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.

1 comment:

  1. You have a way of cutting to the chase and getting to the heart of many of the issues about Unitarian Universalism that trouble me. The idea of commitment is huge. UU asks far too little of people in allows to join its congregations. Easy in and easy out. "Just sign the book" they say and that's it. It's a pretty ceremony but doesn't mean much. I think joining a UU congregation should be like getting married. A person is taking a solemn vow to be their for other congregation members and the church in better and worse, rich and poor, good times and bad, sickness and health, til death do us part. If membership is not taken more seriously by UU the denomination will continue to atrophy and die. You get out of it what you put into it and the investment of most UUs is minimal. The church needs more rigor and discipline. Lind brought that to Boulder and look what happened!

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