Tag Archives: Church Life

long committee meetings and why few people are willing to attend them.

6 Mar
We have 200 children in RE and 8 teachers recruited.

photo credit: Joy Berry

So you are a leader in your congregation and you are having a difficult time finding volunteers for the XYZ committee. You feel like you’ve tried everything – advertising in the newsletter, asking people directly, but still, it is the same few folks who say “Yes” and they are getting burned out. You are worried about what the future might hold. You wonder: Is your congregation alone in this struggle?

Absolutely not. Many congregations are struggling with this same issue. And there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. So let’s take a few minutes to look at why congregations are struggling, and then look at a a few possibilities to think about.

There are three primary reasons why the volunteer landscape is not as lush as it once was: time, commitment, and relevance. Once upon a time, long ago, many congregations could rely on a stable volunteer force: stay at home mothers. They ran the church – from volunteering in the church office, to religious education classrooms, to music/membership/worship committees and so on. But in these days where many families have two working parents, this is no longer a viable source of volunteers (and indeed, it hasn’t been for quite a while). Parents, in particular, are pulled in many different directions as their children’s sports, music, art, and academic enrichment programs keep them hopping each evening. When families can barely find time to eat dinner together once a week, how can we expect them to make time for a 2+ hour committee meeting? Many of our congregations are still structured in a way that depends on exactly these folks and we find that the same people who were volunteering when their children were young thirty (or so) years ago are still the go-to volunteers when it comes to operating the church today.

Combined with a lack of time, many congregants today are also struggling with making the commitment to an ongoing volunteer position. We see this in the way they pledge, as well. Many people don’t want others to rely on them in case they (or a family member) gets sick and needs care, or if their work schedule changes, or if they’ve just had a rough week and need a night off. In their minds, it is better to not make the commitment than it is to let someone down. For many years, nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteers have found that the number of people interested and available for key volunteer positions (which require an ongoing commitment) has dropped off dramatically. However, this does not mean people are not willing to volunteer in other ways – the number of people willing to volunteer episodically has risen dramatically. Episodic volunteers participate sporadically (perhaps only certain times of the year) and volunteer without an ongoing commitment.

Finally, volunteers are concerned about relevance. In those long gone halcyon days, church was often the center of a congregant’s social life, and as such featured long committee meetings with loosely structured conversation, often complemented by drinks and snacks. Today, however, volunteers are usually not looking to make the congregation the hub of their social lives. Instead, they want to know that the work they are doing is important and has meaning and is directly tied to the mission and impact of the congregation. They want the time they put in to be efficiently utilized and impactful in the community. It isn’t that they don’t want their volunteering to have a social component – far from it, but having a social component to a relevant, efficient volunteer opportunity is different than a volunteer opportunity that (intentionally or unintentionally) centers the social and puts the work as secondary.

So what might adjusting to this new(ish) volunteer landscape look like at congregations, where volunteers are often difficult to find due to time, commitment and relevance issues? Interestingly enough, I think that the three factors impacting the volunteer landscape are the same three factors congregations can use to address the issue.

First, since potential volunteers have less time than they used to have, a congregation would benefit from having flexible ways to participate. Allowing participation from teleconferencing software such as zoom enables people to stay at home and still participate. For each committee, evaluate whether the standard monthly 2-hour meeting is really necessary, or if perhaps shorter meetings, or less frequent ones, might be possible to get the work done. Because many congregations are still using the committee structure of a generation (or two) ago, and often just keep adding on new ones, it would also behoove congregations to look at what work is essential to the mission of the church and what might you stop doing, in order to do that which remains even better.

In terms of commitment, congregations would benefit from looking to see how they could better use episodic, task-oriented volunteers. For instance, is it possible to have an usher/dishwasher/greeter/fill-in-position-here checklist so that someone who shows up and wants to help on Sunday can easily follow what to do? Episodic volunteers sometimes find the work so fulfilling that they want to volunteer more, so having commitment tiers (low, moderate, high) of volunteer opportunities allows a volunteer to contribute in more meaningful ways as their commitment to the congregation grows.

Finally, to address concerns about relevance, it is essential to make the connection between the volunteer opportunity (whether it is episodic or key, low/moderate/high commitment level) and the mission of the congregation. How does this volunteer opportunity serve the congregation and/or larger community? How does it bring our values and our faith alive? What will a volunteer expect to get out of the experience? This can get done at an orientation, or during the opportunity itself, or in a volunteer appreciation event the congregation might hold.

The volunteer landscape has changed substantially in the last fifty years, and our religious communities need to adjust as well. Volunteers are an essential human resource to accomplish the mission of the congregation and to keep the doors open. Volunteerism thrives in organizations where there are multiple ways to contribute and where the expectations are clearly stated and connected to the mission of the organization. It is essential to approach this task and manage volunteers at least as carefully (if not moreso) than a congregation manages its financial resources.

Leaving a Congregation: Epilogue.

3 Jan

This is the seventh and final part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.


On my last day at the congregation, I packed up my last bags, looked around one final time, and walked out the door with my family.  Never an after-church napper, when we got home that day I crashed on the couch.

I thought that would be the end. I had given myself a week between positions, mostly to catch up on stuff around the house. I knew I would still have some processing to do but there were still elements of it that surprised me nonetheless.

I was surprised by how different my facebook feed looked. Over 100 congregants had friended me over the years. Though I had chosen not to unfriend them, I put them all on restricted status so that they would only see my public posts, and I unfollowed them so they would no longer show up in my newsfeed. I never truly understood how lonely ministry is until I saw my newsfeed over the next few days after I left, for it was filled with updates from people I hardly knew.

I also found myself struggling with my role in the larger community. Prior to leaving, I had been consulted by both media and justice organizations asking for my opinion or involvement on a variety of topics. Because I’ve stayed in town, I have realized that it is better for me to get involved in new social justice organizations so that I can create a new role for myself in these regards.

I have also realized that my departure from the congregation while still staying in town is much more difficult for the congregants at the church I served than it is for me. I am easily able to make small-talk when our paths cross, but I know it is hard for them to not fill me in on the latest at church and in their own lives. They struggle to maintain boundaries and this means they err on the side of not saying much and not asking me questions about how I am doing.  This is probably exacerbated by the fact that they will be without a minister for several more months.

But the most surprising struggle for me is in my identity. I am no longer the minister of a congregation. For some people, this seems to mean that I am no longer a minister. But I am still a minister, even if I don’t fit into an easily identifiable box the way I used to. This gives me sympathy for the rest of you community ministers out there – I frequently find myself explaining to people that I am still a minister, even though I no longer serve a single congregation.

Two months after I have officially left, I continue to be surprised by how my leaving process progresses internally. This blog has been in process, in various stages and pieces, for the past four months. I started it two months before I left. I’ve decided that, though my process may continue, the blog needs to end and be published.

The changes in myself in these past four months have been intense. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions. And, at the same time, I am blissfully happy in my new vocation. I know that it was time for me to leave, as emotional as the process was.  I am not sure whether I left a year too early, or a year too late. Or maybe, possibly, I hit it at just the right moment.

If you are leaving, or are contemplating leaving the church you serve, you have my love and my sympathy. I can tell  you that it will teach you a lot about yourself. And that, if you are in a situation where you are able to be present to the bitter and to the sweet, it can be a gift both to your ministry and to the church you serve. May you and your congregants, present, past and future, be so blessed.

Stage 4: Fallout/Resolution.

3 Jan

This is the sixth part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.


In the last six weeks of my ministry with the congregation, all of us seemed better able to hold the duality of being both excited and sad at a same time. The feelings were bittersweet – something to be cherished.

Soon after the announcement of my departure, I had sent an email to every member and friend inviting them to schedule time to meet with me. Nearly a third of the congregation did so.  In those final weeks, I no longer had two jobs (starting the church year and saying goodbye) – I just had one.

Sometimes my meetings with people were long – pushing an hour.  Sometimes they were short – 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes we talked about all we had done together. Other times we talked about our hopes for the future.  Sometimes they had questions for me. Other times they talked, and talked, and talked, while I sat and just listened. Sometimes there were tears. There were almost always hugs.

I was surprised that, even a week before my departure, some people were just finding out. It had been in every order of service, it had been announced at the pulpit multiple times, it was in the newsletters, and had been blasted out in email. But there were still a few people, usually only peripherally connected, who were late at hearing about it. The closer it came to my last day, the more upset people would be that they were just learning about my departure. I’m not sure what we could have done to prevent this, but it was difficult nonetheless.

In between meeting with people, everything I did was in preparation for my departure.  I documented passwords, procedures, and points of information that others would need to know. I transitioned all the technology that my account “owned” to other people (google groups, yahoo groups, calendars, the church facebook group, etc). I went through my own facebook page and started shifting congregants to “Restricted” status (meaning they would only see my public posts) and unfollowing them (so that I would no longer see their posts).

I changed my plans for Sunday services. I shifted my second-to-last sermon from a sermon on the ministry theme for the month to a question box service. In part, this was to respond to the questions I knew people still had for me. In part, it was self-preservation – I did not have the emotional energy for a sermon on “Reason”.

Throughout my ministry, I had always had firm boundaries on my Sundays off: I only attended if my children were participating in the service.  In the last month, on the Sundays I had “off” I asked the speaker if they would like me to be liturgist. They all said yes.  Unlike the situation most ministers will find themselves in when they leave a church, I knew that the congregation would be lay-led for up to 9 months before the interim minister arrived, so this was helpful to them. And it was helpful to me to be able to participate in worship without the heavy lifting of sermon-writing. It was part of saying goodbye.

img_5722My last sermon was emotional. The Worship Associates had predicted that and put tissue boxes at the front of the sanctuary and throughout the seats – easily accessible to all of us.

It was difficult for me to be present in the moment. I was afraid that I would burst into uncontrollable tears, so I put funny little emoji’s into emotionally heightened portions of my text so that I would have that half-second of wondering “What the heck is that?”  – just enough time to stave off great heaving sobs by putting me back into my frontal cortex.

img_3092There were several sweet surprises during the service: gifts that were lovingly explained and given. I took a panorama picture from the pulpit.  The receiving line at the end of the service was longer than ever. There was cake – someone saved me a few pieces when they realized I might not make it to the social hall in time. There were hugs.

I packed up my last bags, looked around one final time, and walked out the door with my family.  Never an after-church napper, when we got home that day I crashed on the couch.

go to Epilogue: Having Left

Stage 3: Blaming.

3 Jan

This is the fifth part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeLeaving the church was exhausting. I was constantly both excited about the upcoming transition and sad about leaving behind people I loved.  I know myself well enough to know that if I am  constantly vulnerable and exhausted, I am more likely fall back into my own bad habits, including bad habits around leaving.

In CPE many years ago, I learned that I hate long goodbyes. If they are quick, I can process my feelings and move on. But when they are longer, I don’t like to sit with those uncomfortable feelings. In these situations, my old pattern of behavior is to find fault in every little thing the other party does; I nitpick. Doing this makes it easier for me to leave because, for me, anger is a much more comfortable feeling than the pain that comes from sadness.

I knew I didn’t want to nitpick and blame as I was leaving the congregation, which meant I had to allow myself to feel the pain. This meant I had to be strong and healthy enough to do so – to sit both my own and the pain of others – some of whom were blaming me.

One of the areas that caused pain to congregants was the sermon I had done in January where I had recommitted to the congregation and wondered what the next seven years would bring.  Since this sermon was a recurring source of pain as I was saying goodbye to people, I ended up writing a newsletter column about what was going on with me at the time.

There are only two things I would change about my leaving process: first, I would leave during the regular transition cycle (which unfortunately wasn’t an option) and second, I would not have given this January sermon. 

A tipping point came six weeks before my last day. The Board held a leadership retreat and I was invited to come and lead the retreat for the last hour. During that hour, I presented suggestions for how the leadership of the congregation might turn this transition into an opportunity. I utilized a paper I had written for my “Strategic Human Resource Management in Nonprofits” class about executive transition, my understanding of the history of the congregation, and my own hopes and dreams for them as I outlined 3 pitfalls they would want to avoid, and my suggestions for how to best make use of this opportunity.

At the end of that hour, all of us were in a new place. The leadership understood in a new, visceral way that this vocation change of mine (from parish ministry to denominational/community ministry) was not about them but was about how I was called to serve our faith.  They were excited about what the future might hold – for me, and for the congregation. I walked away feeling proud, and hopeful.

In some other traditions, the standard amount of notification for a minister ending a settlement is six weeks. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, it is basically twice that: 90 days. When I first gave notice, I lamented how long that is – it seemed excessive. However, this retreat came right smack in the middle – the day before what would have been my last day in another tradition. It was at this point that I began to appreciate the wisdom of the extra time that Unitarian Universalists work to achieve. Up until the retreat, I had been all business – getting things done, passing on information, coming to terms with my own feelings. But after the retreat, right at the 6 week point, all of us seemed more comfortable holding the duality of being both excited and sad at the same time. Rather than being overwhelmed, the experience became bittersweet – something to be cherished.

go to Stage 4: Fallout/Resolution

Stage 2: Drama.

2 Jan

This is the fourth part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeI had thought that breaking the news would be the most difficult part of the leaving process and that things would get easier from there. While I was indeed relieved after having broken the news to the congregation, that was just the beginning of a lengthy and emotional process.

As the news began to settle in, people began to grieve – not only were they losing their minister, but for many of them I was the minister who was supposed to do their childrens’ weddings, maybe even the minister who was supposed to perform their memorial service. It was difficult for them to lose their vision of the future. This is where Thistles and the Berry Street Essay were the most helpful – in dealing with people’s grief.  It was indeed as though I were dying to them.

I repeatedly normalized their feelings. I told people it was okay to feel grief, to feel anger. And to feel excitement and wonder at what was to come.  The temptation was to try to problem solve with them, to try to fix their feelings and my own, but I knew I could not do that.  So I sat with them.

At the same time, the church year was just getting started. I felt like I had two jobs: getting going for the fall (with water communion, RE startup, all the normal church-year busy-ness) and, at the same time, leaving.

I scheduled an open house at my home, just for church members. I also noticed that people were not reaching out to meet with me the way I thought they would so I sent out an email to every member (and called those without email):


I was wondering if you might want to meet with me before I leave First U on October 23 – maybe to talk about future plans for the church (any hopes or fears you might have), to hear more about my plans, or maybe just to check-in.

Towards these ends, I am scheduling 30 and 60 minute visits (daytime or evening) with First U folks throughout October.

If you would like to schedule something, let me know what works for you!

Rev. Dawn

The email also caught some people who hadn’t yet realized I was leaving, so I continued to have to explain the situation and go over the same details repeatedly. I was also amazed at the people who wanted to meet with me – some new members, some visitors, some long-time members who said “I always meant to sit down with you before now.”   I started spending more time in the office, available for drop-in visitors – something I had not really been available for before.

It was exhausting.  I began to shift from a time-management perspective to an energy-management one: I had to prioritize leaving, but I could only spend so much of my energy on it without feeling drained. I knew I didn’t want to feel too drained because that would increase the vulnerability hangovers that I was feeling each night. And I know myself well enough to know that in that vulnerable, exhausted state, I would more than likely fall back into my own bad habits around leaving. Namely: that I would begin to get angry at people in order to make saying good-bye easier.

go to Stage 3: Blaming

Stage 1: Breaking the News.

2 Jan

This is the third part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeAfter a lengthy planning process with my Director of Religious Exploration and Music Director, my first step was to send a message to the Board President suggesting we meet after worship on a Sunday in July when I wasn’t set to preach. We had several things we needed to catch up on, and my plan was to tell her as a part of that.

It was very hard to be present to the other business we had to discuss. My hands were shaking. My heart was pounding. I was sick to my stomach. But I managed to muddle through the other agenda items. And then I shared with her: “I also have other news for you. I have taken a new position. My last day at the congregation will be October 23.”

She exhaled and looked at me. I let the news sit out there in the silence for a few moments. Then I said “I know you probably have a lot of questions, and I am happy to answer them. But before I do, please know that this does not come out of any conflict.”

She was sad, but to her credit, not surprised. She had seen the evidence and had begun to put the puzzle together for herself. We talked. We cried. We laughed. I shared with her the documents I had prepared:

We came up with a plan:

  • Monday (the next day) I would meet with the staff who reported to me who didn’t already know
  • The Board President would call an emergency Board Meeting for Tuesday
  • Letters to the congregation would go out on Wednesday
  • Wednesday through Friday I would meet with a few key leaders in the congregation
  • And one week later, Sunday, I would deliver a homily at a service that our Music Director (who knew what was coming) was leading.

Not surprisingly, the reactions spanned the gamut. Some people were shocked. Others were not at all surprised – some were almost fatalistic about it. Some people were angry. Some were just sad. Some were confused.

One thing that was particularly interesting to me is that people didn’t stay where I thought they would: someone might start out not very surprised, and then quickly move to angry. Someone else might start out sad, and then move to confused.

On Tuesday, the Board swiftly moved into problem-solving mode: What was next for the congregation? I was glad that the ministry team and I had come up with one possibility to use as a starting point for the discussion.  Though I was not in on the planning in future meetings, I did walk with the Board in this first meeting by talking about the transition process and what might be next for them.

I was very surprised by one mistaken calculation I had made. I had thought that the newer people in the congregation would be the ones who were most upset: I was the only minister many of them had ever had. I thought that the longer term members, who had been through this before, would be less anxious.  In fact, the reverse was true. Newer members on the Board (and within the larger congregation) who had not been through this process were the most hopeful. Members who had been through this process once, or twice, or even more, were very, very nervous. Would they be able to find a good interim? Would they be able to find a settled minister? After living through a negotiated resignation and a failed search prior to calling me, they did not want to go through that pain and struggle again. One of the stories that I would repeat over and over again in the coming weeks was that we had done excellent ministry together and so they were a more desirable congregation than they had been a decade earlier. I hope that these assurances turn out to be true.

For me, and I am sure for most of the leadership, this was an exhausting week. Calling leaders out of the blue to set up coffee dates with them alerted them that something was up.  They were all so full of love and hope for me. I was surprised that our conversations often triggered old feelings around disappointing my parents. And at the same time, the conversations confirmed what I knew to be true: it was time for me to leave, not just for me but for the congregation. My gifts and their needs no longer matched up.

By the time the next Sunday rolled around, most people were aware of what was happening. In my homily, I talked about the mutuality of the relationship – how we had been an excellent match for seven years, and how much I loved them. While there were tears (I tend to cry in the pulpit pretty frequently) there were not as many as I was afraid there would be.

After having had the sword of Damocles dangling for a while, I thought that this stage of breaking the news would be the most difficult and that things would get easier from there. While I was indeed relieved, in many ways this stage was just the beginning of a lengthy and emotional process.

**I thought being available to do memorial services until such time as the congregation had an interim minister would be okay for me and for the congregation. This was a mistake, as I realized when I was called to lead a service and found it was not in my own best interest to return in that capacity, nor was it in the best interest of the congregation. If I were to do any one thing differently about my leaving process, I would take that FAQ question out entirely.

go to Stage 2: Drama

Stage 0: Discernment.

1 Jan

This is the second part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeAs many colleagues have told me, most ministers leave either a year too early or a year too late. I have no idea where I fall, but I aimed for a year too early.

Just over a year ago, my family hit a crisis that took much of my emotional energy. The congregation I served held me in care and love and gave me the time and space I needed to attend to the crisis.

When something like this had happened before, I had returned to the congregation with renewed commitment and appreciation, ready to serve. But this time it felt different. I realized I wasn’t happy, but I attributed my discontent to being drained from the family crisis – I thought I just needed time to heal. I wanted to want to stay.

After the winter holidays last year, I thought I had internally recommitted to the congregation. I led a worship service where the congregation and I recited the promises we had made to each other during my installation. I shared that I looked forward to 7 more years together and wondered aloud what they might bring.

At the same time, I was finding the day-to-day of ministry no longer as satisfying as it had been. Even though leading worship is one of my favorite privileges of this vocation, it became more and more difficult to write sermons each week. I enrolled in graduate school, hoping it would engage me in new ways. I traveled more than previously because I had said “yes” to many commitments outside the congregation. In hindsight, I realize I was looking for reasons to get away from the congregation – reasons not to preach, not to engage.

There was no major conflict – no single event that precipitated my decision. To this day, I dearly love the people and institution of the congregation I served. But parish ministry was no longer working for me. I looked at what the congregation and I needed to work on in the coming years and found myself lacking enthusiasm. I began to realize that I was ready for a new challenge and the congregation needed a different type of leader to take it into the coming years. It was time for me to move on.

I decided to look around, not really expecting any positions would be open since the timing was wrong. But then I found something that I realized I was excited about, that would combine the degree program I was enthusiastically beginning, the ministry I was doing, and service to our larger faith tradition. I pursued it, went through the application process.

I was terribly excited when I was offered and accepted the position. But I was on summer vacation! How was that going to work?

While I did not feel I could share my process (at that point) with the lay leaders of the congregation, I did share what I was doing with my ministry team (Director of Religious Exploration and Music Director). We had always worked as a team, and I felt they needed to know. It is telling, perhaps, that those who worked closest to me, who I shared my ministry with and relied upon, were not surprised at this news. They had seen the telltale signs even better than I had. And so together, we began to brainstorm what the congregation would need to know/hear as well as what some of the possibilities were for the congregation since I would be leaving off the regular ministry cycle.

I spent my “vacation” working on a plan for who to tell, how, when, and what. For a few weeks, I felt the sword of Damocles hanging not over my head, but over the heads of the beloveds in the congregation I served. I knew this would take most of them by surprise.

When it was time to pull the trigger on my plan, I thought I was ready. And logistically and rationally, perhaps, I was. But I was not emotionally prepared, even with all the reading I had done.

go to Stage 1: Breaking News

Leaving a Congregation.

1 Jan

goodbyeAs the ministerial search season kicks off for Unitarian Universalist ministers, I thought I would share my recent experience of leaving the congregation I served for seven years. Leaving is difficult, and I am proud of how the congregation and I navigated the process together.

A little background. The congregation I served had gone through a negotiated resignation after four years with their previous settled minister. Then had a “failed search” – so three years of interim ministry. Prior to that, their previous two ministers had both had tenures of more than 10 years.

It was with this history in mind that I determined that my final ministry to the congregation would be for me to leave well. I have often heard that ministers tend to leave either a year too late, or a year too soon – I wanted to hit it just right. Towards these ends, I read the required texts: Running Through the Thistles and Mark Morrison Reed’s Berry Street Lecture After Running Through the Thistles the Hard Part Begins. I talked to the Transitions office of the UUA, and to my regional staff.

My story is different than most in that I did not take a position with another congregation. Also, I did not move out of town and my family continues to attend the congregation I used to serve (something that the congregation has a history with so is not quite as strange as it may sound). But while there are aspects to my leaving process that may be unique, there was much I learned from talking to colleagues who had recently left congregations that they served. This blog series is an attempt to formally share my experience. It contains both personal reflections, as well as some logistics on how I did things.

I have found it helpful to utilize the structure provided by Jane Jordan-Meier, in her book The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, outlined below, with an added “Stage 0” for the discernment process and an epilogue. Each link below will take you to a separate blog containing reflections and resources.

All that said, this is my experience and yours will undoubtedly be different. But sometimes it is nice to have a place to start. I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to take any/all of this material and edit it to suit your needs.

Stage 0: Discernment
A minister leaving a congregation precipitates a crisis for the congregation. But before I even announced that I was leaving, I had to decide that it was time.

Stage 1: Breaking News
This stage details how I shared the news of my departure with the congregation and their initial reaction.

Stage 2: Drama
After breaking the news, the focus quickly moved from the initial shock to wondering how this could have happened.

Stage 3: Blaming
I was determined to avoid finger-pointing (either my own, or from the congregation.) Jordan-Meier suggests it is best to skip this stage if possible, but I think that intentionally managing it was more effective in my case.

Stage 4: Fallout/Resolution
As the congregants and I came to terms with my departure, we were able to move into a new way of being together – one characterized by a lot of joyful tears, hugs, and celebrating what we had achieved together.

Epilogue: Having Left
I thought the leaving process was done on my last Sunday, but I was wrong.

If you are leaving a congregation you have served, I hope you find my experience moderately useful. Leaving a congregation is hard work. It is emotionally draining, whether you are leaving on good terms or not. Take care of yourself, approach the task with intention, and know that you are not alone.

the dangers of all gender restrooms?

27 May

It has been a year since the church I serve (First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY) converted all our first floor restrooms into All Gender restrooms. Since children are more likely to be molested in churches than in bathrooms, I figured what better place to weigh in on the current bathroom controversy than from what must be a hotbed of child abuse and molestation? That was sarcasm, by the way.

The reality is that there have been no reported cases of child abuse in our church bathrooms. And no women have reported seeing peeping-toms over the stall doors. Our experience has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the biggest issue has been that many men seem to have been raised in a barn:  there is often tinkle on the seats and on the floor. Come on, guys! Who wants to drop trou when your trou will be mopping up the pee? Ick! But as disgusting as that is, it is pretty minor as far as safety goes. And we are working on retraining everyone to be more considerate of what it means to use an all gender restroom.

So how did we avoid the “inevitable” dangers? Did we put police by the doors? Did we install secret cameras? No. It was quite simple. We had two gender specific restrooms and put on signs to indicate that they are both All Gender restrooms. We took the men’s room and turned it into a handicap-access family restroom by replacing the urinal with a diaper changing table and putting a lock on the outer door. The women’s room was even easier: we took the 3-stall restroom and simply lowered the stall walls to the floor.

In truth, it did take some getting used to. As I dashed in right before the service, sometimes in full liturgical garb, it was a little startling at first to run into a patriarch of the congregation. But these brief moments of weirdness have disappeared as the experience has been normalized. Now, we smile and nod, and usually laugh a bit.

I think most people would be willing to put up with a little (temporary) weirdness when they see the wide array of benefits it has produced at our congregation:

  • The single dad with two daughters under the age of 5 now can take them into either restroom safely and without weird looks (and without exposing his young daughters to men at urinals);
  • The mother with a grade-school aged son (who tends to act out and likes to play with rolls of toilet-paper) can go in together and he can be supervised;
  • The elderly man who is the caregiver for his wife as she descends into dementia can lovingly help her with her toilet needs;
  • And, of course, our trans and gender-nonconforming and gender-queer folks feel welcome and safe, too.

On the whole, this has been an amazingly positive experience for church members and for the hundreds of people our building serves throughout the week. It has been a point of conversation and curiosity, and it has become a way for us to share our values that all are loved and deserving of respect. Would that there were more areas in life where issues of respect and safety were as easy to address.

ministry & the seven year itch.

3 Feb

A sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on January 31, 2016.

Though it normally takes about 3-4 year to complete seminary, it took me seven. I was on the turtle track – I worked full time through most of it, which, though it gave me the advantage of not graduating with any debt, meant I only took a few classes at a time. We also moved halfway across the country (from Virginia to Minnesota), and had two kids. Seven years.

John and my family of origin were stunned. They knew this call to ministry must be the real deal because I had never stuck with anything for seven years. Heck, I hadn’t stuck with much of anything for even 5 years. Most of my previous professional employment had been during the 90s tech boom, when it wasn’t uncommon for people to change jobs every year or two. But really, my history of being someone who samples but doesn’t dig deep goes back to my childhood. While my brother grew up playing soccer and swimming on the swim team, through childhood and college I tried t-ball, swim team, soccer, horseback riding, softball, field hockey, rugby, karate, archery, racquetball, modern dance and I think I am forgetting a few.

So when I stuck with seminary for 7 years, my family knew I must have found my calling. And so it is with a sense of awe and wonder that I realize that I am over halfway through my seventh year of ministry with you. Whoa! That was fast!

“The Seven Year Itch” is a saying that suggests that happiness in a any type of relationship declines around the seventh year. So it is perhaps not surprising that the average settled ministry is 7 years. Between that, and having been back from my sabbatical for a year now, if I were going to be in search for another settled ministry, I would be doing so. I’m not. In fact, far from it. I’ve found myself recommitting to my ministry with you over the past few months in particular. So I thought it was the perfect time to assess how this ministry together is going, and what I see for our future. *Ahem*

Dear First Unitarian Church,

It is hard to believe we are close to completing seven years together. I keep counting it in my head, and on my fingers, just to be sure. But math doesn’t lie: It is indeed seven years.

I remember January of 2009, both as if it were yesterday and as if it were a lifetime ago. After exchanging packets of information with the search committee here, and after a couple of telephone calls, I had my first real-life experience with First Unitarian Church in what is called a pre-candidating weekend. I met the search committee, answered a lot of their questions, and they answered a lot of mine. We ate together and laughed together. And you’ll not be surprised to hear there were even a few tears. I preached that weekend at the church in Bloomington, Indiana. We had a great conversation after the church service at a Turkish restaurant where the search committee learned that one of the biggest controversies at the church was something I had written my seminary thesis on! It was quite a kismet moment.

I remember the first time I walked into this building. Though I thought the main door was in an odd place, I immediately was in love. This sanctuary is truly a sacred, spiritual place. And the rest of the building is a wonderful blend of old and new. I loved that the Religious Exploration space wasn’t hidden away in the basement!

The banner parade during my installation as minister of First Unitarian Church.

The banner parade during my installation as minister of First Unitarian Church.

Before the end of the weekend, I had a strong feeling that you all were “the one.” I saw you as an amazingly resilient congregation that was feeling really down on itself after years of controversy. You were so earnest in claiming your faults that it was hard for you to see the many, many gifts the congregation offers. So it was that over the course of that weekend, seven years ago, I began to fall in love with this congregation.

In our tradition, it is the gathered congregation, the covenanted community, that decides whom a congregation calls as your minister. There is no higher authority that dictates it. As a congregation, your job is to find a minister whose gifts match your needs. The minister, likewise, looks for a congregation whose needs match their gifts and whose challenges they find engaging. Though you didn’t necessarily say it outright, early on I got the sense that you were looking for a minister to love you enough to remind you that you are, indeed, lovable. Someone who would see the beauty in the cracks that came from use and endurance, and would celebrate them. This, I knew, was something I could do. And your challenges were ones I felt I could sink my teeth into, that would engage me for many years.

When you asked me to be your candidate, I was thrilled. And after 10 days of immersion with the congregation in April 2009, when you voted to call me as your minister, I could not have been happier to accept.

But no successful, transformative, healthy ministry is a one-person show. For congregation and minister to form a partnership that is strong and enduring, we must all put in the effort it takes to build up the relationship. The Rev. Jack Mendelsohn once wrote: “The future of the liberal church is almost totally dependent on these two factors: great congregations (whether large or small) and effective, dedicated ministers. The strangest feature of their relationship is that they create one another.” They create one another in the relationship that exists between them, a relationship built on trust, love, challenge, growth and celebration.

This is a great congregation. And I am an effective, dedicated minister. And we are creating one another in beautiful and magnificent ways. And in the process, our relationship has grown and deepened over time.

We’ve had our challenges. The first year I was here we had to cut the budget by over $100,000. This meant the elimination of several staff positions and the entire ministry council budget. In fact, those of you who were there may recall that we came into the annual meeting $20k short of funding my position full-time – I would have to go to 3/4 time if you couldn’t come up with the difference. My first year. But you did. We’ve struggled financially ever since then, but we are more fiscally responsible, and we’ve grown back some of those staff positions, at Fair Compensation level. We have funded our Ministry Council again, not just through the collection plate like we had to for several years, but as a part of the annual budget. Last year’s pledges were the highest yet – over 22% higher than they were when I arrived! Though I have yet to receive either a raise or even a cost of living adjustment, my position is no longer in jeopardy of being reduced due to financial concerns and the staff are all paid equitably.

Beyond the financial, we’ve struggled to figure out what it means to do church in the 21st century. We’ve struggled as we have learned how to enforce healthy boundaries and be a safe congregation. We’ve argued, respectfully and lovingly, about both the sacred and the prophetic. And, I think, we come out of these conversations with a newer appreciation for one another. I know I feel appreciated by you. I hope you feel appreciated by me.

But the challenges are far outweighed by the privilege I have experienced being your minister. You have inspired me to grow into my best self – allowing me to be authentic and vulnerable at the same time. Where else would I have been able to bring my roller derby team in to skate, during worship! You encourage me to be a whole person, to balance my work and family life, to take a prophetic voice in the community, and so much more.

In these 7 years, we have gotten to know each other. We’ve celebrated when children are born or graduate from high school. We’ve mourned together when someone beloved dies. I’ve been called out in the middle of the night to be there for you in emergencies, and when my family has had struggles, you’ve given me time to focus on being there for them. We know each other well enough to know that none of us are perfect – I have made mistakes, as have you. But through it all, we continue in relationship.

There are not many congregations like this one. Speaking with a colleague the other day, I was griping about something probably inconsequencial, and he asked what I celebrated about the congregation. When I began listing all the amazing stuff we have done and are doing, I saw his jaw drop deeper and deeper. “Wow!” he said “That sounds like an AMAZING congregation!” You got that right, I told him.

I wish there were more congregations that support their minister like this one does. I wish there were more congregations that were willing to try new things, like this one is. I wish there were more congregations that rise above conflict to do the right thing, even when it is HARD, the way this one does. I wish there were more congregations who put both their money, and their bodies, where their mouth is, like this one does. And I truly wish there were more congregations that have a culture of mutual respect, support and collaboration like this one does between lay volunteers, professional staff, and the ministry team.

All these things we have done together – the successes and the failures – have grown me as a minister. You’ve supported me when I have participate in professional development, and when I have taken leadership roles among both my colleagues and now as a Board member for our MidAmerica Region. I am a mentor for other ministers, and leading a new Right Relations team at our MidAmerica Regional Conference in April. I am preaching at a colleagues ordination at the beginning of June and am leading Opening Worship at our General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio later that month. And more.

And all the accolades that I get come straight back to you because remember, great congregations and effective, dedicated ministers create one another. I am who I am as a minister and as a leader because of how you have nurtured me and allowed me to minister to you, and encouraged me to minister to the larger community, both UU and local. And now you are starting to get the national recognition that I believe you deserve, as well.

So seven years in, I am still totally in love with you. Not a honeymoon kind of love – I know way too much about how the sausage is made for it to be that. No, this is a love that is well aware of and accepts imperfections, while at the same time urging constant growth. The search committee did a wonderful job: we are a great match, and we love and respect, and even admire, one another. These seven years have been incredible.

So now what? Where do we go from here?

In learning about successful long-tenure ministries, I discovered that every 7 years or so, the minister and congregation must re-invent themselves. So a minister who has stayed at one congregation for 20 years has not been the same minister all those years, and neither has the congregation. In fact, they have each had 2 or 3 different incarnations or phases. I know that I am entering the next stage of my ministry with you, and I want to share what I think it will look like.

The first 7-year phase I suspect we will look back on as the trust and confidence-building stage. We got to know each other, built our relationship, and we loved each other until we began to appreciate our gifts and share them more freely.

This next phase, I suspect, will be the going-deeper phase. Our trust and faith in one another will be put to the test. We will be trying a lot of new things together. We have to. You have heard me preach about how church is changing – how the structures and mechanisms that were useful in the 1950s are no longer working today. We have to figure out what church looks like in the 21st century. Truly, we must either thrive, or consign ourselves to dying. There are dying churches all around us as evidence. But to thrive, we must try new things. Things that might make us uncomfortable. Things that will, some of them, fail. So we’ll have to pick ourselves up and dust each other off and then try the next thing. Sometimes, I might hurt you. And sometimes, you might hurt me. And then we will come back together again in love and respect and admiration, and we will try again because we trust each other – a trust that took all these years, and all these ups and downs to build.

Some of you may observe that we’ve already started taking risks, and that is definitely true. And, I would assert that this risk taking capability is one of the best, most life-giving talents of this congregation. It is the main reason we thrive today.

Some of the risks we are going to be called to take in the near future are going to be structural. We need to try different staffing configurations, both for volunteers and for professional staff. Like other congregations, we struggle to find people to fill the church leadership roles, though we have plenty of people who will show up for one-time volunteer opportunities. How do we adjust to this new reality? How do we adjust to the reality that we are a 200 member congregation that wants the level of programming of a 500 member congregation? Are we able to continue offering all that we do? Do we have to cut back on some things in order for other areas to thrive? And what about funding? We are not, in any way, a poor congregation. Not only do we have an endowment, we have zero debt and no mortgage to pay. But still we are struggling. How do we look for outside streams of revenue? This is something congregations are not used to doing – they have always depended on being supported by the membership. But in these changing times, we need to look beyond the congregation, too. So some of the risks will be structural in nature.

Other risks we are called to take together are going to be spiritual. How do we care for one another? What does it mean to be radically inclusive? What does it mean to be a force for good in Kentuckiana? How can we grow Unitarian Universalism beyond our walls? How do we adapt to a changing religious landscape that is around us? Indeed, these are the very questions our long range planning team is having us begin to address.

This is last question, about the changing religious landscape, is where my passion lies these days. It centers around the sustainability of liberal religious institutions. And I have some plans I am excited about. To help learn more in this area, I have decided to continue my education. This fall, I will begin studying online at Indiana University for a masters degree in public administration – sort of like a business degree for nonprofits. I believe that congregations have much to learn from the nonprofit world as we move into this changing religious landscape.

This means I will soon be coming to you with even more ideas. Lots of probably wild and crazy ideas. I hope that this congregation can be my laboratory, where we take traditional church structure and blend it with nonprofit best practices and try new things. In this way, we’ll not only be ensuring our own survival and sustainability but what we learn will be of benefit to other congregations.

And in the meantime, of course, we will continue with all the OTHER good stuff that is going on. The stuff that is life-giving and life-saving. The stuff that makes this a church and not just a justice-minded social club. Since I’ll be in school, I am hoping that you will be able to utilize some of the skills you learned to care for one another during my sabbatical. We will be able to support each other, as we continue to grow together, and create one another as great congregation and effective, dedicated minister.

Growing up, I remember reading Dear Abby. Whenever forlorn partners would write to her, she would inevitably ask them if they are better off with, or without, their partner. Though we have had our ups and downs, without a doubt, I am better serving you than I would be elsewhere. And, truly, I think you are better off with me than you would be with another minister. We have created one another, great congregation and effective, dedicated minister, and what we have created is a wonder to behold. It has been quite an amazing seven years of knowing you and of ministering to you. I look forward to what the next years will bring together.

With much love and admiration,

Your minister, Rev. Dawn

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