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

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.





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

Late Summer Reading for UU Leaders

20130822_094043How Not to Stay on Top, a recent article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, outlines how Blackberry and Wang both went from dominating their markets to being irrelevant.  Why?  They both “stubbornly clung to what they thought they were instead of what they needed to be.”

Keeping our faith communities what they need to be–healthy, relevant and sustainable–is one of the most important roles of congregational leaders.  Forward-thinking boards are also learning communities.  They pay attention to the changing context of the society around them and respond faithfully and strategically. They study trends and strategies as a group and then implement them as a team.

Here are some of my favorite titles that I’ve encountered over the past  year that your board may find useful:

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

(Berrett-Koehler, 2008)

Although Block doesn’t use the language of covenant, he describes the idea of how communal commitment and accountability can help organizations–such as our faith communities–invite people to serve our of a sense of possibility, generosity and gifts.   This book helped to inspire the standing-room-only workshop at the 2013 General Assembly: Beyond Contentment: Motivating Members to Do More by Mark Bernstein.

Connect: How to Double Your Number of Volunteers by Nelson Searcy

(Baker Books, 2012)

This book is helping me to re-think how we set up leadership development programs in our congregations.  The current wisdom is to catch someone early in the membership process, work with them to assess their gifts and passions, then match them to a ministry.

Searcy recommends that–instead–you create a “ladders and lakes” system where congregants can swim in different “lakes” of ministry opportunities to discern their passions.  You do this by creating many different low-responsibility points of entry with time-limited commitments.  The next part of the process is developing “ladders” where congregants are given opportunities for roles of increasing responsibility and commitment.


The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else By Patrick M. Lencioni

(Jossey-Bass, 2012)

This is–hands down–my favorite organizational health and development book (so far).  Lencioni (author of Five Dysfunctions of the Team, Death by Meeting and Getting Naked) is clear, pragmatic and directive.   This book has two key points:

  • Build a cohesive team
  • Create and communicate clarity of mission and vision

The rest of the book provides the “how.”

The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multi-Racial and Multi-Cultural Congregations by Jacqueline J. Lewis

(Abdingdon Press, 2008)

Lewis is a former Alban Institute Consultant and currently the Senior Minister at the Middle Collegiate Church in lower Manhattan–an intentional and successful liberal multicultural faith community.  This book reinforces that notion that the method and the message of leadership need to be in alignment.  If you want to be a congregation that is inclusive of other cultures, we need to learn how to lead using the communication styles of those cultures.  In this case, Rev. Lewis shares that she spends 25% of her time mentoring the other leaders in her congregation, and encourages them to do likewise with the next tier of leaders.

Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All by Landon Whitsitt

(Alban, 2011)

This is another book that has offered a game-changing model of how we may want to structure our congregations in the future.   You can read an early draft of chapter 2The Church as Wikipedia.  (I have this as an e-book so it’s not in the picture above.)

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

Here comes the judge! Learning to cultivate curiousity…

gavelI grew up eating a lot of ethnic northern European foods. I would often get comments in the workplace lunch room about the leftovers I had brought in that day.  I remember one comment about “what a strange food combination” I was eating (sauerkraut with a dollop of sour cream) that made me feel really defensive and reactive. Both the person who made the comment and I were perplexed by my reaction at the time, but I’ve recently been given a framework that has helped me make sense of that incident.

The framework is from a recent Intercultural Competency Training that I took, the same model that is being used in the Who Are Our Neighbors program being offered to ministers (and will later be offered to others) by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) .

The co-worker was perplexed because she thought she was just expressing curiosity about food she had never seen before.  What neither of us understood at the time was that she was doing so from a place of judgment — i.e. that she held the framework of what foods were “normal” and what foods were “strange.”  I now understand my own reactivity as being seen as “strange” and “not normal” by eating food that was very much a part of my cultural identity.

The lesson I’m trying to learn as I cultivate my own intercultural competence is that the “new normal” is that there is no “normal,” at least when it comes to the expressions of our Unitarian Universalist faith that are cultural. Instead of being judgmental from our own cultural lens, we can practice dialogue that helps us to listen to and understand how others live in and interpret the world.

How might this look?


“You used the word “God” 14 times in that sermon.  Isn’t that a bit excessive?”


“I notice you used the word “God” a lot in your sermon.  What is your understanding of that word?”


“It’s alright to have folk music every once in a while, but it’s important that we not deviate from the excellent classical music that is part of our reputation.”


“Folk music is not my favorite type of music in the service, but I notice that you were enjoying it.  Tell me about what you were experiencing.”


“You brought Styrofoam cups?!?  Don’t you know how damaging that is to the environment?”


“I see you brought some cups.  I’m curious as to why you chose that particular kind.”

Developing this practice of starting from a place of curiosity rather than judgment creates an atmosphere where dialogue can create a shared, negotiated understanding because we can learn about the underlying identities and values that support our preferences.

-Post by Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Leadership Development Consultant

To Be “Seen” – Recruiting Leaders

business visionWe are heading into the time of year where some nominating committees are scrambling to recruiting potential leaders for governing boards and other elected positions to be offered for election at Spring congregational meetings.

Hopefully, your congregation is transitioning toward having a year-round leadership development committee that is enabling your congregation to identify potential leaders, match them to roles that match their skills and passions and equip them with appropriate training.

If you are not quite “there” yet, here are a few quick tips about how to recruit:

  • Look for people who fit the demographic that you are trying to become.  Young Adults.  People of Color.  People with disabilities.
  • Know the person you are recruiting.  This may sound simple, but it is essential.  Each one of us has gifts.  Our humanist DNA implies an obligation to treasure each person and their potential.  It goes against our ideals (and is downright insulting) to treat a person as an object to fill a slot (or slate, as the case may be).
  • Know yourself.  What first connected you to a leadership role?  When were did you first feel valued by others in the congregation?  When did you feel that you were not really being “seen?”
  • If you don’t know the person you want to recruit, get to know them.  Ask them about their passions.  What do they love about the church?  What would they change?  Where do they see themselves fitting in?  What potential do you see in them?

I am becoming convinced that one-on-one conversations are the core to an effective leadership development program.  I invite you to give it a try.


We Pray….

To Unitarian Universalists, Boston is normally the shorthand for the “center” of our faith.  candleThis morning we wake with grief and mourning in our hearts over the tragedy at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  For me, this is a reminder about one of the most important roles of a faith community: to provide a container for private grief and public mourning.

For me, these are the times where I hope we can grow into a spiritual maturity that makes space for words that are not always welcome in some of our congregations.  God.  Prayer. Lamentation.   Perhaps we might read from the book of Psalms.

There Is a Balm in Gilead

African American Spiritual


Sometimes I feel discouraged

and think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit

revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.





The Exceptional Moment of Our Unique Faith

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 Newsletter of the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts.

If the crux of Unitarian Universalism were reduced to a few points in space and time, they would be those potent moments just before and just after we keep a promise, or we break it. All that is exceptional about being human and becoming whole is crystalized in these decisive microseconds:

  • Will I say “hello” to the visitor standing awkwardly near the sanctuary door or not?
  • Do I stay connected to Miguel even though he just voted against my idea?
  • Do I acknowledge the tug on my heart and wallet that asks me to really wrestle with the amount of my pledge?
  • Will I or will I not risk feeling unsure and uninformed as I step outside my comfort zone and spend time with those of  other races, classes or generations on their terms rather than mine?
  • Will I expose my need for wholeness, my hope for forgiveness, my longing to belong, and my desire to matter?

People in all faith communities face microseconds like these.  Sometimes we “live into” these moments and consciously wrestle with our instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Rising above these instincts to respond rather than react is what makes us human and what moves us toward wholeness.  That this power to become whole is so concentrated in these common moments of experience is what makes them extraordinary.

Sometimes we subconsciously squelch these moments by automatically retreating into the ideology of our particular belief or non-belief. We may then spend time feeling wounded or righteous, debating, competing or even warring over religion.

Unique among the faiths, Unitarian Universalism proclaims the ordinary but decisive moments of human agency as its center rather than a particular system of belief. Instead of aiding a retreat into ideology, UUism invites the moral codes of religions and ethics to inspire and support individuals, but it refuses to let those codes blur or distract from the key questions of all humanity: how do we strive for communities of wholeness, with ourselves and with creation; what must we promise to make this so; how do we “begin again” after we break our promises? These are the questions of covenant.

The exceptional moment of our unique faith is not only the microseconds when we decide to make and keep covenant, but also this larger cultural “moment” in history. Worldwide social media has made it abundantly clear that we are connected to and reliant on each other despite our religious differences. Increasingly, people are looking beyond institutional religion for communities that matter. Unitarian Universalism speaks most directly to the covenantal necessities of these emerging communities. We are not exceptional in our perfection of covenanted community, but we are called to be exceptional in our promotion of it.

And this is why it is important for us to shed the historic (and justified) fear of “exceptionalism” as vain individualism and adopt the humbling realization that because our Faith is, as proclaimed by UUA President Peter Morales, “the faith beyond belief,” we are the stewards of a great gift desperately needed in this day and age.

To share this gift we need to extend ourselves further into new and different kinds of communities, bringing the message of covenant. And to share this message with humility, we need to remember how difficult it can be for us all to rise above our instincts during the extraordinary microseconds of living in covenant and to marvel at the Grace that makes it possible at all.

Doug Zelinski has been serving as the Director of Leadership Development for the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts since May of 2010.  Before that he served for three years as the Leadership Development Consultant  for the Metro New York District of the UUA. Prior to that, he honed his  skills during 20 years of organizational development work with human  service nonprofit agencies as well as city and county government.

A New Scarlet Letter

“She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”
―    Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

As someone who aspires to be a good white ally, I’ve had mixed experiences with anti-racism, anti-oppression, multiculturalism (ARAOMC) trainings that I have taken over the years.  Some trainings felt like we were just going through the motions.  A few made me feel shame and guilt.  Still others were transformational.

What the shaming and transformational trainings had in common was their relational nature.  The people leading and participating in the training made all the difference.

The transformational trainings had an atmosphere of humility and curiosity.  I felt an invitation to authentically engage with the work together, and a covenantal sense that provided permission to begin again whenever anyone made mistakes.

The trainings that made me feel shame and guilt had a judging atmosphere; sometimes through subtle non-verbal cues, sometimes through people (often other participants) calling one another on the carpet when someone made an unwitting statement or some other multicultural misstep.  I wonder if there isn’t some old Puritan DNA in the UU culture, as if there is temptation to mark one another with a big letter “G” for guilt, much like Hester (in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter) was marked with an “A” for adultery.

Fortunately, we UUs are the keepers of the Living Tradition, so we have the agency to choose–to change our habits and customs.  And I think those in leadership  are learning how to do so.

I had the pleasure of taking a training on intercultural sensitivity with Beth Zemsky at a staff meeting earlier this month.  It was a transformational experience.  What I really like about her model is that it is developmental — it assesses the ways in which we experience and respond to difference (somewhat unconsciously) while it also accounts for our aspirations and encourages continued growth.  (We are the Living Tradition!)  For me, engaging with this Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) provided an ARAOMC experience where I was not burdened with the weight of guilt and shame.

Beth Zemsky will be one of the presenters (along with the fabulous musician Matt Meyer) at the Allies for Racial Equity Annual Conference March 15-17, 2013.

Leading from the Bubble

As I watched the election results roll in on Tuesday night and the responses of the various commentators, it became apparent that many of the Republican leaders and spokesmen (e.g. Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and George Will) were flummoxed by the results that conflicted with their predictions, even as the numbers confirmed the president’s re-election.  In contrast,  the predictions using Nate Silver’s political calculus (published at were incredibly accurate.  Political pundits have been pointing out how the “bubble” that the Republican leadership has been in has prevented them from seeing the changing political and social contexts that influenced the results.

With my own feelings about the politics aside, I want to focus on some of the leadership assumptions and mistakes that led to the misjudgments of the Republican leadership, and the lessons they have for us in our congregations.

  • There is a small elite group who have the best answers and are meant to lead.
    In our congregations the small elite group may be the subset of the congregation who “know how we do things here.”  New leaders tend to be recruited from a similar demographic since the existing leaders have an easier time imagining them as leaders.
  • White, straight, male culture and privilege is the foundation of the “real America.”
    Our congregations have made huge strides in being inclusive of women and LGBTQ members, but most of our congregations still have a dominant WASP culture that is apparent to any person of color that walks through its doors.  This bubble of white privilege is one of the biggest challenges facing UU leaders.  The bubble of white privilege is reinforced when we don’t insist that our congregational leaders attend Anti-Racism/Anti-Racism/Multiculturalism trainings with the same enthusiasm that we send them to other leadership trainings.
  • We have all the knowledge we need — listening to people with different views or experiences is a waste of time.
    Congregational leaders often don’t think to look beyond their congregation’s walls for ideas or answers.  They may believe that their own congregation is unique in their situation, but there is likely a congregation down the road (or in another district) that has similar challenges.  Part of the goal of cluster-building and regionalization is to help congregations connect to one another and access the wisdom of the wider UU movement.
  • If someone presents a theory or idea that is not in perfect alignment with our worldview, its premise must be faulty or the evidence questionable.
    In the case of UU congregations, many of our leaders are resistant to learning from other denominations because of the Christian language or the way they articulate organizational wisdom with theological (rather than scientific) language.

Our congregational roots are based on the theological assumption that the will of the spirit is determined by the discernment of the whole body of the community, not by the proclamations of a few leaders.  Our liberal roots are based on the scientific method where theories are openly shared and tested.  In the world of paradigm-shifting problem-solving, the solutions often come from the margins and borders, and often sound a little off-the-wall at first to those near the center.  (One practice is to treat every idea as “a good idea” for five minutes to give is a fair hearing.)  We are called to have those holy conversations of creative interchange — conversations that need a climate of openness and trust that won’t happen when one group is marginalizing another group.

(Our democratic government is based on similar beliefs about the free interchange and discussion of competing ideas to solve real problems, as MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow reminds us in her post-election commentary on the election results.  Please excuse the partisan slant.)

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