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

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

Covenantal Faith in a Transactional World

Photo credit:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/zizzy/89696604/
Photo credit:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/zizzy/89696604/

Because our congregations run on money, it’s tempting to bring–along with it–assumptions about how money operates in other parts of our lives.  We go to work and we get a paycheck.  We pay the electric bill and the power company keeps our lights on. We pay at the first window and pick up at the second.

But when we fill out a pledge card, or put together the annual operating budget, the numbers represent more than goods and services.  The numbers represent the ministry that our congregation is called to do in the world, and the numbers represent our financial commitment and accountability to that ministry.

Our covenants are our promises to one another about how we are going to walk together as we do that ministry.

Our pledge cards are promises about how we will help fund that ministry.
Letters of agreement are promises that paid staff and church leaders make to one another about how they will do ministry together and expectations around how they will be accountable to one another.

When we are under financial stress, we are tempted to slip into transactional mode.  The budget looks like any other set of numbers.  The simplest places to cut are the largest line items: staff salaries and benefits.

The financial stress is real, but our responses to the stress can be covenantal instead of transactional.  As you begin a meeting where budget cuts are needed:

  • Remind yourselves of who you are and the good that your congregation is already doing in the world.
  • Remind yourselves of your vision of what more you hope to do to build the beloved community.
  • Remind yourselves of the promises that you have made with one another to support your congregation’s ministry.

Then you will be ready for your discernment as leaders grounded in our covenantal faith.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

 

 

 

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

Do you have “Committee Alphabet Soup?”

one brainI often use General Motors as an example of the top-down model of organization and leadership that is the opposite of what our congregations need to be nimble and vital (and I might add, attractive to Gen-Xers and Millennials). Today’s story from Bloomberg “GM Recalls Stalled in 10 Years of Committee Alphabet Soup” exemplifies how–even though GM has rallied since the bailout back in 2009–GM still has a culture that stifles communication and slows response time.

Inherent in the GM culture is the foundational notion that the brains are in the boardroom, and the rest of the organization’s role is to receive commands and send back reports.

Brian Johnson, an auto analyst for Barclay’s states some of the results of this model:  “The committee culture of the old GM was rooted in organizational paralysis and characterized by a lack of accountability.”  “I’m amazed that even the government bureaucrats couldn’t understand GM’s plodding processes.”

Tom Stallkamp, a former president of Chrysler, adds that top executives often don’t hear about internal recall investigations, especially since there is inherent tension between engineers and safety/quality folks as they chase reports back and forth.   Speaking as an executive he says: “If you tried to react to every single issue coming in, or every dozen issues spread over a dozen cars, you’d go crazy.”

My short hand for this style of organization is “one brain, many hands.”  It’s also been described as a “spider” organization in the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman et al.

“Spider” organizations are very structured and invest most of the power and authority in the “brain” or top leadership. Congregations organized on this model have:

  • lots of committees with no one willing to staff them
  • committees that have people willing to staff them, but there is no energy at the meetings
  • a requirement for committees to send reports to the board, but they seldom do
  • committees that have had the same chair for over 5 years
  • turf wars
  • silos between ministries
  • annual reports from committees that show little difference from year to year
  • understanding of the mission is held only by a few people in leadership

“Starfish” organizations look to share power and authority (with accountability) throughout the organization. Congregations organized on this model have:

  • A clear sense of mission throughout all of the leadership, including those on committees and task forces
  • Attention to alignment with the mission as well as accountability structures
  • leaders who reinforce that sense of mission through annual goals based on strategic planning
  • committees where some people plan, and task forces where other people can just “do” without showing up to a committee meeting
  • a permission-giving culture that encourages and supports new ministries that are in alignment with the mission
  • good communication between leaders of various ministries that don’t need to go through the board

Another handy checklist for your congregation might be this list of qualities of growing and stalled congregations developed by http://waytolead.files.wordpress.com/

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG

Blessings in the New Year

cordiceJohn W.V. Cordice, M.D. died recently, four days after Christmas to be precise.  A native of Durham, North Carolina, he earned his medical degree at New York University in 1942.  Formally an attending surgeon and chief of thoracic surgery at Harlem Hospital Center, he practiced medicine in New York for 40 years. 

On September 20, 1958, Dr. Cordice was off duty when a young but already influential minister and civil rights leader by the name of Martin Luther King was brought into the Harlem Hospital with a 7 inch steel blade stuck in his chest, millimeters from his aorta.  Dr. King had been signing books in Harlem when a woman stabbed him with a letter opener.  So close to death was Dr. King that if he had sneezed before surgeons had a chance to remove the object, he would have died.  Rushing to the hospital, Dr. Cordice and an associate, Dr. Emil Naclerio performed the operation to save Dr. King’s life.  14 days later, Dr. King was discharged from Harlem Medical Center and resumed a career and a passion that would change the lives of millions of people.

 As leaders in our Unitarian Universalist faith, we never know what acts we may perform that will change the course of the lives of others.  As ministers, staff and lay leaders, each time we deliver a sermon or coordinate a fund drive or attend a community rally, we change history.  Each time we sit down to a Board meeting or teach a religious education class, or lend an ear and a heart to someone who is hurting, we save lives.

As we enter a new year of service together, we must never underestimate the importance of what we do nor overestimate the blessings we receive in having the opportunity to do it.

Happy New Year

 -Mark Bernstein, CERG Consultant

 

Opening Our Presents

opening presentsAs we enter this holiday season, the thoughts of many of us turn to gift giving and receiving. Certainly, the assault by advertisers on our senses, through print, TV and radio ads, offers their suggestions for what we should give or receive. The true gifts, though, are already there before us. As Unitarian Universalists, we should celebrate this season by remembering and acknowledging the gifts that others have given to us and the gifts that we give to each other. Nowhere is this more eloquently expressed than in the hymn We Sing Now Together, words by Edwin T. Buehrer.

We sing now together our song of thanksgiving, rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought, for Life that enfolds us and helps and heals and holds us, and leads beyond the goals which our forebears once sought.

We receive the gift of knowledge and wisdom and foresight that our Unitarian Universalist predecessors left us so that we can create a faith that goes beyond even their wildest dreams.

We sing to of the freedoms which martyrs and heroes have won by their labor, their sorrow, their pain; the oppressed befriending, our ampler hopes defending, their death becomes a triumph, they died not in vain.

We receive the gift of inspiration from those who gave their lives to defend our faith and the principles for which we stand. People like Francis David, Michael Servetus, and James Reeb, who paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

We sing of the prophets, the teachers, the dreamers, designers, creators, and workers, and seers; our own lives expanding, our gratitude commanding, their deeds have made immortal their days and their years.

We receive the gift of innovation and risk-taking from those Unitarian Universalist ministers and leaders who moved our faith forward through collaboration, partnerships, and teamwork. People like Frederick May Eliot, A. Powell Davies, and Homer Jack, who worked to bring people and groups together to strengthen Unitarian Universalism and its influence in the wider world.

We sing of community now in the making in every far continent, region and land, with those of all races, all times and names and places, we pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.

We receive the gift of community within and across our Unitarian Universalist congregations, grounded by the promises we make to each other and lifted by the love and respect we have for each other.

Empowered and inspired by those who went before us, we move forward together as a great and powerful faith to fulfill their dreams, our dreams, and the dreams of those who will follow us. These are the gifts we give and receive this holiday season.

-Mark Bernstein, CERG Growth 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

 

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