Archive for May, 2007

Just Treading Water, Part 3

May 31, 2007

Sorry for the delay in posting to my blog.  I have had a bad cold, and trying to think critically [or think at all!]  has been difficult.

Back to my topic of Just Treading Water isn’t Enough, or congregations that create and sustain a sense of urgency.

In my last entry, I wrote about congregations that seize opportunities as new ones come their way. Today, I’ll tell you about a congregation that was creative in the face of great challenges.

I heard this congregation’s story at a meeting I attended recently. Here’s what happened: This small congregation had an part-time office person/bookkeeper who had been with them for several years. They also had a relatively new treasurer. Over the course of the last couple of years, the office person’s work became less and less effective. It turns out that she had the beginnings of some dementia, which they learned after she left her position.

Over the same period, the Board had difficulty getting current financial figures from the treasurer. The treasurer was trying hard to keep up with the work, but over time, he fell farther and farther behind, and he rejected offers of help from others. The Board members didn’t want to press someone who seemed to be trying so hard, so they let things slide.

The end result was that the Board learned recently that the office assistant had made numerous mistakes in bookkeeping, the treasurer was struggling with personal issues and totallyl overwhelmed,  and the church’s reserves — about $30,000 — had all been used up. There was no malfeasance — the money had been used legitimately to pay bills — but the treasurer hadn’t informed the Board that church operations were using more money than was coming in, and their reserves were gone.

So the Board was faced with a crisis. They wanted to move forward on a number of things — increasing the hours for their part-time minister, adding a few hours for their part-time religious educator — but they were very concerned about the church’s finances, as well as the reaction from the congregation once the news about the finances hit.

Well – the Board decided to get proactive. They informed the congregation about the financial situation and assured them they were working on it. They asked a former treasurer to work with the treasurer to go back over the finances, make corrections as needed, and bring things up to date.

Some Board members and other leaders donated money to a special fund, which could be drawn on, as needed, by the church over the next few years, with the money to be repaid to the members over time.

And the Board asked church members to make a “13th month pledge payment” — giving an additional month of pledge payments to end the fiscal year. Almost all of the members participated, which is a testament to their loyalty to the church and their confidence that the Board was handling this situation effectively.

In the end, the church was able to continue to move forward, put better financial practices in place, and get through this period of challenge.

In this case, the urgency wasn’t created by the leadership; it was thrust upon them. With careful discernment about their situation and what might be done about it, the Board communicated openly and effectively with the congregation, who responded with generosity and understanding.


P.S. to my May 4 post

May 24, 2007

In a posting on May 4, I wrote about the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, IA, and about all they are doing, including some important social justice work.

Today I had an email from Rev. Mark Stringer, minister of the church. Here’s a link to a Des Moines Register feature article about the drumming vigil for Darfur. Sponsored by First Unitarian, it engaged people from many local congregations and raised the awareness of the public about this important issue.

Thanks, Mark, for sharing this with us.

Just Treading Water isn’t Enough, Part 2

May 23, 2007

I promised that I’d write about congregations that create and sustain a sense of urgency in my next couple of blog entries. Here is the first example.

Some congregations are able to seize on new opportunities.  In Omaha, Nebraska, First Unitarian Church is ramping up for just such a circumstance.

The  138-year-old congregation has learned that their neighbors [a major insurance company] are buying up property in the area and will be developing seven mixed-use buildings that range from 4 to 9 stories, with restaurants, shops, an urban grocery store, and even a movie theater, with 600 housing units — condos and apartments — on the floors above. The project includes new underground parking adjacent to the church. The project is scheduled to be completed by fall 2009.

This development will bring 1,000 new people and lots of walking traffic to the neighborhood. The congregation is asking itself, “What new opportunities will this bring to us? How can we welcome the people who will be moving into these new buildings? How can we capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime change in our neighborhood?” The congregation has recently called a new minister, and conversations about the future are underway.

This is just the latest in “seized opportunities” for First Church Omaha. In 2005, a long-time church member offered to create a fund to endow a lecture series. The resulting Holland Lectures address a variety of important ethical and global issues by bringing internationally recognized speakers to Omaha. The first lecturer, speaking on The Changing Ethics of Life and Death, attracted so many people that the lecture had to be moved from the church to an auditorium at a nearby university campus. Subsequent talks have addressed stem cell research, sexual morality, nuclear terrorism, and climate change. This lecture series is wonderful for at least two reasons — it offers thought-provoking speakers to the greater community and it raises the visibility of the church and our UU values to people who might eventually attend services.

Not every congregation will find itself with a neighborhood changing for the better or a major benefactor. But any congregation can benefit from a SWOTs exercise — listing its Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats — and brainstorming what can be done about them. Conversations about such things raise the level of energy and enthusiasm. As I said in my last entry, treading water is simply not enough!

Just Treading Water isn’t Enough

May 16, 2007

This is the time of year when our lay leaders are transitioning. Presidents, Board members, and committee members are stepping down, and new ones are stepping up to the job. It’s a time of recognizing what has been accomplished this year and looking at goals we will set for the next.

But in some congregations, there isn’t much recognition, and goals aren’t discussed. Things are pretty much the same, year to year. The new “leaders” don’t really lead; they offer maintenance instead. The Program Committee scrambles to put together a list of speakers for Sunday services. The Religious Education Committee struggles to find enough teachers to teach the children. The Coffee person puts together a list of names and sends it out to everyone, telling them the Sundays they’re assigned to come early and plug in the coffee pot. As long as the basics are covered, people seem satisfied. No one steps back to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture? What else could we be doing?”  It’s business as usual.

So, if maintenance isn’t enough, what needs to change?

I have a quotation from Roy Oswald [a well-known church consultant] above my desk. It says, “The biggest mistake organizations make is not creating and sustaining a sense of urgency.”

One of the roles of a leader is to create a sense of urgency. What is the level of urgency in your congregation? Where are the pressing needs?

  • Are you concerned that there are people in your community who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism? Or what we stand for?
  • Or perhaps the urgency in your congregation has to do with internal needs. Maybe you are a small group with hardly enough people to get the basics taken care of.
  • Or does your congregation need to have a discussion about how effectively you are living out your mission in the world?

In the next couple of entries in this blog, I will give some examples of how congregations create and sustain a sense of urgency, and how they move forward to make real changes. After all, just treading water isn’t enough!

Another Great Idea from One of our Congregations

May 14, 2007

I attended the Sunday service at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis yesterday and witnessed a powerful ceremony of accomplishment and acknowledgement. Three children were recognized as new Chalice Lighters by the Minister, Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, and the Religious Education Director Jan Devor.

As part of their preparation, these third graders studied about the flaming chalice, symbol of our faith. They also learned about the UU principles. During the ceremony, each read aloud one of the principles that has special meaning for him/her. Each received a chalice pin, and the minister spoke to each child separately, noting the child’s role in keeping our faith strong into the future.  Each child lit the congregation’s chalice in turn. [The chalice was extinguished in between, as they took their turns.]

It was a memorable moment when they received the acknowledgement of the congregation for their completion of the program! Because this took place during the time when all the children were present in the service, other, younger children can look forward to a day when they could be similarly recognized.

To find out more about this program, contact Jan Devor at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis 

Read this! It will make your day!

May 4, 2007

I just have to tell you about this. This UU congregation is doing so many things, it’ll make your head spin and your heart glad!

I just finished reading the May newsletter for First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, IA. I am blown away!

The church is in the middle of a construction project, which is challenging their congregation in so many ways. The latest news is that they cannot safely have the children in classrooms, so they are having everyone in the sanctuary on Sundays. Is this stopping them? No! Here is just a sample of what they’re doing and planning. Read the details at and click on newsletter, and read the May edition.

 Their UU Service Committee team is hosting a 24-hour drumming vigil for Darfur at a public plaza this month. Their children made 279 paper dolls as part of a Darfur paper doll project. The dolls will be collected with more than 400,000 others from around the country and forwarded to Senator Barak Obama.

Over 400 people attended a Commitment Sunday canvass event at a local college auditorium. The energy was like that at a church revival!

The leaders are planning a “MORE (for the future)” process which will unfold over the next 9 months. [MORE stands for Ministry of Reflection and Engagement.] This Appreciative Inquiry process will bring members into groups to share stories of their life together as a church community, and to think about what they might become in the years ahead.

In March, the children filled a minivan full of baby and food items, school and cleaning supplies for a local agency.

Let’s all celebrate with this vibrant church community! I’m looking forward to the building dedication sometime in the fall!