hatred that has come out of the shadows of our society is somehow a good thing. I will tell you, right now, I’m scared. I am scared for all the people I love who hold marginalized identities. I know that many of my friends and loved ones are scared. I am scared for myself, and for all of the members of our military whom I serve as a chaplain, as well as all the Unitarian Universalists and others out there who have been and will continue to be the target of the racism, hatred, and otherization that has been intentionally released and empowered in our society. People I know and love are going to be hurt. Have already been hurt. Some may even die. Aspects of Justice and of building the beloved community are being seriously damaged. I am scared.

And… I learned long ago that bravery is being scared… and doing your job anyway. Feeling the fear and stepping up to what the world needs from you anyway. If you are not afraid, you cannot be brave.

Hope and bravery… the pastor in me hopes that if you leave here with nothing else today, you leave here centered on these two things. Hope in the inspiration of the Beloved Community that we will build. And bravery for the challenges that lay ahead, no matter how rightfully afraid we are in this moment. And, one more thing… I hope you leave here with an awareness for who we are, and what purpose we, the Movement of Unitarian Universalism, what purpose we are called to play in such times as these.

I will echo my colleague the Rev. Mark Stringer, who said in his Sunday Morning Worship Service sermon at a General Assembly in Providence Rode Island a few years ago that we “Unitarian Universalists are the people who show up”. That when there is a call to something… an action, a protest, a city council meeting, a healing session, a dialogue… no matter what it is, when the spirit of justice is moving somewhere, for some purpose, we Unitarian Universalists show up. We may not even fully know why we are showing up, but we do anyway. We may not have a theology and methodology to justify why we are there. We are just there. Our presence matters more than the why.

I remember a conversation I once had with a Social Worker in Ventura, California, who was a conservative Catholic. As we were talking about how to help one particular family who were experiencing homelessness find their way back into housing, I complimented her on her ability to work with me and our church’s homelessness advocacy program, even though she knew our theologies were so very different.

She looked at me very seriously, and she said, “Well, I learned years ago that you can’t work on Justice in Ventura if you can’t work with the Unitarians. Because you all are everywhere.” We are the people who show up, not just when there is a specific call to action, but also when it is just the every-day work of Justice. Because, one of the commonalities I have found among Unitarian Universalists is that we care. And because we care, we are there.

The second foundation that I think we have brought, and must bring again to the work of building the belovedcooltext215364241585579 community, is that we are the infrastructure of the revolution. Michael Moore said that he thanked God for the Unitarian Universalists, because in between all the times that the revolution was out on the streets, it was recovering and being nurtured in the basements of Unitarian Universalist churches. It has happened so many times I have lost count… I would say to some activist that I am a Unitarian Universalist Minister, and they would respond with, “Oh, I’ve been to a UU Church! I was there for a training in non-violent communication and action” or “I was at your church for a panel discussion on low-income housing” or “Hey, you all gave us money to print all those flyers last year” or “I came to a candle-light vigil there when an unarmed black man was killed by the police”.

All revolutions need a sanctuary. They need a place to rest, recover, and organize. They need a place to train. They need a place to build the relationships that hold people fast in the midst of trial and adversity. Our congregations are a part of this sanctuary. We are not the only place, there are indeed other religious traditions that also play this role. But I will make this claim. Of all the religious traditions who serve as sanctuary and institutional support for the work of creating the beloved community, we Unitarian Universalists have a greater ability to draw people into the revolution from the dominant culture than many of our allies do. That is both a blessing and a challenge. It is a blessing in the ways that we can grow and spread the movement. It is a challenge in the ways in which we sometimes express the dominant culture within our efforts for transformation and change. Our work in being that sanctuary is to be of service to the revolution, and to resist the impulse to lead it. We are at our best when we are in partnership and service to the revolution of love and justice.

The third foundation that I think we bring is what I began with. We bring hope. We bring the ability to care about people, the future, and the world. We bring a fierce determination that is rooted in the idea that it is up to us to build the world that we want to live in. A fierce determination that it is our hands that can and will change the world, and a faith that the world can be changed. Our faith is rooted in the here and now… it is rooted in the possibilities within this world. Within humanity. Within our lives and our communities. Unitarian Universalists bring an optimism of immediacy to the revolution of beloved community.

During the work of Ending Homelessness in California, I was sitting with an activist who had fought tirelessly to win a vote in the Ventura City Council. After the vote was taken and we had lost, she talked about her own despair. She then said that the Unitarian Universalists were her inspiration… because we never give up. The moment has stayed with me, for two reasons. First, she was right… my congregation members were standing in the back corner of the room, already planning what our next steps were in light of losing the vote. But second, it struck me that because we would never give up our belief in building a just, sustainable, and peaceful world, neither would she.

We are the people who show up. We are the sanctuary of the revolution. And we are the people who do not give up. And that is who the world needs us to be.


Rev. David Pyle
Rev. David Pyle

The Rev. David Pyle is a member of the UUA’s Central East Regional Staff, and serves the congregations of the Delmarva Penninsula, Greater Baltimore, and Central Pennsylvania as their UUA Staff Primary Contact.  He also serves as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain for the 439th Multifuncitonal Medical Battalion at Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

People Get Ready, Part 1

Following the shock of this week’s presidential election and the social turmoil it has welcoming-vs-otheringprecipitated, UU Churches should expect an influx of first-time visitors and returning old friends. On social media, people are looking for community and are being pointed to our congregations. Gone are the days when a liberals asked with puzzlement, “You’re a Uni-What?”

We need to be ready, this Sunday. We need to be at our best, showing up on the Side of Love, and ready to meet people where they are. We need to encounter one another without assumptions and stereotypes clouding our interactions.

What you can do:

  • Print and share this 2-sided welcoming tips card with your greeters (both formal in informal) so they can practice open-ended questions.
  • Add intercultural communication skills to your greeter training, such as this Welcome Table course.
  • Signal that your congregation includes allies of marginalized groups. Have a bowl of safety pins and a copy of this article explaining what they are for.  You may even want to incorporate passing them out as part of the Sunday service of part of our commitment to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, one human encounter at a time.

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

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

Congregational Fitness for Ministry

Today’s post was written by the Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson, Senior Minister of the UU Church in Rockford, IL.

Given the increasing shortage of UU ministers, congregations might wish for a simple

Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson
Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson

way to evaluate their own fitness for ministry. Ministers, likewise, might find an objective scale helpful in discerning whether a congregation is ready for them. This scale is similar to the hoped for outcomes of interim ministry, though not identical. This is not a scale of comprehensive congregational health – that would look at things like theological maturity, generosity, anti-oppression, and more. (More about that, below). This is simpler.

How do you use this? A board, search committee, and/or committee on ministry might do a self-assessment, with their minister. Do folks agree on where they are placed? If not, why not? Where can you move up easily, and what will be harder?

Ministers in search can assess a potential match — though what is presented from the outside might not be what’s true on the inside – in either direction. A low score doesn’t mean that a congregation is unhealthy and a high score doesn’t mean they are. A minister might choose a congregation that seems less ready for a variety of reasons — including a sense that helping such a place is part of their call.

There are five categories, with a 1-4 rating. A score of 10 or below probably means developmental ministry. A score of 15 or more is very ready. I would not choose a church that didn’t have at least two “4’s” or had more than two “2’s” or less.


4. The church has a strong sense of mission, to change lives in and out of the church.

3. The church is a beacon for liberal values, and many people are engaged in outward ministry.

2. The church is a refuge for liberal people, and some work in the community for good.

1. The church is a club-house and resists any effort to change the world, let alone the

gathered people.


4. Many people joyfully participate in worship, leadership, and social activities. The minister has strong partners in the ministry.

3. There is a core of active leaders in many areas.

2. Though there are some good leaders, the minister is expected to drive most of the ministry.

1. Members see themselves as consumers of the ministry, not co-creators or owners of the church. (Unless there is conflict with the minister.)

Respect for Authority

4. The church values the minister’s expertise and authority in theology, leadership, worship, and care. The minister is the clear chief of staff.

3. Most members respect the minister most of the time, but an undercurrent of suspicion may be present.

2. Members often question the minister’s authority and judgement. Some act out, and leaders let it go unchallenged.

1. The minister is seen as a service provider whose job is to make people happy. They are regularly critiqued and attacked. They are not consulted about important decisions.


4. The congregation is joyfully fair-compensation.

3. Though some members grumble about it, the congregation is fair-compensation and committed to remaining so.

2. Many leaders want to be fair-compensation, but the congregation isn’t there yet.

1. The congregation is not fair-compensation and doesn’t really see why they should be.


4. The congregation insists that the minister maintains a healthy work-life balance, and joyfully welcomes the minister’s family, if any, at the level they wish to be engaged.

3. The congregation respects the minister’s boundaries and need for time off.

2. Though most members respect the minister’s time off, some do not, and the congregation sees this as the minister’s problem to solve.

1. The congregation regularly invades the minister’s time off, privacy, and family life.

Your total score__________.

Note: Again, this is not a comprehensive scale of health.

A minister and a congregation might look at other key factors as well, for example (not a complete list):

  • Anti-racism and anti-oppression: A “4” would have commitments to intercultural competency and a systemic understanding of oppression. A “1” wouldn’t want their minister to talk about it too much and an implicit commitment to minimization.
  • UU identity: A “4” might mean they embrace their UU identity and relationships whilea “1” would mean little to no understanding of, or connection to, Unitarian Universalism. [Thanks to Rev. Erika Hewitt for this one!]
  • Financial Health: A “4” would have clear policies, transparency and inclusion of the minister in financial affairs (including full access to pledging data) and so forth.
  • Theological maturity: A “4” would embrace mystery and metaphor with grace, a “1” would be excessively literalistic and reactive to any religious language.

Generally speaking, if a congregation scores well on the basic measure they can make progress together on these things. But a congregation that isn’t very “fit for ministry” will have a hard time making sustained progress on other measures of health and vitality.

One last note: A congregation that gets a lower score might really need a good minister. Indeed, they might be more “in need” than one who scores well. If a congregation that has a lower score can be honest and self-reflective about how they need to grow, a minister will be much more likely to work with them. So, if you’ve got a score under 12, but the congregation knows that it needs to change and is on the right path, give yourself a few bonus points. You can do it! Congregations become healthier all the time. The shortage of ministers just gives you one more reason to do so.


Covenantal Faith in a Transactional World

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Because our congregations run on money, it’s tempting to bring–along with it–assumptions about how money operates in other parts of our lives.  We go to work and we get a paycheck.  We pay the electric bill and the power company keeps our lights on. We pay at the first window and pick up at the second.

But when we fill out a pledge card, or put together the annual operating budget, the numbers represent more than goods and services.  The numbers represent the ministry that our congregation is called to do in the world, and the numbers represent our financial commitment and accountability to that ministry.

Our covenants are our promises to one another about how we are going to walk together as we do that ministry.

Our pledge cards are promises about how we will help fund that ministry.
Letters of agreement are promises that paid staff and church leaders make to one another about how they will do ministry together and expectations around how they will be accountable to one another.

When we are under financial stress, we are tempted to slip into transactional mode.  The budget looks like any other set of numbers.  The simplest places to cut are the largest line items: staff salaries and benefits.

The financial stress is real, but our responses to the stress can be covenantal instead of transactional.  As you begin a meeting where budget cuts are needed:

  • Remind yourselves of who you are and the good that your congregation is already doing in the world.
  • Remind yourselves of your vision of what more you hope to do to build the beloved community.
  • Remind yourselves of the promises that you have made with one another to support your congregation’s ministry.

Then you will be ready for your discernment as leaders grounded in our covenantal faith.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff




Sunrise, Sunset: Generational Trends in Stewardship

Photo copyright:
Photo copyright:

Many of our “solid” congregations noticed a drop-off in giving that was not a result of a drop-off of membership during the past two or three years.  We don’t have much data (the trend is too new) but we do have some anecdotal information that seems to align with greater generational shifts.

The Baby Boomers Are Retiring

With the recovery of the stock market, many baby boomers–who were holding off on retiring–are now ready to retire.  Nationally, the Baby Boomers are the largest source of charity gifts.

The good news is that most hold steady on their pledges and have more time to serve in volunteer roles.  The bad news that many of them are moving away from their congregations to be near their grandchildren, resulting in the congregation losing substantial (1st quartile–see below) donors.

There also seems to be a trend where Boomers are not dipping into their nest eggs for their daily living expenses, but instead use that money to splurge on big ticket items or vacations with their children and grandchildren.  This may mean they might be more likely to give to a capital campaign rather than raise their pledge to the yearly operating budget.

Generation X Can’t Possibly Fill the Gap

Nationally, the 76 million Baby Boom was followed by only 55 million babies born who are known as Generation X.  That means that there are around 1/3 fewer Gen Xers than there are Baby boomers.  We don’t have hard data, but I suspect that the ratio of Gen X (roughly age 40-54) to Baby Boomers (55-70) is even smaller in our congregations, if we reflect national trends.

Gen Xers also did not have the financial advantages of previous generations.  Those who went to college often graduated with high levels of student debt. Limited job opportunities, cost-saving employment practices, the reduction of employer benefits, the volatility of the stock market, and the bursting of the housing bubble have all contributed to a sense of financial insecurity that is not always acknowledged in our congregations.

Also, Gen Xers are known as a generation of hackers and slackers (stay with me!).  Their small numbers kept them from having an impact on “stuck” institutions–including our congregations–so they either gave up on the institution (which labeled them as slackers) or found work-arounds within the system (acting as hackers). Their experiences probably affected their sense of loyalty to the institutions.  (Again, this observation is anecdotal.)

 Millennials Have a Different Mindset About Giving

The number of Millennials is eclipsing the number Baby Boomers.  Their job opportunities are a mixed bag, with some Millennials finding great jobs and others struggling.

They are suspicious of institutions, but–at the same time–they appreciate that institutions can be used “for good.”  And yet–they can be generous givers.  They want to know where the money that they donate is going, and that it is changing lives.  If your congregation’s message and actions reflect solid core values, you can invite Millennials to support your work with integrity.

Healthy Pledge Distribution ChartWhat you can do:

  • If possible, do an analysis of the distribution of pledges by quartile (i.e. look at your total amount pledged, divide it by 4, and see how many of your pledge units are in each quartile.   According to Wayne Clark:

The first 25% of total dollars should be coming from the first 10% of the household donors
The second 25% of total dollars should be coming from 15% of the donors
The third 25%of total dollars should be coming from 35% of the donors
The final 25% of total dollars should be coming from the last 40% of household donors

 If you have less than 30% of your members in the top two quartiles, you may be at risk.

  • Make sure your leaders are transparent, trustworthy and act with integrity.  Your donors want to know that your congregation will be a good steward of their financial gifts.
  • Be crystal clear when it comes to your mission and vision.  Let people know how your congregation makes the world a better places and transform lives.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff


Avoid a Disappearing Act

First UU of San Francisco
Photo by Justin Ennis

Imagine if your church sign was only visible to half of people driving by your building.  What if only half of the local phone books or half of the local newspapers listed your congregation?   If your congregation’s website is out of date, it can’t be easily accessed by half of the people who are looking for you!

We have reached the tipping point where 80% of internet users have a smart phone, and over half of Google searches are performed on a mobile device (including tablets). In response, Google is changing their search protocol beginning April 21, 2015 to use mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.

This means that if your website it not mobile-friendly, it will be practically invisible to more than half of your potential visitors.

What you can do:

  1. Check to see if your website is mobile-friendly.
  2. Share this blog post with your “webmaster” or congregational leaders.



Updating Your Web Presence: Tools and Tips

A free, mobile-friendly UU WordPress Theme (updated 4/19/2015)


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

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