Is Your Congregation Feeling Contractions?

Photo © summerbl4ck (Flickr)
Photo © summerbl4ck (Flickr)
  • Is your congregation’s attendance flat or declining?
  • Are the results from your stewardship campaign disappointing?
  • Are you dipping into an endowment to help cover your operating expenses?
  • Are you thinking about cutting the budget by reducing the working hours of your program staff (e.g. minister, religious educator, music director, membership coordinator)?
  • Are the same leaders and volunteers doing everything that they have been doing for years, perhaps even decades?

These are all signs of a congregation in decline.

There are many forces at play for today’s congregations, many of them outside of the control of congregational leaders.

  1. Fewer people belong to a church. In fact, fewer people feel the need to claim any particular faith tradition.
    The changing context of religion in America has been well-documented by the Pew Forum and other research agencies.
  2. The demographic bubble of the Baby Boomers is not bursting, but it is deflating slowly.
    Boomers are retiring in droves and have more time to volunteer, so they may not be making room for or accommodating the needs of the younger generations. Boomers are moving into a different financial phase of life.
  3. There are not many Gen Xers in our congregations.
    This is partly because there were fewer babies born between 1960 and 1980. When Xers did show up to church, they often got frustrated when the church seemed stuck in old habits. Xers had learned to be adaptable to survive in a contracting economy but those skills weren’t always welcome in our congregations. And that contracting economy has left Xers with more debt and lower wages so they are often not able to give at the levels that the retiring Boomers have been giving.

The Good News

The message that Unitarian Universalism offers is attractive to emerging adults and to those who have found the faith of their childhood hypocritical or just stale. We also have a lot of other UU congregations and leaders who are already imagining or experimenting with ways to renew existing congregations or to plant new faith communities. We have congregations who have grown in spite of the changing context.

What to do:

Although it may be tempting for leaders to go for the technical fixes (like reducing staff hours), the real challenge is adaptive, calling for the church as a whole to struggle with a process of renewal so that it can “give birth” to a new iteration of itself.

  • Start with some deep group spiritual discernment.
    What is your congregation’s “center?” What is your vision of the “Beloved Community?” What are you called to do in the world? How are you in covenant with one another and with the expanse of our interconnectedness with the universe?
  • Practice detachment when it comes to outcomes
    Find a way to ground yourselves during the process so that you make room both for the synergy and surprising possibilities of renewal and for the prospect that the congregation has run its course and the conversation should turn to ending well and leaving a legacy.
  • Find the courage to “Experi-fail” and make it a new part of your congregational culture
    Adaptive challenges require a lot of experiments and learning opportunities for the community as a whole.
  • Become a “learning community
    Learn more about the changing context and what is working for growing congregations. Look to nearby congregations for ideas, possible partnerships or sharing of resources.  Your UUA Regional staff can help connect you, if you don’t already have those relationships.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, UUA Central East Region

Resources:

Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism

Partner and Multisite Congregations

Love Reaches Out resources

UUA Resources on Mission

UU Leadership Institute

Congregational Fitness for Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission

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

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

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

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

gathered people.

Participation

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

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

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

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

Respect for Authority

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

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

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

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

Pay

4. The congregation is joyfully fair-compensation.

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

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

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

Balance

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

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

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

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

Your total score__________.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Want to Develop Church Leaders? Stop Training Them!

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderferret/
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderferret/

Let me share a fable of two congregations.

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:

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Going With the Flow

go-with-the-flow-thumb26062172In my travels around the region, I sometimes hear members of congregations say something like, “Church shouldn’t be like work.  It should be fun.”  Several current research studies support this contention and might explain one of the reasons that congregational leaders get “burned out.”

In a New York Times (September 7, 2014) article, Paul O’Keefe, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, contends that people who see a task as interesting and enjoyable will work harder on that task and perform better.  Further, knowing that your work will make a difference or has possibilities for changing things for the better will help people to feel energized rather than exhausted, motivated rather than morose.  One of the psychologists cited in the study calls it “flow”, the experience we have when we are in the zone.

The implications for leaders in our congregations, then, is obvious.  The more leaders see their tasks as interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful, the harder and longer they work on the task and the better they will perform at it.

So how do we help leaders to get in the “zone”?  Additional research at the Universities of Virginia and Wisconsin suggest that for most of us, whether we find something interesting and motivating is a matter of whether we find it personally valuable.  We need to help leaders see their work as meaningful not only to the congregation or to our faith, but meaningful and valuable to them as well.  Research also shows that social engagement in activities can foster greater interest and motivation.  Leaders need to know that they are not alone and church activities done in a group rather than in isolation will result in happier, more motivated and more productive leaders.

Perception truly is in the eye of the beholder.  As staff, ministerial and lay leaders, let’s help each other to see things in a positive and meaningful way.  Let’s work together so that no leader needs to feel alone.  Let’s make church fun.

 

Art Doesn’t Happen by Committee – Part 2

I had just finished leading a worship service as a guest preacher. This congregation had been experiencing a gentle decline in membership over the past decade. Several congregants came up to me afterward and exclaimed, “It was wonderful how the music, the readings and the children’s story all connected to the sermon. Did you plan for that to happen?”  Actually, I made sure to work with the music director, the religious educator and the worship associate to help that to happen.  I casted my vision of the theme and made some suggestions, and they made other suggestions, and together we created a holistic service.

paletteWorship is a peculiar art form, especially in Unitarian Universalist congregations. The meaning of the word is derived from the Old English weorthscipe: ‘worthiness, acknowledgment of worth.’  In our traditional style of worship, we have a sermon, which is a kind of teaching, and the liturgy, which is the form of the rest of the service.  The meaning of the word liturgy is derived from the Greek lēitos ‘public’ + -ergos ‘working.’

In too many of our congregations’ worship services, there is a disconnect between the elements of the liturgy because the individuals contributing to it do not have a shared vision of the theme, or are not in alignment with the theme.

Similar to when an artist selects a palette of colors for a painting, the worship team should ensure that the elements of the liturgy blend together to achieve the desired overall effect. Having several diverse people contributing and riffing off of one another helps to create a rich experience.  However, there should always be a designated leader of the team who can make the final decision when there is disagreement or lack of direction.  Usually, that leader is the minister — a trained professional in Worship Arts and entrusted with “freedom of the pulpit” by the congregation.

When there is not a leader trusted with being the actual leader of worship for the congregation, or worse yet, there are factions that “control” the different elements of the Sunday service, the quality of worship suffers, and those who come for religious and/or spiritual sustenance leave unfed.

This year, the various worship services at our annual General Assembly had a much more holistic quality than they had in previous years.  The reason?  There was clear leadership by a worship professional who was entrusted with the authority to oversee the worship services and to ensure cohesiveness and connection to the overall theme of “Love Reaches Out.”

To me, the worship also seemed to have a deeper quality, because of the common theme and the variations on that theme that each worship service provided.  (There is a movement among vibrant congregations to use monthly themes for worship, faith development classes and small group ministry for this very reason!)  Reconnecting to our depth is what will help our faith bend the arc of the universe toward love and justice.

In the closing worship service, Nora Collins shared a reading from “Reimagining the American Dream”, an essay by Marilyn Sewell that captures the need for depth:

I [am] intrigued by…words often attributed to Rudolf Behro, an East German dissident: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” I…[think] about us as Unitarian Universalists. This is who we are—we are not afraid to be insecure. We are not afraid to search, to go deeper, to find the truth, even when the truth is unpalatable. We are seekers who want to live out of that truth….

 

Unitarian Universalists, though few in number, can be the yeast in the loaf. However, let us be wary of the usual distractions and follies of our movement. It’s grown-up time now. We [can] no longer prioritize petty quarrels about how “religious” our language should be, conflicts between the humanists and the more spiritually inclined, or squabbles about who is in charge. The mission of the church is not to meet our needs; the mission of the church is to heal our world. It is to give ourselves to something larger than ourselves. Ironically, when we give of ourselves in this way, we find that our deepest needs are met.

Resources for Worship:

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG (The Central East Regional Group)

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:

 

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