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   If your congregation’s website is out of date, it can’t be easily accessed by half of the people who are looking for you!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.



Updating Your Web Presence: Tools and Tips

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


There’s a Hole in the Bucket…

bucketIt happens more often than you think it should.  The church seems to be vital, even growing, but the money in the collection plate doesn’t keep up with the growth, or there seems to be a shortfall every month.  There might be grumbling about how the new folks aren’t pulling their weight financially.  Then someone notices some irregularities, even though a trusted, long-time volunteer has been responsible for the money. And then it comes to light that hundreds, even thousands of dollars are unaccounted for.

Churches are especially susceptible to theft, embezzlement and fraud.  We foster an environment that encourages trust and vulnerability in other aspects of congregational life.  We are often so desperate for volunteers we don’t ask for the kind of skills or accountability that we should to meet our fiduciary responsibilities.  And we often inherit systems, habits and volunteers that would be hard to change without a good reason.

Here are some basic practices and policies that every congregation should have in place:

Finance Policies

  • Two signers for checks
  • Separate duties of income, check writing, check signing and reconciling accounts to provide checks and balances  (e.g. the person who makes the deposits should not write checks)
  • Reimbursements must have receipts and proper paperwork and signatures
  • Duplicate Bank Statements that go to non-signers
  • Mandatory vacations for employees who have financial duties
  • Have the finance committee or other appointed committee review church financial records annually
  • Have the finance committee track patterns of giving over time
  • Permanent financial records should be kept at the church, not in someone’s home

The Collection Plate

  • Have two unrelated counters of every offering
  • Rotate count teams
  • Have 2 copies of the deposit slip. One goes with the money to be deposited, the second goes to another person that can provide a financial check and balance
  • Immediately deposit the money after the service using a sealed bank security bag.  NEVER allow anyone to take the offering home.

Uh-Oh…We Might Have a Problem

If you think that your congregation might be a victim of theft, embezzlement or fraud:

  • contact your attorney immediately
  • contact your District or Regional Congregational Life staff person.
  • consider engaging a Certified Fraud Examiner to assist you with the formal investigation

  • DO NOT confront the person

  • keep the investigation confidential
  • don’t be afraid to press charges
  • Once the investigation is complete and charges have been files, be as transparent as possible with the congregation.  Let them know the amount of the theft and what changes in policy and procedure have been put in place to prevent such occurrences in the future. Your members need to know that their financial gifts are being well-stewarded.

Additional Resources:

Financial Management for Congregations  UUA Website

Subscribe to the UU-Money Email List A forum for congregational money leaders.

A financial pandemic is sweeping the country article from Church Mutual

We’ve Been Embezzled! from Church Law & Tax

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CERG Congregational Life Staff

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

The Data Trap

Attempting to reconcile liberal religion to the scientific method has a long historychart  among Unitarian Universalists. From the Biblical Criticism of the 19th century, to the Process Theologians of the 20th, to Thandeka’s Affect Theology today, we yearn to quantify religious understanding and experience. Not surprisingly, UU leaders also yearn to quantify how well we are “doing church.”

Those of us who work with congregations see different kinds of data gathering and different uses of the data. Some data, such as the numbers that congregations report to the UUA every January, are helpful to spot trends over time:

  • Certified Members
  • Church School Enrollment
  • Pledging Units
  • Total Expenditures

Congregations who care about growth have more detailed tracking, though they still look for long-term trends (i.e. you can’t draw conclusions without looking at the data over several months or even years):

  • First time visitors (weekly)
  • Return visitors (weekly)
  • Adults in the building on Sunday Morning (weekly)
  • Children & Youth in the building on Sunday Morning (weekly)
  • Adults in non-Sunday programming (monthly)
  • New members (monthly)
  • Member loss (monthly)

But how do we measure how well a congregation is “doing ministry?”

One tempting method is the congregational survey.  Surveys are more enticing than ever with popular online tools such as SurveyMonkeyConstant Contact or Google’s online forms. These tools compile the answers and put it into a spreadsheet just like the attendance data.

Please exercise caution before taking any congregational survey!

It is important to understand what information you are trying to discern, i.e. what do you want to know versus what is really being measured.    What is the context, i.e. is there a recent or brewing conflict?  How are the questions worded?  Are there “trigger words?”  Is the survey anonymous, inviting triangulation?  Remember that surveys are one-way conversations that don’t allow for the give-and-take of covenantal conversations that encourage mutuality and growth.

Evaluating ministry is best done on an ongoing, regular schedule in a way that recognizes that ministry is a partnership between professional and lay leaders. Starting with the congregation’s mission (or ends, if a congregation uses policy-based governance), the evaluating body (often a “committee on shared ministry“) identifies goals or objectives and a few measurable criteria.  Assessment tools are available through the UUMA.  Other excellent tools are two books by Alban Institute author Jill Hudson:  When Better Isn’t Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st Century and Evaluating Ministry: Principles and Processes for Clergy and Congregations.

So when is a survey helpful?  When you are looking to get demographic data (age, culture, household information, distance travelled to church, attendance patterns, length of membership, theological orientation, preferences around worship or music, etc) and some open-ended hopes and dreams questions to help provide a sense of the congregation’s membership, such as the survey template provided to congregations in search for a new minister.



This is No Mickey Mouse Operation

disneyToday’s guest blogger is Mark Bernstein.

Recently, after 61 years on this earth, I finally had the chance to visit the Magic Kingdom.  That’s right.  Me… in the land of Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan and Cinderella’s Castle.  I was in Orlando for meetings with the Central East Regional Group and the Congregational Life Staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  But one night, we left reality behind and immersed ourselves in the fun and illusion that is Disney World.

I came away from that night with more than just a fun experience.  I learned some valuable lessons.  I realized that the principles and practices on which Disney builds their empire can be used by leaders in our Unitarian Universalist congregations to achieve similar success.  I learned that the popularity and staying power of Disney World does not happen by accident or haphazardly.  It is the result of careful planning, attention to detail and adherence to a mission, practices that our leaders should be following.


Avoiding Drama Trauma – Part 2

Here are some more tips for the savvy leader to learn how to recognize and respond to drama both in themselves and others. (adapted from the book The Drama-Free Office: A Guide to Healthy Collaboration with Your Team, Coworkers and Boss by Jim Warner & Kaley Klemp).




  • Wants to be in on every decision
  • Impatient with others’ learning curves or ideas; resists delegating
  • More task-focused than relationship-focused
  • Becomes angry or frustrated when challenged or confronted

Responses to controlling behavior as a leader:

  • Give clear direction and boundaries for them within the context of the congregation’s mission
  • Be clear and direct when they violate those boundaries
  • Require regular updates on progress
  • Encourage and support them in empowering others
  • Insist on their full support once a decision is made

Responses to a controlling leader:

  • Make sure they they get credit when it’s their due
  • Demonstrate your loyalty and support in helping to serve the congregation’s mission
  • Insist on clear agreements about what you are promising to do
  • Respond positively when they delegate or show trust



  • Takes on too many commitments
  • Sacrifices their own health or wellbeing for the congregation
  • Rushes in to fix or take over the minute someone is struggling — doesn’t allow others to grow and learn in the struggle
  • Sets poor boundaries

Responses to caretaking as a leader:

  • Coach them to set good boundaries, for themselves and others
  • Spend time on coaching — help them to see how their overcommitment doesn’t serve the mission
  • Help them find healthy ways to caretake (e.g. writing thank-you notes) without overfunctioning
  • Help to create an atmosphere where struggle and mistake-making in service of learning is encouraged

Responses to a caretaking leader:

  • Offer to take on specific tasks with clear limits and regular reports back to them
  • Articulate and hold your own boundaries
  • Model and call attention to your own practice of self-care
  • Be supportive when they do set boundaries or say no to a new project

Avoiding Drama Trauma – Part 1

Because of our strong attachments in our congregational communities, emotions can run high during times of change. The energy produced can be creative or destructive.  The savvy leader learns to recognize emerging drama both in themselves and others — and more importantly, learns to respond to different kinds of drama with authenticity and faithfulness.

Here are some tips (adapted from the book The Drama-Free Office: A Guide to Healthy Collaboration with Your Team, Coworkers and Boss by Jim Warner & Kaley Klemp).




  • Makes excuses for own mistakes
  • Blames others when things go wrong
  • Claims there is not enough time or resources
  • Steps back when decisions are being made

Responses to complaining as a leader:

  • Focus on the facts and avoid judgment statements
  • Give them a little time and space to consider your feedback
  • Acknowledge their gifts
  • Offer choices, but let them decide their own plan of action
  • Resist rescuing them!

Responses to a complaining leader:

  • Keep yourself centered and non-judgmental
  • Response positively when they show clear, decisive leadership
  • Let them know you have their full support
  • If you present a problem, be ready to share suggested solutions



  • Focuses on flaws and weaknesses of others
  • Reacts to authority with hostility or cut-off
  • Plays at manipulating the situation by pointless debate, playing devil’s advocate or “poking a stick” from the margins
  • Refuses to reconsider their position

Responses to cynicism as a leader:

  • Be direct, truthful, fair and clear about your goals
  • Challenge them to move beyond their comfort zone
  • Acknowledge their gifts and praise them when they show creativity
  • Ask them to imagine possible positive outcomes, not just problems

Responses to a cynical leader:

  • Respond to their expertise with the spirit of learning from them
  • Help them to understand and appreciate your areas of expertise
  • Be prepared and actively engage when they need to debate — they need to process in dialogue
  • Show your appreciation, but do so in private and without too much elaboration

To Be Continued…..

Ain’t Too Proud to Learn

Now I’ve gotta love so deep in the pit of my heart
And each day it grows more and more
I’m not ashamed to come and plead to you baby
If pleadin’ keeps you from walkin’ out that door

Ain’t too proud to beg, you know it sweet darlin’

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg — The Temptations

There are times that my love for our Unitarian Universalist faith is so full that I feel as if my heart will burst. I want every congregation to be vibrant; bursting at the seams with people wanting to make the world a place where every soul has space and encouragement to flourish.

Behind that aspiration is a reality where a congregation has to be “healthy” before they can be “vibrant.”  We consultants who serve congregations stress the need for congregations to send their leaders to systems sensibility trainings such as Healthy Congregations(R) or Smart Church to develop these sensibilities.   Most of our UU leadership schools include a strong component of systems understanding.  Congregational Leaders who have been through the training rave about how helpful it has been.  And yet, I still see a lot of resistance in some congregations about making this training a priority for their leaders.

I had an “aha!” moment about that resistance recently when reading the new Patrick Lencioni book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business(I should note that Lencioni is a favorite among many successful GenX religious leaders.)  Lencioni notes that:

In spite of its undeniable power, so many leaders struggle to embrace organizational health..because they quietly believe they are too sophisticated, too busy, or too analytical to bother with it.  In other words, they think it’s beneath them.

A couple of the cultural challenges within Unitarian Universalism is resisting the temptation to think that we already have the answers, or that some of the simple truths don’t concern us.   I hope that we can transform that attitude into one where we are not too proud to learn what we think we already know.  The Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind.”  The Christian Scriptures invite us to “receive the kingdom of God like a little child.” And our very own James Luther Adams reminds us that “revelation is not sealed.”

Making Space for the Quiet Voices

Excitement filled the meeting room as ideas were bounced back and forth like ping-pong balls.  The chair of the meeting was as enthusiastic as the participants, noting ideas and responding with new ideas elicited by the lively dialogue. The project began taking shape, and it was clear that everyone was looking forward to the implementation.  There was one person in the room who was also engaged with the process.  When called upon to share an idea, the person paused.  Before he could answer, the chair said, “We’ll get back to you” and called on the next person ready to share.

As an observer in the room (I am one of the leaders of this middle school youth group at my home congregation), I called a time out:

“I want to make a process observation,” I told the group.  “And don’t feel bad, because this is something I say to the grown-up leaders that I work with, too.   It’s really important that we make space for people who need a little time to process and answer. They need a quiet pause to gather their thoughts before they are able to speak.  Let’s make sure we give them a chance to share their ideas.”

Although I am an extrovert and love that kind of high-energy exchange of ideas, I’ve learned from experience that some of the best ideas and reflections come from the introverts or the people who might be at the margins of the conversation because of age or culture.

I invite other extroverts to try the practice outlined in this video (from Erik Walker Wikstrom’s book Serving with Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice).

Financial Barriers to Leadership

“Volunteering to host coffee hour is a great way for newer folks to get involved.”

“We used to have potluck dinners, but we have so many dinners offered in our service auction that we don’t seem to have the interest to plan potlucks anymore.”

“Attending Leadership School helped me to be an effective congregational leader.”

“I’ll just buy it and donate it to the church.”

How many times have you heard (or said) something like this?  For potential leaders (or just people looking for ways to serve or get connected) figuring out the congregation’s way of doing things can create a bit of a learning curve, just as in any organization.  But for those who don’t have much (or any) disposable income, some norms can create a financial barrier against potential involvement.

“Volunteering to host coffee hour is a great way for newer folks to get involved.”

  • Financial implication:
    If you coffee hour host duties include providing snacks, this could be a barrier, especially if some host provide expensive snacks and set the bar a little high.
  • Other ideas:
    -Provide a budget line item for coffee hour snacks
    -Have separate sign-ups for providing snacks and doing the set-up / clean-up
    -Organize hospitality teams, such as the UU Fellowship of Centre County, PA does

“We used to have members host potluck dinners, but we have so many dinners offered in our service auction that we don’t seem to have the interest to plan potlucks anymore.”

  • Financial implication:
    To make social connections in the congregation, there is a cost.
  • Other ideas:
    -Schedule potlucks or game nights in the church social hall rather than people’s homes
    -Offer low-cost fixed-price dinners

“Attending Leadership School helped me to be an effective congregational leader.”

  • Financial implication:
    Many potential leaders don’t have the extra money or time off from work to attend a week-long leadership school.
  • Other ideas:
    -Provide a budget line item for leadership development, especially for young adults.

“I’ll just buy it and donate it to the church.”

  • Financial implication:
    The true cost of programs and committees is not reflected in the budget.  There may be an unspoken expectation that leaders who take on a responsibility cover the incidental costs in order to be successful.
  • Other ideas:
    -Provide a budget line item for each committee with latitude for the committee chairs to spend the money without being micro-managed
    -Insist that volunteers and leaders who do donate report those expenditures (and make it easy to do so!)