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.
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 beloved 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.
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.
Belonging to and being a part of a community is an important aspect of congregational life. Many of our members think of their congregations as a second home and think of the other members as part of their extended family. The relationships that we create and nurture by sharing the details of our lives are an important part of the glue that binds us.
The problem is that the existing, integrated members’ needs for intimacy is in tension with providing hospitality for those who are newer or even visiting for the first time. How do we balance that tension? We can still take our cues from how families operate.
Imagine how a congregation is like an American middle-class house.
In a private residence, these are all-access public spaces like the front porch and yard, that are visible to all and should be inviting and clearly marked.
These are the outside parts of our buildings, our parking lots and gardens and our website. We let the world know who we are and what we care about, in language they can understand.
Then we have inside semi-public spaces where we provide hospitality to non-family such as in an open-house party: the living room and dining room. We provide comfortable seating and make sure people are safe and can participate as they wish. We make sure everyone is included in the conversation without being put on the spot. We refrain from over-sharing. When offering refreshments we make sure that everyone can partake, offering gluten-free, caffeine-free and non-alcoholic choices.
These are our Sunday morning worship and fellowship times. This is where newcomers come to learn about us without being put on the spot. We get a chance to get to know them through engaged–but not too personal–conversation. This means we try to avoid behaviors that might “creep people out” or make them feel like outsiders.
Dinner with Good Friends
Then we have the close-friends spaces such as the kitchen table and back porch. These are the spaces for more intimate sharing between people who already have relationships.
These might be covenant groups, chalice circles or cottage meetings in our congregations.
Doing the Laundry
Then there are the family-only spaces (bedrooms, laundry and rumpus room). These are spaces where we can be ourselves, let our hair down, fuss about the neighbors or perhaps whine about whose turn it is to scoop the litter box.
In our congregations, the equivalent spaces might be town hall discussions where we make space to hear one another and meetings of committees, boards and the “congregation in meeting” where decisions are made.
What does this mean for our congregations?
This is your congregation’s “open house” time. As many of our parents say, “Church is here to remind us that it’s not ‘all about me.'” Sunday worship is a public expression of who we are (our DNA or core values expressed in our mission) and who we aspire to be (our aspirational values as expressed in our vision and strategic plan). A competent minister has a finger on this pulse of the congregation.
How we support and care for one another must be expressed in a way that is inclusive and welcoming. If you have a fellowshipped UU minister who is an active UUMA member, they will have the wisdom to find out the best practices from their colleagues. (It’s rare that a congregation over 100 members can do this well with an “open mic” Joys & Sorrows format.)
The time of fellowship (often called “coffee hour”) is our opportunity to provide hospitality to the newcomer — not just a chance to connect with dear friends. Congregations who have a commitment to growth have leaders who covenant (promise) one another to refrain from conducting business and personal conversation until 30-45 minutes after the service ends.
Your Semi-Public Space
Once people walk through your doors, you will want to make sure you have a clear, consistent message, from your signage (where are the restrooms), to your greeters (where should one sit), to how new parents can know how their children will be kept safe.
If your congregation provides gender-neutral bathrooms or accommodations for people with hearing disabilities (such as a loop system) or other initiatives that may be unfamiliar to newcomers, be sure to have trained greeters, ushers and other welcoming volunteers to help new people acclimate.
Tend to the Laundry
If there is an active conflict in your congregation, do not give in to the temptation to process it in the public and semi-public spaces. In fact, any active conflict affects visitors, who can feel the tension when they walk through your doors.
Instead, make sure that you have opportunities to “do the laundry” in your congregation with town hall and cottage meetings when ever there is an issue that is eliciting conflict.
The world need our saving message of rational thought and universal love. Let’s be sure to open our doors and set our tables so we can invite people to hear that message.
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, UUA Congregational Life Staff
Social media is a great outreach tool for today’s congregations, but congregational leaders need to be savvy about how to balance the open-source nature of today’s interactive internet with the need to articulate a consistent message in alignment with your congregation’s mission and vision (and — dare I say — “brand”).
Social media expert Lori Stone Sirtosky offers some tips on best practices for congregations to ensure consistency for your congregational Twitter and Facebook accounts during times of transition:
If your congregation has paid staff, make sure at least one staff member has the manager role on your congregation’s page. They can then remove and add volunteers as new people relinquish/assume this role.
For congregations with no paid staff, make sure more than one volunteer has the manager role for your Facebook page (and provide training to all managers on how to avoid posting “as the page” accidentally, especially from their phone).
To ensure continuity, the email address (e.g., email@example.com) associated with the organization’s twitter account should be controlled by church staff (if you have them). Then even if the social media person walks, the domain admin can reset the password to the email account. This will allow you to use the Twitter lost password feature to get in.
For groups that rely on volunteers, building redundancy can be more of a challenge, but it is possible! You can set up the email address as an alias and redirect it to more than one person. This way multiple people are notified when a password reset attempt is made. This builds in a measure of security. It also allows more than one person to reset the password and regain access to the account if needed.
Building redundancy into the system before someone vacates these key tech and social media roles for your congregation is vital.
Good planning now will save you a lot of headache later.
The phone rings. There is an anxious board president on the phone with a crisis on their hands. Perhaps their minister has fallen seriously ill, or there is a member who is regularly disrupting the Sunday worship service, or a registered sex offender has expressed interest in attending the church. Some situations cannot be anticipated or prevented. But there are many situations where having the right policies, procedures and safeguards in place will help a congregation get through a crisis.
Here is a checklist for your board to use to determine your congregation’s preparedness:
1. Make sure your staff members have adequate insurance.
Having your minister fall ill and not be able to perform their duties would be hard on the congregation. Having your minister not be able to perform their duties–with no financial safety net–would be devastating. Make sure that, along with your health plan, you include group insurance plans that include term life and long-term disability insurance. These are relatively inexpensive add-ons to insurance policies.
2. Make sure your congregation has adequate insurance.
Call your insurance agent for an insurance check-up. Many UU congregations use Church Mutual, because they have an understanding of the needs of liberal religious communities. Insurance can help your congregation recover financially after a fire, embezzlement or other harmful event.
3. Set up clear expectations about behaviors.
Even if you recite a traditional covenant on Sunday morning (i.e. Love is the Spirit of this church….) you will want to have a behavioral covenant or a covenant of right relations that spells out how members promise to treat one another. In addition to this, you will want a disruptive behavior policy so that you give your leaders the authority to set limits on particularly damaging behaviors, and a process for restoring right relationship if the disruptive person is willing to abide by the limits.
4. Make sure your congregation has well-communicated “Safer Congregations” policies.
The Religious Institute has well-defined “best practices” for congregations to prevent sexual abuse, sexual harassment and professional sexual misconduct. They also provide resources on how to include known sex offenders in your community while still protecting your other members and children. Your congregational commitment to sexual safety should be known to every member.
5. Establish and practice emergency evacuation procedures.
In case of a fire, tornado, live shooter or other immediate emergency, you will want to have your staff, greeters/ushers and teachers know what to do and where to go. It’s especially important to practice evacuating once or twice a year so that if — heaven forbid — the real thing happens, everyone knows what to do. Also make sure your leaders are familiar with the post-trauma response resources from the UUA.
Alpha Congregation has several corporate trainers who work in the not-for-profit world. Three of them were asked to serve on the newly-formed Leadership Development Team (LDT). They spent a couple of months designing a fabulous in-house training for potential leaders and a couple more months advertising the program and inviting members to participate. On the day of the event, they were a little disappointed about the low turnout. There were a couple of attendees who they thought might be good leaders, but several others were missing some key leadership qualities. When it became time to fill the slate for the board of trustees a few months later, the LDT asked Kris, one of the promising candidates, if Kris would like to be treasurer. “Oh I’m awful with finances!” exclaimed Kris. “What made you think that would be a good role for me?”
Delta Congregation has a couple of community organizers who were serving on their newly-formed LDT. They suggested that they use a One-to-One model of connecting. They spent their year connecting with those folk in the congregation who seemed to have a strong sense of belonging but were not in yet leadership roles; a manageable 20% of the people who attended church somewhat regularly. In these one-to-one conversations the LDT members shared about their own commitment and sense of passion toward the mission and vision of the congregation. Next, they inquired about the interviewee’s values, passions and gifts. Then the LDT member just listened–deeply. After a couple of months of these interviews, this LDT compared notes and followed up with their interviewees, connecting about half of them into various leadership roles that everyone found were good fits.
Many of our UU congregations have been moving from having Nominating Committees (which meet for a few months out of the year to help fill the slate of board members and other key positions) to Leadership Development Teams (which work year-around on leadership development). This is meant to be a holistic approach to growing leaders in a congregational setting.
There are different facets to leadership development, the “Five I’s:”
Identify (Pay attention to people who are involved in congregational activities and how they interact with others.)
Invite (Help potential leaders discern their gifts.)
Inform (Equip your potential leaders with training)
Involve (Help potential leaders find a way to serve the ministry that best matches their gifts and calling)
Inquire (Check in annually with leaders to assess how well they are serving and how the role is serving them)
It’s tempting — especially if you have expertise “in house” — to put too much energy into training (i.e. “Inform“), at the expense of the relationship-building activities that–in the long run–results in committed leaders matched to fitting roles. There are many ways to collaborate to spread the tasks of offering trainings so that your congregation’s Leadership Development Teams can concentrate on the relational one-to-one work that can have the most impact:
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!
Smaller congregations in many denominations are struggling to survive. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily “doing church” badly. But it does mean they need to do church differently. Intuiting this need, church leaders often begin gearing up for a strategic planning process.
Strategic plans have been viewed as the epitome of responsible church governance since the 1970s, however… That view is shifting. Experts now speak of the “death” of strategic planning so frequently we thought it fitting to summarize their views in the following obituary.
Mr. Strategic Plan quietly passed away in the first decade of the 21st century. He was born many years ago in a military camp, later adopted by businesses, and then spent his last years among non-profits and churches. He flourished in a time marked by its slower pace and greater institutional resources. He believed that tomorrow would turn out to be much like today and that with enough data and a clear, sure sense of self he could chart the best path forward into the distant future. Upon exposure to social and cultural shifts, Mr. Strategic Plan took ill and went into isolation. He was neglected in his last years and his death is only now being noticed in some quarters.
Mr. Strategic Plan is survived by many agile, shorter-term, best-guess strategic actions launched from a common ground, driven by individual or small group passions and coordinated just enough to reveal the congregation’s evolving understanding of its role in the world.
In this moment, the trend is away from massive, linear, comprehensive plans that define a specific future and the steps to get there, toward agile, bold actions plus reflection that move us now into our destinies. Direct those actions toward creating Beloved Community and practice a reflection that is spiritually centered, and you have the new way of framing congregational strategic planning.
This reframing eliminates the long search for a single set of all-inclusive goals perfectly balanced to achieve unanimous approval by the congregation. Instead, leadership creates a framework that supports groups of congregants passionately engaged in the community to give and receive gifts of service, hope, and love. For church leaders, this reframe is both a shift in thinking and a shift in behavior.
The Big Shifts in Strategic Planning
The biggest mind-shift may be giving up the idea that we can continue to do what we already do, except more and better. Common expressions of this mindset include, “We just need” [more members, bigger pledges, the right minister, a revised governance structure or bylaws, or a larger draw on the endowment]. Good leaders are already squeezing benefits from doing the familiar. But if we meet only these kinds of needs the future will arrive, welcome or not, and tell us to close our doors for good. Strategic thinking is a shift in stance from knowing to not knowing and from the familiar to the unknown and maybe even the risky.
With this reframe, the biggest shift in leadership behavior may be away from a top-down approach with the board gathering data and then determining goals. Instead the board equips its members to become instruments of strategic thinking and exploration as they minister out in the community. Shifts are not just top-down to bottom-up but also inward focused to outward engaged. The most critical strategic information about a congregation’s future lies in active engagement outside of its walls.
This reframe of strategic planning also requires shifting from:
Slow and deliberative to nimble and experimental
Comprehensive and unanimous to targeted and personal
Knowing the “right” path to learning from success and failure
-Doug Zelinski, Leadership Development Director, New England Region
These are a lot of shifts and the question of “How?” surfaces almost immediately. New England Regional staff will share what we are learning about this reframing and answering the question “How?” at our upcoming event “The Future of Small to Mid-Sized Congregations” happening April 18 in Reading, MA and again on May 2 in Springfield, MA . You can read more and register for either of these events on the New England Region website.
It’s the beginning of the year, and Ministerial Search Committees have just received a list of names of ministers who are interested in learning more about their congregation. Savvy Search Committees know that they are
looking for a good match, not a perfect candidate, and the best way to find a good match is to present the congregation as mindfully and authentically as possible. Taking a cue from the Charlotte Kasl book If the Buddha Dated, here are some suggestions for all leaders of congregations to help them frame themselves while in search:
Be guided by Spirit, not Ego:
Does the congregation have a sense of mission and connection that extends beyond its walls?
Have you discerned a strong forward-looking sense of purpose that enables you to “retire” programs and practices that no longer serve the mission?
Do your leaders feel a sense of call that enables them to partner with the new minister to lead the congregation outside of its comfort zone?
Know thyself as a system: both your strengths and your growing edges
Can you articulate what is at your center? i.e. What are the core, defining values make up your congregation’s DNA?
What does it take to “fit in” with your faith community? Are there barriers around class, education, culture?
How do you handle conflict? Do people communicate directly, or do they tend to triangulate?
Do you set annual congregational ministry goals and assess how the ministries did at the end of the year? Where is the accountability (both for lay and/or professional people)?
Are you able to address your growing edges with humility and/or a sense of humor?
Be mindful of “unfinished business” from your congregation’s recent (and not-so-recent) history
Can you talk openly about uncomfortable parts of your congregation’s history? Can you articulate how that history might have affected the congregation and what might be done to move it forward?
Are there areas of the congregation that operate outside of the official lines of authority? (website/Facebook, ministry programs, social justice, endowment, etc.?)
Where are the past presidents? Are they still active, or burned out?
How did your previous ministries end? If there was conflict involved, what part did your congregation play? How have the leaders responded to conflict since then?
Understand your relationship with power and authority, covenant and stewardship
Do the lines of accountability align with lines of authority? (e.g. Is the minister head of program staff? Is the board fulfilling its fiduciary duties? Does the board trust and treat the minister as a covenantal partner? Are staff who are also members clear about their boundaries?)
Do you have well-established policies and procedures to deal with members who are disruptive or just out of covenant that include strong lay leadership involvement?
What is your relationship to money? Do members and friends pledge generously? Does the congregation compensate staff and contribute to the region and UUA at suggested levels?
What is your relationship to the wider UU movement? Do your leaders interact with other UU leaders? Do you seek out “best practices” of other congregations shared by the UUA?
Practice “beginner’s mind” as part of your own living tradition
Do you have youth and young adults in leadership?
Do you have active leaders with different identities (race, class, culture, ability, gender) who are appreciated for the different perspectives that they bring?
Do you have examples of how you tried something, failed, but no one resigned their leadership position or left the congregation as a result?
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Region of the UUA
The congregational meeting was held right after the Sunday service to guarantee a quorum. There were a couple of important issues to discuss, including passing a deficit budget to help fund a part time membership coordinator in service of their desire for growth. Standard reports were given by the board, the minister, the religious educator and various committee chairs. Bellies were starting to feel hunger and eyes were starting to glaze over. The last report was from the finance committee, presenting the deficit budget and opening up the discussion.
The first member to speak explained that she was retired, debt free, and on a fixed income and couldn’t possibly pledge any more. The next member accused the finance committee of “dropping this bomb” on the congregation at the last minute. The next threatened to withhold their pledge if the congregation passed a deficit budget. Tempers continued to flare until the budget was revised to take out the additional spending. The leaders felt that the congregation’s vision was sabotaged, and that affected their ability to serve with joy for the rest of the year.
We know from brain science that when humans feel that they are threatened, the amygdala become engaged and the higher brain functions such as reason and creativity are overshadowed by flight or fight responses. When the brain has experienced this sort of amygdala hijack, it takes three or four hours to regain full cognitive functioning!
Some congregations understand this and have separated out the presentation and discussion parts from the voting parts of their congregational meetings so that the discussion can happen without the time-pressure of an immediate pending vote. This way members can share their concerns, leaders can listen deeply and decisions can be made with our creative and rational neo-cortex and not our emotionally reactive cerebellum. It turns out that “sleeping on it” does help us make better decisions!
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Regional Group