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:


The Bubble of Beloved Community

Sometimes, living in a bubble can be a good thing. It can create a barrier between harmful things on the outside and precious things on the insidebubble-by-serg-c.

In some ways, our congregational covenants operate in this way. They articulate that “in this community, this is how we will be together.” We promise to treat one another not only with respect, but with a sense of mutuality so that every one of us can flourish. We promise to work toward becoming our best selves, to learn from our mistakes and to help one another learn and grow.

As religious liberal communities, especially in the current climate of hateful rhetoric, we have a responsibility to model to the rest of the world how we believe people should treat one another. When our congregations are at their best, the are truly communities of people who care deeply and feel cared for.

The funny thing about bubbles is that–no matter how beautiful they may be–it’s human nature to want to pop them. It’s also not uncommon in human nature for some of us to want to pop the fragile bubble of beloved community. This is why our congregations must keep and renew our covenants with the same patience and persistence as a parent blowing bubbles for a toddler.

But sometimes more than a gentle reminder is needed when one of us is out of covenant. If someone persists with a behavior that is hurting the community, congregational leaders need to rely on good, faithful policies to address disruptive behavior. If someone is using racist, sexist, sexual or threatening language, the leaders have a responsibility to step up and stop the behavior, and the members of the congregation has a responsibility to support them in setting those limits.

Now might be a good time to review and refresh your congregation’s covenant as well as your safety policies, especially around disruptive behavior. Let’s keep our bubbles intact.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff


Never Call Them Jerks By Arthur Paul Boers


If the Buddha Was “In Search…”

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

Photo by Jan Kunst
Photo by Jan Kunst

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


Let Me Sleep on It…

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.  TheWoman Sleeping 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


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?”

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:


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.





The Dance of Shared Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.    Always move counter clockwise around the dance floor.

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

3.    No parking on the dance floor.

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

4.    Stay in your lane.

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

5.    Do not lift your elbows.

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

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

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

-Rev. Renée Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG

One Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

The Path Taken

conflict resolution“Conflict”, philosopher John Dewey wrote, “is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.”

All too many leaders in our congregations, however, see conflict or resistance as inherently evil.  In this way of thinking, the goal is to deny the conflict or suppress it in an effort to maintain the illusion of harmony.  Savvy leaders know that conflict in a healthy congregation is to be welcomed and cultivated; that out of conflict comes creativity and new ideas and energy.  The key is how the leader meets and responds to the resistance that is causing the conflict.

Belgian Luc Galoppin,, a wonderfully inventive organizational change manager, says that we have a choice when our goals or ideas are met with resistance.  We can respond with revenge or we can respond with respect.  Taking the revenge path means pushing harder to get your way when there is resistance.  The result of this tactic is usually greater resistance.  So, in order to meet this increased resistance, one has to push even harder.  Eventually, you reach a state of indifference on the part of the resister.  “Fine, have it your way”, they may say.  “I don’t care anymore.”  “Whatever.”   In this scenario, the leader has created what Galoppin calls an energy drain.  Game over.  Resistance has been defeated.  Congregational life goes on, albeit less inspired, less motivated, and less energized.

The other path that leaders can take when faced with resistance is one of respect.  It begins with remembering that everyone we meet is facing a great battle and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness.  It means listening for why they care about the issue; taking the time to understand the underlying meaning, intentions, hopes and dreams of the other.  It means not taking it personally, even if the reaction of the other was clearly intended to hurt you.  In taking the path of respect, the leader strives for open communication and collaboration in negotiating a solution that will resolve the conflict and move the congregation forward.  The leader commits to staying “at the table” until this work is done.  This process, says Galoppin, is the source of our energy and keeps us in the ballgame.

Following the path of revenge stems from the need to be right.  Following the path of respect stems from the need to be in relationship.

As a Unitarian Universalist, which path makes more sense to you?

Mark Bernstein, Consultant, Central East Regional Group