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

Worst Case Scenarios…and How to Be Prepared

Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001The phone rings.  There is an anxious board president on the phone with a crisis on their hands.  Perhaps their minister has fallen seriously ill, or there is a member who is regularly disrupting the Sunday worship service, or a registered sex offender has expressed interest in attending the church.  Some situations cannot be anticipated or prevented.  But there are many situations where having the right policies, procedures and safeguards in place will help a congregation get through a crisis.

Here is a checklist for your board to use to determine your congregation’s preparedness:

1. Make sure your staff members have adequate insurance.

Having your minister fall ill and not be able to perform their duties would be hard on the congregation.  Having your minister not be able to perform their duties–with no financial safety net–would be devastating.  Make sure that, along with your health plan, you include group insurance plans that include term life and long-term disability insurance.  These are relatively inexpensive add-ons to insurance policies.

2. Make sure your congregation has adequate insurance.

Call your insurance agent for an insurance check-up. Many UU congregations use Church Mutual, because they have an understanding of the needs of liberal religious communities.  Insurance can help your congregation recover financially after a fire, embezzlement or other harmful event.

3. Set up clear expectations about behaviors.

Even if you recite a traditional covenant on Sunday morning (i.e. Love is the Spirit of this church….) you will want to have a behavioral covenant or a covenant of right relations that spells out how members promise to treat one another.  In addition to this, you will want a disruptive behavior policy so that you give your leaders the authority to set limits on particularly damaging behaviors, and a process for restoring right relationship if the disruptive person is willing to abide by the limits.

4. Make sure your congregation has well-communicated “Safer Congregations” policies.

The Religious Institute has well-defined “best practices” for congregations to prevent sexual abuse, sexual harassment and professional sexual misconduct.  They also provide resources on how to include known sex offenders in your community while still protecting your other members and children. Your congregational commitment to sexual safety should be known to every member.

5. Establish and practice emergency evacuation procedures.

In case of a fire, tornado, live shooter or other immediate emergency, you will want to have your staff, greeters/ushers and teachers know what to do and where to go. It’s especially important to practice evacuating once or twice a year so that if — heaven forbid — the real thing happens, everyone knows what to do.  Also make sure your leaders are familiar with the post-trauma response resources from the UUA.

 

Other resources:

www.uua.org/safe/response/120488.shtml (video: 44:53)

www.buildingsguide.com/buildingsguidecom-presents-emergency-preparedness-guide

www.churchmutual.com/index.php/choice/risk/page/intro/id/21

www.cerguua.org/emergmanage.html

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)

 

Announcements: A Terrible Death to Die

announcementsI remember my first church family camp, the Ohio Meadville Summer Institute.  At the end of the morning worship, one of the planning committee members would go up to the podium and start singing:

 

 

Announcements, Announcements, An-NOW-ounce-ments!
A terrible death to die, a terrible death to die,
A terrible death, a terrible death, a terrible death to die.
Announcements, Announcements, An-NOW-ounce-ments!

I visit a lot of different congregations in my work, and occasionally this hits a little too close to home!

Fortunately, I also have had other experiences.  I was at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday where the co-ministers announced that the announcements for that Sunday were going to be the last.  The Rev. Kathleen Rolenz announced the change and the Rev. Wayne Arnison articulated the discomfort that such a change will create.

How will people know what is going on?  How will we get more Sunday School teachers if we don’t ask from the pulpit?  How will we let people know that our pledge payments have dropped off over the summer, and we need folks to catch up?

Rich Birch at unSeminary points out in his article 8 Reasons People Aren’t Listening to your Announcements that announcements are counter-productive.  Our goal is to get people’s attention, but instead we get their eyes to glaze over.  The “added noise” of the announcements may actually interfere with the effectiveness of the transformative message that our worship team has worked so hard to provide.  What is our core purpose, to change lives or to staff the rummage sale?

Of course, re-thinking how we communicate to our members will require patience and creativity on the part of congregational leaders.  I think you are up to the challenge!   Please share your ideas of how you communicate more effectively!

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff

Additional Resources can be found at:  Communication Skills for Leaders

Adaptive Measures

sustained growthYour congregation is committed to growth and understands that growth in numbers results from other kinds of growth. You also know it is important to set goals and measure how well you are doing.  But you are wise enough to know that it is impossible to link attendance numbers to any one “cause” from your growth initiatives.  What should you measure?

When facing adaptive challenges, it can often be counterproductive to use old measurements.

Instead, brainstorm the kinds of behaviors you want people to have to help you meet your yearly ministry goals:

  • How many first-time visitors received hand-written notes?
  • How many people talked to each visitor at coffee hour?
  • What percentage of adult members participate in small group ministry?
  • What percentage of your youth serve on ministry teams?
  • What percentage of your board members are under 40?
  • How many youth and adults participate in events/initiatives organized by your social action team?
  • What is the ratio of pastoral visits by the minister(s) to those by your lay pastoral visitors?

The only way to help change the culture in our congregations is to figure out how to help the members develop new behaviors that will lead to that culture change.

 -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

 

Hide it under a Bushel? No!

Are all of the members and friends of your church aware of all of the outreach ministries of your church?  Is the wider community aware of who you are serving and how?  Churches need to tell their stories, advises a recent article in the Christian Century. Author George Mitrovich explains

When my liberal friends dismiss church and people of faith, I realize that part of what is going on is that they are just ignorant about all that churches do.  They are ignorant in part because churches are silent about what they are doing.

Here are some tips and examples of how to share your good works with your members, friends and community.

  • Have a page on your website that mentions your outreach efforts.  Include items such as:
    • A list of “Share the Plate” recipients and amounts donated
    • Community affiliations (NAACP, Interfaith Groups, Social Services, Community Organizing groups, legislative groups, LGBTQ groupsBushel
    • Donated/discounted space for other groups (12-step, scouts, homeschoolers, concerts, plays)
    • Participation in community events (CROP Walk, arts events, county fairs, farmers markets)
  • Regularly send press releases to your local news outlets sharing your stories.  (See the Public Relations Resource page on uua.org)
  • Write stories about your members’ experiences with your outreach ministries and publish them in your newsletter and on a blog linked to your website, Facebook page and Twitter account.
  • Post stories on your Facebook page and encourage your members to share the stories on their own pages

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant
Central East Regional Group

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