ian-ghostranch08Greetings! I'm writing on behalf of the staff of the Central Midwest District to wish you and your congregation a good year. We thank you for your dedication and willingness to serve.

We want you to know that we are here to give you any support you may need to make this a productive year. Please feel free at any time to phone or email any of us on the staff.

The Fall schedule of webinars will be up within the next couple of weeks. We have had a slight delay in this because we have had to switch software but there will be a full schedule of monthly, free online events to add to the recorded presentations that you can view any time at midwestuuleadership.

Remember that if you would like us to put on an educational event at your congregation, we are always glad to schedule those at no charge to you, provided that you are willing to open your doors to your neighboring congregations. If you want a custom event for your congregation only, members of our district consultant group are glad to do that for a small charge.

Please mark your congregation calendars and your personal calendars for the 2012 District Assembly in Oak Brook Illinois (April 27-29) and General Assembly in Phoenix, AZ (June 20-24).

Take a few minutes to browse our CMwD website, cmwd-uua for detailed calendars, online event registrations, information on the Chalice Lighter program, Youth and Young Adult events, and so much more.

Finally, if you are no longer president, please make sure your congregation's administrator updates your congregational leadership information with the UUA. For assistance with doing this contact CMwD Communications Coordinator Gretchen Ohmann.. Please note that many congregations have turned to using "president[at]congregation.org" emails so that presidents do not need to use their personal emails for church business. If your congregation does not do this, you might consider it.

Again, thanks for your work. And please, do not hesitate to contact us.

Ian Evison

Congregational Services Director
Central Midwest District UUA

ian07At our recent Central Midwest District Assembly I found our Saturday panel of growing congregations absolutely fascinating. Six themes I heard that Saturday morning resonated with things I have heard many other leaders say about what they have found to be key to their growth:

Multi-generational congregations. Emily Gage of Oak Park, IL, Bill Sasso of Carbondale, IL, talked about how children and adults were involved together in social justice work.Thirty years ago when congregations were driven by the devotion and commitment of stay-at-home mothers, church was a place that mothers could go to have some space away from their kids. An entire structure was built around this from the separation of worship and religious education to how we structured the work of the church whether this be social justice or work parties. Today, increasingly, church is a place where parents come to connect with their kids and even their partners in an age of dual careers and endless activities where the role of parent is reduced to chauffeur and cheering section. As one young parent put it: “this place has got to help me be closer with my kids and my partner or I am gone.” It used to mean that a congregation was family friendly if it provided child-care. Now that is less clear: an event with child care is an event which expects children will not be part of the activity. How do we reinvent our religious life together so that it is more about doing things together than doing things apart for adults and children?

Incremental planning. Michael Brown of Peoria, IL, talked about planning as part of the ongoing life of all committees and task forces, not just an exceptional process to be done every few years by a strategic planning committee. In the 1990’s great stress was placed on how important it is for congregations to have strategic plans. While it is important, the overall lesson learned was that planning is most effective it is become part of the overall work of the congregation and of each group within it, rather than a rare and exceptional type of work done by a few.

Proactive about conflict. Roger Bertschausen of the Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, WI, talked about their Healthy Congregations Team that works to resolve conflict and promote healthy communications. "Often through painful experience our congregations seem to be learning that they need to be more intentional about building healthy community."

Integral social justice work. A number of the congregations spoke about what might be called integral approaches to social justice work. This is social justice work as work of the larger congregations and not primarily work of either a social justice committee or of the minister.

Bite-sized involvement. A number of the congregations also spoke about the need to create more “bite-sized” opportunities for involvement, ways of getting involved in the work of the congregation without first volunteering for a committee and perhaps without ever going to a committee meeting.

Embracing diversity. Khleber Van Zandt of the First Unitarian Church of Alton, IL, talked of the shift in their congregation to embrace a greater range of the diversity of their surrounding community. In particular, Khleber talked about diversity being more than a black-white issue and indeed their challenge and opportunity has been to move to embrace greater diversity of social backgrounds and sexual orientations.

There is no such thing as a formula for growing a congregation. Yet these six things seem to be themes I hear from those who are growing.


Ian Evison
Congregational Services Director

ian-ghostranch08Certain necessities of life for me are only available at a farm supply store. For example, to prevent slipping on the ice the very best thing is, in my view, chicken grit, far better than either salt or sand. Thus it was that I was waiting in the check-out line in a farm supply store the other day—where I had gone to purchase chicken grit. The cashier and the customer in front of me were commiserating about the difficulty in finding work. The customer, it appears had been out of work for the better part of a year. She was hopeful, she said, the economy seemed to be picking up. Yet, having been out of work so long, debts had accumulated. She was going to need to find a really good job to have any hope of digging herself out.

Something about this echoes what I have been hearing from you, our congregational leaders. It does seem to you that things are picking up. Some congregations have reported unexpected success in fund-raising and unexpectedly strong payments of pledges. And yet the strain of the past year of recession has built up and continues to build. The prospect of better future income does nothing to pay down the debts that have arrived already.

The same dynamics seem to operate at a metaphorical level. This has been a year of strain. Now we look forward to better times but still are carrying with us the feeling of cumulative strain. It remains hard to find the sources of new energy and possibility even as prospects for new endeavors brighten.

Leading in this time is going to require us a challenging combination of deep empathy for what our people and congregations have been through and also a willingness to challenge our congregations to do new things. Paradoxically, in congregations new energy does not come from letting people rest, but rather from posing the right challenge.



Cooperation within our Midwestern region (Heartland, Central Midwest and Prairie Star Districts) continues to develop with our now monthly online educational events and with the addition of our youth leadership school. Internally, on our district staffs we are working on strengthening our cooperative structure to support and growth this work.

This has included, particularly, more differentiation of roles on our district staffs in such matter as finance, IT, and publicity. It will include a new role of lead staff person for the region, a position in which I will have the honor to serve on an interim basis. We hope that over time strengthening our structure for cooperative work will make some of the business and technical sides of our work less energy consuming thus allowing us to turn more of our energy outward to work with congregations.

Our plan and hope is that these developments be seamless for congregations. The new role of lead regional person is also connected to changes at the national level of our association. For more information about that see: http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/150302.shtml



This advice might at first seem perverse, given that you who are reading this are UU leaders and I work for our association. And sometimes, just sometimes, I do indeed wish someone might take our advice.

Yet, consider the matter from another angle. One of the big shifts in congregational life is the increasing need for congregations to focus on their specific and unique missions. In the post-World War II era we had one of the biggest booms in congregational church building the world has ever known. In that era what worked was having franchises that specified every detail of the enterprise and following all these details completely. This is pretty much the formula upon which the great franchise operations were built up through the 1980s, whether this be McDonald’s or Howard Johnsons. When you brought the car full of hungry tired kids into the restaurant there was nothing surprising or even interesting about it that could be in the least bit welcome—especially if you found it in the washroom. Uniformity of brand experience was a value that trumped anything else. It was worth sacrificing a lot of other good things about your dining experience—including taste and nutrition--if you knew the kids would get those French fries quickly and that they would eat them without complaint when they arrived.

In the congregational world, something analogous happened. The way you succeeded as a congregation was primarily to get a franchise of a good religious brand in a good location. A good location, by the way, was very much the same sort of location a restaurant franchise might choose. Wisdom was for many years that, to succeed as a new congregation, you could either do a lot of your own research about location or you could find a favorite spot for the franchises and get a location near there. McDonald’s did their homework. Why not crib a bit? In the UU world, congregations in this era were most often called the UU congregation of this or that explosively growing suburb. In this climate thinking deeply about a congregation’s unique mission was not a high value.

Loren Mead, one of my mentors in this work, commented once that if you walked up to a congregation and saw spalling concrete, you knew they needed to clarify their mission. All those congregation founded in the 1950s through the 1970s used a lot of slabs of concrete that after thirty years begin to crumble with chunks popping off revealing the steel reinforcing bar underneath. More often than not these were congregations founded in the era when hewing close to the franchise worked well and considering unique mission was rather a diversion.

The reality is that today this works less and less well. The congregations founded in this era now find themselves oddly at a loss. Across much of the old Protestant mainline brand loyalty is giving way to mission loyalty. Even where brand loyalty remains relatively strong—as in Unitarian Universalism—the prime attractor tends more frequently to be the mission or the program or the mission as embodied in the signature programs of the congregation whether this be worship, religious education, or social justice.

In short, being generically UU counts for less. A congregation needs a mission statement which, when read aloud, makes people shake their heads in assent and say “that captures us well; that is what we are about and couldn’t be any other congregation.”

I will perhaps relent a bit here and say sometimes it is good to ask the UU way of doing something—we have for example a quite characteristic method of matching ministers and congregations. Yet, far more often, congregations need to ask “what way would fit our mission?” The truth of the matter is that there are almost always many, many UU ways to do things. When we use the singular definite article “the” it is generally a hint that we should instead be asking the mission question.


Tis the season that congregations begin to talk about evaluation –apparently. A number of requests for advice about this have arrived in the past month. It is time I put my thoughts in more coherent form.

This is another of those questions where it is not possible to have an answer that is both good and short. My answer, you will find, is about 78 pages shorter than the most commonly used UU resources on the subject, but still long enough.

If you have suggestions out of your experience for revision of the advice I give here, that would be wonderful.

1. The Basic UU Answer

The basic UU stuff on this at the moment consists of two documents: Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment.

Two important virtues are that they are comprehensive (40 pages each) and available free and they are instantly available on the web: http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/ministerialdevelopment/16229.shtml
Their third virtue is that, to the extent that there is a standard UU thing on the subject, these are it. So, in using these resources you would help familiarize with the things that are currently most discussed in UU circles.

Trouble with this first answer is that the process to which it points is so long and complex that I have rarely seen it used.
Another excellent UU resource — and more recent — is assembled by Laurel Amabile with a lot of good material from Dan Hotchkiss and others. I suppose the reason it is less discussed is that it is primarily directed to religious educators. Yet the content is applicable to all congregational leaders: Resources for Staff Evaluation, Review, and Assessment Processes: http://tjd.uua.org/re/Collection%20of%20Resources%20Staff%20Reviews%20and%20Evaluations.doc

2. The Answer for Those Who Think They Want to Use a Survey

I have previously blogged my views on surveys. Frequently when congregations propose doing evaluations, they presume that the chief method they will use is a congregational survey. This is a bad idea. Evaluations become very important lessons in communication for congregations. Surveys are by their nature anonymous and indirect. Anonymous, indirect communication is the bane of congregational life.

Yet, people do use surveys as a central tool in evaluation. For those who choose to do so there are many resources. In this internet age, a Google search with the terms “minister,” “evaluation” or “assessment,” and “survey” or “questionnaire” will get you lots of examples to crib and adapt.


Thankfully, if you restrict your search to UU examples there are not quite as many examples. Yet they are used and do have their uses in specialized circumstances. The UUA Transitions Office uses one in the evaluation of interim ministers:

An approach to evaluation focusing on a survey is pretty much the polar opposite of the 80 pages of Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment. One lies at the extreme of length and process orientation and the other at the extreme of short, mechanical, and process challenged. Wisdom lies somewhere between these extremes.

3. Ian Evison’s Answer

So, answer number one is so big and complex people do not do it. It contains lots of good stuff but people look at the complexity and their brains freeze. Answer number two — the survey–models and teaches unhelpful patterns of congregational communication. It gives little guidance to establishing good practices for evaluation.

What to do? In my view, there is a pretty strong consensus across denominations about what the basics of good evaluation should be. And it does not take 80 pages to set this forth.

A little playing on the web came up with a very good summary — 4 pages. And really the last two pages of the 4 are the crucial ones. The “Ten Principles of Pastor Evaluations” really represent the core of present wisdom on the subject. It needs a little translating out of Methodist into UU. And principles two and ten don’t apply directly, but the rest are excellent.

Those who wish to begin doing evaluations might want to have a meeting with the appropriate leadership group and read aloud and discuss point by point these or my midrash on them (below). These basic principles are what underlie the 80 pages of the UU version — so, if you want elaboration on how you might do the things suggested in a UU context you can then go to Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment.


My redaction of these principles is as follows:

  • Evaluate the minister in the context of the whole congregation’s ministry. Evaluate the minister only within the larger context of an evaluation of the whole ministry of the congregation. When the minister (or ministers) is evaluated but the whole ministry is not, it invites the unstated and untrue assumption that the minister is responsible for everything that happens in the congregation. This ends up blaming the minister for all the congregation’s strengths and praising her or him for all its strengths. Ministers don’t need to be invited to see themselves as the center of the universe in this way!
  • Evaluate against goals. Evaluate in the context of the congregation’s goals for the year and the mission of the congregation. Evaluations that fail to evaluate against overall goals of the congregation and the minister’s role in achieving those turn into beauty contests. Evaluations that ask how well people liked this or that (rated on a one to five scale), push ministers to please people and avoid offending people — and away from focus on achieving mission.
  • Do not tie directly to determining compensation. Do not, do not directly link evaluation to compensation. While, in the business world, it is popular at present to find ways to link these directly by having evaluation be an immediate prelude to compensation discussions, it is far better in congregational life to separate the two in the year — perhaps with one in the spring and one in the fall.
  • Collaborate. This should be a collaborative process. Agree in advance on what will be evaluated and how. This avoids a lot of misunderstandings.
  • Take the time this needs. Evaluation done well takes time and attention — lots of intentionality and good discussion. Another reason to do evaluations at a part of the year that is a long way from the compensation determination and budget building process is to ensure that evaluation is not rushed. Evaluation is communication and good communication takes quality time.
  • Agree what use will be made of the evaluation. Agree, in advance, on what will happen to the results of the evaluation: Who will receive them and what use will these people make of them? The single greatest failing of evaluative processes in congregations is that they are introduced as a means of dealing with emerging conflict or disagreement. The proper response to emerging conflict is conflict resolution, not an evaluation process. Evaluation not only tends to fail as a conflict management strategy. It also tends to undermine the institutionalization of evaluation in the life of the congregation. Use evaluation as a conflict management tool and you teach that it only should be and only needs to be used when there is conflict.
  • Strengths and Weaknesses. Focus on both strengths and weaknesses. No congregation was ever made great by a process of focusing on and eliminating weaknesses. Likewise ministers.
  • No anonymous feedback. Build agreement in the congregation in advance that anonymous feedback has no role in the process. Evaluation processes are one of the key ways in a congregation that good communication is taught and learned. Good communication needs to be open, honest, and direct. The gain to the congregation and to the process of communicating in this way far outweighs anything that is lost by leaving anonymous comments out of the process.
  • Less is more. For most of us, it is very easy to lists or our weaknesses, and fairly easy to list our strengths. The challenge is to choose the one or two improvements we might make that would be both most possible and salutary. Likewise on the side of strengths: which among any person’s strengths is it most important to develop at any given time? An evaluation process is generally most helpful, not in its listing of strengths and weaknesses but in its collaborative discernment of where to focus attention. The committee that facilitates the evaluation process must have the courage to say that some feedback should not be given attention.
  • Do it yearly. Most congregations at some point have done evaluations. Their failure is often in institutionalizing it into a yearly process. The last act in an evaluation process should be to put next year’s evaluation on the calendar.
  • Keep it simple. With all due respect to our eighty-odd pages of UU documents on evaluation, committees charged with devising an evaluation process often devise processes that are complex enough that it pretty much assures that they will not be repeated. An evaluation process needs to be simple enough that it can be continued even in those years when other things must have higher priority. This advice may seem to contradict the advice to take the time it needs. It need not. Simplifying the process can also open space for better quality conversation.

Hope this helps.

One of the most loaded questions that I get regularly regards staffing and in particular the level of staffing most appropriate to a congregation of a given size.

So, a lay leader says to me: “our minister thinks a congregation of our size needs an assistant minister, is that true?” Or a minister says: “our congregation is stuck at x members; to move beyond that, we need to ’staff for growth,’ don’t we?” When I get questions that so obviously are eliciting ammo for an argument, my first inclination is to mumble or hide. Especially since, the way the questions are presented, it makes me feel like I ought to have a nice clear numerical answer. I feel as though I ought to be able to say: “If you have x number of congregants, then you need at least y staff.”

But I know that matters are not so simple.

What is it that I ought to say? What would be an adequate response? Unfortunately, an adequate response is considerably longer than either side in the debate is likely to find useful on the way to a meeting or as a footnote in the strategic plan.

Thus, I suppose I write this blog entry mostly to resolve my own frustration over my mumbled answers.

I find that this question often comes to me because someone has vaguely remembered hearing that there is a specific rule of thumb or best practice guide regarding the ratio of full time equivalent (FTE) staff to congregants.

This memory is correct, as far as it goes. Indeed, the question shows that those asking have been paying attention to expert opinion on the subject.

For a long time, one of the basic pieces of congregational wisdom -- like the 85% rule -- has been that there is such a ratio. The number made its appearance as part of the congregational size literature.

The size transition framework for congregations originated in Arlin Routhage’s Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry (New York, NY: Episcopal Church Center, 1983). Available online by following the links at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/CDR_series1(1).pdf. This one brief booklet spawned what has become a veritable publishing industry on the subject of congregations and size (though if someone wants a concise “free” 20 pages on the subject this is still the best place to begin.

This original booklet was written with a particular focus on the question of new members and how they are assimilated into congregations of different sizes. A decade after this was written –in 1991 — Roy Oswald wrote a key article drawing out the implications of this line of thinking for congregational leadership. At that point, he and others had been noticing that with frustrating consistency the ministers who thrive in a congregation of one size fail miserably ministering to a new larger size congregation. Why is this? What needs to be done? To answer this question Roy Oswald wrote the article “How to Minister Effectively in Family, Pastoral, Program, and Corporate Sized Congregations,” (Action Information, vol. 12:2, March/April 1991, pages 1-7 12: 3, May/June 1991, pages 5-7, https://thecrg.org/resources/how-to-minister-effectively-in-family-pastoral-program-and-corporate-sized-churches).

In this article, Roy Oswald said the fateful words:

... if you desire to staff for growth, you need one full-time program person on your staff for every one hundred active members.

This wisdom has insinuated itself into the common lore about congregations through the grapevine, through a myriad of educational events by Alban people and others, and — perhaps most influentially for UUs through Alice Mann’s book, Raising the Roof: The Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition (2001), which includes as an appendix Oswald’s article from a decade earlier.

From here the wisdom has found its way into innumerable staffing plans and long range planning documents (some of which I have written). Indeed, if any reading this find themselves pressed for time to write such a document, this line of thinking has become standardized enough that any number of good prototype report explaining this logic can be snagged from the web.

Is this standard advice good advice?

I worked at Alban at the time of the publication of Raising the Roof. Raising the Roof has started as one of Alban’s first experiments in online education. I can then recall discussing (with whom I forget) whether it was wise to include Oswald’s 1991 unrevised wisdom in Mann’s 2001 book.

Clearly, there is some relationship between congregational size and staff size. As congregations get larger staffs need to expand.

Yet, what should the relationship be? We need some new thinking on this. The first problem is that Oswald’s 1:100 ratio is often quoted out of context. It is often cited as if it were a statistical generalization. It is not. It is a consultant’s gut judgment translated into numerical form. It is the gut impression of a very good consultant confirmed by the gut impression of many other good consultants and others. Yet it is still a gut impression that is frequently quoted as if it were a statistical generalization. This is troubling.

To the extent that I have any impression of what the number is, I am rather uncertain that the original 1:100 number is or ever was right in anything more than the most ballpark, order of magnitude sense. Because such numbers are so prone to being used as ammunition in arguments, those who work on such things are loathe to quote specific statistics. In our district, individual congregations have for their own planning purposes collected information from what they regard as peer congregations. My impression is that they find that the average staffing levels (not the normal or best practice level) are rather higher than the old 1:100 level (more staff per congregant).

Beyond the quibbling over numbers, there is a more important issue at stake: While it is true that bigger congregations have -- and need -- more staff, how helpful is it to focus on the FTE ratio as Oswald and Mann have taught us to do?

The original wisdom about FTE ratios was set forth to assist mid-sized congregation in deciding when to add a second minister. For this issue in this size congregation, there is little reason to doubt the wisdom of the advice to focus on this ratio. There gets to be a point where it is too much for one minister and where the minister’s reluctance to let go and the congregation’s reluctance to spend more money just aren’t very helpful.

Yet here we come to the biggest and most systematic weakness to our generalizations about congregational life. Through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there was a huge explosion of congregational knowledge that claimed to be universal but was largely based on the experience of consultants with mid-sized, mainline, largely suburban, Anglo congregations. While the experience of these congregations has a huge amount to teach, it is a fair question to ask whether the experience of these congregations can be generalized into universal laws. My own prediction is that the next few decades of creativity in this line of work is likely to focus on how these generalizations over-stretched.

But to return to the more specific issue at hand: One crucial thing we know about this ratio is that is it not constant by size. Very small congregations function somehow without any staff. And, as congregations get bigger, staffs increase -- but not as fast as their membership. Bigger congregations have more staff, but not that much more. Again, statistics are hard to come by but the general point is this: In our CMwD, for instance, Rockford with 400 people has two ministers and Appleton with 550 has two ministers. How many ministers would we expect a congregation of 1450 to have? Six? Seven? No, this would seem a reasonable extrapolation but the number is three (First Madison).

What is the point here? Our ideas of staffing ratios have a hidden mid-sized congregation orientation. For very small congregations staffing ratios are irrelevant because very small congregations don’t have staff. And for large congregations, staffing ratios become less relevant because as congregations get larger they must increasingly extend the service by provide more by leveraging staff than by adding staff.

Bigger congregations have bigger staffs. That is true. Yet as a congregation gets larger, it needs to increasingly focus on how to leverage more intelligently: to extend service by doing things differently more than by having more paid staff to do them. For example, as congregations get over 500 they usually find that the minister or ministers will generally do a decreasing proportion of the pastoral care themselves and will devote more time to recruiting, training, and supporting lay people in doing this. Thus, ironically, from one angle, the way a congregation of 1500 does pastoral care may have more in common with the way a lay led congregation of 50 does this than with the congregation of 350.

Bottom-line advice: if you want a general guide concerning staffing ratios the basic advice is still that of Oswald and Mann. Rather than using the old 1:100 figure, it is probably best to check with some peer congregations. And realize that, you need to do more than examine the ration of staff to congregant. As congregations get larger the number of staff actually becomes strategically less important and how their time is used becomes more important. The question of number of staff must not be allowed to substitute for the questions what staff are needed and how they should work so that they can each serve a proportionately larger number of people.

It can be easier to focus narrowly on staffing ratios because talking about better leveraging of staff time can raise very difficult issues staff restructuring. Yet, the two need to go together. If a congregation has grown enough to potentially need more staff, it has also grown enough that the question needs to be raised of how staff time needs to be leveraged differently.


The other day on my wanderings around the district I had lunch with a group of men from one of our congregations. I mentioned to them that I had been noticing a growth in interest in humanism. My conversation partners received this report with the mixture of skepticism and hopefulness that one might expect from a group of veteran birders on hearing a report of a sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

I promised this group that I would relay more particulars. Since this is indeed something I have heard discussed a good deal of late, I thought I would make my report in the form of a blog. For the past twenty years spirituality — however defined — has been on the ascendancy in UU congregations. Often, Bill Sinkford’s Humanism — especially atheism — has increasingly felt itself beleaguered. A landmark for both those who cheer this and those who bemoan it was the 2003 sermon by Bill Sinkford calling for the re-appropriation of a “language of reverence” (http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/4479.shtml).Those positively inclined to the current rise of spirituality have taken this as an important endorsement by the president of our association. Those negatively inclined have tended rather to view it as a worrying indication of their marginalization. Indeed, there has been a certain tendency both among its champions and its detractors to view humanism as a spent force, still persisting perhaps as an after-hours aging adult study group but increasingly far from the center of congregational life. The intellectual argument for this point of view is perhaps best set forth in Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism.I do believe that I have begun to notice a reversal of the momentum of the pendulum.The characteristic religious passions of my baby-boomer generation are not disappearing but especially among the youth and young adults I hear new notes sounding. Included in this is distinctly more sympathy for humanism and even sympathy for a rather evangelical form of atheism (if this combination of terms is permitted). I began to notice this two years ago when my wife and I taught a high school religious education class at Cedar Lane. Considering the humanist traditions of that congregation, I tended to consider this a characteristic of that congregation. However, I have repeatedly noticed this subsequently. Most recently, I noticed a brief mention in the new UUA “Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth: Summary Report”:
“One youth at the Metro New York District gathering shared that UU youths’ peers react strongly when they talk about God or a higher power. Other youth identified a ‘fear’ of spirituality and religion, especially Christianity.” (p. 24).

Itis sad to hear that the next generation is not doing much better with tolerance than my own. Yet it is interesting for me to note that this seems to be another sign that the great wave of interest in spirituality may now be giving way among our youth and young adults to something more authentically diverse. Seems like one of the features the post-9/11 religious landscape in UU congregations is a heightened sense of the dangers posed not just by fundamentalism forms of Islam and Christianity but by any dabbling in the more than naturalistic. While my own baby-boomer generation seems on the whole still inclined to continue their endeavors to make our lives and our congregations more “spiritual,” there is around the edges a different discussion emerging. People are reading with great interest books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. A Meadville/Lombard student noted to me that, even more telling perhaps, is the interest on YouTube. “Atheism” by a film student, Zachery Kroger, has apparently become one of the most watched videos on YouTube (http://www.secularstudents.org/node/522). This rise in the new atheism was nicely reported in two articles that appeared in the Washington Post on September 15, 2007: “In Europe and US, Nonbelievers Are Increasingly Vocal” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/14/AR2007091402501.html) and “In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/14/AR2007091402199.html). What do I make of this? As Reinhold Niebuhr often observed, history is ironic in how it twists and upturns our greatest certainties and aspirations. Beyond that, the rising interest in atheism is a hint concerning what the features of the religious landscape are likely to be when us baby boomers finally give way to the next generation of leaders (which we must, eventually!).


One of the questions I am asked most frequently regard use of surveys in congregations. I include here a somewhat patchwork version of advice I have given recently on the topic.

I have a love-hate relationship with surveys, especially surveys used as a part of congregational planning. Frankly, used in this context they can often do more harm than good.

The appeal of surveys is obvious. When used as one among a number of ways of collecting data, they can get great and comparatively easy way to add peripheral vision to face-to-face methods of gathering response. This is especially true since the advent of good, cheap — or even free — software for doing this such as SurveyMonkey.com. These new methods reduce to practically nothing the old tasks of counting survey results and make analysis easier.
There are two key problems with surveys or — to be more adequate — to problems with how surveys are used.

The first challenge is that polls are often used as quasi-votes, not as a means to get in view the range of view. So, to use the worst kind of examples (a real one from a recent project), a poll might say that 95% of people think that the signs and communications of a congregations are adequate. What this overlooked was that the 5% who did not find them adequate were the new members and the poll did not include visitors. In any instance where there will be inclination for a poll to be used as a quasi-vote, good scientific method and good consulting both would say that they should be directed to make a clear decision about whether a vote is what is wanted and — if it is — that should be conducted within the procedures for their polity. Polls as quasi-votes yield no real information. In the negative, they tend to hide what is emerging behind the “average” and cause much real destruction. If however, they are used to explore a complex reality they can be very informative.

The second challenge is that congregations are temped to use surveys as a ways to avoid the tough work of face-to-face conversations. People need to be heard and to hear each other face-to-face on any subject that is sufficiently important to warrant a survey. These conversations are most healthy when the people in the conversation speak directly on the basis of their own convictions — not leaning for support on the views of an anonymous percent of the congregation. While the question of anonymity deserves its own separate discussion, suffice it to say here that confidentiality in congregational planning is over-rated. The creative directions in planning focus on face-to-face methods such as World Cafe (www.theworldcafe.com) which has worked well recently for congregations of a variety of sizes in the district.

Yet surveys do have a place. Here are a few guidelines for using surveys well:

  • Surveys work well as a way of understanding the range of views and as a prelude to direct conversations. A good conclusion from a survey is: “we didn’t know so many people thought that; let’s get them together.” A bad way to use a survey is to say: “more people want us to hire an assistant minister than an administrator; therefore we should hire an assistant minister.”
  • Surveys work poorly as a substitute for direct face-to-face communication. The besetting sins of congregational communication are anonymous feedback and indirect feedback. Surveys by their nature tend to be both so it is important not to take any action or draw any conclusions on the basis of a survey alone. They can be a very good way of identifying which conversations you need to have.
  • Always test your survey on a small group of people, if only with your committee or six friends from work.
  • Electronic tools for doing surveys are getting very good. I have used a number. Survey Monkey is my current favorite. You pay a nominal fee per month and they have a free version which is adequate for many purposes.
  • Consult with the senior leadership of the congregation before undertaking a survey. Show a copy of the survey in draft form and then, when the survey is finalized, send them a complete copy of what will go to the congregation.

There is much more to say about this, but this is a good start.


People often ask me about demographics for congregations.

People who think that their congregation would be benefitted by having some demographic information may wish to begin with the bottom section, “The Question You Should Have Asked.” It is helpful to have good sources of demographic information such as I describe below. But the big challenge is using it to good effect.

There are two basic types of sources of demographic information: stuff that does not cost money and stuff that does.

Free Stuff

The big development over the past decade has been the increase in good, usable free demographic information in a form that is usable for congregations. This last qualifier is very important. There has been a lot of good information available for a long time. The catch has been that is has been very hard to access and to put into a form that is usable to someone without a degree in statistics. Now, with the development of the web, there is beginning to be much more stuff useful to the non-expert. Myself, I believe that one day this free stuff will become so good that the companies that try to see the stuff will be put out of business. I have four€”or better make that six–favorite free sites. The first two of these basically piggy-back on the demographic services other denominations provide their congregations.

  1. http://map.nazarene.org Only place I know that you can get growth rates over time by zip code for free. You can get a good basic report by zip code.
  2. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/growth_60791_ENG_HTM.htm?menupage=50929. What you basically get here is a stream-lined version of a Percept report by zip code. The only funky thing is that you must start by using the Episcopal Church parish locator (http://www.ecdplus.org/parish/) to find out what Episcopal congregations are in the area you wish to study (zip code) and then look for the report you want by the name of that congregation (funky but then it is free).
  3. http://www.thearda.com/congregations/index.asp. The American Religious Data Archive is a truly wonderful store of free, user-friendly statistical information about religion in America. It is oriented to students and researchers but they have compiled a tutorial which will walk you through the process of gathering demographic information useful for congregational planning. A woman by the name of Heather Kindell has compiled a tutorial that takes you from website to website building a very serviceable report for use by congregations in their ministries.
  4. www.esribis.com/reports/ziplookup.html ESRI sells a lot of stuff but they do give away descriptions of the fastest growing segments by zip codes. Good for congregations to ask themselves whether they are serving/attracting the future of the community.
  5. http://www.nces.ed.gov/surveys/sdds. This site, sponsored by the National Center of Educational Studies is my favorite new discovery. Designed for school systems€”and searchable by school system-this site basically has all the demographic information that schools need for planning which is basically the information that congregations also need for planning. It does not leave you with a nice, neat report the way some of the other resources recommended do but it has great breadth.
  6. www.census.gov. The US Census “Quick Facts” is quite helpful and is searchable by county, city, or zip.

Stuff That Costs Money

Someday in the not too distant future the quality of the free materials may become so good that this will put the companies who charge out of business. The time is not yet. For now, there are companies that will create nice custom reports for congregation (largely by packaging in a more usable form Census data for which you have already paid as a tax payer). The costs are low enough that they should not be a barrier to those who are serious about working on these issues. The best known supplies of these commercial demographic reports to congregations is Percept (http://www.perceptgroup.com/). By marrying US Census information with consumer information, Percept will give you a variety of levels of study. The UUA has negotiated discounted prices. These are available through the UUA in Boston. The person to contact is Susanna Whitman (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 617-948-4270). Susanna Whitman is also very good at leading people through deciding what would be most useful. The basic Percept product is called a Ministry Area Profile and a full sample is available on the Percept website (http://www.perceptgroup.com/Products/MinistryAreaProfile/MAPfront.aspx). Full price is about $320 and discounted price through the UUA is something like $225.

There is another Percept product that can be very helpful. This is called the Context report and this combines the Ministry Area Profile with a survey of your congregation leaving you at the end with a report that compares your congregation with the surrounding community. Full price is about $700 and, again, Susanna Whitman can help you with the details and get you a discount.

The Question You Should Have Asked

The real question comes in using the demographics. In spite of my own interest in statistics, I fear I have come to the conclusion that most of the time demographics are used in congregation in ways that are unhelpful. Demographic information can be used helpfully when used to point to conversations people in a congregation need to have with each other and with those in the surrounding community and when it is used to point to relationships that a congregation needs to build.

In working for some years as the research director at the Alban Institute (that consults with churches and synagogues) I concluded that some groups, and I would be tempted to say especially UUs, hope to find in demographics a quick and relatively arm’s length way to see into the reality of the areas where they were located. It does not work. Anyone thinking that demographics might be useful needs to get this truth firmly in mind: a right-brained person with a pile of numbers never convinced a left-brained person to do anything.
However, good numbers, numbers that paint a picture that helps start a conversation, can be a very helpful beginning to a process.
Every community has people who know a huge amount about planning and future development. Most congregations already have links to these people and to the communities from which they would like to attract more members or where they would like to develop ministries. If demographic information provides a stepping stone to developing these relationships, they can be useful.


Four or five years ago John Carver’s model of Policy Governance broke over UU congregations like a wave. It seemed them that Carver’s admonition for boards to focus on policy and stay out of the minutia was just what we needed. It would be hard to say it wasn’t. Anyone who has served a term on the board of a UU congregations knows the little emotional roller coaster of attendance at a board meeting. At 8:00 PM the meeting is going well. Three little items left on the agenda. How long can a report from Buildings and Grounds take? You actually begin to hope that you might be able to get a little time with the family before bed. And then it balloons–the report on the work-party leads into a discussion of how there were not enough tools for everyone last Saturday which leads into a discussion of who might donate tools how really you can’t store the tools in the back hall and, if you get more tools, you need to build a new shed. For some unfathomable reason this leads into a discussion of run-off, drainage, and whether that corner or your property might not legally be considered a wetland. As this happens you get a sinking feeling as the possibility of getting home before 9 or 9:30 or. even 10:00 drains away. Anyone who has been through this can readily see the wisdom of the advice that board should focus on setting policy and deciding on proposals, not on generating proposals or on general discussion of issues. Even boards that have solemnly declared themselves to be policy governance boards and have done their best to live by the precepts of Carver’s Boards that Make a Difference find it very hard to discipline themselves not to get drawn into this. Indeed, I myself have found it irresistible to contribute what I knew about the such things as latest in wetland laws (my wife works for the Environmental Protection Agency) even as I despaired at how long the discussion was taking. Our congregations have a lot to learn from Carver and even those congregations that have officially made the jump into policy governance do well to discipline themselves to keep at it.

Yet can we say that good governance can be reduced to a matter of simply doing Carver diligently? Someone observed that to balance out our openness about theological exploration UUs have a tendency to organizational fundamentalism–to believing that following the latest organizational expert with sufficient exactness will get us where we want to go. Yet, are our congregations really well served by well when the boards set the organizational end and then limit themselves to negative statements concerning means the executive should not use to achieve those ends? And what about the experience of being a board member? Is it a satisfying board experience to be really kept entirely out of the consideration of means–at least at the strategic level, if not at the level of where to find more rakes for the work next work party?

Some years ago Chuck Olsen did a study (Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders) of the experience of congregational board members and came to the startling and disturbing experience that a high percent of board members and an even higher percent of board chairs find the experience of serving so draining and disillusioning that they leave the congregation . As younger leaders move onto boards they have been even less willing to tough out a bad board experience and have demanded that it be a quality experience, if not a “spiritual” experience. The impulse for policy governance doubtless began in part as a wish to do something about this. Yet, does it really improve matters if things are taken to the other extreme–having boards limit themselves to setting ends and holding the executive or executive team accountable to these ends? Once the end statement is set, experience on such a board can feel more like being an outside auditor than being a participant in a community of leaders.

Recently many people struggling with this have been reading Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor. For congregations who have been trying to “do” Carver, the first piece that has been freeing is the clear claim that governance should be leadership. Beyond this people are finding very helpful Chait’s the division between the three areas in which board have roles: fiduciary, strategic, and generative. Each can be framed with a question:

  • fiduciary: How do we hold ourselves accountable? How do we measure ourselves against the ends we have set? What measures should we use? How do we handle issues of accountability in ways that work for us?
  • strategic: How do we learn to think two steps out? How do we move beyond responding to the issues that come before us–first in terms of our own work at a board and then in our work at leaders in helping the congregation?
  • generative: How do we see our situation in larger perspective? Chait observes that this is the wisdom function. Congregational boards, at least the best of them, find a way to move beyond being responsible and beyond being strategic to serving as a wisdom voice.

I have been impressed how useful it has been for boards, especially boards who have been diligently working policy governance for a while, to ask themselves these questions and see where it leads. I sincerely hope (dare I say “pray”) that Chait does not become our new governance guru the way Carver has been the past few years. Yet, it does seem that Chait’s questions are ones that our congregational boards are finding very useful to ask themselves as they struggle to find a way make their fullest contribution without descending into discussion of detail that others are far more capable of handling.


PS — Thanks to Stefan Jonasson who introduced me to Chait at a presentation to the staffs of the large congregations of Central Midwest District. Anyone interested in more in this general line of thinking should consult the online article about Stefan’s recent GA presentation on governance and emotional systems.

It seems to be a time of the year when many congregations are thinking about the work for the coming congregational year. I have gotten a number of questions about hiring consultants. One first thing to say about this is how much a congregation gets out of consulting assistance depends–more than anything else–on how much the congregation puts into the relationship. In particular, congregations would benefit greatly by spending more time clarifying the assignment for the consultant, clarifying the outcomes that they expect, and so forth.

In my previous position with the Alban Institute, we worked a great deal with the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The Indianapolis Center has an excellent series of free online resource concerning how to use resources well. Their piece on how to work with a consultant is a good place to begin for any congregation considering use of an outside consultant. http://centerforcongregations.org/files/13/using_resources/entry323.aspx.

Those interested in consultants might also be interested to know that our district consultants group just completed their first brochure in time for our recent District Assembly.


Our outgoing representative to the UUA Board of Trustees, Sue Stukey, created a wonderful list of Unitarian Universalist acronyms. I thought that this might make a good partner to the list of terms associated with ministerial search that I posted previously. I offer it here with Sue’s permission (CMWD Acronyms).

I present this list of acronyms with some misgivings and a word of caution. Unitarian Universalists love acronyms. Aside perhaps from the US Army, I know of no organization that loves them more. I find myself forced to use them sometimes. How else am I going to come up with a name for a budget line for the District Youth Steering Committee that is less than fifteen characters? But I distrust acronyms.

Why? Partly, I suppose, I take a perverse joy in being contrarian. Yet, it is more than this.

Acronyms are an insider language. We may begin to use them for ease and economy of communication. Yet, using them also communicates that we are part of an inside group and others are not. Use of acronyms can communicate this even when this was not intended. It is especially hard for newcomers and visitors not to get this message from use of acronyms.

When my family and I lived in Maryland, we were members of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church (that would be, CLUUC). It was a tradition there for the delegation returning from General Assembly to lead a worship service in which they shared something of their experience. More than once I found myself sitting in the congregation next to puzzled visitors as an enthusiastic delegate explained that it was a life-changing experience to “Go to the UU GA from the JPD to hear about Anti-anti-M, CLF, APF, and GLBT issues.” Perhaps the intent is to make people feel they want to know more about our association and to be more connected. The effect was not that.

To be sensitive to this is good hospitality. For those who need a more self-interested view, I would add this: All that ever has been written about congregational growth can be distilled into four words: “take the outsider’s view.”

I remember once meeting with a congregation’s membership committee. The people on the committee had a strong sense of mission, a strong sense that the congregation had entrusted them with an important task: their congregation needed to grow. To pay their staff adequately, they needed to grow. To offer the religious education program that they wanted for their children, they needed to grow. To maintain their building adequately, they needed to grow.

Yet, they realized that nobody ever joined a congregation to make it grow. Sometimes people join congregations because they like to be part of a growing enterprise, but that is something different. Nobody ever joined a congregation to make it grow. This committee had realized this abstractly, but they had not made it the organizing principle of their work. Until, that is, one committee member stopped and asked quizzically, “so, why do people join?”

This committee’s voyage of discovery in answering this question ended in the startling discovery that they probably did not even have the right people on their committee. Those who feel most strongly their congregation’s need to grow tend to be the insiders and the institutionalists: those who know just how little the staff is being paid, those who notice the tree work that needs to be done every time they drive into the parking lot, those who have seen the estimates for how much it is going to cost to bring the religious education rooms up to code. These people (and this include me) tend to be a long way from their own decisions to become Unitarian Universalists. And they (or I should say “we”) tend to be so busy enough during coffee hour that we are are not the main ones to speak to newcomers and visitors. The institutionals tend to have a list of people to see in coffee hour that is so long that they worry about getting around to all of these before they start to leave–let alone taking time to be hospitable.

What should be done?

1. Avoid acronyms. Adopt the discipline of speaking and acting in a way that is inviting and welcoming of newcomers even when they are not present. Do the work of explaining rather than putting onto a newcomer the work of understanding.

2. Have the center of gravity of your membership committee be with those who are more passionate about why people need to join than about why the congregation needs them. These will typically be new members but not very new members.

3. Talk to newcomers. Every newcomer is on the way to becoming an institutionalist. For this reason, every congregation and especially every membership committee needs a way to stay close to the experience of newcomers. One mechanism works surprisingly well and is wonderfully easy. Gather the newcomers at regular intervals–ideally those who have been around long enough to feel comfortable speaking out but short enough that they remember vividly the experience of being a newcomer. Ask them what they were searching for when they came, what they feel that they have found, what helped them feel connected and what stood in their way (this wisdom comes from the book by Roy Oswald, The Inviting Church.).

In recent years many Unitarian Universalists have read with much interest and benefit the book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love by Lonni Pratt and Daniel Hoffman (My colleague, Dori Davenport, does a great workshop on the subject). Pratt and Hoffman observe that authentic hospitality is a spiritual discipline. As any who has been a guest of the Benedictines can attest, this the tradition of this still lives with the Benedictines. It is a powerful, prophetic ministry that is both ancient and newly relevant to a contemporary world where too often we must work to make ourselves secure from each other.

At their best, the Benedictines make hospitality a powerful spiritual tradition and religious witness in part because they do not allow it to reduce to a growth strategy. Rather, each time I have enjoyed Benedictine hospitality, someone (often an elderly nun) has found a discrete way of affirming me on my own path, of meeting me where I am. Benedictine communities are as anxious as any on the subject of membership. Doubtless most Benedictine communities have more space to be welcoming of strangers than they would like!

Yet, the Benedictine tradition has much Unitarian Universalists can learn about hospitality because it allows hospitality and recruitment to be independent values. Good recruitment is good hospitality. But hospitality cannot be allowed to reduce to recruitment. Hospitality is authentic–it works spiritually–only in a community where it is so live and powerful that it can challenge as well as support the institutional values. Benedictine communities spend a great deal of time in discernment about the question of who is the stranger to us now, today. Properly done, there is always a degree of tension between the answer to this question and the answer to the recruitment question. Today, for example, many Benedictine communities have felt led to work with undocumented aliens (following Leviticus 19:34, “You shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you once were an immigrant.”).

Does this say that we Unitarian Universalists should work on social justice rather than recruitment? No. It only says that hospitality can work in service of insitutional values like membership only when we allow it to be an independent value. For Unitarian Universalists, there is a particular danger that we feel uncomfortable with evangelism or recruitment and so rename it membership and then–still uncomfortable–rename that hospitality or radical hospitality. We can forget that hospitality must not become just another way of talking about getting more members. We keep all this straight, not by letting go of our institutional concerns, but rather by keeping ourselves at that place where we still see and still work the tension.

This ramble takes me a long way from Sue Stukey’s list of acronyms. My point is only to say that I do not offer you this list to recommend you use them. Rather I offer it in the spirit that Sue created it: to make the work of the Unitarian Universalist Association more hospitable to the newcomers and guests.


UU Acronyms
November 2006

APF — Annual Program Fund
AR/AO/MC — Anti-Racist/Anti-Oppressive/Multicultural
ARE — Allies for Racial Equity
ARE — Adult Religious Education
AYS — About Your Sexuality
BCD — Ballou Channing District
BCM — Big Complex Meeting (all UUA staff)
BOR — Board of Review
BOT — Board of Trustees
CAUUC — Chicago Area UU Council
CBD — Clara Barton District
CPBC — Compensation, Pensions and Benefits Committee
CERR — Conflict Engagement Right Relations
CGDC — Congregational Growth and Development Council
CIAC — Central Illinois Area Council
CLF — Church of the Larger Fellowship
CMwD — Central Midwest District
COA — Commission on Appraisal
COC — Committee on Committees
CPLC — Congregational Properties and Loan Commission
CSD — Congregational Services Director
CSW — Commission on Social Witness
CUC — Canadian Unitarian Council
CUUPS — Covenant of UU Pagans
CU2C2 — Council of UU Camps and Conferences
C-UUYAN — Continental UU Young Adult Network
CYF — Church of the Younger Fellowship
DA — District Assembly
DFDG — Director of Faith Development and Growth
DOM — District Office Manager
DPA — District President’s Association
DRE — Director of Religious Education
DRUUMM — Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries
DYSC — District Youth Steering Committee
FIA — Faith in Action
FL — Florida District
FTP — Fulfilling the Promise
GA — General Assembly
GISC — Growth Initiative Steering Committee
G&S — Growth and Support
GLBT — Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered
HTLD — Heartland District
ICUU — International Council of Unitarians and Universalists
IARF — International Association of Religious Freedom
IALRW—International Association of Liberal Religious Women
ICUUW—International Convocation of U*U Women
JPD — Joseph Priestly District
JTW — Journey Toward Wholeness
JTWTC — Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee
LREDA — Liberal Religious Educators Association
LUUNA — Latino UU Networking Association
MBD — Mass Bay District
MDD — Mountain Desert District
MFC — Ministerial Fellowship Committee
MNYD — Metro New York District
MOD Squad — Ministerial Opportunities Development
MRE — Minister of Religious Education
MSD — Mid-South District
MSR — Ministerial Settlement Representative
MRSCC — Midwest Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy
MUUC — Midwest UU Conference
MUUF — Midwest UU Foundation
NCAC — North Central Area Council
NED — North East District
NHVTD — New Hampshire Vermont District
OBGLTC — Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Concerns
OMD — Ohio Meadville District
OWL — Our Whole Lives
PCC — Partner Church Council
PCD — Pacific Central District
PG — Policy Governance
PNWD — Pacific Northwest District
PM — Parish Minister
PSD — Prairie Star District
PSWD — Pacific Southwest District
RE — Religious Education
REACH — Religious Education Action Clearing House
REGC — Religious Education and Growth Consultant
RSCC — Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy
SEWUUC — South East Wisconsin UU Council
SLAUUC — St. Louis Area UU Council
STLD — St. Lawrence District
SWUUC — South West UU Conference (District)
SWUUW — South West UU Women
TJD — Thomas Jefferson District

U*U — Unitarian-Universalist (inclusive)
UUA — Unitarian Universalist Association
UUMA — Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association
UUMN — Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network
UUSC — Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
UU-UNO — Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office
UUWF — Unitarian Univesalist Women's Federation
UUWR— Unitarian Universalist Women and Religion
WCRP — World Conference on Religion and Peace
WOA — Washington Office for Advocacy
W & R — Women and Religion
YAC — Youth/Adult Committee
YASC — Young Adults Steering Committee
YATF — Youth/Adult Task Force
YA-YA — Youth and Young Adult (Consultant)
YRUU — Young Religious Unitarian Universalist

I write again from GA in Portland, Oregon. Interesting for me to see this year how the subject of sustainability is brewing. Ecology is always and perpetually big with UUs. The Seventh Principle Project (http://uuministryforearth.org) has a presence in many congregations. But somehow the question of sustainability has come into focus in a new way in our Association in the last year, even just the last few months: how do we do this work sustainably?

On the district staff the voice of this newly focused concern is Karen Brammer, small church specialist in the Northeast District. How do we do our religious associating in a way that is sustainable? So far, I get the sense that we are not yet at the stage of plans and programs. Rather we are just feeling the discomfort of the question--the discomfort of the implication that how we are doing things now is not sustainable.

Very often the internal measure by which we judge the success of what we do in this work is by how many people show up--average Sunday attendance. Or, number of people at GA. I wonder about this. I recall I went to Russia in the seventies. A tour guide pointed with great pride to some factory smokestacks belching out smoke. To her they were a symbol of progress. The group of American students were a little embarrassed. We did not want to be bad guests but to us--US college students from the seventies--factories belching smoke had another meaning. Might there come a day when our ways of counting our success in building religious community be similarly backward?

For me, it would be only too easy to apply this line of thinking to General Assembly. Is it a mark of success to have convinced so many people to fly to Portland? Yet this is unfair. General Assembly is not one of my favorite things. More pointed question for me would concern all the miles I drive to visit congregations as a district staff person. One of my goals for the year has been to visit as many congregations in the Central Midwest District as possible. I have a big carbon footprint. One oil tanker a year from the Middle East is just for me!

I cannot imagine doing this work of weaving religious community without a lot of travel: Seeing people face-to-face, feeling the spirit of the land--driving through a quiet pine forest in Northern Wisconsin in January, standing in the little cemetery in Central Illinois where Mother Jones and the IWW miners are buried, sitting in a coffee shop in the West End in St. Louis. I want to do more of this, not less. How do I do this without the need for my own personal supertanker?

This same ambiguity, of course, exists in each congregation. We have built measures of success based on physical presence in a world where presence requires questionably sustainable use of resources. Common wisdom among congregational experts is that inadequate parking is a certain limitation to congregation growth. We have got to have space for more cars! Can I imagine a day when I would feel the same way about a big church parking lot that I felt thirty years ago in Russia looking at those factories belching smoke?

And what to do? Right now I sense we are in the stage of feeling the weight of the question, feeling the tension between the value of sustainability and the value of religious community.

I know that one thing this means in a practical sense is that this gives a new significance to the district's strategic goal of communication. Feeling this tension over sustainability raises the stakes involved in our work helping each other do a better job communicating electronically.

Draft: May 8, 2007

Match-making between UU congregations and ministers is governed by a somewhat technical vocabulary: interim minister, consulting minister, settled minister, and so forth .[1][2] There is no adequate guide to this terminology—and for good reason. It is inconsistent, changing, and disputed. What follows attempts to orient the uninitiated. This glossary is should also be regarded as an object lesson. In spite of the attempt to explain, the meaning remain fuzzy. Congregations and ministers are well advised to define terms and clarify expectations.

Called minister. The term “call” refers to the means by which a congregation decides to employ a minister. If the minister is employed through a vote of a congregational meeting, that person is said to be “called.” A called minister only may be asked to leave through a vote of the congregation as a whole (under the terms specified in the by-laws of the individual congregation) except when the Executive in a congregation governed according to policy governance possesses such delegated power.

Consulting and acting ministers. These terms refer to the breed of arrangements lying between settled ministry and interim ministry; consulting ministry refers to service of less than 75 percent time, acting ministry to 76 percent up to and including full time. In contrast with a settled minister, an acting or consulting minister is hired by vote of the board, for usually a year-to-year contract with or without an end point. Often the possibility of a call may lie in the future. Each of these ministries is to be distinguished not only from a called minister. They also are distinguished from an interim minister, who is almost universally restricted from serving longer than two years.

Compensation consultant. A volunteer lay person who advises congregations on issues regarding compensation usually for ministers but also on occasion for others employed by the congregation. Compensation consultants are appointed, trained, and supervised by the UUA Church Staff Finance Director in consultation with the District.

Fair Compensation Guidelines. The Unitarian Universalist Association seeks to model justice within our congregations as well as to work for justice in our communities and our world. It is an unfortunate reality that our congregations all too often offer working conditions and compensation are not on a par with what we would expect of other employers. Our Fair Compensation Guidelines are our effort to practice what we preach. These guidelines also represent our cumulative experience about how best to attract excellent minister and build relationships with them that endures and flourishes. See: http://archive.uua.org/programs/ministry/finances/compglines.html, http://archive.uua.org/programs/ministry/finances/compensation.html

Fellowshipped minister. Fellowshipping is the method by which the denomination accredits ministers. To be fellowshipped, a minister must hold a degree from an accredited theological school and also undergo various other interviews and background checks. Unitarian Universalist rules of congregational polity allow a congregation to call anyone as minister. The denomination and the district serve all congregations who are members of the association without regard to whether the minister is fellowshipped. However, the denomination only assists in the settlement process for fellowshipped ministers. Any congregation that decides to call a non-fellowshipped minister should recognize that it takes on a heavy burden of due diligence regarding the background and credentials of their candidates. When a person enters the process of moving towards fellowshipping, they are called “aspirants.” When the UU Transitions office has determined that people are ready to seek employment, they are granted “preliminary fellowshipping”. After successful completion of a probationary period (normally three years), the Ministerial Fellowship Committee grants “final fellowship.”

Full-time minister. Under congregational polity, congregations have the right and responsibility to determine what work they will ask and what compensation they will give for positions that they advertise as “full-time.” If a congregation decides to offer less than what the UU Fair Compensation Guidelines specify for their position, they are encouraged to reconsider their expectations for the position and to make the position into a part-time position. If a congregation decides to decides to list as full-time a position paying less than the minimum recommended Fair Compensation, a notation will be made indicating that the pay is substandard.

Hire to call. Sometimes very small and very large congregations find the need to adapt the usual processes of selecting ministers. Recently, two large congregations in the Central Midwest District have employed associate ministers through a process termed “hire to call.” The decision to employ has been made under the authority of the board of trustees (in consultation with the senior minister), without a vote of the congregation, but with the understanding that—if the relationship went well—there would be the option for that person to be called later by a vote of the congregation.

Lay minister. Some congregations designate and train lay members to carry out ministerial functions such as preaching, pastoral visiting, or rites of transition (e.g., marriages). This happens both in small congregations without professional ministerial leadership and in large congregations. While some districts and congregations have had programs for training lay ministers, there is no continent-wide program for training or certifying them.

Interim minister. Twenty-five years ago, the Alban Institute found that a minister who followed a long ministry or a conflicted ministry, often did not last long. In response, a number of denominations began to strongly encourage congregations in those instances to select a minister who has been specially trained for work in transitions and to give that person a term limit (usually no more than two years). Increasingly, the term “interim minister” has been applied to any ministry of short duration—whether by design or not. To recapture the original sense of the term of “interim” sometimes the term “intentional” interim is used. Some who end up having short-term ministries did not intend it that way! Those who have received the special training for this work are sometimes called “accredited interims.”

MOD minister. The Central Midwest District and Meadville/Lombard Theological School co-sponsor the MOD (or “Ministerial Opportunity Development”) program. Under this program students in their final year of theological school are paired with congregations for part-time ministry (often one weekend a month). It is intended for congregations working for growth and willing to make the commitment to an arrangement nine-month’s duration and to pay the costs of the program (a start-up seminar in addition to the fees of the student). This program is primarily for congregations of the Central Midwest District. Congregations who would like ministerial services from students outside of this program are welcome to request them through the Meadville/Lombard pulpit supply program.

Ministerial settlement representative. A person from the district who volunteers to work with congregations advising them on issues regarding search for full-time ministers. The minister’s chapter of the district nominates this person. Often it is a minister, though not always. This person is trained by the Transitions Office.

Ordained minister. Normally one expects that an ordained UU minister be fellowshipped and have a degree from an accredited theological school—but not always. In Unitarian Universalism the authority to ordain, and to determine who to ordain, lies entirely with the congregation. Stated negatively, a congregation should not assume that an ordained minister is also fellowshipped.

Part-time minister. See “full-time minister.”

Pulpit supply. This refers to one-time agreements with theological students or with ministers to lead worship.

Settled minister. The term “settled minister” has various, differing meanings. Often it used in contrast to an interim minister. One hears congregations say “we have an interim minister this year and are looking for a settled minister to start next year.” However, there are instances where the term is used more broadly. For the purposes of determining who may be a delegate to the UUA General Assembly, the UUA Board defines a settled minister (Rule 4.9.2) to be any minister serving a congregation more than half time or any community minister affiliated with the congregation.

[1] The official UU denominational document governing the process is the Settlement Handbook, http://archive.uua.org/programs/ministry/settlement/handbook.html). See also the supplement (http://archive.uua.org/programs/ministry/settlement/resourceguide). The guidelines of the UU Ministers’ Association also play a crucial role shaping this process: http://www.uuma.org/Documents/guidelines.html. The one other attempted glossary I have been able to find is specific to the Canadian Unitarians, though it seems generally applicable to the UUA, http://www.cuc.ca/ministry/Part_time_ministry_process_guide.pdf.

[2] Unitarian Universalists also have a great—and I would say overweening--love of acronyms. It is a convenience but it is also an insider language. You may feel excluded when you hear someone say that they went to GA where you heard an MFC representative discuss anti-anti-M. One very incomplete list of these is included as a glossary in at the end of the Settlement Handbook. Heartland District’s website includes another, also partial.

Bev Feldt, President of UU Community Church in Park Forest, IL, recently said that it would really help her congregation to have a list of simple definitions of the technical jargon related to search and settlement: consulting minister, settled minister, interim minister, and so forth. I had thought that the UUA settlement handbook had such a listing. I checked and it did not. I then phoned John Weston who I figured surely had written such a thing. But no, he had not and did not know of one. So, I wrote something quickly and to serve until something better and more official appears. I upload it here.

Many people have suggested additions and changes to this glossary. Thanks for these. Right at the moment this is all I have time to do. One fun idea a number of folks have suggested is that we make this listing into the core of a Wiki to help people with even more of the inside language of UUism. Gretchen, our web guru, assures me that this is possible. Perhaps in the future.

One thing I want to use this blog for is as a temporary home for material we produce that eventually will find a way to other parts of the website. Let us know what you think.

Search and Settlement Glossary


ian-ghostranch08.jpgThis is the season when congregational leaders are getting set in their roles. And thus it is that I am frequently asked at this time of year for my wisdom on the subject. When confronted with this question, one temptation is to give a lecture whose length is only determined by the attention space of my listener. Our family is currently renting not one but two storage units. A good portion of this space is devoted to books I cannot part with because each and every one give at least a piece of what I feel to be the essential and minimum answer to this question.

Another, more helpful answer to this question begins at an entirely different point. I have observed an interesting phenomenon. I have on occasion turned the question around. I have asked the leader what advice that they would give someone else where they to take such a role. Here is the interesting thing: the answer I get from the leader themselves is often much more on target (and much more succinct!) than anything I might have said.

I believe this is so for three reasons. First, our leaders tend to be pretty smart people with great depth of experience, if not in the exact role they are currently beginning. Second, our leaders know themselves—their own strengths and weaknesses, what challenges and cautions they themselves most need. And third, there is wisdom in the choices that groups make concerning who will take key roles. Sometimes there is a perversity to this wisdom but there is frequently greater wisdom than appears on the surface concerning why a particular person was chosen for a key role at a particular point in congregation’s journey. We may joke that we were selected only because we did not run fast enough when the nominating committee came calling but things are rarely that simple.

What you might ask, is the wisdom that leaders give themselves when asked? Of course this depends on the person and situation but much of the advice is exactly what we would expect. Here are a few that people often mention:

  • Do a better job of planning ahead. Set ahead a little time a week before the meeting to plan the meeting and to check the to-do lists.
  • Remember that how you do the work is often more important that what you do. Attempt to model in the role those qualities we all want in our congregations—respect for each other, good listening, willingness to do hard things.
  • Set good limits to the work. Consider, for example, only answering church email and voice mail once a day (and not during family time!).
  • Think of your work as something you do with a team. Remember that, when you feel yourself alone with your responsibilities, you probably have lost perspective.
  • Agree with your team on a few, a very few key goals and return frequently to ask yourselves how you are progressing.
  • Cultivate in yourself and others not a sense of obligation and scarcity but a sense of Sabbath and gratefulness.

Since this is the advice that you, our leaders, give yourselves, I need not point out that the challenge is not in the giving of this advice but in the living of it.

I encourage you to take a moment and ask: what advice do you give yourself? And then how are you going to make space to follow that advice?

Congregational Services Director

uua-web-cmwd-000099-a1.jpgThe election at the end of June of Peter Morales as the president of our UU association was a surprise to many—perhaps including Peter Morales himself. He had said at the beginning of the campaign that he would be content just to make a respectable showing but somehow his message caught on and he won—by a considerable margin.

What happened? What does this mean? The real answer is that it will take time for this to be clear.

We had two very good candidates: Peter Morales and Laurel Hallman. Both were senior ministers of large congregations. Laurel seemed to be the voice of good judgment and good listening. Peter seemed to be the voice of plain spokenness and of need for change.

It is interesting to contemplate what is likely to be done by our new president and administration. To me it is even more interesting to ask what our choice means about us—leaders serving congregations across the continent.

A good place to begin to answer the question of what drew such a strong response for Peter Morales is with his platform. Perhaps the strongest single statement in this platform concerns growth:

Growth will not result from ambitious media campaigns or costly efforts to start mega-churches. There are no gimmicks or magic bullets. We will grow our movement primarily in our existing congregations.

Clearly the first part of this is a negative judgment on some things that our association has been doing. How about the second half? This second half has an implicit highly positive judgment: that our existing congregations can be the engines for the growth that we need. Do we believe this, not just concerning congregations in general but concerning our own congregations? What would we need to do to fulfill the promise and hope implicit in this statement? What kind of support would be most helpful to you in achieving this - help either from our association or from other congregations?

What do you think about this? In the months ahead we will be interested to hear your thoughts. We hope for some lively, creative and energized discussions!

ian-ghostranch08.jpgIn preparation for an online series on congregations and money, Laurel Amabile of the UUA Annual Program Fund asked for my answers to a series of questions. I reprint them here as an online interview. Trust you will find them useful. -- Ian

What are the greatest challenges UU leaders are facing with regard to stewardship and finance?

The challenges are not entirely what we might expect. On the whole, in the survey we have been doing, 80% of congregations report equal to or even a little ahead of last year. This means that most congregations have not had to cut back in major ways though it must be remembered that even a flat budget means that people go without raises. And, if non-personnel costs must increase, it can mean pay cuts, lay-offs or furloughs. The worst direct effect is doubtless on those congregations who are most dependent on endowment income or those who were already in financial distress.

For many congregations uncertainty over future income is as much of a problem as drop off in income now. While two or three congregations have done well with capital fund drives in the past six months, it takes very steady nerves to lead such an effort now. In the background we are also conscious that the kind of congregations we want and need as we come out of this recession may well look quite different from what we thought we wanted as we came into it. While I don’t presume to know in any detail what the difference might be, I do suspect we are headed for something more grounded, focused, and sustainable.

What are the opportunities for leadership inherent in these challenges?

The opportunity is to use well the angst people are feeling and to do so in line with the mission of the congregation and capacities of the congregation. Ask people: “what does it mean to our congregation to fulfill its mission right now, right here?” For many congregations I have seen three things.

First, for a congregation the biggest opportunity is always—should always be—the opportunity to serve. I have seen more openness to becoming involved as a whole congregation in addressing the distress being felt in the community around the congregation. By stroke of good fortune we in this district had been developing a focus on homelessness, www.nomoreturningaway.org, just as the crisis hit. Our congregations have taken this up as a way for them to respond at the level of ministry. This has in turn provided us with wonderful publicity because newspapers have been very interested in writing about anything that seemed like a positive response. And note: in a climate like this organizations do better at fund-raising when they keep focused on service.

Second, I have seen smart congregations take this recession as a dose of courage to do hard things that probably have needed to be tackled for a long time. We are hearing, for example, that many congregations are taking this as the occasion to switch from paper to electronic means of communication. At a tougher and deeper level, we have congregations who have taken this crisis as an occasion to finally make the tough decision about moving out of a building that is too big or not suited to their mission. And, for those who can raise the money to build or buy land there are great bargains. Indeed, concerning new buildings, I am rather optimistic at the moment. I thought that we might have a lull in building for a while. Now it seems to me that those projects postponed for lack of money might just be balanced out by those made possible by the lower costs of building and of land.

And third, this is the time to get it right in congregational stewardship. In this environment congregations simply cannot afford to be lazy about congregational stewardship or to avoid the subject. Direct face-to-face methods work best. We know this. If you do not do this, think about it.

What potential benefits may be present for congregations and districts as a result of the current economic situation?

I think I answered this in responding to the previous question, though I did not mention anything there about the district. Dori Thexton and I have noticed a new interest in making local connections and in congregations being resources to each other. We also have seen great willingness to try doing things in new ways, especially doing things electronically. It is clear that this crisis is going to leave the district with two very important capacities that it did not have previously. The first is that online education events are, or soon will become, as important as face-to-face education events. We did an experiment with this last year and next year we will offer a regular monthly online education event with our partner districts in the Midwest, Prairie Star and Heartland. The second new capacity is the ability to make our face-to-face events virtually accessible. Distance and money now don’t need to be a barrier to our congregations benefiting from the content of our face-to-face events. The keynote lecture of our district assembly was available on the internet within hours. Virtual accessibility of events is quickly becoming the norm here just as handicapped accessibility became the norm fifteen years ago. The dual economic and ecological crises have opened people to these changes and have generated great interest from our congregations and from other districts concerning how others might reinvent themselves in similar ways.

What resources and supports are available to UU leaders to help them deal effectively with the challenges?

There are many layers of resource and great depth available to UU leaders. First, resources for congregational leaders should always be other congregational leaders, starting with other leaders within their own congregation. Leaders should not be afraid to ask for help and say they don’t know. Beyond the local congregation, many of our UUA leader lists are great sources of wisdom and advice. District staff also are always available to talk matters through and help make connection with more specialized assistance. I have personally been helped greatly by the resources that Wayne Clark, UUA Director of Congregational Stewardship Services, has distributed and updated a number of times http://www.uua.org/documents/congservices/stewardship/tough_economy_stewardship.pdf and www.ohiomeadville.org/resources/GivinginToughTimes.doc. Another great collection was assembled by Joan Van Becelare, http://www.ohiomeadville.org/economy/bestpractices.html. Finally Wayne Clark’s office is a great resource and those who have not read his book should: Beyond Fundraising: Complete Guide to Congregational Fundraising. If you have not seen it already you can browse it free online through Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=5KNMdceTUYEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Clark+%22beyond+fundraising%22.

As a religious organization I am ashamed to say that, so far, our theological resources on this remain thin. My favorite collection so far is the group of materials assembled by Krista Tibbett of National Public Radio, in her Repossessing Virtue series, http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/first-person/repossessing-virtue/. I end with this because our basic response needs to be a faith response oriented towards ministry and mission.
How can we best connect leaders to these resources and supports?

Next to talking to people directly, resources such as I have mentioned on the internet are the best thing going.

In the future I would like a central place for this stuff on UUA.org. I find I spend a good deal of time hunting up links for people who cannot find things there. We need something of the order of a Wiki for UU leaders on this, something that can grow and evolve in response to what we are learning and that is open as broadly as possible to the contributions of many different people who are working on this.

Nearly three weeks after our Central Midwest District Assembly in Waukesha, WI, I still find myself on a high. Getting the bills has brought me down a bit, yet even that is pretty good. News from Dori and Peggy who track this for us, is that we are projected to break even and meeting our goal of making our major events financially self-supporting.

There were a lot of things to be excited about in this gathering—great worship, amazing music, a keynote presenter who really touched the topics on most people’s minds, great workshops, great UUA presidential candidates’ forum, and two days of very intense and productive networking. What made me feel best, however, and makes me feel good again every time I think of it, was something that may not have been visible to most of those present: the first full test of our commitment to make our major district events virtually accessible. We are, I believe, the first district to make the major content of an annual assembly available free and online (Ohio Meadville may wish to contest this claim). Indeed, I believe that we are the first such body in any denomination to accomplish this.

What felt best about watching it happen was that after all the effort, it became clear half way through the event that we have started something that is going to be a permanent shift in how we make such things available on the website. From now on, in this district at least, it is pretty clear that recording and making freely available major portions of content is going to be a standard part of what we do with worship, workshops, or even the bookstore.

To read more, please visit the District's blog, where there is more information as well as a history of how we decided and carried through our goal of a Virtual DA.

So tell us: What do you think? Answering these questions ought to be enough to keep our tech team busy for the next year.


microphone.jpgAs we go more deeply into what it means to make the events of our district virtually accessible many of you have come to us with questions. Last month I wrote an answer to one such question “what about those of us who do not yet have highspeed internet?” This was a good question. This month I thought I would answer another good question. This one is not so much a question as a statement: “Video and audio recording as fine but they are not the same as seeing you face-to-face.

This is true. I agree. We do not intend them to be the same. The breakthrough moment in my thinking about this came a few years ago. Our family had gotten our first digital camera. I was feeling—quite strongly—that it was definitely not the same as my old 35 mm. The picture quality was poor. The prints were washed out. Then I had an experience which caused me to see this differently. We were at the time members of the Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland.

My wife, Leah, was on the religious education council and had volunteered to chair the holiday fair. This was a big deal that took over the entire church for Saturday. One of the points of tension in previous years had been that rooms had not been returned to their prior condition in advance of the religious education classes the next morning and chaos had resulted. Leah got the bright idea of taking a couple of digital pictures of each classroom before the event and posting these next to the door of the room. The clean-up crew then was told to set up each room the way it was in the picture. It worked great.

These pictures were not the same as I might have taken with my 35 mm. It did not matter because we were not trying to do the same thing with it. The new technology suggested a new use and one that would not have been impossible with my beloved single lens reflex.

The awkwardness of our current situation lies in the fact that our first tendency is to judge a new technology by how well it serves for the old use. Much of the interest of this time lies in the fact that we have many new technologies that have been invented before any clear and complete understanding of what they may be good for. When new gizmos come out these days they are in truth only half invented. The second half of the invention comes as people work past the fact that the new gizmo is not the same and begin to play with the question “what, then, is it good for or how might we improvise and adapt this to a new purpose?” The most creative technology companies have discovered this. They watch very carefully the uses to which their inventions are put and the way users adapt them to do unexpected things in unexpected ways.

Truth is that we don’t quite know what some of these new things we are trying in the district will be good for. We do know—and feel powerfully at times--that they are just not the same. Starting there, we invite you to play—and let us know what you discover.

And remember, we all like and value highly getting together. There is a reason you give us an absolutely huge travel budget. There is a reason why, even in this time of stress, we have not proposed to cut travel and spend the money instead on technology. The two are not the same.


ian-ghostranch08.jpgOne frequent question from congregations concerns use of consultants—whether from the district, from the Association, Alban or elsewhere.  Often the question we get is who would be good for something—planning, conflict, finances, or leading a board retreat.

A question that congregations often ask but should more often is how to use a consultant well.  In fact, with any resource the choice of how the resource is used is often as important as the choice of resource.

On the website of the Indianapolis Center for Congregation there is a great series of free resources about using resources. 

In particular, any time a congregation asks about using a consultant whether from the district or anywhere else I send them this link.

Sad fact is that frequently congregations pay a lot to work with a consultant and they don’t feel they get much out of it.  Happy fact is that congregations really can do a lot about making sure a consultant does really help.  I have seen congregations get a lot out of work even with some less than brilliant consultants when the congregation prepares well, uses the engagement as the occasion to tackle stuff they need to tackle, and then follows up.


Ian Evison, CMwD Congregational Services DirectorQuestions regarding nominating committees or as some prefer to say leadership development committees tend to come up each year in the early Spring—as congregational annual meetings begin to draw near. Recently, I got one such query which motivated me to gather my thoughts on the subject.

Many congregations have what they call “leadership development committees” who do nothing more than strong-arming people to serve on the board and are active only in the few weeks before the congregational annual meeting. Unremarkably, our congregations find this does not work well.

Since this is an area of rather great interest in many congregations just now, we have recruited some people to do a workshop on this at our upcoming District Assembly. Some version of this workshop will be repeated at General Assembly.Some of the current UU materials on the subject are collected in the Congregational Handbook online in the governance section under “committees”:

A somewhat more complete listing of UU resources on the subject would be:


To decide where you as a congregation need to start in working on this area, I suggest that the congregational leadership talk together about where you find your greatest need. I suggest that you honestly discuss the following things as part of this:

1. What should be the scope of the work of the committee? Many congregations today are changing the names of their nominating committees into leadership development committees. However, shouldn’t the whole work of adult religious education in some sense be “leadership development”? And, to the extent that the nominating committee has recruiting functions, how broad should this be: board members, committee members, religious education teachers? What work should this committee do through the year when vacancies occur or when members are needed for new groups? Even if the role of the nominating committee is broadened, there are likely to be many positions for which it will not recruit. Congregations should not be hasty to make the role of the leadership development committee too broad. In some congregations that do this best, there is feeling part of all leadership should be finding and training new leaders. Committee chairs in such congregations are expected to help recruit and train their own successors.

2. What should be the division of responsibility between lay people and staff in this work? In some congregations the work of the nominations committee is rather jealously owned by the laity—sometimes to the point that the ministers are other staff are not consulted. The effects of this have been unfortunate. In general, in recent years ministers and other staff have been given an increasing role, especially in larger congregations.

3. How much of the work of the congregation should be done through committees? In many places, deeper involvement in congregations means recruitment to existing committee. In general this works far less well with younger emerging leaders. Some congregations have done away with committees entirely, moving towards more flexible, focused forms of involvement. Don’t assume that you help you congregation by driving more people into the current committee system. Talk about this first.

4. Where should the larger leadership of the congregation have its opportunity to shape the thinking of the nominating committee about what leaders are wanted and needed? Are more young adults needed in leadership? Are more women needed? Do there need to be more people with a passion for social justice on committees other than the social justice committee?

5. What needs to be made clear regarding the roles for which the nominating committee is recruiting? The beginning and ending dates of the term? A job description for the position? A description of the role and mission of the group to which the person is being recruited?

6. What should the role of this committee be in assessment? In some congregations the idea of “assessment” for volunteer leadership positions is unthinkable or at least unspeakable. Yet if a nominating committee is to take a role other than last minute strong arming, the committee needs to be able to squarely face the fact that part of its task has to be assessment. The committee needs to be able to ask, and consider with people the question: “how did this involvement work out and in light of that what might a next step be?”

7. Do you need a paid position to do some of this work? As we broaden the understanding of leadership development in a congregation the work often expands beyond what lay people can find time to do well. There is somewhat of a rash of new positions in our congregations with titles like “membership coordinator.”

So, what do you feel is your greatest need?: better involvement of your paid staff in the process, creating a more expansive mission for the committee? Clarifying the positions for which you are recruiting? I suggest you start by asking yourself about your greatest need and start there.

Personally, if I had a magic wand and with it five wishes for what every congregation would do, these would be:

• In addition to recruiting for key positions like the board, ask who should be ready for such a position in two years and what experiences they need to get them ready. Do something about this.
• Press for written descriptions of the positions for which recruiting is being done and of written descriptions of the mission and functions of the group for which the person is being recruited, even and especially if this is the board.
• Leave positions—especially board positions—vacant rather than pressing people to take positions before they are ready.
• Question the assumption that the work of the congregations should be done by the board and committees? Most boards and committees would be healthier if they were smaller, especially in larger congregations. Remember, the larger the congregation, the smaller its board should be. If it feels to you that your board and committee must be large to accomplish that they need to accomplish ask yourself whether you want them to coordinate the work or coordinate and also do the work.
• Make clear and articulate the role of minister and other staff in the recruiting and leadership development process.

Unfortunately, if the magic wand came with my job, I have not been able to find it yet.

Please do come to our workshop about this at District Assembly or the one we will be sponsoring at General Assembly.

-- Ian

microphone.jpgOne question we get about our increasing use of audio and video-recordings on the district website is this:

“What about us? We don’t have access to highspeed internet and so cannot make use of these.”

First and most basic answer to this is that any time any congregation wants resources on any subject, they should ask us.  Any time we do video or audio of an event, there are generally also written materials.  Or we can burn a CD and send it to you. Just ask.

Also, your questions about these things help us.  We are always pondering the question of what to provide and in what format. The most helpful source of guidance on this is your questions and requests.

ian-ghostranch08.jpgI do not think of myself as a romantic.  I fear to say I am quite certain that those closest to me concur in this judgment.  Indeed, they find somewhat regular occasions to remark to me about it.  Yet some lessons I have learned through long, painful experience.  One of these lessons has possible application to congregational leadership.  This regards compliments.

I have discovered—through hard experience—is that balance of perspective and recognition of possible divergent points of view is not a virtue in giving a compliment.  If I were to say, for example, “I know that you wanted to lose more weight but I notice you have lost some,” it is not good.  Better just to say “you look great.”  Similarly, it does not work well to say “I had wished you would come even earlier, but it is good you got here now.”  Better to just say, “good you are here.”  Compliments work better unadorned


The only ornamentation to a compliment that actually helps is a simple example.  So, it can be good to say, “I liked how you played that music, especially the fancy finger work in the second part.”  Specificity adds credibility.

I mention this here, in this place, because there are few things that can help congregational life more—especially when people are working hard or anxious—than nice unadorned compliments with nice simple examples:  “I really liked the way in that meeting that took time to give each person the opportunity to speak.”  “It was great that you volunteered for the youth event; I know it is not easy to get much sleep sleeping on a pew.”  “The flowers looked nice today; carnations are a favorite of mine.”

Good leaders give lots of compliments, nice unadorned compliments with nice examples that show that they are actually observing.

There is sometimes amazing craziness involved in why we refrain from giving compliments.  It can feel that the other person is above needing a compliment or will not value it coming from us.  It can feel that giving an unadorned compliment might communicate permission to give up trying to do better on this or other things.  It can feel that giving a compliment about one thing forfeits our rights to criticize.  It can feel that giving a compliment might communicate that we think our disagreements with that person are unimportant. These are crazy thoughts.

This week, in honor of Valentine’s day give compliments.  Give lots of compliments.  Give them extravagantly and unexpectedly—though with nice well-observed examples.

It costs nothing.  It helps a lot.


Wayne Clark (UUA archive photo)One of the top questions for this Fall was the impact of the economic crisis on our congregations. A gathering collection of wisdom on the subject has begun to circulate among congregational leaders. Wayne Clark of our UUA Office of Congregational Stewardship Services has assembled a group of things he has found useful. They will eventually make their way to our UUA website but I know that many of you have begun to develop your budget for next year and have begun work on your pledge drives so I wanted to share them with you now. Wayne Clark has given us permission to share them with you now (PDF).

ian-ghostranch08.jpgThis past week the Society for Christian Ethics has been meeting here in Chicago. I had the honor of attending a small dinner of very distinguished ethicists. I took it as an occasion to ask them a question that I have asked many of you of late: what do the changes that we have seen in the economy mean for how we should live?

Personally, I think it is rather likely that the main part of the economic decline may already be behind us. And I read a poll of economic experts that indicated that the predominance of opinion among those who are wise about such things is that the recession will end this spring or summer (http://www.philadelphiafed.org/research-and-data/real-time-center/survey-of-professional-forecasters/2008/survq408.cfm ).

At another level I suspect that something has changed much more profoundly—a way of being, a way of living that made sense just a few months ago may now no longer make sense. It may be that the economy will tilt marginally from decline to growth before we are all eating sweet corn again. Yet the culture of debt in which the middle class—and therefore many of us—financed our lifestyles on credit and home equity will probably not return. What will this mean for our communities? For our congregations? For our families?The ethicists at the table observed that for the past twenty years the subject of economics has mostly been business ethics (I might observe impertinently that teaching ethics to business students has been good business for ethicists). And the question of economics has retained a residual place among us as part of our struggle with diversity and identity. We often remind ourselves that, if issues of race are hard for UUs, issues of social class may be harder.

Yet, neither the frame of business ethics nor the frame of acceptance of diversity captures well the question of economics as it now presents itself to us. The question of economics and ethics as it now presents itself to us is more connected with the Greek word from which our word economics is derived. This word was oikos meaning roughly household or the principles on which we will run our households—by what principles should we run our lives? What does living well mean or what ought it to mean?

What the best of my dinner companion ethicists were able to do by way of an answer was to point to the new ways they had seen the question posed, notably in a report from the Institute for American Values titled For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_42/b4104054847273_page_2.htm ). Along the same lines these professors pointed me to the writings of a Newsweek journalist, Fareed Zakaria (http://www.newsweek.com/id/163449) who had posed the question of what it would mean to live within our means economically and ecologically and at the same time to live abundantly.

As religious communities we need to wrestle with this Zen koan for the 21st century. All the technical things we do in our congregations at the level of best management practices need to be undergirded by an effort to find more adequate answers to the question of best practices for living.. Not long ago I spoke to a friend Brad Hirscheld (of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership). I asked him his advice for guiding congregations through the current crisis. Quoting Einstein, he cautioned, “remember, no profound problem is ever solved at the same level of thinking at which it was created.” Let us all hope that before we all are eating sweet corn again that we will be out of this recession. Yet the economic crisis points to a problem that will last longer and will not be solved on the level of better management. We need to go deeper into better living.

ian-ghostranch08.jpgIn congregational life as Fall shifts to Winter, the aspiration of a new church year shifts to realism. So, a congregational leader might say: this was going to be the year when we really got our worship committee going but it is not happening so what do we do?  Another form of this same query might be:  this was to be the year when we got our membership up to speed and be all ready for the Fall crop of church shoppers but somehow that did not happen, so what do we do now?

There are good answers to these questions—really, I promise. Yet matters get worse before they get better. The unfortunate fact is that most how-to-do-it materials for congregations are written on the basis of those rather rare instances when for a short time some congregation found the time and resources on some subject to actually accomplish some reasonable approximation of an idea they dreamed. Sad fact is that any job in a congregation could be made practically impossible by giving a sufficiently creative and dedicated group the job of brainstorming what you would need to do to do it right.

As congregational leaders, a number of important consequences follow.  One is that in any particular year a board needs to be very careful where to focus the congregation’s energy for reinvention. On August 15th it generally feels to congregational leaders that there is a very long list of things the congregation needs to get right this year—or much more nearly so. By December 15th this same list which felt somewhat motivating and even inspiring four months earlier can now feel depressing or even panic inducing. When we ask outgoing congregational presidents for their advice to someone coming in to their role, one thing we often hear is that they would advise making earlier decisions about what needs primary attention in a year and giving more and better support to those things.

A second word of advice in the face of these observations about the power of entropy regards the need to be graceful in how we do the dance of moving from our idealism to realism in what we hope to achieve in any given year. The most important abilities of a congregational leader may be recruiting others and delegating projects to them. Almost as important is the ability to know how—and when—to help others focus, letting people off the hook for not achieving the ideal and turning to the possible and strategic. The transition between “this year we must do this” and “this year we did not get around to it” can be swift and catching matters before the shift has occurred is where much of the real accomplishment occurs in congregational life.

If the plan in August had been to recruit a committee and there is only a sputtering one by mid-December, it is time to reconceive the task and how it is to be done. A committee with only a chair and two reluctant members is a recipe for disenchantment. It may be that this year at least the worship committee meeting needs to be reconceived as a worship coordinator who meets quarterly with an ad hoc group who gives input and suggests volunteers for specific tasks. It may be that the personnel committee needs to be a board subcommittee that works with someone who agrees to help with whatever specific task is most crucial this year (e.g., coordinating the hiring of the new administrator, including revising the job description and so forth).

Taking the long view, I believe that most important innovation in congregations does not come by finally finding time to do the ideal.  Most innovation comes under the relentless pressure of the realities of congregational life.  Most important innovation comes, that is, not at the brainstorming session in August but at that moment in December when it is clear that to achieve some portion of the ideal it is going to be necessary to make some choices and try some things that felt unthinkable four months earlier.

22331864.jpgOne of the constant challenges in our congregations is to assimilate and learn to use well the profusion of electronic tools—websites, databases, email, chat groups, podcasts, and meetings by conference call. And perhaps on to scanning paper files, content management systems, social networking, video clips, and a new web site.

We in the Central Midwest District would like to learn from your experience and to discover what shared challenges we might have to work together. As many know we in the district have taken the important step of creating a virtual district office. We have now moved on to set the goal of virtual accessibility of some part of each of our important public events by the time of District Assembly this spring.

We want to leverage this work (if I am still allowed to use that word!). Towards this end, we want to let you know about four opportunities:

•Online survey. Many of you have told us that you would like to know about the experience of other congregations in this area. We set up an online survey and distributed the results to all who completed it.

Telephone conversation. As we tour the district we find that most people who are doing the electronic work of our congregations do so with little connection with those doing similar work in other congregations. Some have expressed interest in meeting their counterparts in other congregations. Any who do and who would be willing to share with us their experience please join us for a conference call. The call was the evening of December 1, 2008.

Website assistance. Many of you have expressed the opinion—sometimes with considerable irritation—that with seventy-odd congregations in the district all needing roughly the same things in a website, it should not be necessary for each congregation to reinvent this wheel. And, when you do invent something, there should be a better way of sharing this innovation with other congregations. We are looking for a group of small and emerging congregations who would like assistance in creating basic website that is both member-friendly and newcomer-friendly. We are especially looking for congregations who feel they need websites but do not have access to specific website design and maintenance skills. If we can recruit such a group we are willing to help them create basic websites if they, in exchange, will share with us their experience. Our aim will to create “small congregation tested” elements to share with other congregations.

Media team. The district is looking for volunteers who are willing to assist us in recording events in exchange for training in using our very simple, basic audio and video-recording equipment. Those without prior recording experience are welcome.

For more information, please contact one of the members of the CMWD technology team.

Peggy Boccard
Ian Evison
Gretchen Ohmann
David Pyle

ian07.jpgLike the title? I think it might be just about the ideal UU sermon title. The word “Grapple” is a strong word suggesting something is going to happen here. It suggests a possible Biblical allusion to Jacob grappling with the angel at the river and receiving a blessing and a name. The word “Luminous” suggests we are going to get something deeper than an update on the state legislative agenda. And the nice paradox between the words “Luminous” and “Doom” promises some interesting twists before matters are resolved and the we sing the final hymn.

Unfortunately, the title is not mine. I stole it from Khleber Van Zandt’s sermon last week (http://www.firstuualton.org/Sermons_2008-2009.htm). And, he stole it, or nearly so, from the favorite UU poet of the moment, Mary Oliver (1,780 google hits for “Mary Oliver,” “Unitarian” and “sermon” against 581 for the closest competitor, May Sarton).

Khleber’s point and I find the point of many of the sermons preached across this district in the last month is that the spiritual work that awaits us in the coming months or even years is going to be to unpack the luminous lessons from the seeming economic doom. The sermons I am hearing preached across the district point to how there is underway a larger cultural shift that will place before our UU faith new demands and new opportunities.

The most interesting part of these sermons—something I doubt any of us yet see clearly—is that the spiritual challenge will be for us as a faith to be different not just to do different things. There is one obvious dimension this. It is suggested by the recent election of Obama. Our congregations, like our country have been largely led by baby boomers for the last two decades. We are going to need to figure out what it means to be led by a new generation of leaders.

Yet this shift, even when we achieve it, does not get to the substance of what we will be challenged to be or become. What will this be? I take one more hint from the sermons I have been scanning. I have observed that our preaching on this has been oddly hopeful. While there are economic changes occurring that may feel like doom, they are fundamentally a spiritual opportunity. In his sermon Khleber arrives at this by an extended analogy to a family of hapless squirrels who have been devastating his tomato patch. He is trapping and relocating these squirrels to what he assures us will be a much nicer home in a nearby city park. Though the squirrels may feel trapped—and doomed—they are actually on their way to “a better place.”

What immediately comes to mind are the dubious promises of a certain sort of minister that the deceased at the funeral is on to a better place. Yet I do take the point and it is an important one. We have the opportunity to read the challenges before us as a luminous opportunity.

Congregational Services Director

voteWe continue to get many questions about what congregations can and can't do regarding electioneering. Can a congregation rent space to a political party? Can a congregation allow its mailing list to be used? Can a candidate be allowed to speak at a congregational event? Can a congregation or minister take a stand on an issue?

We here in the district office take care not to offer legal advice. However, the UUA Washington Office has recently published a revised resource on the subject which I think is very good: The Real Rules: Congregations and the IRS Guidelines on Advocacy, Lobbying, and Elections (http://www.uua.org/documents/washingtonoffice/real_rules.pdf)

The IRS itself also has its own—quite clear and concise. These resources have the advantage that they come from the horse’s mouth (as it were).

2007-8directory.jpgIn another step towards taking our district virtual we are eliminating the paper directory. Those of you who have been following us in our adventure of creating a virtual office know that with each virtual step we take, our goal is to reduce cost, to provide better service, and to provide new kinds of service not possible in a conventional office. We also want to create a community of learning with the many congregations who are working on this also. In the past two years we have been developing an online directory. This is better than the paper directory in that it is more up-to-date and it is available from any computer that has an internet connection.

Those who want a paper copy can print one (I, by the way am one of those still tied to paper—I like one for my car). If there are those who want a paper copy and don’t have the capacity to print one, contact our office. We will assist you. Counting labor, printing and mailing, this should save us—save you—$2,500.

Ian Evison, Congregational Services DirectorOne of the glories and terrors of our UU congregations are our enthusiasts. Pity the part-time non-UU custodian who is caught in the parking lot using weed-killer. Or enthusiastic new member who volunteers to bring refreshments and shows up at the potluck with Styrofoam cups. We all agree that we should be green, or greener. We agree with this especially in a time of increasing energy costs. But how do we do this in a way that is organizationally smart and where our own best efforts don’t tire us out or alienate newcomers? I have been working with UU colleagues Karen Brammer and Susanna Whitman to refresh the resources in our UU leader’s library on the subject.

My own favorite new find in the way of resources is even something local to our district. It is the Environmental Guide for Congregations, Their Buildings, and Grounds (http://www.webofcreation.org/Environmental Guide.pdf ) produced by the Web of Creation project housed at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Some UUs might want to skip the first couple pages where the Christian presumption is pretty strong. However, UUs should start reading on page four with the section titled “Some Organizing Principles to Keep in Mind.” We are advised here, for example, to start with projects that have wide support and which are not controversial, and on some projects that can be done easily and have little cost. We are advised also to listen and avoid becoming the environmental police. This portion should perhaps be read aloud at the beginning of every social justice committee meeting. The practical suggestions here are also excellent—the best single collection I have found, and all free on the internet.

Ian Evison, Congregational Service DirectorIn conversations with congregations this Fall one of the key questions seems to be—how to do well, how to prosper, in a time of austerity. Beginning last Fall congregations began to see indications that they were being impacted by a downturn in the economy that is likely to last a while. Not all congregations have felt this. Some finance drive and capital fund drives went very well last year. But other congregations, especially those vulnerable for other reasons, are clearly headed into a period of austerity.

How do we lead well in such a period? Many of our favored images of leadership presume a wider prospering wider environment. Our images of leadership in times of austerity tend to focus on cutting of budgets and staff, and moth-balling of projects and—in general—contenting ourselves with a paler, weaker version of what we had hoped and dreamt. Must being a leader in a time of prosperity mostly mean raining on the parade?

I don’t believe so. My mother, a superb business woman, believed that there more opportunities to be found in adversity than in prosperity—if only because fewer people think to look. It was, in fact, in such a period of austerity that she was finally able to increase the size of our family farm after years, decades of waiting. For those with resources to invest it is an exceptionally good time to invest them. And, it is also a time when more people are willing to try new things than they might have been had not circumstances pushed them in that direction. A lot of people who did not like the quality of light emitted by those new compact fluorescents are going to get their energy bills this Fall and start to think that maybe it isn’t so bad. And quite a few who had been against telephone meetings might be willing to give it a try as gas hovers around $4.00 a gallon. I like seeing people but—at that price—maybe I can do without that sometimes!

Our congregations have discovered, for example, that while their regular stewardship drives have been weaker than expected (by about an average of 10%, it seems) they have found surprising willingness to invest in some things that were not planned: like energy projects. Indeed, every week seems to bring new reports of a Green projects—from simple upgrades of insulation and installation of programmable thermostats to very sophisticated solar and geothermal projects. Especially in larger congregations, another area that deserves to be rethought in a period of austerity is staffing. When times are good, congregations add staff to meet needs as they arise and often to make use of skills that present themselves. The unfortunate result is having many people doing important things within an increasingly incoherent structure. I would even be willing to venture the general rule that periods of austerity tend to lead to confused staff structures. Though painful, a period of austerity can provide an opportunity to creates something a little more coherent. When a staff person leads, it may not be possible to simply refill the same position or to leave the work undone. Good leadership in such a circumstance can raise the question of overall division of work that will both cope now and position the congregation better for the next period of prosperity.

None of this is easy. But I find myself thinking a lot about my mother these days and about a vision of leadership that finds the opportunity in austerity.


Ian EvisonWhat might we do to prevent tragedies like the horrifying shootings two weeks ago during the Sunday morning service at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church? Daniel O'Connell-our District President and Lead Minister at Eliot Unitarian Chapel-phoned me with this question. I must admit to mixed feelings about this. UU congregations have done a lot in the past few years to make themselves more secure. It is fairly easy to institute better procedures for securing the building when people are leaving, or to institute policies against people working late alone. But this was somebody showing up at the 11 AM Sunday service. We want strangers to show up at the 11 AM service!
When Daniel phoned, my thinking about the Tennessee valley tragedy had turned philosophical: there are, after all, some risks inherent in living. Yet, talking to Daniel I realized that I had turned philosophical prematurely. There is a healthy median between ignoring risk and obsession with it. We must refuse to allow concern for security to determine our congregational missions and goals. And, at the same time, we must insist on a systematic and rational approach to reducing unnecessary risk, especially when we need to take on goals that have necessary risks inherent in them (like welcoming strangers).

So, take this as an occasion to systematically review what you might, could, should do to systematically reduce risk while maintaining your open, positive, and welcoming stance. Our association has recently greatly improved its web resources on the topic of "Creating and Maintaining a Safe Congregation: http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/congregationalhandbook/34764.shtml

One of the resources recommended here, a check-list from Church Mutual Insurance, is a particularly good starting point:

Indeed, this pamphlet from Church Mutual is one of a larger series on safety issues, all of which are very good-and free: http://www.churchmutual.com/index.php/choice/risk/page/rm_booklets2/id/35

Not surprisingly, those religious groups who have had greater security concerns have also been in the forefront of developing resources. The Anti-Defamation League has, for example developed an excellent, if somewhat dauntingly comprehensive guide: http://www.adl.org/security/new_guide/.

Christianity Today, has two good collections of articles more specifically targeted to gun violence and crime prevention, though they are not free: Protecting Your Church from Crime and Violence (http://store.churchlawtodaystore.com/pryochfrcran.html) and Confronting Gun Violence at Church (http://store.churchlawtodaystore.com/cogunviatchd.html). My experience with these collections sold by Christianity Today is that they are often compilations of things found elsewhere for free. Indeed, I find there is a free version of the article perhaps most relevant in the wake of the Tennessee Valley shootings: "Security against Shooters," by Andrew G. Mills, an officer in the San Diego police department (http://www.christianitytoday.com/leaders/newsletter/2007/cln70611.html).

Other articles in these Christianity Today collections come from the excellent-and free-resource collection from another of the major companies insuring houses of worship, Brotherhood Mutual (http://www.brotherhoodmutual.com/safetycentral/resources5.htm).

Perhaps there is a time for philosophizing about the inevitability of risk in an uncertain world. But, before you write your sermon on this -- or get your Board involved in planning, check out some of these resources and, at least, go through one of these excellent risk reduction checklists.

Ian Evison

UUs are taking an exceptionally great interest in the upcoming US presidential election. I sense that this is not only because of excitement about the candidates. It is also because the election has raised so many larger issues of race, gender, and the proper role of religion in politics. This election season has also brought many questions about just what congregations can do regarding the election without running afoul of the rules regarding their tax exempt status. The UU Washington Office has just put out a newly revised resource addressing these questions: http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/realrules/107991.shtml

Rev. Ian EvisonI was at the Verizon store the other day to have something checked with my phone. The technician pulled up the details of my account on her computer and declared “that can’t be right—you can’t spend that much time on your cell phone!” Alas, I fear it is. And much of the time is spent talking leaders through various matters. As I step back from these conversations and ask myself what general wisdom I might gather from these many hours of conversation, two somewhat contradictory reflections come to mind.

Much of leadership is in the details. Much of leadership is in grappling well and authentically with the often unexpected things that land on your plate: the tree that has fallen against the building, the problem with the minister’s insurance, the administrator who resigned, the short-fall in the pledge drive, the need to let go a staff member, the unexpected bequest. Often these issues come to us in spite of the fact that they were not part of the work we had planned and in spite of the fact that we might feel ourselves ill-equipped to deal with them. Dealing with them well requires willingness to consult wisely and to state clearly one’s own opinion. It requires patience for things to take the time they need to take and decisiveness to make a decision when it is time—even in the face of lingering uncertainty. It requires willingness to get involved in what really is one’s own and the self-discipline to stay out of what is not. Done well, there is a moral quality to this involvement in the stuff of an organization’s life. The quality of this involvement in the details reveals much about a leader: is she or he resentful of the intrusion? Hurried? Hesitant? Self-absorbed? Anxious? Distant? Somewhere I read that a how a monk cares for his room reveals all a spiritual director needs to know about his soul. Some such thing is also true of the spirit we bring to our leadership. Indeed, technically correct leadership can still be all wrong if it lacks the right spiritual quality. And, conversely, the communities we lead often marvelously and mystically compensate for the technical imperfections of how we work on an issue, if we get the spirit right.

Yet, leadership needs to be more than dealing well and authentically with the issues that find themselves on the agenda when we serve. The key leadership of a congregation—lay and ordained—need to ask themselves about the larger significance of the issues with which they find themselves dealing. That tree that fell against the building—might an arborist need to come to look at all the trees? That issue with the minister’s insurance—shouldn’t the congregation instead be considering the overall benefit package that it wants to offer to all the staff? It is, of course, possible to see every issue in larger frame, no matter how small. The challenge is to decide which to deal with in wider perspective. And, for the board and board president, the challenge is to let go of those issues that do not have a larger significance for the direction of the congregation.

Whatever comes before us as leaders, we must remember that there is no doing it perfectly. Yet there is the possibility and the challenge of doing it with a faithful spirit.

Great to work with all of you.

Ian Evison 2008I am pleased to be able to announce three organizational developments this month.

Consulting Ministry (Part-time Ministry)

The first is that, this year in this district we are implementing a new system for assisting congregations in finding part-time ministers. For the past few years the number of congregations wishing part-time ministers has been increasing. This is mostly, I am glad to say, because a number of congregations have grown to the point where they feel they need ministerial leadership and -- with a stretch -- can afford some. As always, the first stop for a congregation wanting a part-time minister should be to phone the district. The change is that -- after that -- the matching between congregations and ministers will take place through the UUA Transitions Office website. Congregations will fill out a description of themselves -- a congregational record -- and ministers will fill out a parallel description of themselves -- a ministerial record, just as is done for full time ministry. The advantage of working through the Transitions Office system is that it gives congregations and ministers somewhat uniform information about each other. Also, it assures fairness.

Move to a Virtual District Office

The district has decided to take the bold step of letting go its brick-and-mortar office and creating a virtual office. For some time the work of the district has become more and more "virtual" -- with our office being, really, where ever we might be with our cell phones and laptops. The traditional functions of a physical office have declined as we make fewer copies and send out fewer paper mailings. Even our accounting went online last year (this has worked very well). Our weekly staff meeting is now done by conference call -- and increasingly through Skype (phone through our computers). As we looked at these developments and others -- like huge cost and carbon footprint of commuting to the office -- we asked ourselves the question: what might it look like to systematically figure out how to do each of our present office functions virtually? The excitement of this project is that the challenges in going virtual are challenges congregations are facing: What business can be done by email -- and can't? What work can be done by conference call? What records can be stored virtually and when are paper copies needed? Anyone who would like to see our progress as we work on these issues should visit out virtual office blog. Our aim is to create a fully functional virtual office that can be wherever the work of the district is being done: whether this be at District Assembly, at Midwest Leadership School, at General Assembly, or at an event hosted in one of our congregations. We believe we are the first district to take on this challenge.

Emerging Congregations and Other Cooperative Work between Districts

One clear trend appears to be towards greater cooperative work between districts. One example is new work in support of emerging congregations (congregations in the process of formation). With the support especially of Prairie Star District, Pacific Northwest District, and the UUA Office of Congregational Services, we have created a new website for emerging congregations: www.emergingUU.org. This website has been built in a way that any district can integrate it as part of their own websites. Just the process of creating this very basic site has led to wonderful conversations and to review and systematization of resource recommendations. Next step will be to begin integrating into this site more wisdom from emerging congregations.

We look forward to seeing you at District Assembly in St. Louis.


Mike MurschelFor the past year a group of Chicago-area congregations have been working with a marketing consultant, Mike Murschel. Mike Murschel has worked as a marketing consultant. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mike. My conversation was particularly helpful to me because it helped me think through the next steps for congregations that have been working on welcome of guests.

Ian: What is it that you find are the questions the most frequently lead congregations into considering the subject of marketing?

Mike: Congregations often start by asking one of two questions: The first is whether they should advertise in the newspaper and the second is how to write a press release or article and then how to get it placed. (for a good resource on writing a press release, see Mike Murschel’s resource list at the bottom of the interview).

While these are important questions, I generally encourage them to back up a step or two from these questions.

Ian: What are the questions that congregations need to be asking about marketing?

Mike: First challenge for a congregation is the one of mission. I like to start by saying, “Let’s define your image and from that your message, after which we can make that message part of everything.” This needs to be the starting point and the focus. That is why I organize my own materials around identity.

Good marketing starts by weaving a tapestry in which people can find themselves and developing an image or persona that everyone can feel good about.

Ian: What’s next?

Mike: I say, “Let’s establish you as an authority.” What is it around which your ministry revolves? Social justice? Diversity? Sustainable living? The local media need to know who you are when they contact you, and they will contact you more often if they know you are an authority on a specific topic. This must be seamless and relatively easy to do—natural and not forced.

Ian: Who needs to be involved?

Mike: The short answer is -— everyone. When people in the congregation hear this articulated they should feel it is speaking for them and when they speak about the congregation what they say should resonate with this. Everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction.

In those congregations with a minister the minister need not lead the effort but she or he must know about it and be pulling in the same direction also.

Ian: But what is next? Success with this at most gets people in the door.

Mike: Yes, but here is where the work on message is important. Once people come in the door what they experience must resonate with the reasons that brought them there in the first place.

Ian: This may be good advice, yet people groan when someone says “you have got to work on mission. They remember the two years spent writing a mission statement that no one can now remember.

Mike: I would ask “What was the result you hoped would be forthcoming and did you get that?” It is important that this not be the self-study du jour. What discourages people is to work on mission and then have nothing done with the result. In large part the missing link is that people don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to put the wheels on the process. I am very careful to provide not only self-study, but application of principles and methods, as well.

Ian: I find that there is a bit of a trap in thinking that there can be a division in which a study team or a small group can work on some like mission and then—at the end of their process—begin involving the congregation. That might have worked twenty years ago, but doesn’t seem to now.

Mike: Yes, membership must be involved throughout. Good marketing efforts must be orchestrated well. The core of the message must reflect the congregation’s felt sense of mission and the congregation must be brought through the learning and attitude adjustment necessary to carry through.

Congregations communicate vastly differently from other organizations. As a result, congregations often don't know how to make this as effective as it needs to be. They need to be sensitive to non-members who don't know the glossary of the congregation. They need to take care to put everything into language and perspective that people outside the fold, so to speak, can understand and to which they can relate in their own world experience.

A major launch of the plan might be in order to get everyone on-board and excited. As things progress, though, it is better to bring up a plan piece-by-piece than to focus only on the big roll-out. It’s like getting a hundred-car train rolling: Sound the horn. Ring the bell. Flash the lights. But you don’t get all the wheels going at once. Pick it up one car at a time till you get up to speed. And any plan will need tweaking.

Ian: Tell me a bit about what you have found most interesting about your experience of working UU congregations in the Chicago area.

Mike: I have been struck by the diversity from congregation to congregation. There is a different worship experience in each. The congregations focus their energy on very different things. Because of the clear diversity they don’t always realize how they are connected in other ways. This is why it is important and interesting to see similarities, whether this might be in values, programs, or in architecture.

Ian: The task of marketing a congregation can feel very large. What do you suggest as the starting place?

Mike: Start where you are comfortable. Try something. Then ask whether it worked and how well it worked. Work on developing more of a system. Be careful about scheduling—and about double-scheduling. Create a system of reminders or ticklers for what can be planned—it need not be a surprise that Christmas is going to come around again. Develop tag lines and common ways of speaking about things that are not insider jargon, that really communicate.

Good marketing is a matter of starting where you are comfortable and building from there.

If you would like more information, Mike Murschel has created a great listing of free marketing resource for the Chicagoland Marketing Initiative for the Chicago Area Unitarian Universalist Council: cauuc CMI resources

ian07.jpgLate Summer and early Fall are high season for congregation shopping. Congregations need to be ready. It is a basic rule of thumb for congregational life that, when you begin to see advertisements for back to school supplies, you are already late. There is bad news and good in this.

The bad news is that some of the challenge of preparing to welcome visitors requires basic cultural change and takes a long time. Many of our UU congregations have been working on this cultural change inspired in part by the book, Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love by Lonni Pratt Collins and Daniel Homan (available at the UUA bookstore https://secure.uua.org/bookstore). For those who want a flavor of how we UUs are using these perspectives a search of the internet on the subject of “radical hospitality” and “Unitarian” will give a flavor (see, for example: www.uu.corvallis.uua.org/sermons/04_0919--Radical%20Hospitality.htm and www.uufairhaven.org/2006/Ser2006Oct8.htm).The best UU resources for working on this level of basic cultural change see The Membership Journey (www.uua.org/documents/congservices/membershipjourney.pdf).

The good news is that any congregation with a modicum of effort can quickly and dramatically improve the experience of visitors. There is a pretty good literature on this but all the advice comes down to this: (1) think through step-by-step a visitor’s experience and ask how each element can be improved and (2) create a system for learning from the experience of visitors and new members.

Luckily, to help you get started with this process, there is a wealth of practical, free resources. The best UU resources on this subject are the past articles from the wonderful UU resource periodical, Interconnections. These are a little hard to find at the moment on the UUA website (www.UUA.org). The editor, Don Skinner, was helpful in providing me a links to the most relevant articles. As Michael Feldman would say on What’ Ya Know this is the mother lode of UU resources on the subject:


Don Skinner also mentioned that he is in the midst of an article about anonymous visitor programs that are developing in a number of Districts including Pacific Central and Joseph Priestly. Look for that in the September issue of Interconnections. Interdenominationally these are quite popular, often called mystery visitor or mystery guest programs (http://www.churchexecutive.com/Page.cfm/PageID/3262). Clara Barton District has a description of their program on the web (http://bcduua.org/contents/mysteryVisitor-description.html).

Harlan Limpert reminds me also of the Ideas for Growth DVD that was mailed to every congregation. See especially the segment about Jefferson Unitarian Church. They have an excellent collection of materials online (http://www.jeffersonunitarian.org/programs/volunteers/documentation.html). Our district office has some extra copies of the Ideas for Growth DVD. Also, this DVD can be easily copied should anyone wish more copies (that is, easily copied by any teenager!). The Congregational Handbook (http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/congregationalhandbook/index.shtml,) contains some good material, especially in the facilities section. Susanna Whitman and Tracey Robinson Harris of the UUA Congregational Services Office offer that the resources from the UUA Uncommon Denomination campaign include a great number of media resources (http://archive.uua.org/programs/congservices/uncommon/).

For doing a bit of quick review of your procedures in advance of the Fall visitor season, I like the check-list style of resource. The UU version of this in the Uncommon Denomination materials contains some good suggestions about how a group might use the checklist
(http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/uncommondenomination/hospitalityand/index.shtml )
For those wishing for getting themselves ready for visitors this season, the do-it-yourself hospitality assessment may be more useful. The UU Congregations in the San Francisco Bay area have collected some nice materials including a hospitality assessment form (http://www.uucpa.org/hospitality/Hospitality%20Assessment%20PCD.pdf.).

Other religious traditions also have a lot of good material that can be easily adapted for UU use. I find particularly useful the checklist style resource produced by many denominations. These may require some translation. Yet looking at a few examples, should provide good guidance about questions we should ask ourselves: Lutheran (www.elca.org/evangelism/assessments/hospitality.html) , Episcopalian(www.episcopalchurch.org/adcollaborative_56908_ENG_HTM.htm), and Mennonite (www.mennoniteusa.org/pdf/missional_letter/Aug2005.pdf).

In the future, be sure to return to the UUA Leader’s Library page. New materials will continue to appear there. Susanna Whitman, the UUA’s Growth Services Administrator, mentions that later this month they will, for example, be posting what she calls “a cool new resource,” courtesy of Linda Laskowski, a talented PCD lay leader. I have not yet seen this material, though some of you may have. Linda Laskowski gave a workshop in June at General Assembly, “Congregations Count: Evaluating Your Membership Process” (http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/leaderslibrary/ga2007/30779.shtml). Remember that CDs of this and all other General Assembly workshops are available.

One thing these resources do not mention prominently is websites. For many UU congregations, websites are a primary way new people hear about the congregation. Part of preparing for the visiting season is to prepare the website. While redesigning the entire website may be too much to do before Labor Day, a number of congregations have put up great—and simple—descriptions of what visitors should expect (www.allenavenueuu.org/visitor_info.html).

Also, these resources do not emphasize as strongly as I might that welcome must be the work of the entire leadership. In the first ten minutes in the building, a visitor may well step on the turf of many groups—Membership, Building and Groups, Religious Education, Worship, and Administration. Many groups in a congregation must work together to improve the full experience of visitors. And all leaders must think of themselves as part of the welcoming committee, meeting visitors after the service and before doing other business.

Ian Evison

PS—This Fall our national UUA is asking all congregations to celebrate Association Sunday (http://www.uua.org/giving/associationsunday/index.shtml). Money raised will go in part to a national marketing campaign. This campaign will work best in synergy with the efforts of individual congregations to improve outreach and welcome.

PPS—This resource article has focused on web resources. I thank everyone who has given me book suggestions. I hope to post a list of these later on my blog.