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Lay leaders are clearly key to the strength and growth of our congregations and our movement. But, what makes a lay leader strong? What helps a lay leader grow? And, what is unique about the leader’s role in the context of a Unitarian Universalist congregation?
In 2009, Northern New England (NNE) district executive Mary Higgins brought these questions to a team of professional and lay religious leaders. The district had recently expanded into a merger of two smaller UUA districts, and Higgins felt the time was opportune to shape a vision for leadership.
“We had been hearing from people in our congregations that they lacked a bank of leadership inside a congregation to call on when venerable leaders needed to rotate off,” Higgins recalls. The team she gathered worked to develop a vision for district-wide leadership development and create training to prepare emerging leaders grounded in our faith.
From the start, the Leadership Visioning Team acknowledged that in a Unitarian Universalist context, leadership can be more than a technical skill set, even more than the time, willingness, and temperament to step up. In Unitarian Universalism, leadership has the potential to be a spiritual practice.
“Many of us serve as leaders in other capacities,” says Mary Heafy, a member of the Keene Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in Keene, NH, as well as the Northern New England (NNE) visioning team who serves professionally as executive director of a non-profit agency and is a former congregational board president. “But, there is something much deeper about assuming leadership in a UU congregation. How could we help lay leaders access that deeper experience?”
The Leadership Visioning Team crafted a vision statement that lifts up the deeper themes in lay leadership. For example, the statement includes an affirmation that conflict is an integral part of change which we can use to grow our movement.
The team considered writing a leadership training program for NNE to actualize their vision. Yet, they decided first to explore the newly published Tapestry of Faith program, Harvest the Power, online, and perhaps avoid “re-inventing the wheel.” The 12-workshop program for leadership development in congregations is appropriate for new as well as experienced leaders. It provides a framework and vocabulary for leadership in the congregational context, raising themes such as the difference between “management” and “leadership,” issues of mattering and marginality in a congregational community. It gives participants practices to keep their leadership experience spiritually dynamic, and tools to keep focused on the congregation’s faith mission and purpose. For example, Harvest the Power guides participants to remain mindful of the leadership question “Are we doing right things? Or are we doing things right?”
The NNE team gave Harvest the Power a comprehensive review, and then chose the program to provide UU faith-based leadership training. To cover a district that spans New England’s three largest states, the team decided to train a core group of lay leaders from around the district who could, in turn, facilitate Harvest the Power in local geographical clusters. The team invited congregational ministers and board presidents to recommend emerging or experienced leaders to become Harvest the Power facilitators. The facilitators would need to participate in a full weekend and commit to facilitating a cluster group.
The Leadership Visioning Team fanned out to promote the program. “The message was that this initiative would be a transformational experience that would grow participants personally, grow their spirituality, and give them a framework to look at leadership,” Heafy recalls. “It’s not ‘Management 101;’ it’s more than leadership skills such as ‘How do you build an agenda, take good notes, ask someone else to serve?’ That was the greatest challenge—helping people consider leadership in a more visionary way, as a spiritual practice, something different from skill-building.”
Twenty-three lay leaders completed an April 2010 weekend workshop at Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, led by Harvest the Power co-author Gail Forsyth-Vail, director of adult programs for the UUA. “In a train-the-trainer model, you do not experience every part of a curriculum,” notes Heafy. “They had to work very hard at experiencing portions of it and learning the theory behind it.”
In 2010, the trained facilitators, each supported with participation by an NNE Leadership Visioning Team member, launched four cluster groups—in Vermont, Southern New Hampshire/Vermont, the New Hampshire seacoast, and Bangor, Maine. Each cluster was asked to do all 12 workshops of Harvest the Power to maintain consistency across the pilot program. However, the facilitators were encouraged to adapt each workshop to suit their comfort with the material, their teaching style, and their group’s meeting schedule. (Each Harvest the Power workshop is configured as a set of core and alternate activities which facilitators select and tailor for their group. As part of the UUA Tapestry of Faith family of faith development programs, the entire curriculum is online, so it is easy for individual facilitators to browse, download, and adapt.)
Leadership Visioning Team members supported the facilitators by attending the pilot clusters, and thus were positioned to observe the program in action. “In each group, it was thrilling to see the self-discovery and the learning that occurred between sessions,” says Heafy. “One amazing thing about Harvest the Power is the conceptual language it gives people to apply to their work life, their volunteer work, and their lives outside of the congregation.
“Over and over again, I found that although participants recruited from congregations did not know each other well, because of the topics and concepts, the weekend created deep and meaningful relationships. In one group, three facilitators who had never before had experiences beyond their local congregations forged a lifelong connection as they experienced leadership together. There were hard moments. ‘Gee, it’s low registration, should we move forward or not?’ and ‘Gee, you did not cover what I thought you would. What should we do now?’ This opened their eyes, and mine, about us as a movement.”
One cluster had several participants from a congregation which was grappling with a congregational issue. When an activity called for small groups to discuss a hypothetical situation, a participant suggested it would be useful to apply the model to the real issue. “The facilitators agreed to have this group work as a local team, and the participants thought it was invaluable,” Heafy says.
At the congregational year’s end, 100 lay leaders across the NNE district “had been fueled by Harvest the Power,” according to Heafy. The Leadership Visioning Team looks forward to rolling out the second phase of their vision by supporting additional, local cluster Harvest the Power programs, and by using Internet tools to connect “alumni” across the district.
When the facilitators met to celebrate the completion of the cluster trainings and to reflect together, their comments revealed the program had begun to meet the Leadership Visioning Team’s goals:
Heafy notes that the Harvest the Power program exposed her to concepts she uses in her professional role as president and CEO of the non-profit Alliance for Resource Management, as well as her congregational and district leadership roles. “All aspects of service can have spiritual dimensions,” she says—“finance,” for example, invites a spiritual practice of stewarding shared resources.
Heafy recalls that, as a new leader in the late 1990s, she felt overwhelmed by all she believed she was expected to know. From Harvest the Power, she has gained useful, concrete guidance to make service in a congregation not an obligation but a way to nurture the spirit while giving back to the community. “My home congregation had grappled with leadership as a spiritual practice, but I did not have a framework for doing that,” she says. “If we really care about each other and about our faith, we are going to develop our leaders from the first spark we see in them. It is the opposite of spiritual generosity to push people into leadership, and then wonder why they do not understanding everything, and why they drift away.”
“My dream for this,” says Higgins, “is that people are equipped and feel competent when their congregation asks them to serve. That they feel confident they have the basic grounding in our faith. That they feel they can say ‘yes’ to a job that does not necessarily offer on-the-ground training.
“Our leaders need to understand how this works, how our faith transforms lives at every level, that leadership is a spiritual journey.”
For more information contact religiouseducation @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Wednesday, October 5, 2011.
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