Showing posts with label Growing a church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Growing a church. Show all posts

Saturday, March 14, 2015

How to build a church so they will come

From UU World, Fall, 2014, "Ready For Change" by Elaine McArdle

McArdle describes the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder, CO:

Founded by a young mother in 1947 as the American Unitarian Association’s first fellowship, the church had more recently developed a quitting culture, where disgruntled members would leave rather than staying and working through conflict. By the mid-2000s, with no money in the coffers and a couple of bad matches between ministers and congregation, the church was on life support. “Oh, we were in trouble,” says Skiendzielewski.

I was struck by this paragraph because they is exactly what happened in my church. As a former Roman Catholic I was surprised at the lack of commitment to the denomination of UU. Attachment to any identity as a UU seems superficial and ephemeral. I found more loyalty at Rotary than I have found in UU.

While our statement of seven principles begins with the preamble, "... covenant to affirm and promote..." I don't see the covenanting. It is just a slogan, there is no investment in living a life based on these principles and helping others. It is surprisingly easy for supposed UUs to just walk away.

The attempts at times to provide "conflict resolution services" by district staff is little more than psychobabble from what I've seen. In the two different congregations where I have been involved in these attempts to stem the defections, there was no mention of the importance and meaning of the covenanting which we supposedly committed ourselves to let alone the importance of holding ourselves accountable to the principles. The attention of the facilitator seemed to be on process and not on content and while process is important it is not enough to bind together a faith community which is, afterall, what religion is about. The word "religion" comes from the latin word religare which means to tie, to bind.

As you undoubtedly have noticed, the title of this blog is "UU A Way Of Life" which implies a deep commitment to UU values. While a member can believe what he/she wants, we have covenanted together to promote and affirm our 7 principles. The catechesis explaining this covenanting process is nonexistent or very weak.

McErdle's article goes on to describe how the congregation set some goals and then hired Rev. Howell Lind to come and provide the leadership to hold the congregation accountable. However, reading between the lines, it seems he did more than that. He provided religious leadership and they transformed from a social club to a religious community.

“My experience as a field staffer for the UUA helped, in that I’d seen a variety of congregations—those with bad practices and those with good—so I had learned what works,” said Lind, who is married to Bowen. “Ministry to spiritual needs is more than just pastoral; it also means knowing how to build a community. It’s having a sense of how to motivate a congregation to move the way it wants to. I think the Developmental Ministry program is an excellent way to do that.”

It’s important to note that the goals were set by the board, not by Lind, creating shared leadership. And because the minister contracts with the board for five years, it gives them incentive to make the relationship work. “That’s significant, because it means the board is in the game no matter what,” said Wheeless. “It allows some buy-in and commitment [from the board] even if the congregation starts being concerned about changes.”

As soon as Lind arrived, his every step was strategic, to help the congregation reach its goals, including the shedding of its image as a social club.

“The first Sunday Howell stepped into the pulpit, he wore his robe,” recalled Richards. “He wears it every Sunday he’s preaching. It sets the stage—it says that this is a place of worship and that we belong to a larger association than ourselves.”

Lind moved the minister’s office from a secluded area in the back of the building to the front, signaling access, visibility, and transparency. He then persuaded the congregation to fix its run-down building: first, a new front door, then carpet and paint.

This is an inspiring story and you can read it for yourself by clicking here.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Goals for a UU church

A friend wrote an email and asked my about goals for the church. Here is my response. Your comments are welcome.

You ask a good question about goals. There are two aspects to be considered.

1. Is the goal measurable? In other words, how would an observer know when the goal as been achieved, or to what extent it has been achieved? Using this criteria, the "goals" you describe above aren't goals because they are not stated in measurable terms.

2. There are outcome goals and process goals. Outcome goals are the results, the deliverables. Process goals are putting the mechanisms in place to bring about those results, to achieve those goals. I call this idea the WHAT and the HOW.

To use your words, you might say, "our goal is to have 25% of the 100,000 people living in the Brockport area report on survey that they use the UU 7 principles as the guiding criteria by which to make ethical decisions in the past year." That's a goal that can be measured to determine the degree of achievement.

A process goal to achieve that outcome goal would be - "we will provide educational and marketing services to educate the 100,000 people in the Brockport area over the next year so that at least 50% of them will say when surveyed that the know what the 7 principles of UU are". (Whether they will adopt these 7 principles to guide their ethical decision making remains to be seen, but they can't use them if they don't know what they even are)

For good organizational performance, all members of the organization should know explicitly what the organizational goals are. Implicit understanding is not helpful and often leads to demoralization, confusion, and conflict. Commitment to goal achievement is what keeps people engaged in a common effort. ASSUME makes and ass of u and me as you know.

To complicate things further, maybe more than is necessary for this discussion, but let me add anyway, that there are efficiency goals and satisfaction goals. Efficiency goals deal with engaging in the activities to achieve the goals cost competitively. In other words an organization might say, "We know that we can achieve these goals, and we know we can put the activities in place, but can we do it cheaply enough to be affordable or can some other organization do it more cheaply? An organization might set as a goal a more efficient way to achieve the goal and thereby surpass its competition.

Satisfaction goals address the fulfillment of the major stakeholders requirements and expectations. So a high performing organization must achieve its measurable goals in an efficient way that is customer satisfying.

Don't let this model overwhelm you. It makes good sense and works if you take it a step at the time.

I think the church could have many goals that would enhance it's viability. The first and most important is to provide inspirational, uplifting, empowering worship services. HOW could the church do this in a way that attracts, engages, and retains attenders? There are many factors but I think the most important are an uplifting message from the pulpit, good music that enhances the message, and creation and re-enactment of meaningful ritual that connects to peoples lives. There would be many ways to develop a metric to measure the production of these elements in worship, but the most significant measurement probably is attendance, and then you could ask, "attendance by whom"? Do you want older, mature adults, or young unmarried adults, or children, and families, etc. Many churches as you know have different kinds of services, the "traditional service", the "contemporary service" , the "children's service" etc. The churchof course, at this point doesn't have the resources to diversify its worship offerings, but it can make an intentional decision about what kind of worship service it wants to provide for what kind of audience/participants.

W. Edwards Deming, the great Total Quality Management guru said, "If you don't know where you're going any road will take you there." The destination needs to be explicit otherwise how would you know when you have arrived or how far off your target destination you are?


David Markham

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The empowering influence of participating in healthy church community

From All Soul's Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK's church service on 02/01/15. Congregational member Nicole Ogundare shares what it was like to participate on the All Soul's float in Martin Luther King, Jr. parade in Tulsa.

There are many lessons we can take away from Nicole's talk but perhaps one of the biggest things is the meaning of church. Church gives courage to speak our truth and live it more authentically in our community within which the church is a part.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Building a church which has a purpose

It's hard to build a church.

We started the Brockport Unitarian Fellowship in September of 2009. It's been 4 years. We have about 35 members and an average Sunday attendance of between 15 and 20. We are planning now for our fifth church year, 2013 - 2014. We have a committee working on an annual operating plan for the 2013 - 2014 church year.

Rev. Christina Neilson, the congregational life consultant from the St. Lawrence District, met with our congregation yesterday, Sunday, January 20th, and we did the vision thing and set some goals in small groups. People shared a lot of ideas. We aren't short on ideas. It's executing them that is the problem. Most of the labor is volunteer with the exception of a 1/2 time pastor and a musician we pay twice a month to play the piano at two of our services.

The understanding which has slowly taken shape in my mind is that Unitarian Universalist ecclesiology is based on the idea of convenantal relations within each church and among churches in the UUA. The covenant is based on the affirmation and promotion of the Seven Pinciples which we draw from our Six Sources. It has taken me many years, about 10, to come to this understanding. Why has it taken me so long?

It has taken me so long because nobody has spelled it out for me, succinctly, clearly, and to the point that I have now spelled it out for myself. If covenanting to affirm and promote the seven principles drawn from the six sources is what Unitarian Universalism is about why is this not clearly understood by UU members and the world at large?

I think of all the jokes about UUs, like the one about UUs like Jehovah Witnesses going door to door to spread their religious beliefs but not having anything to say. How many UUs does it take to screw in a light bulb? A whole committee and they can't decide what should be done. You know the jokes. You've heard them too, and laughed, as I have too, in self denigrating humor, laughing at our own ignorance and gratuitousness. But taken seriously, as a way of life, Unitarian Universalism is not ephemeral whip cream, it is serious, deep, challenging, and demanding.

I have been thinking further about the seven principles drawn from the six sources and it dawns on me that if I am to seriously apply them in my life and make a difference to myself and to the world in which I live, I need a lot of help. I certainly can affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but in a world awash with racism, discrimination, and exclusionary policies of every sort and stripe, I realize that I cannot affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person alone. I need a lot of help. We, as a community, need a lot of help.

And so, our churches, our community of saints as Rebecca Ann Parker calls us, must grow, here and now, if we are to make our Seven Principles visible, relevant, and meaningful in our daily lives.

As I go about my daily life and enter into discussions with people and ask them if they too believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and if so, will they come to church with me so we can explore how to make this principle manifest in our community life together?

I understand now, better, what the purpose of church is. It is a group of people who join together and covenant with each other to affirm and promote the Seven Principles from the Six Sources. This group of people is a communion of saints who shelter one another and work together for a transformation of life on earth, here and now, for the benefit of the interdependent web of all existence. What holier work can there be? What could be more important? Our church will grow, has to grow, if we are to save the world.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Providing religious education

Kate Tweedie Erslev suggests in Chapter 7 of her book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways To Grow Lifelong UUs, that parent handouts go home after every Sunday School session so that parents can discuss what was learned in Sunday School with their children.

Why is that a good idea?

Not because in our patronizing and condenscending way we think that this is good for the children, but rather because this is good for the adults.

You learn what you teach.

Parents get the lesson too.

Good Sunday School teachers are not educating children as much as they are educating adults.

This insight often gets lost in religious ed programs.

In today's Unitarian Universalism, parents are often lost. They don't know enough about the faith themselves to be able to discuss it knowingly with their children. As Erselv points out when asked about the topic parents often respond, "We don't know what to say!" The religious educator's role then is to teach parents "what to say". The religious educator's role is to help parents teach their children, not do it for them.

Parents are undermined enough and sabatoged continually by our modern society by all kinds of professionals who make a living by taking over the care of their children whether they be teachers, coaches, dancing instructors, counselors of all sorts, child protection workers, and do-gooders of all types. Parents willingly turn their children over to these "professional experts" who train their children "the right way" and parents become marginalized in the process.

As Unitarian Universalists we believe in the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process and this is nowhere more important than in the family. The parents right and responsibility to oversee and monitor the education of their children is one of their most sacred duties and yet so many fail because of their feelings of inadequacy and defectiveness when confronted by so many authoritative discourses represented by their experts who continually imply to parents that they know best. The church of all institutions should not be complicit in this subjugation and oppression of parents.

Empowerment of parents requires that religious educators provide parents with the knowledge, the skills, and the opportunities to engage in the religious education of their children. This is a huge challenge if it is done in the right way.

Are we Unitarian Universalists up to the challenge?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where's the meat? Where's the substance?

Secularization is growing in the United States with "None" being the fastest growing denominational preference on the Pew Religious affiliation poll.

It has been my experience in starting a new UU congregation that many people are sympathetic to Unitarian Universalism and describe themselves as in alignment with UU principles, but say that they are "spiritual" and not "religious" and aren't interested in getting involved in organized religion. In other words, they don't see anything which organized religion can offer them that they don't already have or can get more easily somewhere else.

I tend to agree with them. Joining a congregation is a lot of work, takes significant time and energy when one could be doing other things more fulfilling and satisfying.

And so, if people are attracted to and sympathetic with UU principles and values but don't perceive further involvement as worthwhile and beneficial what could a UU congregation have to offer them which they can't already get somewhere else?

Where is the meat? Where is the substance? Where is the deep spiritual understanding that can be articulated and communicated in courageous, inspiring, stimulating, and validating ways?

Some preachers and teachers and social justice and pastoral care givers have it, but they are few and far between and can they develop a following and inspire others to join in the deeply nourishing and beneficial life work? How does this work of leaders and followers become institutionally supported?

I am looking for ideas about this. Please help me by leaving a comment or sending me an email at

Thank you

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Importance of ritual and tradition

In my reading of Kate Tweedie Erslev's book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways To Grow Lifelong UUs, I felt very validated to see her write that the fourth way is to "Ritualize Holiday Events and Celebratory Activities." In describing her survey of lifelong UUs she notes how many had fond memories of church activities as children especially holiday celebrations and repeated traditions at certain times of the year.

One of things I miss the most as a Roman Catholic Unitarian Universalist is the liturgical calendar. The calendar allows RCs all over the world to celebrate feast days and Saints lives in unison wherever one might be. I think one of the best things which the UUA could do to give a sense of cohesiveness and meaning to our religion is to have a liturgical calendar which all UUs can turn to to coordinate worship and activities. I know this flies in the face of the fiercely independent sense of congregational polity but maybe it is this lack of larger coordination and synergistic effort which has held the denomination back from growing into a more significant force in our modern society.

Erslev writes some important ideas about the use of ritual and celebration such as "What is most important in this context aren't the specific rituals themselves, but the idea that yearly congregational traditions need to be explicit and not added as an afterthought at the last minute." p.23 As a new emerging congregation, the Brockport Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is looking to have meaningful, relevant traditions. In our first 6 months of operation I think we have already developed two possibilities which will be "Founders Day" to celebrate our first service which we did with a pancake breakfast, and last week we had the Easter Food Hunt which was a special day where the children hid cans of food, the parents went hunting for it, and the findings were donated to the local food shelf.

Erslev writes further "It is necessary to work towards a balance between stability and change in order to create lifelong memories and commitment." p.24 Adherence to ritual and traditions cannot be deadening and stultifying but rather dynamic and life giving. In order for the later to happen and not the former traditions need to be kept alive by injecting new meaning and relevance each time they are repeated. The question should be "How is this ritual, celebration, life giving instead of just an obligatory rote repetition?"

Erslev wisely observes "Children want and need to repeat experiences. Consider the number of times a child will listen to a favorite song or bedtime story or watch a favorite video. to make memories we need to tell our stories over and over again trhough celebrations and ceremonies. Part of creating lifelong commitment is knowing and transmitting these stories." p.26 It is traditions and rituals that are repeated that deepen our faith. They provide a time for "re-membering" that is reconnecting with experiences, knowledges, practices that are significant and validating for us. This re-membering is what church institutions do well and help us, as human beings, develop and maintain a sense of stability, security, meaning, and well being in our lives. As people get older sometimes this kind of re-membering by celebrating and participating in long standing ritual and tradition is so powerful it brings tears to their eyes and deep warmth to their hearts.

What are your cherished memories of church celebrations and rituals? How have they deepened your faith and sense of well being? How do you work to maintain them and celebrate them in your church?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Showing up for church regularly is what it takes for UUs to benefit.

In my continued reading of Kate Tweedie Erslev's book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways To Grow Lifelong UUs, I find in Chapter 3 the suggestion that the value of attending regular church services should be shared.

Erslev writes on page 19:

"It helps to have explicit recommendations about such issues as attendance and pledging in order to make newcomers fell more comfortable. Joining a UU congregation is not the same as joining the Sierra Club or the Brownies."

She goes on to write, "We need to welcome and encourage our members to partake of the community at least three times a month in order to reap the full benefits of religious community,"

Having been raised a Roman Catholic I was taught to miss Mass on Sunday was a mortal sin and if I died with a mortal sin on my soul I would go to hell. On top of that there were Holy days of obligation which carried the same sanction. Attending church on Sunday and Holy days of obligation was taken very, very, very seriously with the expectation that failure to participate was damning one's soul to hell.

I note that Erslev doesn't go that far, but she does seem to imply that failure to attend regularly makes it impossible for a person to strenghten and enjoy the benefits of one's Unitarian Universalist faith.

I buy that. This makes it very important that Sunday services are meaningful, inspiring, informative, soulful, joyful, and worth coming to.

Should a UU go to services he/she finds boring, disspiriting, annoying, irritating, dismissive, plodding, boring?

No. Emerson said as much in his famous sermon about the deadness of some UU services. I have sat through quite a few wondering why the preacher was preaching what he was preaching. It seemed to be intellectual masturbation to me. I looked around and people's eyes were politely glazed over and I was struck with how "nice" every thing was but deader than a doornail.

Unitarian Universalism being based on congregational polity provides the opportunity for people to get involved. If you find the services boring or iriitating or dead get involved in the worship committee, get involved in the choir, speak to the minister. Try to improve things before you stop going.

Not all services will always be to everyone's liking so patience, tolerance of frustraton and displeasure is part of being a UU. We shouldn't just quit going to church because we don't feel entertained. We need to give things a chance, to try to positively influence the situation for a period of time, but if then things still are dead for you, look elsewhere for you spiritual sustenance.

I do think Erslev is right though about the need to attend regularly. Church is about relationships and they can't exist and develop in abstenia. I think Woody Allen had it right when he said, "80% of success in life is due to showing up."

At the Brockport Unitarian Universalist Fellowship which started holding services last September monthly and in December twice a month we have about 25 people who attend regularly with another 40 to 50 who have visited. The question I struggle with is what does it take to turn a visitor into a regular attender? We have yet to have charter Sunday. We are hoping to have 30 people willing to sign the book before we hold it. Hopefully, it will happen in the fall. If any one has any experience in starting a church from scratch who will share your story please leave a comment or send me an email at

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Is religious ed for children a path to greater institutional investment?

In reading Kate Tweedie Erslev's book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways To Grow Lifelong UUs, she writes in her second chapter that religious education can be an important portal to institutional involvement.

Erslev makes the case that helping and teaching religious education is something that can begin with people as young as 12 or 13 who help with the pre-schoolers.

Her point reminds me of the idea that you learn what you teach.

Erslev writes that people often move on from teaching religious ed to take on other roles of leadership in congregations like helping with the fund drive, being a board member etc.

She is right that there is probably no better way to learn about the faith and to become personally invested in it than by trying to teach it to others, namely, children.

I like her idea here. The only problem I have with it is that not every one is comfortable with children and inspired to teach. So while teaching religious ed is one way to become more institutionally involved for most people it is not going to be the pathway.

Brockport Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is still relatively small at this point (about 25 regular attendees) and while we have a program for the children it offers only a small number of adults a way to get involved. So we have to be creative in finding other ways for people to invest in the community.

Overall, I think Erslev has a good idea but it seems to me to be limited enough to a select group of UUs who are called to this ministry and so I am left wondering what about the rest? I will read on because there are 13 more ways she promises to reveal.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What makes UU distinctive?

I have just started to read Kate Tweedie Erslev's book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways To Grow Lifelong UUs. In the introduction by Judith Fredliani she writes that the book should help people in congregations with leadership, evaluation, experience, and growth.

As we are starting a new congregation in Brockport, NY, the Brockport Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, I am thinking and feeling that we can use this kind of information, experience, and advice.

My first thought as I start reading and digesting the ideas in this book is about the title. Do we really want to "grow lifelong UUs"?

I don't think so.

What I want to do at BUUF is build an institution which facilitates the spiritual development of people in alignment with UU values and traditions. I am expecting that many people will outgrow their UU identity even though I hope that it enriches their lives in a wonderful way that will never be forgotten.

I am about contributing to, creating, developing, and building a faith tradition which nutures people and transforms the world whether people identify as life long UUs or not. Maybe I am niggling at a subtle point which isn't all that important, but I don't think engaging and retaining people is as important as helping them transform themselves and the world.

In the first chapter, Erslev summarizes a sermon given by Rev. W. Roy Jones, Jr. entitled "Our hidden commitments" in which he summarizes four beliefs that UUs hold dear:

1. There is the possibility of good in the universe.
2. The ultimate religious act is choosing.
3. We make the best choices with intelligent love.
4. We learn best in community.

These beliefs make sense to me but I don't see anything there that is different from what I was taught in the Roman Catholic church except perhaps #2. Even that is questionable because I was taught that the individual conscience supersedes any other teaching or dogma of the RC church.

So, I will keep reading Erslev. I continue to wonder what makes UU special. I can think of two things in my mind which hasn't been suggested yet, and maybe they will, and these two things are

1. Universal salvation

2. Congregational polity in a democratic process.

Both of these things are huge stumbling blocks for people of other religions traditions with the exception of Buddhism. In talking with people about considering coming to our church the first question I get is "Well, what do UUs believe?", and "how is your church run?" Unitarian Universalism is off putting to people coming from other religions because the answers to these two questions are very counter-cultural.

And so what makes Unitarian Univeralism distinctive and what does it have to offer people in a gut grabbing, concrete way?. How does it engage people and facilitate a passion for the tradition which becomes nurturing, facilitative of human development, infectious in attracting others and transforming our world in a positive way?

This is article #1 in a series on Growing A Church.

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