Leap of Faith: Congregations Learning Together Workshop
Presenters: Rev. Nancy Bowen, Rev. Phillip Lund, Rev. Mark Stringer, Rev. Jeanne Pupke
Leap of Faith is a Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)-sponsored congregational mentoring pilot project. Hear stories from this experiment and explore how creating a “learning community” could transform your congregation.
PHIL LUND: This is, indeed, the Leap of Faith Learning Communities Workshop, if that that's where you are hoping to be. I'm Phil Lund. I'm the program consultant for the Prairie Star District, and I've been on the Leap of Faith team, working with the congregations involved and Nancy Bowen, here, our fearless team leader.
So we've had a wonderful time putting together this great project, and what I wanted to find out is to see who was in the room today. How many people are from a congregation that was one of the aspiring Leap of Faith congregations last year? Anybody else? OK. How many people are from a congregation that was a mentoring congregation last year? OK. Two. How many people already know that they are from an inspiring aspiring congregation this coming year? All right. Hello, aspiring congregation people. And how many people know that they're from a congregation that will be a mentoring congregation? All right. Good. And then the rest of you are here because you're interested in the project? All right, Wonderful. Great. What a group!
Well, I think I'll start out just by saying a few things about the project. It really got going over a year ago. There was a meeting of growing congregations that Peter Morales, president of the UUA, had put together, and they had come up with some ideas about what could lead to more growth in more congregations. And out of that, the idea of a project where we would identify some congregations that were doing very well—and could perhaps do even better if they were exposed to congregations that were just a little bit further along than they were in terms of growth and other things. And I'll talk about that more in a bit.
And rather quickly, in a matter of a month or two—Nancy Bowen was the project leader—we put together the whole project. And we had to identify aspiring congregations, we had to identify mentoring congregations, we had to put together a launch conference, and it was a lot of work. And we didn't know whether or not it would be worth it. But as you will hear today, I think it really was worth it.
So here we are, at the end of that first iteration. We have another iteration coming up. I think what I would like to do is just let you know what congregations were involved last year as the aspiring congregations and the mentoring congregations. The church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was an aspiring congregation. The church in Bloomington, Indiana, was an aspiring congregation. The church in Des Moines, Iowa, was an aspiring congregation. The Emerson Unitarian Universal Church, in Houston, was an aspiring congregation. First Parish, in Milton, Massachusetts, was an aspiring congregation. And the Unitarian Church in Summit, New Jersey, was an aspiring congregation. And West Shore, near Cleveland, as well, an aspiring congregation.
Working with them, then, First Church in Dallas worked with Summit and Ann Arbor. They hosted two congregations. Rochester, New York, worked with Bloomington, Indiana, and West Shore. They also hosted two congregations. Albuquerque worked with Des Moines. Cedar Lane worked with Emerson, in Houston. And Richmond worked with Milton. And in May of this year, we had a nice article in the UU World saying that the project was done, and it was a smashing success. And that's what we're going to talk a little bit about today, what happened over this last year. And at the end, we will tell you, as far as we know, which congregations are going to be involved in next year's Leap of Faith project.
So, Nancy, are you ready? Oh, Mark is first. Right. Yes. This is the Rev. Mark Stringer, the senior minister in the Des Moines congregation, and he is going to tell you how the project went, from the perspective of an aspiring congregation.
REV. MARK STRINGER: Hello, everybody. Good to be here with you today. So why did we become an aspiring congregation? Well, we were invited to do it. And so why did we say yes? Well, in 2008, I had a sabbatical from my ministry in Des Moines, and I chose to go visit other congregations, vibrant congregations in our movement. I spent a lot of time in the Washington, DC, area. There's a lot of vibrant congregations out that way. And I was just a fly on the wall in those congregations and learned enormous amounts of stuff that I've been working with the congregation I serve. And I came back, and we've made all kinds of changes because of my learning in that experience.
So the opportunity to have another learning experience on site with another congregation, to me, was a real no-brainer. And the congregation I serve, I think they were excited about the prospect. First of all, it's an honor to be asked. But second of all, the congregation I serve has had a lot of recent experience with consultants and learning from other congregations and people. And so they saw this as an opportunity to do more of that. I think there's just a real excitement for learning among those folk, and any excuse for a field trip. We didn't know, when we said yes, that we'd be paired with Albuquerque, but a trip to Albuquerque in January was righteous. Dig it.
So what were our learning goals? Well, the program asked us to come up with a couple of areas that we really wanted to learn about, things that we thought could be inhibiting our growth, or things that could spur more growth. And that's somewhat difficult to discern quickly. Some things seemed obvious to us. One thing that was obvious is that the staff and I really believe that we had a wealth of young adults that were thinking of themselves as connected to our congregation, but they weren't necessarily coming. And they didn't know each other. So they'd come in small groups, and they wouldn't see anybody that looked like them. So then they would kinda leave. But they still kinda wanted to be with us. Well, we knew there were probably a lot of those people. So one of the learning goals that we had was, How can we energize our young adult programming? We've done some things in the past, and none of them had seemed to take hold. So we were kind of at our wit's end, trying to figure out how to crack that nut.
The second thing we were curious about—We are regional church. In Des Moines. We serve a radius of about 35-40 miles. And so we knew that there were congregations in our movement that were experimenting with satellites, where you would do some recording of the sermon and then broadcasting to regional outlets. So we were kind of intrigued by that. I think, mostly, I was intrigued by that. I don't necessarily think the congregation was. But I knew that there were some people that could teach us that, and I had a hunch that some of those churches might be involved in this program, so we named it as a learning goal.
So we went to New Orleans for the kickoff conference, as Phil mentioned. And we, of course, knew before we left, that we were paired with Albuquerque. And so, at this conference, we sat down with Christine Robinson, Jessica Edlinger, who's here, and Vance Bass, and they basically just listened to us tell our story. And we explained what we thought our learning goals were. And through their honest questions, they were able to get us to start to articulate that those actually weren't our learning goals at all.
And what do I mean by honest questions? I mean questions that are asked where the person asking doesn't think they already know the answer. And Albuquerque was really, really good at that for us, and in that context, really got us having a conversation with each other that we really needed to have, that would have been more difficult to come about on our own. So in the process of having that conversation, we kind of realized, well, our learning goals—What we're really trying to react to is the fact that our congregation was getting maxed out. Like, we'd utilized our space to the fullest, or so we thought, and maybe that was inhibiting our ability to grow. And so we were a little anxious about that, and that was kinda prompting my interest in the satellite thing. But that really wasn't going to solve our problem. And we really needed a capital campaign, but we just had one five years ago, a $1.7 million capital campaign. It's not like something we could do right away again, so what are we going to do?
And Albuquerque had a lot of experience using technology to improve their spaces, really, and had a couple of closed-circuit rooms in their church where they could have overflow. They did the satellite thing. So we knew we still wanted to learn about technology, but we were thinking about it in a different way, and maybe thinking about how can we utilize our existing space and use some technology to increase our ability to serve those who are with us and those who are yet to come. So that was really exciting.
We also kinda honed in on some other goals that were related to that. We had a goal that became about how do we better connect with each other as a congregation. We had a goal about how to use our spaces better. And we had an interest in an alternate service. We'd had a Saturday service in Des Moines for four years. Then we had a little budget crunch, and so we put it on hiatus for a year because, I really felt like we need to kind of revisit it. And we knew Albuquerque had a third service that they'd just started. They call a contemporary service. So we knew we were going to go to Albuquerque and learn about that.
So in January, after a conference call or two, where we further refined our goals, we worked with Albuquerque to come up with an agenda for our visit for the weekend, where we knew at certain times, we were going to visit with certain groups. And so we did that. We had about seven people go to Albuquerque, and we met with young adult group in the morning. Then we met with the technology team, and we visited their satellite churches, then we worshipped. Well, we worshipped with them on Sunday, and then we went to their satellites. We had a very full weekend, a weekend of fellowship, a weekend of shared learning. We were able to ask questions in the context of these meetings that they'd set up for us that I think helped them think about ways they could do things differently. It was a very collaborative kind of experience. It wasn't just them telling us what we should do. It was very much a shared learning.
And so we came back from Albuquerque with more clarity that we didn't, in fact, want to do satellites right now, but we did want to work with technology differently. We applied for a Chalice Lighter's Grant from our district, and are getting $60,000, when that comes through, to do some of that stuff, to be able to video, pod cast our services. We learned from their young adult group that their approach was really not that different than what we've done in the past. We just needed to do it again. There was something very affirmational for us about seeing, oh, we actually knew how to do this. When it didn't work once or twice, we felt like we'd failed, and, oh, we obviously aren't doing this right. But, you know, the magic just hadn't happened.
So with their empowerment—and the way they do it, they use a Yahoo Group, and I think they do some stuff on Facebook now, maybe. We went back and did that, and now we have 58 young adults who are connected to the church, and there's a group of those young adults that are doing some regular meetings, and we're really on our way. So that's a major accomplishment, a major outcome of this, that we already had the skills to do. It's not like it was some magic pill we had to swallow. We just had to do it. And that's the gift of working with another congregation that can see what you're doing with new eyes, affirm what you're doing, maybe challenge you, question you little bit.
But we also learned things we didn't know we are going to learn. And I knew this from my sabbatical experience. But when we went to Albuquerque, one of the things—the DRE of our church went with us, and she came out of it, seeing how they operate their Sunday school program, just drooling. Just like, Mark, if we only had their this, and this, and this. And we had explosive growth in our RE program this year. So when we started in September—This was before the Leap of Faith really took hold—When we started in September, we had 92 children and youth. And by the time we ended the year, we had a 192. Yeah. Right. Explosive growth. And it's because we had accomplished good, strong leadership.
So how were we going to navigate that? Well, our visit to Albuquerque reminded us that we can, in fact, add more staffing. I mean that is an option. You don't have to just, you know, sink. You can actually meet the current needs. And because we'd just made a switch to a policy governance orientation, it was easy—well, easy. We can hire whoever we want. We still gotta pay 'em. So I think our trip to Albuquerque really empowered us to say, We absolutely have to have an RE assistant. Period. We have one full-time person navigating a 192. No, no, no, no.
So we went and did some personal asks, raised some money, had a pretty ambitious pledge drive where we asked people to start paying their increase right away instead of in July, or whatever. And we were able to raise enough to hire a 20-hour-a-week assistant. And we did that in March. It saved us. We also hired a membership assistant for a 10-hour-a-week job. And we just completed that hire, so we had to raise the money midyear to hire more staff to meet the need that we currently had. And I think our experience being in another vibrant church, which is almost twice our size, really kind of invigorated us, Well this is where we're headed, so why not just get there? And when you're on site with a church that's ahead of you. can envision your own congregation in a new way. When you make a visit to another site, it gives you the same new eyes that Albuquerque was giving to us, because then we got back from a trip to Albuquerque, and we saw our own congregation differently.
Another example is we had a major parking problem. [GROANS] But our parking problem was, in some ways, related to our own negligence, not necessarily to the fact that we just didn't have the spots. It had to do with signage. It had to do with did people know where to go. So this nut that we'd been trying to crack for a year, we got back from Albuquerque, and boom! It was fixed. Not even from the people who went. There was like some kind of osmosis that happened. It was like, Oh wait a minute, we're taking this seriously now. We can actually do things. We don't have to wait for them to collapse. So that was unexpected learning.
Another thing we saw was the way that Albuquerque does stewardship. We could see, just from their pamphlets, just being on site, and just think, Wait a minute. This is an interesting idea. So there's all kinds of side-learning that happens. And we're grateful for that,
So what are the enduring changes that I think are going to come from this relationship? Well, we have friends in Albuquerque, who, even though our formal relationship is done, we know if we get in a pickle, we can call them.ma And I know they'd be there, as we'd be for them. We've made some of the changes we've talked about. We're embarking in a way to approach a third service that isn't necessarily what Albuquerque is doing, but is informed by some of the learning that they had. They maybe would do things differently now. That's another gift of being on-site with another church, is that you can hear not only what went well, but what didn't go well. So their advice to us when we talking about technology was, Well, don't buy this kind of equipment. Buy this kind of equipment. Boy, we really wish we would have bought this kind of equipment. You know what I mean?
So that kind of learning was really important. But mostly, I think the primary change—and why would I would highly recommend any time your congregation has a chance to engage in a learning relationship with another congregation—is that doing so gives you those new eyes. It helps you ask honest questions of yourself. And working with another congregation, you discover that your mission is actually common, that you actually share the same goals. When we worked with Albuquerque people, we saw ourselves in them, they saw themselves in us. And that expands how we see ourselves in the world. And that's the biggest gift that we can give each other by being involved cross-congregationally, is that we're in this together. We have the same problems. We think we're alone. We think that our problems—nobody's ever had them. And everybody's had the stuff that you're dealing with, pretty much.
Every step we take toward seeing ourselves as capable of learning from others is a step toward our future, a brighter future than what we could ever have on our own. So thank you to the UUA for letting us do this. We're proud to be a mentor congregation next year to share what we do well with another congregation. I guess it's All Souls, in New London, Connecticut, and we're delighted for that opportunity, so thank you.
NANCY BOWEN: Hi. I'm Nancy Bowen. I'm the district executive for Mountain Desert District, when I'm not the steering team lead for Leap of Faith. Those are my two big things this year. And our guess was that it would be far more interesting to hear a little bit of theory about learning communities if you'd heard a story like that. And so we wanted to start with some of the real experiences that Leap of Faith congregations have had in the previous year before we told you what the theoretical and the practice foundation for Leap of Faith is, which is that we are practicing, learning communities, developing learning communities, and part of what's so exciting about Leap of Faith this year—Whoop! You have to stay plugged in.
It's searching, so we'll be right back. OK. We weren't even able to give the congregations this year as much grounding in learning communities and as much practice with that as we will be able to do in coming years. And yet, they got the generic notion that we're trying to learn together, that each congregation will benefit from being seen by new eyes, and that approaching issues that you have as opportunities for learning rather than as things you should already know, or something like that, just the openness of learning together, could be catalytic. And they proved it without much instruction in how to do it from us. So we'll try to do better with that next year.
So part of what I wanted to start out with is the ways in which being a learning community is completely consistent with our existing Unitarian Universalist values. This is us at our best, in terms of leadership and approaching opportunities and challenges and problems and conflicts—all of the real life of congregational life—as if we can learn what to do. So it's mission-focused, seeking first to clarify: What is our inquiry? And Mark was pretty eloquent on that several times, as it began to be refined in the conversations between Albuquerque and Des Moines.
There's also the thinking forward. I think it was your closing line, Mark, is you go into a congregation that is larger than yours is now, and you see where you are going. And that capacity to experience where you are going, in an embodied way, not just to read the book about it, because I'm sure Alban has written that book, but to be in it, to be surrounded by it, to feel it, is a compelling part of that learning. It anchors your intellectual imagination in your embodied experience, and that's a powerful part.
It also allows us to embrace with intention the many diversities between and among us, the way we each learn—which is not the same. process information, the experiences we've had in our lives and that we've had in our various congregations, in order to find that creative, innovative thing together, rather than stop short of that full exploration.
And then there are learning communities are actually defined. Most of our materials, we take from works of Peter Singe and his Learning Community Group, which involves Peggy Sue Flowers and Otto Scharmer and others, and also Etienne Wenger, who works with communities of practice. Actually, the communities of practice folks will be doing our launch conference this August. So we will be grounding the new cohort crew in more practice of learning communities. But I'll just read this one to you, and not others: "But a learning community is identified as an organization where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire."
So the discipline of a learning community invites thinking outside the typical mental models that may be holding us hostage. Really, the new eyes, the new way of framing the situation, the innovative solution that you see from another congregation, allows us to recognize what some of our assumptions have been. "Mental models" is a language for assumptions: "we always, " "we never," "it's never been done that way." Those kinds of things are broken open with this new and more expensive way of thinking. And we are empowered by collective aspiration, which really, we've experienced a little of that even this week in congregational life staff, where we've had some deep conversations and recognized that we're all on the same page.
We all really want to move forward in this exciting new way. And sometimes our leadership teams and congregations don't give themselves time to explore that shared aspiration, that deep longing they have for Unitarian Universalism to be impactful in the world, and we get a little narrow, and we worry about how to manage something, or how to do the right thing, instead of keeping our aspirations in front of us.
And people are continually urged to see a larger and larger part of the world, to see something more than a committee that's dysfunctional. Why might that committee be dysfunctional? What other committees does it operate with? How's the board interacting with it? What was its original charter? Oops, it doesn't have one. It doesn't know what it's doing. That might be why it's having trouble. So that we might continue to look at larger and larger parts of our whole rather than that very Western culture temptation to go blame it there, and fix that group, or fix that person, rather than looking at why larger and larger components of our beloved congregations are acting that way.
So these are the characteristics, the practices, of learning communities. I'm not sure of a story where all of that happened in one interaction, but I have seen all of them in the stories that the teams told about their time together. And so, in a very limited amount of time, with an amazingly rapid start, their intuition about learning carried them through these characteristics. So I would invite Jeanne to tell her story. And after that, we'll take some questions and answers and be sure that we've addressed your curiosity about this.
REV. JEANNE PUPKE: Hi. I want to turn my timer on. I've been known, sometimes, to go on a bit. Well, my congregation, the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Richmond, Virginia, now a large church, was asked by our district executive please to think about would we be willing to go into a Leap of Faith program as a mentor congregation. The reason that we were asked, we were told, was because we were trying new worship ideas, we had grown rapidly. And the question was, also, deeply dependent upon our doing the work of multiculturalism. As I told Nancy when she later spoke to me, I said, that our efforts are significant enough to be called advanced multicultural work scares the heck out of me, in our tradition, because we have so much work to do.
But it also asks you, then, to enter into a sort of humble position of admitting that maybe you do have something that you need to share with someone. It's also true that, in my congregation, when I came on board there five years ago, I was unabashedly, and just without any humility, absolutely stealing everything we could from All Souls, in DC. I needed a church model for my church. And we did several things. We used breakthrough videos for our development work with our lay leaders. And we kept sending people to all souls. Go see what they do. Go see what they do. We can't explain it. Just go experience it. So when we were asked, having stolen so liberally, we were unable to say no. The second thing is that this was the president's key initiative for the year. I serve as the UUA trustee. I mean, you've got to get on board with that, right? So I was.
All right. We went to the board, and the board said, Well, we're kind of fuzzy on what all this is, but we're willing. Because we get this thing about resource church—that every church has some things it does well enough that it could become someone to model after. So we entered into a learning community agreement, basically, with Milton. Now Peter mentioned, if you happened to be in Peter's workshop just before, he mentioned the fact that the most startling bit of information we had, as we had dinner with the folks from Milton, was that they lived in the Boston area—you know, there's always another church next rotary down—and none of the four leaders who were there had ever been to another UU church.
Our church had been sending out people as scouting parties everywhere, and we knew every breakthrough congregation, and we knew every everything. So the very first thing we said was, Whoa. Up periscope, folks! That was the first thing. The second thing was that we clearly understood that we actually weren't going to be a mentoring congregation only. We were going to be in a learning community. And a learning community has a lot going for it. The most fundamental thing about it is we were sitting at a table with other people who were as interested as we in building up this faith. And frankly, that doesn't always happen when you get together with other folks. Sometimes people are worried and want to be insular and don't want to share, and that keeps us unhealthy in those places. So to sit with another church that was healthily engaged in inquiry immediately bonded us. It also helps that they happen to have a minister I admire. And things like that really help quite a deal.
So when they came in December, and it did snow while they were there, we found ourselves not talking about the things nominally we were supposed to talk about. But in fact, as the experience was for Mark, we were kind of redefining. And it became very clear that one of the basic things they needed to do was understand that they needed to become a little less preoccupied with themselves and look out a little bit more. They actually found most interesting our 20-year history of intervention in an impoverished public school. And they came at the right time.
For the first time in this school's history, because of some enrichment work, I think, that we had done, in addition to very good changes in the curriculum, they finally passed their standards of learning. So we were on a year-long celebration that, for the first time, this had happened. And they were, all of a sudden, moved. And they started saying Milton, Milton, hmmm. Yeah, Milton. A little insular. And what's near? Oh, Dorchester.
And the questions started to flow. They wanted to know how we had welcomed so many people into the church. We wanted to know how they had such a high enrollment in their RE. We started having conversations back and forth that were meaningful to us both. And so we found ourselves truly engaged in the emotional connection that was the learning community. Now, we couldn't be more different. They're 350 years old, the first parish of Milton, with the famous portraits of the ministers on the walls with the learned pictures, and the sour faces, and all that stuff. And we're in an ultimately very modernist building with no walls, really, any place. And we're half as old as they are, although we're one of the oldest congregations in the South. The only thing we have in common were leaky roofs. Theirs were from snow, and ours were from flat roofs. But we immediately found that we had ways to help one another.
So we're going to continue our relationship this year. We have agreed that we still have a lot more to do in exchange with one another. I was sitting in the 200-year-old minister's study—with the furniture that's probably worth as much as everything I own, and they're an entirely different milieu—to talk about how they were breaking through that to be present to their children in a real way. And I'm learning, and they're teaching. We're teaching. They're learning. But the most important thing is that we are determined, as two churches, two congregations, to be sisters in this work of becoming ever more relevant to the communities in which we live, pushing the walls of the church outward, and connecting more deeply, so that the church starts to look like the place we live.
For us in Richmond, there's never been any doubt as to what our mission is. We're in the capital of the Confederacy, and our churches preached abolition in the middle of the Civil War. So we've always been clear on the sub rosa, if you will, purpose of our church. And they've been the first parish in a New England parish structure, where they were the moral guides. They still administer all the benevolent money in Milton. And here we sat down and broke bread, and across that very, very different cultural divide, we said, Be my friend and partner in this thing that transforms who we are in our communities.
PHIL LUND: So we thought we'd take a moment now, those stories were so inspiring, to see if you have any questions specifically for Mark and Jeanne about how this worked out for them. They told you the basics there, but do you have any questions about the logistics or anything? Could you come up to the microphone with your questions? And Mark and Jeanne, could you just come up and—
CRAIG BENNETT: I'm Craig Bennett, from the Fairfax Congregation. My question is, this is a pretty short time period of a year or less that you have had this contact. Did you involve a large percentage of the congregation, or was it a small group of lay and paid leadership that kind of did the work?
REV. MARK STRINGER: Well, in Des Moines, it was kind of limited by what the UUA was willing to pay for, which was, I think, three to five people.
NANCY BOWEN: Aspiring congregations could travel with five people, and mentoring congregations could travel with three.
REV. MARK STRINGER: So aspiring could travel with five, mentoring with three. And we had some people who paid their own way and came. So both times we brought about seven total. And then we thought we would use some of the initiatives that were going to come out of Leap of Faith to fuel our pledge drive, but we realized that it was too fast. I mean, we went to Albuquerque in January, and our pledge drive basically kicked off at the end of that month. So really, some of the initiatives are going to be fueling our pledge drive for the next year. So we don't really have the full impact of a Leap of Faith yet in our church.
REV. JEANNE PUPKE: In our church, it was lay leadership and staff who were present. And in fact, this fall, the membership director and I will be going back up. And we're learning to contextualize this a little bit better. I'll be preaching up there, and Parisa Parsa, who is the minister in Milton will be coming down, again, with some other folks, and also preaching down there, where we could have a little more expansion on that kind of theme of learning together.
CRAIG BENNETT: This is a quick follow-on then. Were there challenges with trying to expand it at each church back home amongst the rest of the congregation, since it looks like most of the work was done by the team members?
REV. MARK STRINGER: Yeah. I can't say that it had an impact other than we tried to keep it in front, in terms of newsletter columns and pulpit editorials, and things like that. But in terms of, like, on-the-ground involvement, not a lot direct, but a lot that was kind of residual.
JEFF PENDER: Hi. I'm Jeff Pender. I'm with UU Fellowship of Lake Norman, one of the new congregations here. So just a logistical question: how do you become an aspiring congregation? It sounds really interesting and neat, if we could have a mentoring congregation for that, and we've got a lot to learn, lots of things to think about. And it'd be great to bounce ideas off of someone that's just beyond where we are now.
PHIL LUND: That's a great question. This is a pilot project. Part of what we're trying to do is get a culture change going in the whole association. The UUA can only fund this for another year, but it's going to become more of a district and regional thing after this. And our hope has been that we get so many good stories, that the response is so overwhelming to this, that our district staff and our regional staff colleagues will use our learnings to set up programs like this all over the country. And it'll cost less to maybe go across a few straight lines, state lines, rather than having to travel across the country.
So this has always been part of the plan, that this is going to bring about a cultural shift in the UUA, that congregations are going to learn more, laterally, from each other, and certainly, new congregations that have just been admitted into the UUA are perfect for matching up with other groups. So I would say go to your district staff and tell them you want a program like this and that we have the learnings to help do this. And that's what it's all about. Thanks.
BILL COBURN: Bill Coburn, from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Marion County, in Florida. Did the region or district provide any facilitators for these groups? And if they did, are there any tools or procedures that you could share with churches? Let's say, take this another program. You've got a mentor and an aspiring, but we could use the same concept, just congregation to congregation. I do things in my church that I could share with other people. We now share speakers, but I think we could go beyond that. But if the teams just used their own leadership and organizational skills, or did they have some guidance from district or region?
REV. MARK STRINGER: There was help if we wanted it, and the kickoff conference provided a good grounding. Larry Peers of the Alban Institute did some good teaching at that. To Nancy's point, they didn't really focus as much, maybe, on learning communities as they wanted to, but we still got something. They kind of tried to get us out of our box, thinking bigger picture. And so we had a pretty good grounding to begin with, and in our particular instance, we just were able—Christine Robinson's a very experienced UU minister, very wise. I mean, that's all the consultant I needed. I had a lot to learn from Christine, so that was a real gift. But I think the help would have been there if we had wanted it.
PHIL LUND: And did you have a coach with your—
REV. JEANNE PUPKE: We did have Sue Phillips available to us on call, and we did consult with one another by phone. She knows the Milton congregation well, so therefore, it was easy to talk about that. There is one caveat I would offer to you about simply setting up a conversation with another congregation with whom you're familiar, let's say. And that is the tendency of lay leaders to respond to "not invented here" less than well. The formality of being in a program in which we actually—I mean the UUA spent a little money on us to do this thing, and we have an obligation.
We're going to extend it beyond the time of our own volition, and the fact that there is a direct flight from Richmond to Boston helped. But be cautious about that. It's almost helpful, if you are going to do this in the district, to do it a little bit distant away so that people have to get in the car, reserve the hotel room, take the project seriously in a way they might not over coffee at Starbucks halfway between your churches.
BILL COBURN: I would suggest you keep in mind that concept of congregation to congregational sharing, and formalize issues like that in some kind of a package.
PHIL LUND: Thank you. We did have some coaches that did more work with the congregations, too. They needed a little more lubricating to get going together. But by the end of the project, all of the participants have just been totally crazy about what we've done. So that's a good point. Sometimes we do need to give a little extra help to make that happen.
NANCY BOWEN: I feel like we will have that by the end of this year. Because we have a lot of it right now, but we haven't tested it with our new cohort group. So that'll be part of what comes after all the districts and regions at the end of this coming year.
SPEAKER 1: It's a great project.
SPEAKER 2: Don't forget the [INAUDIBLE].
REV. JEANNE PUPKE: Yes.
DEE DEE LAVINDER: Hello. My name is Dee Dee Lavinder. I'm from the Chapel Hill Community Church UU, and this is a follow-up question to Jeff's question. He was asking about how to become an aspiring congregation. And I think, from your answer, that your congregations have already been selected for the next year. Is that correct? And so I would be curious as to how you went about selecting both aspiring and mentoring congregations.
PHIL LUND: We ended up getting the aspiring congregations first, primarily through nominations from our colleagues in the district regional staff. There was also a general—Was it in the article?
NANCY BOWEN: I think so.
PHIL LUND: It was in that one article that I had up there, letting people know if they were interested, to contact their district executives. And actually we got a few—two more—
NANCY BOWEN: Our last two congregations.
PHIL LUND: --nominations from that. So—
DEE DEE LAVINDER: That article was published where?
PHIL LUND: It was in the UU World in May. So because it was a pilot project, we had to go searching for them. But ideally, in the future, this would be something that we would be used to. Congregations would say, We want to team up with somebody else. Help make that happen. The mentoring congregations, then, after we saw who the aspiring congregations were, we started to look for what congregations might be able to help them with some of the issues they were facing.
REV. JEANNE PUPKE: For those of you who won't be in this this year, but want to move this direction, take out your Breakthrough Congregation videos that have been sent to every congregation. If you don't have them, go down to the Congregational Life booth, and ask them for the old ones. Ask them to send you some of the old ones. Find the size church that is the next up from you. Don't watch the same size church. Watch the next up, because nothing orients what you're doing quite so well as looking down the road a bit. And then you can start to think about how you would do this. There is richness in those Breakthrough videos, that you could sit with your board for an hour and talk about one church and what you've learned, just from watching the video.
JESSICA EDLINGER: Hi, everybody. My name is Jessica Edlinger. I belong to First Unitarian in Albuquerque. So I'm going to editorialize a little bit, because I want to add, maybe another perspective, and that is of a young adult lay person who is relatively new to UUism, and who has learned a lot from this program. So I actually have only been attending my church for about a year, and we were identified, as Phil was saying, because we have a pretty robust young adult group, and Des Moines said, We'd be interested in that. And so I got an email from our minister that said, I need a young adult to go with me to New Orleans next month. Who can go? And I was like, Well, I don't know that I have a lot to offer. But I kinda wanted to be involved in it, liked this idea. And this was an opportunity for me, and I know Nancy's heard this a couple of times from me in the last two days.
This was a way for me to learn how to interact with this association and to really learn more about my church and how I can fit in there. So things I've observed the last couple of days: we have a tendency, I think, as a denomination, to sometimes kvetch a little bit when we get together. And it's like, Oh my god. You have that parking problem, too. Let me tell you how bad ours is.
SPEAKER 3: You know ours is worse.
JESSICA EDLINGER: Right. Exactly. And so I agree with the points that intentionality is very important here. However, do you really always need district money to go see how another church does something? Do you really need a formal program to get your lay people involved and say, Hey this is something that we could use some work on? What other resources do you think are out there that we can find? Just my two cents.
NANCY BOWEN: I did not pay her.
DAVID MARSH: David Marsh, Studio City, California. Many churches have interim ministers at times. It strikes me that this is a process that could be paired with an interim minister to help with that conscious, intentional, rethinking, revisioning. What lessons would you suggest about using this in conjunction with an interim minister?
REV. MARK STRINGER: I think you're probably right, but I wouldn't discount the value of an [? interim ?] minister to do it. Because so much of it is a visioning process, really. We were asked, when we were invited to be an aspiring congregation, Mark do you plan to stay at this church for a while? Because if we don't really want to make that investment in you. They didn't say it that way, but that's what it meant.
NANCY BOWEN: Because our EQ is higher than that.
REV. MARK STRINGER: Yeah, Good. Thank you. I appreciate that. So anyway—
DAVID MARSH: The opposite might be true, that the interim search process is a time when you're trying to strengthen your group.
REV. JEANNE PUPKE: Here's a thought, OK? If you're an aspiring congregation, and you're looking out, that can really work well, when you've got the established ministry relationship going on. And it's also true, though, when you have an interim come to you, you have a 360-day visitor, who brings an entire set of experiences. And in either one of these two things, you might have trouble with the credibility and trust issues, but that's a great occasion by which to ask yourself why you would. Because that's what interim ministry does, is it actually delivers it to your door.
SPEAKER 4: As somebody from a congregation that just went through three years of interim ministry, I would think that would not be actually a great idea. I mean what it really reinforced for us was how important our ordained ministers are to the process. I think with the interim, it would be like, Well, we need to kind of wait. We need to wait for the A team to come back, or whatever it is, to do that kind of investment. I'm just not sure that the lay leadership, in our situation, anyway, would've actually worked. Maybe it would. But I see it as different from the interim process. Interim process, to me, was more introspective and kind of figuring out where we were, where we wanted to go, that kind of thing. And I don't know.
NANCY BOWEN: Thank you so much. So let's do a little bit more theory. learning communities have five fundamental disciplines that are—you are going to need them and rely upon them in varying measure, depending upon what it is you're exploring. But it is important to have all of them in mind. So the systemic thinking, we've mentioned before, to be looking at larger and larger parts of your whole, of resisting that temptation to isolate and blame. It really is part of our discipline to give people the benefit of the doubt. If somebody is unable to do the job that they've offered to do, the answer will not be only in them. It will be in what kind of support they have, whether they understood that responsibility, who's been helping, who's not.
So to be willing to look at bigger and bigger pieces of your congregation, or your congregation's life within a cluster, or your cluster's life within a district, means just literally bigger and bigger pieces. And that includes the history, not just why did that happen today, but why has this pattern happened over the last however long it's been happening. What have been the messages that have come into our system that would prompt this to happen?
The opportunity for personal mastery. Here's where I hope learning communities is really juicy and engaging and almost seductive for us. Because there's an opportunity that we often forgo in our leadership for our members to become stronger in their own emotional maturity, in their own spiritual depth, in their capacity to do tasks, to read and understand good financial statements, and not quibble over the line item number five, but understand a larger piece of the whole. And so, if our investments are doing this, what is the impact on the rest of our financial situation? And something like, Where will that put us in five years? Now too few of us were doing that right before the economy tanked, did what it did, and a lot of our congregations really got caught. Got caught with investments in the wrong place, investments that had been completely solid a year prior.
And so some of being in a learning community is that capacity to get to the balcony far more often and to take a much longer view, to leave management of the congregation at a different place, and to invite the leadership to be learning about what your congregation will need in the coming five years, and how to offer people that opportunity to actually, literally learn new skills around the way they present in the world, around the way they understand Unitarian Universalism, and some concrete skills, too, that they need as leaders.
So the cultural and personal assumptions—I can't emphasize this enough. This is one of the exercises that strong learning communities do repeatedly, which is to name their assumptions into the circle, their assumptions about this situation. Now, to really become learning communities, which is a little counter cultural in the united states at this time. The united states at this time is a knowing culture. We know the answers. We did that learning thing when we were young, and now we know. And if you think about it broadly, though, that's what's been rewarded. Knowing the right answer has been rewarded. Learning new skills, new approaches, being creative, has not always been what's rewarded, because the most creativity requires experimentation, and some of that will fail. And you will need to learn from that failure, at whatever level it happened, and keep moving forward. But if a reward structure is set up only for success, and only for rightness of answer, you can see how we get stuck.
So there's a real counter cultural piece to operating in learning communities—where those are what you need—that would allow us to make clear our assumptions, identify those "always" and "never" kinds of things. So what would your assumption be about a person who has been incarcerated? That list of assumptions could go on for a long time. So what would your assumptions be about someone who's been incarcerated who wants to be in your congregation? What would be your assumptions about someone who does not have a high school degree and wants to be on your leadership team? And would those be worthy? Would those be worthy of whom we seek to be as a people of faith? Or are they mirroring a lot of what our culture has been teaching for many, many years, that worthiness follows this pretty straight line?
The possibility of a shared vision emerging from this common learning is one of the most powerful results that those who write about learning communities offer us. And my favorite story out of Peter Singe's—He wrote it with three other authors, but the book is Presence, and it's a nice summary. It's not too much a how-to book. I suspect it was a little bit that Peter needed to get back on the best-seller list, but it has some very good stories in it. And one of them is about people who were working in South Africa prior to the end of Apartheid, before de Klerk had said anything about whether apartheid would be addressed or not. And they were working with South Africans and people from other parts of the world, and they developed four distinct scenarios for how they would dismantle Apartheid in South Africa. And then they waited.
They refined a couple of times, according to the story, and they waited to see how Apartheid was declared inactive now. Did it happen violently? Did it happen by legislation? Did it happen by international intervention? Did Mandela ever get out of prison? When he did, did he lead? Did he die? They had all these things that were complete uncertainties. They had no way of truly knowing how it would unfold. And so they developed four scenarios taking into account different combinations of all of those variables. And then they waited. They didn't wait passively. You know those parts of the story. But they waited actively to see what the particularity for ending Apartheid in South Africa would be. And then they rolled out their plan.
OK. You don't have to answer this, but I want to know when was the last time you had three alternatives, three scenarios, for how you would approach the next big challenge that your congregation faced? Whether that's a space issue or a commitment to multiculturalism. It affects anything, anything big and worthy that you want to do, could have multiple scenarios that you can blend, move back and forth between, or pick the one that's best for the ultimate set of variables that you have. It's not typically our pattern. And we would be more enlivened, were we able to do more of that. And the vision would be shared, rather than a suspicion that it comes from somewhere else. Or it was too narrowly defined. or those kinds of things that do happen to us.
So I hope each of you has a personal experience of team learning, of being part of the learning community that allows you to actually remember and be able to witness to the fact that team learning is greater than the sum of the individual learnings. Some of our stories have even alluded to that in terms of—to keep ourselves straight, administratively. We had aspiring and mentoring congregations. Once they got together, it really went away. They were learning communities.
The aspiring congregations had more responsibility, so the mentoring were happy for us to keep track of them a little bit longer. The aspiring congregations all made videos. The mentoring congregations didn't have to. The mentoring congregations were happy we were keeping track at that point. But this notion of mutual learning that kind of lets any serious distinctions fall away and we become co-religionists in learning and exploring what is truly best for this precious faith that we all share.
And then, if we do these disciplines, we are rewarded with greater independent thought. Now, as a district executive, I've sat in a number of congregational board meetings, and there's some very distinctive patterns that I have seen: that it goes in the direction of the one who speaks first, or the one who speaks loudest, or the one who speaks most often, or the one who speaks last. different in different congregations. But it's eerily true how the pattern gets followed.
The capacity to invoke the learning community and invite other perspectives to actively be put on the table, like, what is the most outrageous thing you could think of us doing in the situation liberates people to a greater degree of independent thought. And frequently, our models have not liberated our independent thought. You don't need to confess this, but I would ask you to remember some time when you've been in a leadership meeting, and you knew that you went home without speaking your truth. You just knew that you had not put it on the table. It wasn't welcomed or you couldn't sense the way that it would be treated, whatever. Lots of us have done that. What environment would we need to create that we would not worry about independent thought going home without being shared?
And the other benefits to organizations that practice learning community attitudes, and I do want to say to you that we're speaking of this somewhat generically. We're not trying to bring a "you do this first, and this second, this third, and oh my good—You're not a learning community. You did that." But this attitude, this kind of state of mind, of exploration, and so improved leadership is one benefits to an organization, tested over and over. Know when there's more independent thought, when people are kicked valued for who they really are, the leadership is stronger, more effective, better able to be adaptive, to address the things that are needed in that context. And for the same reasons, there's increased commitment. People stay at the table longer. They work through things because they're personally valued, but also, their independent thought is part of the conversation that's going on.
Here's my favorite: Repeatedly it generates hope, hope that what I'm investing in is worthy, hope that what I'm bringing to it will be respected and will be part of what we come up with. So as Unitarian Universalists, we wouldn't want to dismiss the benefits of hope, and of nurturing it and generating more. And additionally, it's one way to be sure that exciting and adaptive leadership is part of your congregation's life, that you're able to innovate, to be creative, to get outside the box. And we have discovered that that invitation to be talking to other congregations has been very effective in inviting both congregations in the partnership to get outside of their assumptions and their boxes of common practice.
OK. Any particular questions about those disciplines of a learning community? How many of you are doing some of them? Feel pretty confident that you're doing some of them? Or doing some of them some of the time? There's some nodding going on. Yeah. Good. How many of you think that it would be possible to do a few more of them a little more of the time? Oh, more heads. More heads are nodding. OK. Thank you.
PHIL LUND: So this was actually started out as a growth project, and we knew that, in one year, we would not see huge gains in growth in these congregations. We're hoping, over time, we see that there may be an increase. They were already growing congregations, for the most part, but we're hoping that we'll see an increased growth over time. But there were some things that we were hoping to see happen within a year or so. And we didn't actually tell congregations we were hoping to see these things. We just kind of let them learn what they were going to learn, and then we decided to check in. Just to let you know, there are a couple evaluators working on this: Della and—
NANCY BOWEN: Della Hughes and Susan Curnan.
PHIL LUND: Della Hughes and Susan Curnan from Brandeis University. They're going to evaluate the entire project. And one of the goals for the entire project is that cultural shift that I talked about. So we're going to see how well the UUA has done putting together a project that can effect a cultural shift.
But along the way, we were looking for some other things to evaluate. So I just want to say, out of that growth summit, where this whole idea came from, one of the things they were thinking about were these seven principles of congregational vitality, because what we're really trying to do is making congregations more healthy and vital, with the assumption that will lead to growth.
And I'm going to tell you what they are. Clear mission and purpose, congregation has a clear mission and purpose. It is aware and responsive to the world around it. We heard a little bit from Jeanne about that and how Milton's vision broadened. Vital worship, a vital Sunday experience for all ages. That church is done well, and we're talking about administration and leadership there. That the congregation cultivates religious community and that it builds skills to lead and nurture the gifts of the people who are doing the leading, and that the minister is very supportive of all those other principals.
Some of the broad areas were, perhaps in worship, perhaps in programming, is there going to be a more adult faith formation, social justice, work, things like that, and also in team building. How well does the church put together teams, and how well do those teams work together, lay and professional, paid/volunteer, those kind of combinations. So what we did is we put together a quick survey that went out to the aspiring congregations. It didn't go to any of the mentoring congregations, did it?
NANCY BOWEN: Not purposely.
PHIL LUND: Not purposely. OK. I'll answer that question, all right. And I was really thrilled by this. This is not the final word. This is just a little check-in along the way, OK?
But to the question, "Participation in the Leap Of Faith pilot project has had a positive effect on the overall health and vitality of our congregation, " we got an 85% positive response on that.
"We have a new understanding and appreciation for church done well in worship, welcome programs, governance, leadership, and administration." 80% positive response.
"Our introduction to learning communities has given us a greater appreciation for the importance of congregational leadership, lay and ordained, paid and volunteer, working as teams willing to learn together, experiment, and reflect on our actions." 84% positive response.
"In our learning journey and in communications with our mentoring congregations, we recognize the significance of nurturing Unitarian Universalist leaders that encourages individual gifts to serve the congregation and the wider community. " 76 positive response on that.
Some of the moderate responses were around that "Opening up your vision to the wider community." And, as I said, we did not put any of these out there. And I think we only had one congregation that had that as a specific learning goal, so that was not something we were asking about, so less than 50% gave us a positive response there.
And also, "Our experience of worship was inspiring and motivated us to experiment in new ways to create vital and engaging worship. " And only 40% percent responded that in a positive way. But we did not ask, specifically, to work on worship in this project.
So we were thrilled about those general things about church done well and teams working together, that we just got very, very good response here. And I think those are some of the major keys for a healthy vital congregation. So we'll see what the growth rate looks like next year, and see if we didn't get an increased growth in these congregations that participated this year. And we'll have another cohort to look at the year after that.
And I might as well introduce them now. What do you think?
NANCY BOWEN: Yes.
PHIL LUND: All right. Let's see what I have here. 2011-2012 Leap of Faith participating congregations. The last one was alphabetical. This is geographical. So the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara will be an aspiring congregation. The Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church in Carrollton, Texas, will be an aspiring congregation. Denver First Unitarian, an aspiring congregation. Denver First Universalist, an aspiring congregation. Minneapolis First Universalist will be an aspiring congregation.
We've got some smaller groups this year. We're really thrilled about that. Alton, Illinois. They've been doing wonderful work there, and they're going to be one of our aspiring congregations, as well as Peoria, Illinois. Yay, Peoria. We'll see if it plays in Peoria, right? An aspiring congregation. East Lansing, yeah. Right. This is exciting. New London, Connecticut, will be an aspiring congregation, and Framingham, Massachusetts, will be an aspiring congregation.
And working with them, then, Unity Church Unitarian will be working with Santa Barbara. Fox Valley, in Wisconsin, will be working with Carrollton. Atlanta will be working with Denver First Unitarian. All Souls, in New York, will be working with First Universalist, in Minneapolis. Bull Run, in Virginia, will be working with Alton, Illinois. Ann Arbor will be working with East Lansing, and I think that's going to be one of our closest groups.
This will be exciting, right? We'll see.
SPEAKER 5: [INAUDIBLE] district.
PHIL LUND: Yeah. This is going to be—Right. Very close together and—
SPEAKER 6: [INAUDIBLE PHRASE].
PHIL LUND: Yeah. We'll see what happens, right? That's right. And Ann Arbor was an aspiring congregation last year, and they're going to be mentoring this year. And then Des Moines is going to be working with New London, Connecticut. And again, Des Moines was an aspiring congregation last year and will be a mentoring congregation this year. And Fairfax, Virginia, will be working with Framingham. Right. Thank you. And so, you may have noticed, we need a couple more mentoring congregations. I think, to our surprise, this has been one of the hardest things to do, because it is a lot of work. And we kind of spring it on them and say, Do you want to do this? We're really thrilled when congregations say yes. We understand when they say no. But we're still looking for a couple more here for Peoria and First Universalist, Denver, right?
We've got like two minutes to go. Are there any quick questions? One more?
SPEAKER 7: This is about the funding for the program.
PHIL LUND: The funding.
SPEAKER 7: Is it coming from the [? general operations? ?]
PHIL LUND: No, this—
SPEAKER 7: [INAUDIBLE]
PHIL LUND: This came from individual donors, from what I understand, people who really wanted to see something happen in our association. And they put up some money for this to see if we can't make this culture shift where we do learn more from each other. So that's a good question.
SPEAKER 7: [INAUDIBLE PHRASE].
PHIL LUND: Yes. This has been these two years. But also, Stefan Jonasson and Tandi Rogers, who've been on the Congregational Life staff, are in a new office for Strategic or Growth Strategies. Thank you. It's different than strategic growth. They're growth strategies. So we actually have an office now, working on growth strategies. So those things together, but we're hoping that the growth strategies will be more regional and district as well. And that this project—as I said, we are going to learn a lot from it, and we're going to be able to take it out to many more congregations. All right? So, thank you, Mark and Jeanne. Oh, wait.
SPEAKER 8: If the folks in this room or otherwise think that they may know congregations that would be willing to be a mentoring congregation, is there someone they should speak with to learn more about [UNINTELLIGIBLE]?
PHIL LUND: Yes. If you have any hints about who might be a mentoring congregation, come and talk to Nancy, all right? Thank you for pointing that out. Thank you all for being here.
Leap of Faith: Congregations Learning Together General Assembly 2011 event number 2061.
For more information contact growthresources @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Tuesday, August 28, 2012.
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