People Get Ready, Part 1

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

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

What you can do:

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

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

The Difference When You Make a Difference

turtleThe scholarship fund at the Midwest Leadership School, called “Flame Keepers” was not growing.  Sadly, in the summer of 2013 only $10 had been donated to the fund.  The volunteer lay staff had all experienced the transformative power of the week-long school and had enthusiastically promoted the fund with skits and songs to help provide that experience for leaders with financial need.  This past summer they decided to try something new, based on a lecture about stewardship by visiting faculty member Kathy McGowan.  She had said:

People give money to make a difference.  People give money to change lives. You need to tell the story of how you are making a difference in the lives of real people.

MLWS Chair Jennifer Thomas reached out to a MWLS graduate, Sayer Johnson, that she had met when she was a student in 2011. Thomas asked for a testimonial that could be shared when they invited the current students to donate to the Flame Keepers fund.  This is the result:

Jennifer Sayer
Jennifer Thomas reads testimonial by Sayer Johnson. Photo by Darthe Jennings.

MWLS changed my life.

 

As the week unfolded, I knew I’d never be the same, and I was right.  My congregation saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself and they took a chance on me. My congregation was generous with their open hearts. Strangers were generous with their financial support, and because of a Flamekeepers scholarship, I was able to make MWLS a reality.

 

Two years before stepping foot onto the Beloit campus I was emerging as my authentic self. I was declaring my space as a transgender man. My family and my congregation stood by me, held me up, and eventually challenged me to be here–where you are now–and have this experience at Beloit. My time at MWLS resonates with me still.

 

My time at MWLS was my first experience with meeting folks who only knew me as Sayer…not by my old name  and not as my former self. It was daunting and frightening and overwhelming, but in the end one of the most amazing and soul-inspiring welcomes into my new world as I could have possibly wished for.

 

Beloit lit a spark… and because of the Flamekeepers, the spark became light. MWLS would  NEVER have been possible for me without the generosity of strangers.  

Now four years later, I’m still benefiting from my time at MWLS.  Upon returning, I was able to facilitate growth in my congregation. I also co-founded a support group for other transgender men in the St. Louis metro area. The impact of MWLS is powerful, intimate and far-reaching.

 

My story is one of many.  And I am grateful.

The response was amazing. People wrote checks. People rounded up their bookstore purchases to donate to the fund.  MWLS student and folk musician Darthe Jennings donated all of the proceeds from her CDs sold at the bookstore to the fund.  The result?  Instead of $10, the fund received over $1000!

Make a difference, then tell the story of how you make a difference.

Additional Resources:

Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate: A New Vision or Financial Stewardship by J. Clif Christopher

The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multiracial and Multicultural Congregations by Jacqueline Lewis

The Generosity Path: Finding the Richness in Giving by Mark V. Ewert

The Wi$dom Path: Money, Spirit, and Life A Tapestry of Faith Program for Adults  by Patricia Hall Infante and David H. Messner

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff, CERG – The Central East Regional Group

 

 

 

Art Doesn’t Happen by Committee – Part 1

classiceditorguyOnce upon a time there was a congregation that wanted a mission statement. They appointed a committee that worked hard. They held cottage meetings, World Café conversations, and got a real sense of the identity of the congregation, who they were as a “whole” — or (as described in this clip from Rise of the Guardians) their “center.”  It became time to draft the mission statement.

Another committee was convened with representatives from different constituencies. They spent several meetings where they wordsmithed* the statement over….and over…and over…again.  The finished statement ended up being awkward and clunky.  Sadly, it didn’t have the desired effect of “making the congregation’s heart sing.”  At the congregational meeting, there was some more wordsmithing from the floor before the half-hearted congregational vote to approve it.  Afterward, it was tucked away with the meeting minutes and slowly faded from memory.

In a parallel universe, this congregation did all of the same things…until it came time to draft the mission statement. They had decided early in the process to leave the drafting of the actual mission statement to “congregational poets” — a member (or two) who is known for their ability to turn a beautiful phrase.  The finished statement resonated with the members and served as a portable way for leaders and others to remind themselves of their center as a faith community.

As leaders, it’s important to know we need to organize ourselves depending on the job to be done.  If you have a big, complicated event to run, you put one person in charge and help to recruit volunteers to help make it happen.  If you have finances to steward, you want to have skilled and competent folks doing the paperwork and trusted leaders doing the oversight.  If you have a problem to solve with creativity, you want to bring in some diverse viewpoints and experiences to engage with it as a group.  And if you want something crafted that touches the heart and soul, you need an artist.

*Note:  I have heard wordsmith being used as a verb to describe this phenomenon in many different situations, but could not find this definition of it, or even that is it recognized as a verb.  The word “wordsmith” does not even appear in my 1980 Webster Dictionary in any form.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

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.

 

 

 

 

Adaptive Measures

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

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

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

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

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

 -Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

In It for the Long Haul

Bless the ImperfectOn this Thanksgiving Day, I wish to extend my own gratitude to all of those committed members who bless their congregations with their steadfast support.  As you read this, many of them are probably in the church basement, washing up after the community Thanksgiving dinner for those who don’t have a family dinner to attend.

I recently read a wonderful description of such members in Skinner House’s new meditation manual for congregational leaders, Bless the Imperfect.  I hope you see yourself here, and know that you, too, are a blessing.

 

Long-Haul People

 

by Rudy Nemser

 

You find them in churches
when you’re lucky;
other places too, though I mostly
only know ecclesiastical varieties.

Long haul people
upon whose shoulders
(and pocketbooks and casseroles
and daylight/nighttime hours)
a church is built and maintained
after the brass is tarnished and
cushions need re-stitching.

They pay their pledges full and on time
even when the music’s modern;
support each canvass though the sermons aren’t always short;
mow lawns and come to suppers;
teach Sunday School when
there’s no one else and they’ll miss the service.

Asked what they think of the minister,
or plans for the kitchen renovation,
or the choral anthem, or Christmas pageant,
or color of the bathroom paint,
they’ll reply: individuals and fashions
arrive and pass.
The church—their church—will be here, steady and hale.|
For a long, long time.
It will.
For long haul people bless a church
with a very special blessing.

 

From Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders, Kathleen Montgomery, Editor.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

 

May We Give Thanks…

This week, in honor of the holiday of Thanksgiving, I wish to express my gratitude for our liberal religious communities. We who persist in creating and maintaining authentic communities of liberal faith do so in a culture that is facing increased anxiety, fragmentation, isolation, disconnection and hyper-individualism.

friendsIn American culture, most of us have only 2 close friends.  Yet, I see how small group ministry and other aspects of congregational life enable those in our congregations to have the possibility for many more close friends than the national average.

I’ve noticed that being intentional about fostering community has been a topic of interest among many Unitarian Universalists in the past decade (if not longer).  An unofficial “common read” book among this group as been Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging.  (This book helped to inspire Mark Bernstein’s workshop at the 2013 General Assembly, Beyond Contentment: Motivating Members to Do More.)  One of my big “a ha” moments in reading the book is that a large number of people in a community who experience individual transformation does not necessarily lead to the transformation of the community itself. The practices that lead to community transformation are practices of the community as a whole. And Peter Block reminds us that dialogue is the best community-builder.

As Unitarian Universalist, we know this.  In the May 2005 Commission on Appraisal report Engaging Our Theological Diversity, 82% of lay folk and 91% of ministers responded that: “We deepen our wisdom in community when we share our stories and engage in dialogue across our differences” was “Highly Important.” (page 68)  It is in our practices of deep listening and the creative interchange of rich dialogue that we can offer a saving message to the world in the form of being communities of these practices.

Please let me share a glimpse into my own faith community where we practice living our faith authentically:

http://youtu.be/4M-bBKB_Gzo

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

 

You Talkin’ to Me?

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

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

Let me suggest a different way of framing .

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

Here is an overview of those levels:

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

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

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

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

 

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

Show and “Tells”

tell“Your actions are speaking so loudly, I can hardly hear what you are saying.”  This is a quote from a webinar on the presence of leaders that I took recently.

A leader’s presence reflects their underlying values — it’s how they wear their values.  A leader with integrity embodies the values that they articulate.  We often have inner narratives that help us make sense of and respond to the world around us.  If we believe one thing on the inside and say another thing on the outside, our actions often provide “tells” that point to the discrepancy.

These “tells” may be obvious actions like habitually showing up late for or mentally “checking out” during meetings for a committee we don’t really want to be on.  But they may also be micro-actions that are more subtle, like body language or facial expressions.

Sometime we aren’t even aware of our inner narrative, let alone how that narrative might be showing up in our actions.

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, leadership guru Patrick Lencioni describes a phenomenon called the Fundamental Attribution Error:

 

We human beings tend to falsely attribute the negative behavior of others to their character, while we attribute our own negative behaviors to our environment.  In other words, we like to believe that we do bad things because of the situations we are in, but somehow we assume that others do bad things because they are predisposed to being bad.

In the same way, we often attribute other people’s success to their environment and our own success to our character.  That’s because we like to believe that we are inherently good and talented, while others are merely luck, beneficiaries of good fortune.

In other words,  if I am late for a meeting, I might blame it on needing to finish helping the kids with homework or that there was an accident causing a traffic back-up.

However, the first time someone else is late for a meeting, I may create an inner narrative explaining their behavior.  I might make the assumption that they are undependable or don’t care. I may make assumptions about lateness related to the person’s culture or identity or mental health.

And if this is happening internally, you can be pretty sure that there is something in my actions, especially my micro-actions, that will reveal a “tell” about this internal narrative.  And if you participate in “complaint-fests” with other leaders, you can be pretty sure that the folks you are “complaining” about will pick up on that vibe.  (Habitual tardiness, on the other hand, should be reason for a direct conversation with the person about commitment and whether this particular service is a good fit.)

A good guiding rule to is to remember that an important part of being a faithful, self-differentiated leader is to resist diagnosing or pre-judging others.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Consultant