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

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

Avoid a Disappearing Act

First UU of San Francisco
Photo by Justin Ennis https://www.flickr.com/x/t/0095009/photos/averain/

Imagine if your church sign was only visible to half of people driving by your building.  What if only half of the local phone books or half of the local newspapers listed your congregation?   If your congregation’s website is out of date, it can’t be easily accessed by half of the people who are looking for you!

We have reached the tipping point where 80% of internet users have a smart phone, and over half of Google searches are performed on a mobile device (including tablets). In response, Google is changing their search protocol beginning April 21, 2015 to use mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.

This means that if your website it not mobile-friendly, it will be practically invisible to more than half of your potential visitors.

What you can do:

  1. Check to see if your website is mobile-friendly.
  2. Share this blog post with your “webmaster” or congregational leaders.

 

Resources:

Updating Your Web Presence: Tools and Tips

A free, mobile-friendly UU WordPress Theme (updated 4/19/2015)

 

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

 

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

 

The Law of Fried Potatoes

potatoesOur congregations often have habits, traditions, or attitudes that are in tension (or even in conflict) with their mission and vision.  These are grounded in “accidental values” that may be invisible to the members but glaringly obvious to the newcomer.

An accidental value is something that we have a strong emotional attachment to and probably inherited from our ancestors (either from biology or tradition) but does not really serve our core purpose and aspiration of who we want to be in the world.

Part of our own faith formation–especially as leaders– is bringing awareness to our own emotional attachments and whether or not these attachments serve who we aspire to be. This is a part of becoming self-differentiated.

Church consultant and author Peter Steinke offers a metaphor for this phenomenon:

Self-Differentiation is the capacity to “like the way your mother fried potatoes but not to be overwhelmed by anxiety if someone else’s mother fried them differently. This means you don’t try to convert others to your mother’s fried potatoes, nor do you give in to another’s need for fried potatoes of a certain kind. And you do not disconnect from another until they fry their potatoes your mother’s way.”

Here are some examples of “Fried Potatoes,” (i.e. “accidental” congregational habits or traditions that might be interfering with what the congregation hopes to become):

  • I had a bad experience in a Christian church so I don’t want any Christian language used in my congregation.
  • The Beatles and Bob Dylan are great for worship but there hasn’t been any new music since 1980 that would be.
  • The donated furniture in our social hall looks awful, but we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the members who dropped it off in the middle of the week.
  • The only way to be a committed member is to serve on a committee and attend meetings faithfully.
  • You need a car (preferably a hybrid) to participate in the life of our congregation.

What are some other examples of fried potatoes?

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

“Cruel Summer” Services

Sky at SunsetHas something like this ever happened to you when you’re travelling during the summer and decide to check out the local UU congregation?

You check their website, find out the service time and see that the topic is “The Secret Life of Bees,” the title of one of your favorite novels.  But when you arrive, you realize that the speaker is a professional bee-keeper, and the service feels more like a commercial for beekeeping than a worship experience.  The person playing along with the hymns gets the right notes, but the tempo makes it hard to sing.

If you are already a committed UU, you might just roll your eyes or curse under your breath. But if you are someone looking for a spiritual home, you will likely cross this church off your list — even if other members give you the standard not-so-great-lay-led-service caveat “We pride ourselves on having many voices in the pulpit. We hope you come back because the service is different each week.”

In a recent conversation on Facebook about a similar experience, the Rev. Jake Morrill shared this story:

My sister and I both grew up very active as UU’s.  When she and her new husband moved to (a new community) twenty years ago, she took him to a summer service that featured a chemistry professor giving a dry lecture and a slide-show.  They never went back.  Now, she’s a dynamos for the Methodists, organizing mission trips, community-wide justice projects, etc.  Theologically, she’s as Universalist as they come.  I always think what a loss it was for Unitarian Universalism that we lost my sister and her family  that summer Sunday…

As I read this story, I began to think about the covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and in relation to our covenant with our highest values and commitments.

When someone walks through a Unitarian Universalist congregation’s doors for the first time–after having read the promise of the “free faith” on UUA and congregational websites–don’t we have an obligation to offer the best expression of Unitarian Universalism that we can muster?  And if one of our congregations falls short of that promise, don’t we have an obligation–as Unitarian Universalists committed to our best expression of who we are– to share our observation of this disappointment and invite them to do better?

And if we are leaders or members of a congregation who receives such feedback offered with a loving heart and an eye to our highest aspirations, isn’t it our obligation to hear it with an open a humble heart?

Being in covenant with one another requires both courageous truth-telling and open-hearted listening.  Our UU leaders need to develop both skills…

 

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

Think of Yourself as the Visitor

customer serviceMany years ago, I was working with employees of MBNA Bank at their branch headquarters in Newark, Delaware.  Over every door in the building, in big block letters, were the words, THINK OF YOURSELF AS THE CUSTOMER.  I was struck by that phrase and with the idea that putting yourself in the shoes of your customer would enable one to provide higher quality service and achieve mutually satisfying results.

We don’t often think of applying the principles of customer service in our Unitarian Universalist congregations.  It somehow feels too corporate or non-spiritual.  But maybe we should start. In my work as Growth Consultant in the Central East Region, I find that many congregations are not as welcoming as they think they are.  Certainly, across our region and across the country, we Unitarian Universalists are not as welcoming as we need to be.  So perhaps the adoption of a customer service orientation is not such a bad thing.  As my mother used to say, “It couldn’t hurt.”

Here are a few suggestions for enhancing customer service in your congregation:

 1.  Pay Attention

When I was in Virginia recently, I walked into a Boston Market.  As soon as I entered, I heard, “Welcome to Boston Market.  How are you today?”  This refrain was repeated, with some variation, every time a customer walked in.  It wasn’t tiresome because the greeting was sincere.  The employees seemed truly glad to see another customer enter the restaurant …and, truth be told, when it was said to me, I did feel welcomed.  I was immediately reinforced in my decision to eat there.

Visitors to our congregations don’t just want to be greeted.  They want to be welcomed.  Taking an interest in every new person that walks in the door conveys the message that they are special.  The initial encounter doesn’t need to be long, but greeters should smile, shake the hand of the visitor, make eye contact, and say something like, “I am very glad that you are here today.”  Exchanging names is an effective way to make a connection.  “My name is Mark, and you are?”  Providing basic information that the visitor needs (location of the sanctuary; of the bathrooms; where they can drop off their children, etc.) is essential, but inviting the visitor to ask questions (“Is there anything I haven’t told you that you’re wondering about?”) empowers the visitor and assures that their every need is being met.

Paying attention to the visitor, of course, is not the sole responsibility of the greeter.  Those who are serving as ushers should not just hand out the order of service, but should likewise shake the hand of the visitor and greet them warmly.  And in truly welcoming congregations, it is also the responsibility of every member to greet the stranger.  (But what if I’m not sure if they’re a new visitor, you ask?  There’s nothing wrong with saying, “We may have met, but I can’t recall.  My name is Mark and I’m glad you’re here today.”)

 2.  Exceed the Customer’s Expectations

When convenience stores first unveiled the touch screen devices for ordering sandwiches, deli items, soup, and so on, I was struggling one day with the technology and finding it difficult to order my chicken salad sandwich.  The clerk behind the counter noticed my struggle (it must have been my loud whimpering) and asked if he could help.  I told him that I was lost and wanted to start my order all over again.  He asked me to wait a moment and then came around the counter.  He first showed me how to reset the machine.  Then, asking me what I wanted, he proceeded to punch a bunch of screens and complete the order.  The receipt popped up.  He handed it to me and said, “You go pay for this and by the time you get back, your sandwich will be ready.”

What an example of excellent customer service!!  The clerk not only met my expectations.  He exceeded them.  I would have been happy with him just telling me over the counter how to reset the machine.  That would have met my expectations.  But in several ways, he exceeded them.  He left his station and came around the counter.  He showed me how to reset the machine and how to correctly place an order.  And he grabbed the receipt and handed it to me with a friendly “this will be waiting for you when you get back.”

In our congregations, we need to make sure that we are not just meeting the expectations of visitors, but that we are exceeding them.  Visitors expect to be greeted.  Let’s exceed their expectations by truly greeting them with sincerity and authenticity.  Let’s greet them in the parking lot and several other times before they get to the sanctuary.  Let’s recruit our youth and young adults to be greeters to both other youth and to adults.  Let’s ensure that someone in the congregation accompanies the new visitor to the sanctuary or the cradle room or the classroom.  Let’s compel ushers to not only hand out orders of service, but to accompany visitors to a seat in the sanctuary, especially if they are late arriving and seats are hard to find.  Let’s have greeters stationed at the front door after the service for those who don’t stay for social hour to shake their hands and thank them for coming.

Thinking about what we need to do to welcome visitors and then doing one thing more is how you exceed expectations and provide great customer service.

 

3.     See the Congregation Through New Eyes

You know the clutter that piles up in that one corner of one room in your house?  (Of course, in my house, it’s piled up in several corners of several rooms.)  The clutter that, after a while, you tend not to notice is even there?  This is known as the “dirty sock” syndrome.  Leave a dirty sock in one spot long enough and it becomes invisible.  But when a guest enters your home, it’s usually the first thing they notice.

So it is in our congregations.  Supplies, materials, discarded boxes can accumulate in one part of the building and after a while, we don’t notice it.  But you can be sure your visitors will.  So take a tour of your building and see it as if you are seeing it for the first time.  Notice the sofa in the lounge area that has several cuts in the fabric; the conference table that is fraying at the edges; the stains on the lobby carpet; the artificial Christmas tree lurking in one corner of Fellowship Hall.  And then get to work, sprucing up the place as if guests are arriving any minute…which, by the way, they are.

4.      Follow-Up

We sometimes receive company surveys after purchasing items such as a car or an appliance.  Even if we don’t respond, we appreciate the effort of the company in asking, “How did we do?” Or more importantly, “How are you doing?’.  Following up with visitors to our congregations is another example of excellent customer service.  It’s an opportunity to thank them for coming and to invite them to the next service.  For my money, a postcard is the best way to go.  It’s quick, inexpensive and personal.   A simple message can have a great impact, something like, “Dear Alice, Thank you for being with us yesterday.  I hope you felt welcomed. Next week, our sermon is entitled “Finding Spirituality on the Baseball Diamond”.  I hope you can join us.” And if you can make it more personal, so much the better.  “PS: I hope your son got back to college okay.”

In his book Encounters at the Counter: What Congregations Can Learn about Hospitality from Business, Alan Johnson draws the connection between customer service (hospitality) and spirituality when he writes, “Divine love shapes our lives and the relationships we have with others.  This is true in our congregations; it is true at the counter!  From the web of connection that is made through the disciplines of spirituality, the blessings flow as hospitality is extended.”  Extending ourselves through good customer service practices ensures that a congregation grows in spirit as well as in numbers.