Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Measuring Impact or Counting Heads?

by Christine Purcell, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

At a recent cluster event, I had a chance to spend time with a congregational leader I haven't seen in several years. She---let's call her Pam--- is a leader in a small congregation in a rural area near a town with a few larger UU congregations. I know that Pam's congregation shows up for racial and social justice work, has the appropriate staffing for its size (including a part time minister), offers music and RE programs, offers opportunities for members to socialize, and has a good website and social media presence. Its minister frequently writes letters to the editor of the newspaper and is interviewed on the news. People in the community know about this small and mighty congregation.

I remarked on an article shared on Facebook which Pam's congregation's minister had written. I asked about the good things happening in her church community. She said, "I'm not sure any of that matters because we're not growing." She shared stories about stewardship difficulties and volunteer fatigue, and didn't mention any of the good things that I've heard are happening in her congregation.

I get it. When a congregation is small, lack of membership growth can feel like a ministry failure, but lack of numerical growth is not necessarily an issue to be fixed. Binary thinking with growth and failure as the only options does not serve congregations. There is a third option which holds tremendous benefits for the members of and community served by a small congregation: simply being a healthy, small congregation! 

Worrying about numerical growth can distract the congregation from its mission and vision. Well-lived mission, vision, and covenant yield maturity and the embodiment of our Unitarian Universalist faith and values in our congregations and in the world. I encourage smaller congregations to focus more on measuring their impact than on counting heads!

Visitors intentionally seek out small congregations for close relationships and the chance to make a difference. Congregational health increases the chance that visitors will return, be inspired, and get involved. Congregations which choose to work on health may find that numerical growth follows. They may not. In the case of Pam's congregation, I wonder if numerical growth will happen without a change in the demographics of the community. I am amazed and delighted that there are about sixty Unitarian Universalists gathering in that rural town! If the congregation's welcoming practices and new member integration are on track, numerical growth is probably not the best indicator of the success of its ministry. 

Here are some suggestions for congregations feeling the pinch of being small:
  • Consider a common read for your leadership such as "Doing the Math of Mission" by Gil Rendle to help change your congregation's focus from counting to measuring, or "Not Your Parents' Offering Plate" to rethink your congregation's approach to stewardship.
  • Consider consolidating some committees. You only need a few: worship, faith development, the caring community (includes membership support), and social witness on the program side, and property and finance on the administration side.
  • Try mentoring successors to leadership roles more effectively to reduce volunteer fatigue.
  • Use Appreciative Inquiry to focus on your congregation’s health and strength. Emphasize and build on 2-3 things you do well.
  • Equip your leaders by sending a team to a Southern Region Leadership Experience.
  • Contact your regional staff if you are stuck. We are here for you and with you.
Small congregations are on my heart because of my experiences last week as a staff member at Dwight Brown Leadership Experience (DBLE) in Little Rock. I worked with leaders from small congregations on applying systems thinking to a case study. Year after year, I’m inspired by the stories I hear from LE graduates who were challenged by what they learned, felt invigorated and called, and went back to their congregations prepared for the hard work of shared ministry. Teams leave Leadership Experiences with game-changing insights into elements of congregational health: covenant, mission, vision, faith development, systems thinking, small group ministry, governance, stewardship, and anti-oppression work. 

Did you know that more than half of our Southern Region UU congregations (124/208 certified) have fewer than 125 members? Your Southern Region staff understands the unique challenges and opportunities in small congregations. To support and encourage small congregations, we are offering an adapted Leadership Experience in central Florida: 05-10 February, 2017. Watch for announcements about the Small Congregation Unitarian Universalist Leadership Experience (SCUULE) in our newsletter, on Facebook, on our website, and in emails from your Primary Contact. I hope to see you there!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Moving from the ‘golden rule’ to the ‘platinum rule’

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

August is a time when many people do “church shopping." Those of us who have already found our spiritual home have a responsibility to clean ourselves up and be good hosts to those who may be visiting us for the first time. 

We have gotten much better as faith communities about greeting our guests on Sunday mornings. We are more intentional about our efforts to notice when we have visitors to our worship services. We try to reach out in a warm and welcoming way; to treat others as we would want to be treated. These are good and important efforts. How could we be better?

I’m not convinced that we are being as generous with welcoming the whole person in all of their complexities as we can be. It is not just one thing that makes us who we are. I am not me simply because I grew up in the Midwest or lived in New York state for 27 years or any of the many other parts of my background. I have been formed by the many pieces of my culture and there are many pieces to my identity.

You cannot see by looking at me whether I have a disability. If I do, I will be wondering if I will be welcomed when I visit a congregation. You do not know if I am a person who grew up in a family that spoke a language other than English at home. You do not know what my spiritual practices are or how I prefer to worship. If I am not of the generation of most of the people I meet, I will notice when you treat me differently than you treat others. Even if your intention is to treat me better, I may just see you treating me differently. This happens with our youth all the time.

We make many assumptions about people in the first couple of seconds that we encounter them. If we were truly generous and welcoming to others we would let our curiosity and not our assumptions lead us. We have to know our own culture in order to be welcoming to those who are not like us. 

When I was growing up in Springfield, Ohio in the 60’s and 70’s, it was normal to seat 35 people or so at our family gatherings. When one of us got serious about someone we were dating, we would be asked “ When to we get to meet him?” or if that meeting was soon to happen,  “Have you warned her about us yet?” You see, we had enough knowledge about ourselves as a family that we knew an encounter with us could be overwhelming. We were loud laughers, big huggers, boisterous singers that sang at every gathering. We talked over one another, interrupted, gave our opinions freely and there seemed to be an expectation that you should be able to keep up. 

Having said all that, it was not just the extroverts that felt welcomed by us, some quiet introverts also found a family that accepted them just the way they were. Because we knew our own culture, we were able to understand that not everyone would be able to or want to “keep up.” We found ways to get to know the partners of our loved ones. We made room for them. We made room not just at the dinner table. We might invite them into the kitchen to help with the preparations. We would find a quiet moment to ask for thoughts about the planning of the next event. We asked what their experiences were and how that informed how they felt about things. We showed them that they mattered and that we were willing to try things differently if it was important to them. We were far from perfect but we made sure that conversion to “the way we do things” was not the goal. Integrating them, changing some things so that their needs were met too was important to us. We stayed true to who we were while adapting to who they were.

In our congregations we need to know who we are so that we can stay true to ourselves, not because we are most important---just the opposite. We need to know who we are, so that we can move aside and put others at the center. We need to make room for their leadership and be willing to find a place on the sidelines. That is the generous way. We need to move from treating others the way we would treat ourselves to the platinum rule of “treat others the way they want to be treated."