We Are Communities of Care

When I first started attending my local UU congregation, I was fascinated by the opportunities for members to share in a part of the service called “Joys and Concerns.” It was an open-mic format where people shared personal anecdotes, milestones, political/social concerns, stories about ailing friends/co-workers/loved ones, and grief and sorrow over the deaths of pets/friends/relatives.  Sometimes it was intimate and comforting. Other times is was a bit awkward. And occasionally, someone took over the service with sharing that was almost as long as the sermon.

When I went to seminary, I learned more about the history of this practice. It was started with good intentions, but not with a good articulation of the purpose of the ritual nor with the boundaries of what could/should be shared to keep a sense of reverence for deeper levels of sharing. We had discussions about how to balance the intimacy of the congregational community with the need for Sunday morning to be a public (or “third”) space that is welcoming to the stranger.

This tension was brought into the spotlight for me when I heard this story: A church that had the open-mic format of Joys and Concerns had a Sunday where members shared impersonal concerns about national events and minor concerns about ailing pets. Then one member got up and shared that their child had died that week, and they didn’t know how to share such a deep grief following what had already been said.

That story convinced me that the worship leaders needed to moderate–or even refocus–this element of the Sunday service. I think that the core, generative question is, “how do we balance the need of being a community of care during members’ significant times with the need to be relevant to the newcomer in our Sunday worship services?”

I’ve seen lots of variations and modifications of the “Joys and Concerns” format. But I want to share one model that was so moving, so authentic, and so participatory that I was moved to tears.

The UU Church of Akron, Ohio has developed a ritual where the minister and a member of the Pastoral care team stand by a rack of candles while meditative music plays. Members, friends and visitors line up, and
the pastors connect with each person as they light a candle. Whispered words of gratitude, grief or joy might accompany the lighting.  Each person is heard, and each sharing is acknowledged in a satisfyingly personal way.

During that ritual, I could feel how deeply that community loved each other, and how deeply they were open to loving the strangers within their midst.

I’m not suggesting that this ritual is right for every congregation. But I do want every congregation to be as intentional about being a community of care for the newcomers as well as the established members. You can see this ritual in action in the congregation’s welcome video:

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Consultant, Central East Region

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

Resources:

http://www.uua.org/safe/disruptive-behavior-policies

https://www.uua.org/leadership/skills/conflict

Never Call Them Jerks By Arthur Paul Boers

 

Church Governance Should Serve, Not Rule

Rev. David Pyle
Rev. David Pyle

Congregations often look to the corporate and not-for-profit worlds for models of leadership, organizational development, fundraising and volunteer management. Unfortunately, they also look there for models of governance to the detriment of their core purpose.  Congregations are ground in covenant, not bound in contract, so the relationship between minister and governing boards should not copy the relationship between a CEO and a corporate board.

Rev. David Pyle, Congregational Life Consultant in the Central East Region, recently shared what congregational governance should look like on his Facebook Page:

1. The purpose of church is not governance.

The purpose of church is mission. The purpose of church is transforming lives to transform the world. Governance is important only as it helps you to live your mission in the world. If you are spending more time on governance than you are on mission, something is wrong. Governance should free your congregation for mission, not serve as a replacement for mission.

2. Corporate style governance systems were not designed for religious community.

Neither were traditional non-profit governance systems. Both import an adversarial mindset between the Governing Board and the Executive that is detrimental to religious mission. Both depend on the Board’s ability to terminate the Executive, which Congregational Boards often cannot do (called ministry). You can make corporate or traditional non-profit governance systems work in congregations, and it takes significant energy and effort, often detracting that effort and energy from mission.

3. There is no perfect governance system.

Governance is about providing some order to the power relationships amongst human beings working together for a common purpose… and human beings are endlessly creative, messy, and chaotic. Governance is far more art than science, because human beings are infinitely complex. Good governance is a creative compromise, and it takes leaders who keep their eye on mission. Good governance is about how can we best all build the “world made whole”.

4. There are many forms of good governance.

Almost as many as their are churches. I am not picky. If Policy Governance helps you best fulfill your mission, then Amen Hallelujah! If having an Operational Board works best for you, then Amen Hallelujah! I even know a Portfolio Board or two that achieve mission well, and a few Family Model congregations who kick serious mission butt. I am not a Governance Fundamentalist. Because it is your religious mission that is vital, not necessarily how you get there. Whatever you do, do what best leads you to mission.

5. Institutional structures come, and institutional structures go.

They are tools, not talismans. They must change as time and culture changes. It is religious mission that remains. Neither Jesus nor Buddha founded significant church structures or governance, they left that to their followers. They focused on religious mission. If your governance is supporting your religious mission, amen. If not, then change tools. But realize they are only tools (including Congregational polity). Letting governance or polity replace mission as the center of our religious focus is a form of idolatry. Our eyes must be on the mission of transformed lives that transform the world, and we must craft tools that best help us to achieve that.

Especially Congregational governance.

Keeping Your Laundry Out of the Living Room

house sideBelonging 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.

Curb Appeal

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.

Open House

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?

Sunday Mornings

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

Putting on the Membership Apron

Put on your apronWhat does it mean to be a member in a congregation? How much can we ask of members?  I believe that membership should signify a commitment to the congregation and it’s mission as expressed by the Rev. Michael Piazza.

“Becoming a member of a church means you take off your bib and put on an apron,”

he declared to a group of UU ministers at the recent UUMA Institute.

I remember the moment when I really felt I had become a “real” member of my own congregation.

It wasn’t when I started dropping a weekly check into the offering basket.

It wasn’t when I took my first religious education class.

It wasn’t when I signed the membership book.

It wasn’t even when I became moderator (a Universalist church position similar to president) of the congregation.

I felt I became a “real” member when I spent a full Saturday as part of a work party doing a deep cleaning of the church building before ingathering Sunday.

I’m not saying that membership only comes with a scrub brush and mop.  But I do believe that when we become a member of a congregation, we should be asked to change our posture from guest to host, from visitor to steward.

As hosts, we make sure the guests find a welcoming and nurturing spiritual community.  As lifelong seekers, we grow our own souls though our own continuous faith development.  As stewards, we offer our time and money to help sustain and grow that community.  As members we agree to serve in these roles and more, in covenant with one another and with our highest ideals.

As Brother Sun says, we do what must be done.

 

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, Central East Region

Resources:

Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church  by Michael Piazza

Belonging (PDF, 166 pages): The Meaning of Membership, with Study Guide  (2001 Commission on Appraisal report)

http://www.uua.org/growth/membership/index.shtml

 

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?”

5 Shades of Ministry

Allegheny UU Church in Pittsburgh, PA has a commitment to shared ministry.
Allegheny UU Church in Pittsburgh, PA has a commitment to shared ministry.

I’ve spent most of my summer working with different programs and events that help to grow lay leaders in our faith.  I have had the blessing of encountering dozens of earnest, committed and evangelical lay leaders wanting to spread the good news of our liberal faith.  Ministry shows up in many forms, and each has high value and an important role in the life of our faith communities.  Often ordained ministry is held up as “real ministry,” relegating other forms of ministry to lesser status.  I think all forms of ministry are important and complementary.

Ministry comes in many shades that, when layered, become a  rich hue. I can think of five — perhaps you might come up with more.

  • Pastoral Ministry is compassion.
    It is offering comfort and care to each other when we are in need.
  • Teaching Ministry is consciousness.
    It is encouraging one another to form our beliefs, live our values and engage our world.
  • Prophetic Ministry is agency.
    It is how we use our religious convictions to transform the world.
  • Ordained Ministry is devotion.
    It is a life devoted to serving the transcendent religious ideal.
  • Shared Ministry is covenantal.
    It is the time and intention that lay people carve out of their busy lives, also in their commitment to partner in serving the transcendent religious ideal. It is the time and attention that the clergy give to the spiritual formation of those leaders. Shared ministry is the greatest of these because it creates space for all gifts of ministry.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant

 

 

 

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 Occupy.com 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: