Lead with Courage and Confidence

Our church needed a new roof and we didn’t have the money to pay for it. We had a member who yelled at people during coffee hour. New members weren’t stepping up to volunteer, let alone be leaders. When new people did step up, their ideas were ignored.

These were the kinds of challenges that I faced when I first stepped into a leadership position. I went to every local workshop offered by the UUA, and read every book in the church’s small library, but I kept making mistakes. Other leaders suggested I attend EAGLES, the Eastern Great Lakes Leadership School, but I didn’t have the money nor the vacation time.

That was over 20 years ago.

Since then, I felt a call to the ministry of Leadership Development, with the vision of having EAGLES-caliber leadership development available to all leaders, not just the ones with the money and vacation time.

The result? The UU Leadership Institute.

Your national UUA Congregational Life staff now offers a series of core leadership courses to equip your leaders with tools and wisdom so they can lead with courage and confidence.

  • Centered Leadership Part 1 focuses on what it means to be a part of a faith community grounded in covenant, both practically and theologically.
  • Centered Leadership Part 2 helps to widen leaders’ understanding through thinking systemically about the interconnected web of relationships that makes a congregation. It also helps leaders understand how their functioning in the congregation can impact the health and vitality of the congregation.
  • Strategic Leadership describes how good governance, strategic planning and feedback loops can enable the congregation to develop habits that reinforce health and vitality.
  • Adaptive Leadership provides a more nuanced understanding of systems thinking which is essential in the ever-changing world of the 21stcentury.

Each 8-module course is offered at a low cost of $30 each. Registered participants receive notifications every two weeks as each new module opens. Participants who register later can access “released” modules and catch up with the rest of the class.

In faith and service,
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke

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A Traditional Ethics for a Sustainable Future

Photo: Blue Sky Permaculture Farm, Montague, MI
Photo copyright Renee Ruchotzke/UUA

We are living in a time of great change, where the forces of greed, selfishness, and fear have been unleashed and the future is unclear. We religious liberals can play an important role in influencing the conversation in a way that can shape the future with the counterforces of generosity, mutuality, and love. Unitarian Universalists have many partners in shaping our future, and we can learn a lot from one another to amplify our shared values and voices.

During my recent sabbatical (thanks to the generosity of our UUA and your Annual Program Fund gifts) I spent time doing a deep dive into Permaculture, which Mike Feingold described as “revolution disguised as gardening.” As part of that study I completed a two-week Permaculture Design Course with Peter Bane, Rhonda Baird and Keith Johnson at Blue Sky Farm. I’ll share more in future blogs but for now I want to talk about ethics.

We currently live in an a society based on ethics that condone exploitation of people and extraction from nature. Most aboriginal cultures and other traditional societies have ethics that are based on values that are in alignment with our notion of Beloved Community. Permaculture has adapted them into three (plus one) central ethical principles:

1. Earth Care

This principle aligns with the UU seventh principle: Reverence for the interdependent web of all existence. In practice this means:

  • Being good stewards of the earth, from micro-organisms in the soil to the biodiversity of species, each one having intrinsic value.
  • Increasing biodiversity is an imperative
  • Humans, as part of the community of beings, should limit our impacts by doing no further harm, conserving and restoring what is left, and consuming without waste.

2. People Care

This principle aligns with the UU first principle: Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people. In practice this means:

  • Our institutions should be human-centered, encouraging material and non-material well-being for all.
  • Power should be decentralized and localized (such as in our congregational polity).
  • Individuals in communities should be encouraged to take personal responsibility, initiative and practice self-reliance.

3. Fair Share

This is the principle that is the key to the future, and is where the revolution shows up.

  • We need to live in the spirit of mutuality, generosity and trust in one another and in nature’s abundance.
  • We need to articulate and address the limits to growth, consumption and population.
  • This will require a commitment to living simply and scaling back to sustainable economic principles based on the notion of the common good.

Transition-Aware (the plus one)

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke

In the past, many permaculture practitioners did so outside of the mainstream culture. But this way of being in the world offers hope and a workable model for how humans can address climate change. But even if we have a workable solution, we can’t implement it until we know how to foster a paradigm shift among fellow humans.

One critique I have of Permaculture is that—although it’s based on principles that align with traditional societies—almost all of the leaders, authors and teachers have been white men born before 1955.  There is a recognition among the rising leaders (as well as many of the elders themselves) that this grounding in “The Patrix” (White Male Supremacy culture) is something they need to address.

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
CER Congregational Life Staff

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Relentlessly Useful Resources for Leadership Development

What would Unitarian Universalism look like if we trained our lay leaders as highly as we train other religious professionals such as ministers and religious educators? We would no longer be able to joke that we’re too disorganized to be called “organized religion.”

Your UUA Congregational Life staff has been working on a variety of online resources for lay (and professional!) leaders, and it’s now ready for its Beta release. (This means that it is operational, but there are still some missing components and some bugs to work out: In other words, it’s not perfect, but an expectation of perfection is one of the constructs of the white supremacy culture that we are trying to dismantle.)

Introducing: LeaderLab!

LeaderLab is our new home page for congregational leaders. There you will find the portal to our leadership material database, training for board members and congregational leadership development teams, leadership schools (both in person and the online UU Leadership Institute), upcoming live webinars and on-demand online courses. www.uua.org/leadership

Searchable Database!

We are assembling a searchable database of curated articles, webinars, videos, workshops, and other resources for lay leaders. You can search by tag, keywords, author, format, and date range. This will be a one-stop-shop for congregational leadership materials from the UUA.

Board Member Training!

Use this 12-Part training to onboard new board members, to use as a monthly board in-service training, or for a quick reference during board meetings.

Leadership Development Planning for Your Congregation!

Identify and train potential leaders and provide continuing training for more experienced leaders. We will give you tips and tools to design your own program as well as resources for the actual training.

Online Leadership Courses!

We have completely redesigned our online version of leadership school (replacing UULTI and Eagles) with Centered Leadership Part 1 & Part 2. Detailed course syllabi are available on the course main pages. We also offer upper-level courses and electives. www.uuinstitute.org

Live Webinar Listing!

What’s coming up? Browse the list of upcoming webinars offered by your UUA.

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the Interdependent Web of Musical Culture

As Unitarian Universalists have been growing into deeper understanding of White Supremacy Culture, being interculturally respectful and competent, and learning how to avoid the pitfalls of cultural misappropriation, we are learning to learn and share the stories and contexts behind the songs we sing as part of our worship.

This is a work in progress. The hymnal Singing the Living Tradition had a companion book Between the Lines with some information about each hymn, but both volumes were before we had any sort of intercultural lens. We don’t have any “official” resources to help us in this important work.

There is no right way or answer, but an invitation to be in the struggle and the conversation of how to faithfully include music of other cultures in UU worship. One model is engaging with each hymn and its history as a spiritual practice.  The Rev. Kimberley Debus has—with vulnerability—spent a over a year engaging with a hymn each day on her blog Far Fringe.  I have referred to this blog as I ruminate about hymn choices and how to present them in their original context. I found it to be a fruitful spiritual practice.

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, CER Congregational Life Staff

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Be a Learning Congregation!

It’s no secret to UU’s that I work with that my call to ministry is  lay leadership development. I take shared ministry seriously, and I want our lay leaders to be every bit as equipped to lead as our religious professionals.

When I first came on regional staff 7-1/2 years ago we had a tradition of week-long leadership schools. I remembered EAGLES (The Eastern Great Lakes Leadership School) from when I was a new lay leader, but I had neither the money nor the vacation time to attend. The region had moved into a new model, UULTI (The UU Leadership Team Institute), with the understanding that a team of four or five leaders attending together would have more impact on their home congregation. It had a wonderful curriculum that was transformative for attendees, but it was expensive and participants needed to take a week out of their lives to attend. We did see the positive impact on congregations who regularly sent teams.

We also offered a different model of leadership development, using the Healthy Congregations® curriculum. This was less expensive (which enabled larger congregational teams to attend) and was offered locally over a series of 6 weekends. We saw a remarkable positive impact on congregations that had most of their leaders attend these trainings.

So I imagined, if we could have ALL of or congregational leaders have this training, if we could stop fighting with one another and start fighting for justice, if we could spread our liberal religious values, what impact might we have on the world?

Imagine if these values were shared valued throughout our communities:

  • No one of us has all of the answers. The world around us is always changing and we always have something new to learn.
  • All relationships should be consensual (never coerced)
  • Our communities should be places where all souls can flourish
  • We are called to build the Beloved Community and we have faith that we have the resources to do so
  • We need to work at being our best selves
  • We need to be able to make mistakes with humility and forgiveness
  • Our Covenants (or other social contracts) help us to be accountable to all of the above values

This is the “creation story” of the UU Leadership Institute. Offering the same kind of leadership training online, with interactive materials that congregational Leadership Development Teams can use in person, could make a version of this transformative training available on-demand and at an affordable cost.

The equivalent of the week-long leadership school is offered in a 2-part course called Centered Leadership Part 1 and Part 2. We also offer the advanced leadership courses Strategic Leadership and Adaptive Leadership.

We also offer several elective courses and unique premium courses each semester and several on-demand courses anytime on UU History, Identity and on special areas of interest for various ministries in the congregation. You can enroll in Spring courses until the end of March.

Please check them out! We would love to have you be part of our learning community!

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Dean UU Leadership Institute and CER Congregational Life staff.

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Congregation in “Rust Belt” Increases Pledges 30%

You don’t have to be in a growing area to see growth and vitality in your congregation. What you do need is energy, focus and a strong sense of purpose. Recently, Andy Crabb, the President of the First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, OH, posted how his congregation had a significant increase in pledges this past Fall.  -Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Primary Contact

UU Youngstown Congregation

The First Unitarian of Youngstown, Ohio just had our pledge drive in the fall and got an almost 30% increase in pledges.

We are going to present a balanced budget at our congregational meeting later this month.  The keys for us were to have an integrated pledge program and to be as transparent as possible about what we were spending money on and why we wanted more.  That doesn’t mean we buried people in financial details, but rather that we explained key points:

  • that we wanted to increase our UUA contribution to be closer to fair share,
  • that we wanted to have more hours for our office administrator to do the routine communication tasks that everyone asks of her,
  • that we wanted to continue to support involvement in community activities,
  • that we want to give raises to our staff (including our new, freshly ordained minister) so they see that we have a viable career path for them,
  • that we need to operate the building, and
  • that we have had shortfalls for the past several years that required late year special appeals and we don’t want to have to do that anymore.

Anyone who wants financial details can have them, but most people don’t need or want them, at least at first, so we didn’t bury them with numbers.

One of our stewardship co-chairs is a new member and she observed that we never talked about money when she first came to us.  We’ve changed that.  We now bring it up regularly as a fact of life.  Again, transparency is the key.  No one is trying to get away with anything or trick anyone or be cute about pledging.  We all want to see UUYO do well and we are being clear and open about what it takes to make all of the things that we came to UUYO to do, happen.

Key elements of our Stewardship Campaign:

  • We had a plan and a financial goal before the campaign started.
  • We made a brochure that focused on what we do and why, then stated the costs and the income needs.  We spent a little bit ($200 or so) to print up a very nice, quality color 11×17 single fold brochure with lots of relevant pictures and mission stories that really impress.
  • During the stewardship drive, we had a special dinner for our biggest givers to thank them and encourage increased giving, especially to help bridge the gap until newer members can reach higher giving levels.
  • We personally contacted and where possible met with all other members to review our plans and clearly state our financial plan and goals.
  • We promoted automatic giving as a prominent part of our pledge campaign with great success (we use Vanco).

Stewardship is integrated into the life of the congregation by:

  • Having an active membership program for new members that gets them involved right away and that presents the same information as we give our members about money.
  • Having active worship associates and hospitality teams with broad participation to keep all members involved and feeling connected to and invested in our vitality as a group and promoting this in the pledge campaign.
  • Making as many opportunities as possible for members to do things and feel connected to and valued by the church because that is how people come to where they want to give to and support the church.
  • Looking for where we had entrenched individuals and/or groups always doing “everything” and bring new people in to help.
  • Separating “governance” activities from “mission” activities.  Both are necessary, but most people came to us for “mission” activities, so we focus on making sure there are plenty of them and keep “governance” to just where it is really needed.
  • Creating opportunities to learn leadership skills.  These are valuable in all aspects of our lives and provide great opportunities for personal growth and enrichment of our lives.

In closing – it seems to me that whether we do year-round-pledging or all at once pledging, closely tying the pledge campaign with the members and the activities of the church is critical for the success of the pledge drive.  If the pledge drive doesn’t clearly tie to the mission and activities of the church, it will be less effective because the connection with the members and what brought them to UUYO is what really made the pledge campaign a success for us.

-Andy Crabb, President, First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, OH. (UUYO)

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Want to Grow? Time to Adapt!

Youngstown Board MeetingIs your congregation looking to be relevant in a culture where most mainstream white religions are in decline? Many UU congregations are growing, even areas that have declined economically. What is their “secret sauce?”

It’s as simple as congregational health, a sense of purpose, open communication, and covenantal community.

And it’s as complicated as congregational health, a sense of purpose, open communication, and covenantal community. These are not things learned in a single workshop or by reading a single book. They are processes—ways of being in the world. These are not skills that a single leader can gain and take to their congregation. They are group skills that are best learned by a critical mass of the congregation (20% or so) learning together.

The UUA has made it easy and affordable for your congregational leaders to learn together, taking core leadership courses as a group, and then using what you learned by applying it to case studies and other activities.

  • Faithful Leadership is a great beginning course, covering how our history, theology and polity inform our faith communities.
  • Centered Leadership focuses on healthy relationships and communications, developing a shared sense of purpose, and how to lead through a change.
  • Strategic Leadership is for boards, strategic planning committees, bylaws task forces, etc. helping you lead strategically through governing documents and processes.
  • Adaptive Leadership helps leaders develop a more nuanced view of the congregation as a system during uncertain times.

The courses each have 8 sessions. They open every 2 weeks, and each participant will get an email when each new module is open. The cost is only $30 per course per semester per participant.  There is a combination of YouTube video presentations by UUA Congregational Life staff and guests, as well as readings and links to more resources.

The first module opens January 26, 2018, so you have plenty of time to enroll!

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Helping Leaders Find Their Way

Rev. Renee Ruchtozke

About twenty years ago, I was sitting in my minister’s office, discerning whether I should put myself forward as a candidate for Moderator of the congregation. The old guard of leaders were tired and burnt out. I and the other new members who were considering board positions were inexperienced. But we said yes.

We learned “on the job” and made a lot of mistakes. Luckily, the congregation was (mostly) gracious and forgiving.

Some of the older leaders had gone to a leadership school, and raved about its impact on their leadership and on their understanding of Unitarian Universalism. But I had a small child that I couldn’t leave for a whole week. Even if I could, I only had 2 weeks of vacation available and needed those to recharge from my stressful job. And I didn’t have several hundred extra dollars to spend.

Eventually, I cobbled together my own leadership training from books, Saturday conferences, and—eventually—seminary. If only that soon-to-be Moderator sitting in that minister’s study 20 years ago (as well as the other new leaders) had access to leadership training, the congregation would have benefitted greatly.

Today, we have seen the impact when congregations have leaders who have been through leadership training—either a leadership school or a version of Healthy Congregations® training. They are healthy. They are resilient. They are able to have nuanced conversations about tricky issues. We know that the more we can make training and affordable, more congregations will be able to offer training to their leaders.

In order to help our congregations, we are offering a series of four online leadership development courses for only $30 each. They are designed so that prospective or new leaders can take beginner courses and experienced leaders can take higher level courses. The topics in each of the courses align, so that all of the leaders can get together in person and—together—can work case studies, do interactive learning and discuss topics with materials that we provide.

Here are the four courses:

Faithful Membership
For new members and those interested in possible leadership. Covers covenant, healthy communication and boundaries, shared ministry, and stewardship. Also provides an introduction to congregational polity, UU theologies, and the wider UU movement.

Healthy Leadership
Includes family and other systems thinking applied to congregations. (Similar to Healthy Congregations®) Learn healthy leadership practices, communication and conflict skills, the importance of being mission-focused and how to communicate across differences

Strategic Leadership
Develop a deeper understanding of how to focus your congregation on mission, build trust and develop a cohesive leadership team. Learn about stewardship, strategic planning, annual goal setting and ministry assessment and the basics of congregational governance.

Adaptive Leadership
Develop advanced leadership skills that will help identify challenges. Learn how to help others see challenges in new ways, empower others and find creative solutions together. This course includes working on a case study with other participants.

We hope to see you online!

Rev. Renee Ruchotkze, CER Congregational Life Staff and Co-Dean of UU Leadership Institute

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Serving with Mutuality

Photo by Aria Nadii

My spouse and I are planning out a permaculture garden in the backyard of our new house. We don’t know much about permaculture yet, but we are learning. We are starting with the soil. The yard had been covered with concrete, so we are starting from scratch. We hauled several truckloads of leaf and tree mulch from the city and are watching it compost in place over the summer. There are a few volunteer pumpkins from discarded Halloween pumpkins that were mixed in the mulch, and we threw a few seeds in to see if they would sprout, but this is really a time for the organic material to decompose and welcome microbes and other creatures to make their home in our new garden. We are also augmenting the soil with our household compost, and we plan to plant a temporary groundcover in the fall that can be worked into the soil. Eventually, we will find plants, bushes and trees that allow for the soil to replenish itself while feeding the flora, thus the name permaculture.

Modern agriculture works from a different philosophy. We plant and harvest until the natural nutrients in the soil are exhausted. Then we may add fertilizer to the soil as a replacement for the natural nutrients. Or we may rotate the crops so that different nutrients are used. Or we may plant a temporary ground cover to plow into the soil and let the ground lie fallow while the soil absorbs the nutrients of the organic matter.

Even though most of us live far from our agrarian roots, I think they still have lessons to teach us.

In my work with congregational leaders I see some leaders who work hard in service of the church, and become burned out—sometimes to the point that they no longer want to be part of the church community. Some of these leaders might renew themselves with a volunteer sabbatical, but more often they have learned to associate church with a depletion of their time and energy.

But I also see other leaders who also work just as hard in service of the church, but don’t burn out. What is the difference? The leaders who are able to sustain hard work are in a mutual life-giving relationship with their faith community. These leaders find ways (or—better yet—the church leadership creates systems) so that the work is meaningful and impactful, and leaders’ hearts and spirits are fed and nurtured. The depth of planning worship, or participating in a small group is an important complement to the work of taking minutes or tracking the budget.

As we remind ourselves in our seventh principle, we are interconnected and interdependent in mutuality. May we create faith communities that live into that ideal.

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Congregational Life Staff, Central East Region

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Celebrating 200 Years of Universalism in Western New York

Many churches celebrate important anniversaries, but it’s rare that congregational historians take a wider view. But when Bill Parke, the Church Historian of the UU Church of Buffalo noted this anniversary, he researched the topic and came up with this lovely display and story.

2016 is a bicentennial year for our faith! All the way back in 1816, The Reverend Stephen R. Smith arrived here and began a preaching circuit, bringing a new religion — Universalism — to Buffalo and Western New York.


Take a moment, and teleport yourself back in me and imagine life in June, 1816 when 27-year old Mr. Smith arrived:

At this me, except on the great lateral roads from Genesee River and along the shore of Lake Erie, the settlements were comparatively few – and sometimes “far between.” There every thing but the eternal woods and waters, was new. –Almost every family still occupied its primitive log cabin–the roads were but cart-paths in the interminable forest–the streams were in most instances without bridges, and the soil deep enough to render every traveled way almost impassable. And yet, it was among these settlements, that the preacher of Universalism was to find hearers, and friends, and hope to raise up congregations!


Just a few years earlier, the village of Buffalo was overrun by British soldiers during the War of 1812. Nearly all its buildings burned. Recovery was slow. And just two Universalist societies existed in New York west of the Genesee River. But even if there weren’t churches, there were early believers: Benjamin Caryl, who helped found one of the village’s first businesses, a bank, was one. He had a house in Williamsville and invited Mr. Smith to stay with him and begin preaching. As a result, Universalism arrived in our land. Here is Mr. Smith’s own account:

On the 24th of June of this year (1816), a Masonic celebration in the then village of Buffalo, furnished a convient (sic) opportunity for the introduction of Universal Salvation into that place. The appointment was accordingly made; and at 5 o’clock, P.M. the same building and the same seats were occupied for the service, that had been fitted up for the festival. It was a new Barn, attached to one of the Taverns— and though its accommodations would now be thought rather humble, they were the best which the place afforded, and were duly appreciated by the citizens. A respectable auditory attended, and gave very patient and candid hearing to a discourse from the 6th ver. of 126th Psalm—“He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Mr. Smith found receptive audiences for his message and established a preaching circuit which, he wrote,

in its windings to and from the vicinity of Buffalo, embraced about two hundred and y miles. And from this time, during most of the year, this distance was very regularly traveled every four weeks. The number of discourses usually delivered in making the circuit, varied from twenty to thirty-two—that is, from five to eight per week.

What about in winter? After all, today many Buffalonians shy away from winter weather; but not the circuit riding preachers of yesteryear. Roads would be frozen and not muddy, making travel easier. In January, 1817, Mr. Smith wrote from Buffalo to his parents, “I have preached twenty-one times in twenty days.”

In most localities, Universalism was wholly unknown. Mr. Smith was “the pioneer, the first herald of salvation, within their borders.” Mr. Smith himself wrote, “Doors are opened everywhere, and the walls of Zion are, by the divine blessing, laid in fair colors.”

Having laid a foundation of faith, in 1817 Mr. Smith departed. Ensuing years brought ebbs and flows to Universalist fortunes here. Many open-minded Bu alonians were recep ve, but the Universalist message contrasted sharply with Christian beliefs of the time, and general acceptance was hard-won. Thank goodness for stalwarts like Benjamin Caryl. He helped establish the first permanent Universalist Church in Buffalo, by organizing the first board of trustees, signing a certificate of organization to form a congregation on December 6, 1831, and seeing a church built on Washington Street. Shortly after it was dedicated in August, 1833, Mr. Caryl wrote to Mr. Smith: “Br. Smith: We have got, as you have heard, a beautiful house dedicated to the worship of Almighty God, but unfortunately, we are destitute of a minister…” However, Mr. Smith could not be persuaded to return. Finally, in a turn of events presaged in words spoken by Mr. Smith in his first service in Buffalo in 1816 — “He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” — Mr. Smith did return to Buffalo, commencing a ministry on the 1st day of May, 1843 and remaining in the pulpit for six years. The city was booming, the church “was highly prosperous and, above all, there was aboard in the place and neighborhood a spirit of deep religious inquiry.”

In time, however, Mr. Smith’s exertions over the decades took their toll. He preached his last sermon in the Buffalo church in 1849. In declining health, he was forced to give up his beloved pulpit. Then, one Sunday in February, 1850, the end arrived. And in fitting fashion, Mr. Smith connected with his faith — and our church — on his last day: “When the bells rang for church in the morning, he listened to them with deep interest, and finally selected that of the Universalist church from among the rest, and appeared to listen to it with unusual pleasure.” At the end of the day, “— in calmness, in peace, in purity, — closed the earthly career of one of the best of husbands, one of the best of fathers, one of the purest and most upright and exemplary of men, and one of the most eminent and faithful of the disciples of Christ and servants of God.”

Bill Parke, Church Historian
November 4, 2016

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