Another Short Take on Congregations and Cultural Transformation

In the Chris Walton summary of the UU Board Meeting, there is this, which is presented as being one trustee's response to the Administration's report. :

Rob Eller-Isaacs in the Chris Walton report of the board meeting said that many of our congregations are not performing well.
“Though I agree with your stance that a changing culture requires new ways of bringing efforts to bear,” replied the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, trustee, “I worry that undue emphasis on change in culture may be a dodge for the fact that many of our churches are inadequate churches. I’d hate to see us avoid the work of strengthening the church.” 
What do we do about the churches that are not doing well: the churches that don't ever grow, the churches that sit on franchises; the churches that chew up ministers; the churches that teeter on the age of failure; the churches that need some kind of help from somewhere. They are the identified patient of our system.

Note the way that Eller-Isaacs frames this: work with people outside our system (you could call it evangelism) might be 'a dodge' from fixing the inadequate elements inside our system.

Just who is supposed to fix the inadequate congregations of our association? And how?

The UUA has been organized for that task for much of its life. Isn't that what all the investment in district and regional staff has been for: the support of local congregations? Trainings, workshops, interventions by skilled staff. There has been no shortage of those. And the other potential source of help has been our flagship churches, like the one Rob Eller-Isaac serves. But, those churches are more resented for their success, rather than seen as a resource.

The experience suggests that the work is very difficult. Stuck systems tend to stay stuck. There is no shortage of money, or innovative ideas, or enthusiastic ministers for congregations that want to thrive. There is never enough for congregations that are stuck. Our most stuck congregations resist the UUA, resent the nearest successful congregation, and externalize their anxiety about survival. That anxiety ping-pongs around the Association as this pervasive sense that anything anybody does is really work avoidance.

I think the angry response to the Administration's report, as recounted in the World article, is part of that bouncing anxiety: we are not sure what the UUA should be doing, (planting new churches, fixing old churches, modernizing, preserving, rooting out racism, recruiting new ministers, placing old ones, but generally doing more with less), but certainly not whatever it is now proposing!

The experience suggests that many of our "inadequate" churches would just like to be left alone. They might among those typical American Protestant churches which do not last much beyond the lifespan of their founding generation. Nothing lives forever and not all trees grow to the sky.

Maybe it is an act of non-anxious self-differentiated leadership to suggest that we turn outward now, rather than anxiously obsessing about what we think we should be doing, but have no idea how to do.


  1. Steve Cook9:32 AM

    Alright, here are two direct quotes from the recent report: “If all you do is focus on the congregations, it becomes idolatry.”--Terasa Cooley. “I worry that undue emphasis on change in culture may be a dodge for the fact that many of our churches are inadequate churches. I’d hate to see us avoid the work of strengthening the church.” –Rob Eller-Isaacs.

    Tom’s answer to this conundrum is that, “Nothing lives forever and not all trees grow to the sky.”

    I ask, “Who or what administrator, group or body in this association of congregations will be empowered to do the work of institutional triage?”

  2. Can any congregation solve its inadequecies by concentrating on its failures? Most of us argue that the community needs to build on its strengths, and engage itself by practices that lead it out of its self focus.

    Ministry is defined by the MFC as care of persons (formation and equipping saints as well as counsel) and transformative witness to the world, and we judge candidates on their competency to become ministers based on that understanding. But ministry is not a project of the clergy. Ministry is shared and it is not self development alone, it is about engaging others.

    Congregations can not be fixed by technique, and by nasel gazing mission statement exercises. They need to be invited into real mission, healing the brokenness of the world.

  3. Agree with most of your take on the anxiety.

    With one observation, no congregation is of one mind on its relationship to the wider assocation. Some would like help, and our "darwinian survival of the fitest" culture assumes that each must learn to swim the same strokes. Smaller churches put much work into maintaining governance and administrative structures and that work requires time from the people who otherwise could be doing ministry in the wider world. Small churches become inner focused, and the result is that they do not span generations. Our model of "congregation" does not allow a group of people share in a common ministry, but instead they find themselves sharing in a common budget.

  4. I didn't report any "angry responses" at the board meeting.

  5. Chris,
    Sorry -- misplaced clause. I was referring to angry responses on blogs, emails and twitter to what you reported from the board meeting. My poor writing.

  6. The UU World article is hardly a report of the Board meeting. Two quotes is not a summation. There was a written report, there was conversation, there will be continuing conversation.

    What I heard in the report and discussion put less provocatively (and therefore less quotable) our values are congruent with the values of what is emerging among the shapers and doers of cultural tranformation, but our institutions are not congruent. Since institutions are what give power and what provides form for community building that disconnect weakens the cultural transformation, and weakens our wider minstry as faith.

    There will not be some "abandoment" of Congregations with staff now chasing some trendy emphasis on cultural transformation, what is being talked about is framing of our work in ministry formation and thinking about the ways to enhance our service to new and emerging institutional forms of UU community.

  7. Tom,

    I have been an after pastor in six of the eight congregations I have served. By after pastor I refer to following the ministry of a colleague or colleagues who has egregiously transgressed the ethical boundaries required of a minister of good character, and in several cases a colleague who engaged in criminal behavior. If you check the literature, you will see that the symptoms of troubled churches mirror the symptoms of churches where ministers or other trusted leaders have engaged in serious ethical breaches. Numerically, within our association, more than half our congregations that had ministerial leadership, have suffered egregious misconduct in the years since 1960. Even though this issue has been on our radar over the past 30 years, no UUA programs have been developed to address the suffering and resulting dysfunction caused by clergy and staff abuse of the congregation. In my current congregation which was recently victimized by a minister who committed sexual assault several times, the MFC initially gave final Fellowship with no supervision to the perpetrator until it received a second report. The financially devastated congregation had to rely on a generous donor to spend money to bring in help for the congregation (nothing is/was available for the victims and their families) to ameliorate the problem and had to depend on me to find the needed resources. The only resource offered was some financial help to me for some coaching --- which was slashed suddenly at a key time. However, that $8000 investment in this congregation by a generous member will make the difference between a healthy congregation and the other five which range between one which is A LOST CAUSE (Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here) or moribund to several that habitually underperform. Thus, my experience is not that the UUA could not make a difference to help congregations thrive, but that it has failed to use its resources wisely and strategically to do so. I believe this is, in part, because there is not enough wisdom about congregations and experience with a wide variety of congregation amongst those with influence at the UUA. Only John Buehrens, for example, had served more than a single congregation before becoming UUA President and one of our recent Presidents had no experience leading a church. Quite a number of lovely staff members are similarly handicapped. So I guess I would quibble with the "If all you do is focus on congregations...." premise. Only during John's presidency did I feel the UUA was appropriately focused on congregations and knew something about them and what might be needed. I have seen appropriate help and intervention at a local level make a huge difference --- even at the level of financial return for investment for the UUA -- but too often, as in the egregious instances I cited above, the assistance has been unavailable or insufficient.

  8. Steve Cook11:37 AM

    By way of addressing the concern that a couple of quotes are not the whole story, I posted the following on my Facebook feed.

    There has been some recent "backing and forthing" in the UU blogosphere concerning ends, means, transformation, throughput and idolatry based on quotes from a UU staff member and a Trustee as reported in the World. No one has called these quotes inaccurate but some have said that they do not give a complete picture of the situation. The UU Board has a Facebook page and a blog of its own; their meetings are always open to observers. Their next meeting is in Boston from April 10-13. Few will have that much free time nor do I; however, if you are close enough perhaps you will join me in attending some of this meeting.

  9. Steve Cook9:41 PM

    As a follow up on my post of some weeks ago concerning attending the April meeting of the UU Board, I spent this day observing the first of their four days of meeting in Boston. I applaud many of the actions recently taken by the Board, and while I am concerned by some discussions underway, I cannot doubt the sincerity, good faith and dedication of these very hard-working people. Agree or disagree, they deserve thanks.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Starting a Discussion about Multi-partner relationships

Reflection on Merger (Dialectical Theology Part 8 of many)

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

What's In Our DNA (Dialectical Theology, part 7 of many)