Monthly Archives: November 2009

Intergenerational worship service

Series of entries in my teaching diary about an experimental Sunday school class. First entry.

We didn’t have Sunday school today; instead we had an intergenerational worship service. Dorit and her mom forgot that it was going to be an intergenerational worship service, so Dorit came up to me before the service started, and said, “We made banana-nut muffins for class today!” I ahd to explain that there was no class today. Dorit, being Dorit, heard this news with equanimity, and we quickly figured out a way to share the muffins after the service. Heather also came this week, and I think a couple of our other regular Sunday school attendees.

Amy, our parish minister, and I had thought hard about how to make this intergnerational worship service both kid-friendly and meaningful to adults. We decided not to change the order of service; we wanted children to experience a normal order of service as part of their religious education. We talked with the lay worship associate, Dave, about how to communicate the theme for the worship service, which was “gratefulness.” We made sure children and young people would be part of leading the service. And we made sure that no one element of the service would last too long.

The prelude was played by a 7th grader from the morning session, who is an accomplished classical guitarist. Dave lit the chalice, and told briefly how the chalice grew out of the work of the Unitarian Service Committee in the Second World War, and how the chalice still symbolizes our commitment to living out our faith through social justice work. I told the old story of Thanksgiving. In his reflection, Dave mentioned many of the things for which he felt grateful. The Children’s Choir sang twice, once early in the service and once at the offertory. Amy began her homily with a reference to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and she looked ahead to the Christmas buying season telling us that while nowadays we are meant to believe that the best gifts have to be purchased, that isn’t necessarily so.

The Children’s Choir had to sit through all this twice. They were not as attentive in the second service as they had been in the first service, but they stayed calm — and they seemed to quite enjoy hearing the adult choir sing at the second service. At the beginning of the service, Heather had left her parents and gone to site with the eight girls of the Children’s Choir. After the service, I heard that Heather was going to start singing with the Choir — since they rehearse between the two worship services, I hope that Heather will still be able to attend the 11:00 Sunday school.


(a) We have the children attend intergenerational worship services to help us reach our goal of raising children who are likely to become Unitarian Universalist adults. If children don’t get to attend worship services with a fairly ordinary order of service, if they don’t learn how to sit through homilies and sermons and reflections, I believe that when they get to be adults it will be more difficult for them to make the transition into the adult religious community.

(b) I believe a key educational moment in this intergenerational worship service was having the Children’s Choir sing. Although this is a new choir (less than a year old), they have come a long way: they had good volume, good intonation, good enunciation, and it was pleasant to listen to them. Obviously, they made an impact on Heather; whether she wants to join them because they sounded good or because she wants to hang out with other girls her age doesn’t matter much. What does matter is that now Heather can see herself as being one of the children who will participate in the worship service. As for the children who have no interest in singing in the Children’s Choir, they now see that children can contribute to worship, and are an important and valued part of the congregation.

Can introverts lead? Boy, I hope so….

In previous posts, I’ve reflected on the role of board and staff; concluded that the parish minister is psychologically central to congregations; and detailed what I think the parish minister’s role should be in mid-size congregations. Obviously, all of what I’ve been saying are my personal opinions, but now I want to get really personal — I want to talk my own feelings about what I feel should be the personal characteristics of the ideal parish minister.

The cover story of the 17 November 2009 issue of Christian Century magazine is titled “Can Introverts Lead?” When I saw this cover, and read this question, I thought to myself, “Boy, I hope so; otherwise I am so screwed” — because I’m definitely an introvert, my job requires me to be a leader, so I had better hope that introverts can lead.

Adam S. McHugh, who wrote the article, is an introverted minister, and he has wrestled with this issue himself. He writes: “There may be no other feature of American life that contains as much bias towards extroversion as leadership…. Psychologist and author Marti Olsen Laney cites a study that was repeated three times with the same findings: when asked if they would prefer their leaders to be introverted or extroverted, both introverts and extroverts chose an extrovert as ‘their ideal self and ideal leader’.” McHugh says that other studies have shown that successful leaders are characterized by five attributes: openness to experience, emotional stability, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and — you guessed it — extroversion.

Mc Hugh goes on to outline what he perceives as the particular “mold of leadership” held by our American “collective cultural subconscious.” He says that Americans want their leaders to be charismatic, dominant, gregarious, and to be superstars. Since ministers are leaders, we Americans tend to expect our ministers to have all these characteristics. McHugh talked to one solo pastor who said, “Most church cultures have expectations for pastors that no single person could ever fulfill. They want sermons that are … deep, thoughtful, and well-prepared, but they also want the outgoing, extroverted, people person, as well as the CEO mover and shaker. These seldom come in one person. This may be one reason why so many drop out of [parish] ministry in five or ten years.”

So then McHugh challenges these notions of leadership. Citing Jim Collin’s book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, McHugh states that “glitzy, dynamic, high-profile CEOs are actually a hindrance to the long-term success of their corporations.” Instead, McHugh believes that the leaders who will contribute to the long-term success of institutions “display compelling modesty, are self-effacing, and understated…. [they] display a workmanlike diligence [and] set up their successors for even greater success….” Instead of relying on charisma, McHugh wants leaders who are thoughtful and reflective, and who help their organizations learn, adapt, and reflect critically on their own behavior.

At the end of his essay, McHugh tells us he wants us leaders who engage in “sensemaking,” that is, who help people to make sense of what they are doing together, so that people understand what they are doing, and become more committed to what they are doing.

I think McHugh’s essay gives a good capsule description of what a parish minister should do as the chief executive of a congregation. We don’t want parish ministers who are glitzy, egocentric CEO-types. We don’t want parish ministers who rely on charisma, dominance, gregariousness, and superstardom. Instead, we want modest, self-effacing, understated, diligent ministers who set up their successors for even greater success. Above all, we want parish ministers who lead by making sense of things, so that we make sense of what it is that we are doing together, and through understanding become more committed to what we are doing.

I don’t want to limit this type of leadership to introverts, however — and I think McHugh is a little off-base on this point. We can’t equate extroversion with dominance, egocentricity, and CEO-like behavior; there are plenty of extroverts who are modest, self-effacing, and understated. Similarly, both extroverts and introverts can engage in “sensemaking” — which he has convinced me is one of the key tasks of the minister as leader.

As I reflect on what I want a minister to do as a leader in a local congregation, above all I want the minister to be a “sensemaker” — to help me make sense out of what we are doing, so that I can renew and deepen my commitment to our shared work. Next on my list: I want the minister to work towards setting up his/her successor for future success (which may mean that I don’t know how good a minister really is until s/he has been away from the congregation for ten years). Next on my list: I want the minister to be modest, understated, and self-effacing, so that (to paraphrase the old Taoist teaching) when the minister is gone, the people will say, We have done it ourselves.

So that’s what I want a minister to be like. That’s how I want the parish minister to relate to the board: as a “sensemaker.” That’s also why I want the minister to be head of staff: as a “sensemaker” who helps staff deepen their commitment to the congregation’s goals. That’s how I want the parish minister to be psychologically central: as a modest and self-effacing person who will help the people to understand that they did it themselves.

Well, this is just another ideal; as an ideal, I’m sure it’s impossible to reach. We’re stuck with us ordinary human ministers in ordinary human congregations, where there are no absolutes, where we just do the best we can. And even though the charismatic glitzy CEO-type minister (Rick Warren, Joel Osteen) is probably preferred by most Americans, I’d rather be in a congregation that valued the ideal of a self-effacing, diligent, understated, introverted, “sensemaking” minister.

Mid-life learning

Someone said something at our ministers’ meeting on Thursday that really got me thinking (you know I can’t tell you who said it, or what they said, because of our confidentiality agreement). It was a simple thing, said in passing about a common human situation, but what this person said made me more aware of something inside me. I thought to myself: Oh, I need to look for that in myself! that’s a part of me I haven’t really explored before. And I thought: Will I ever come to the level of wisdom that this person has come to? — for I was suddenly aware of how little I know, I was suddenly aware that there are vast regions of human wisdom that I have never explored at all.

Oddly, I didn’t despair at such sudden awareness of my own gross ignorance of my self; I felt relieved, I felt feelings that I hadn’t been aware of before, I felt a little excited at these new realms to be explored. I think this is the best part of middle age: I keep on finding vast new areas of life to explore.

CEO? Nope. PM? Yes, like it or not.

In a previous post, I wrote about the psychological centrality of the chief executive in nonprofit organizations. Applied to congregations, that would mean that a primary role of the parish minister is to enable and facilitate the board in carrying out the mission and goals of the congregation. So what does this mean in an actual congregation?

Congregations are a very specific subset of the much broader category of nonprofit institution. All Unitarian Universalist congregations, for example, have relatively small budgets and relatively small staffs, compared to the rest of the nonprofit world (much smaller, say, than the United Way or a nonprofit hospital group like Kaiser Permanente). All Unitarian Universalist congregations can be classed as membership organizations, where ultimate authority is vested in the membership (on paper, at least), where the primary funding comes from the membership, and where most of the work is done by volunteers rather than by paid staff. All Unitarian Universalist congregations are fairly constrained in their mission goals, by virtue of being a religious institution, and by virtue of being Unitarian Universalist.

Thus, to say that a parish minister is the chief executive of a congregation means something very different than saying someone is the chief executive of Kaiser Permanente. I’m using “chief executive” in a very broad sense here. In recent years, some Unitarian Universalists have taken to calling their minister a “CEO,” short for “chief executive officer.” This strikes me as ludicrous. The chief executive of Kaiser Permanente is a CEO; a parish minister is a parish minister. We can call both the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, and the half-time parish minister of a small congregation in Hoople, North Dakota, a chief executive — but the only two things they hold in common are their psychological centrality, and the fact that each should serve enable and facilitate the board to carry out the mission and goals of their respective organizations. So when someone refers to a Unitarian Universalist minister as a “CEO,” that makes me embarrassed — embarrassed for the person speaking, and embarrassed for the poor parish minister that person is trying to push into such an unlikely role. A parish minister may be a chief executive, but a parish minister is a PM, not a CEO.

Now let’s get down to specifics. As chief executive, what specific tasks should the parish minister take on? Answers will vary widely depending on the size of the congregation, and whether the parish minister is a full-time employee or not. For the sake of simplification, I’m going to focus on parish ministers in mid-size Unitarian Universalist congregations, that is, congregations with a year-round weekly average attendance of about 150 to about 300 adults and children. (Maybe some other time I’ll write about smaller congregations.) When a congregation gets above 150 average attendance, there is no way the parish minister can do everything him- or herself, and there will almost certainly be other paid staff members, which means that the parish minister is going to have to supervise other staff members in order to carry out the mission and goals of the congregation. Continue reading

Who’s psychologically central?

I’m in the middle of reading “Executive Leadership,” by Robert Herman and Dick Heimovics, an essay in The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (1st ed.). Herman and Heimovics carried out research to see who gets the blame when things go wrong in a nonprofit organization, and who gets the credit when things go right. Not surprisingly, Herman and Heimovics found that chief executives get the credit when things go right, and they take the blame when things go wrong. And when things go wrong, “board presidents and staff… saw the chief executive as most responsible, assigning less responsibility to themselves or to luck.”

For this and other reasons, Herman and Heimovics believe that we have to accept the “centrality” of chief executives of nonprofits. They are careful to state that their perspective “abandons assumptions of hierarchically imposed order” and instead their perspective acknowledges that what a nonprofit organization is and does emerges out of real-world interactions. They are empiricists: because their research shows that people in the nonprofit perceive the chief executive as “primarily responsible for the conduct of organizational affairs,” that means chief executives have to “accept the the responsibility for enabling their boards to carry out their leadership roles”; and boards have to accept this same fact.

What Herman and Heimovics also find is that if a nonprofit accepts this fact, the organization is likely to become more effective. They point out that “boards are much more likely to be active, effective bodies when they are supported by a chief executive who, recognizing his or her psychological centrality, is willing and able to serve the board as enabler and facilitator.”

My experience working in congregations leads me to think that congregations are no different than other nonprofit organizations in this respect. The parish minister (or senior minister in congregations with more than one minister) is the one with “psychological centrality.” Therefore, the parish minister serves the board as “enabler and facilitator,” making sure the board does its job: carrying out the mission of the congregation, and fulfilling the board’s legal and ethical obligations.

I’ll add something else to that from my own observations serving in a number of congregations.

Sometimes other staff try to partake of that “psychological centrality,” and it never works well. Co-ministers tend to confuse the congregation, and typically one of the co-ministers is perceived as “the real minister” (or, when the co-ministers are a married couple, you’ll inevitably hear someone in the congregation making a sexist remark about “who really wears the pants in that marriage”) — yes, you can have successful co-ministries, but success requires constant re-education of the congregation, and consequently requires constant extra expenditure of effort, time, and energy. Second ministers on staff (or a co-minister who is perceived as a second minister) may want to become more “psychologically central,” but congregations never seem to accept such a move, and may work actively to keep that second minister in a secondary role by minimizing compensation, respect, and affection. Other staff may sometimes try to become psychologically central — I’ve seen music directors, parish administrators, and directors of religious education (DREs) who have tried to elbow the senior minister out psychological centrality — but when other staff try to become central, they inevitably become destructive, so that even when they succeed in becoming psychologically central or even in getting the minister fired, the congregation will pay a steep price in loss of trust, organizational chaos, and decreased ineffectiveness of the board.

Two obvious conclusions: (1) Accept the fact that the parish minister is psychologically central. (2) Accept the fact that the parish minister is the one who has to enable and facilitate the board. And I think I’ll add three corollaries: (a) Parish ministers should be heads of staff; since parish ministers are taking the blame for staff failures anyway, we might was well give them the power of supervising staff. (b) Second ministers, DREs, music directors, etc., had better learn that they can’t be psychologically central (and we can help them learn this by having them report to the parish minister). (c) In an era of rising costs and flat revenues, we need to increase efficiency in our congregations, and by acknowledging that the parish minister is central we are going to make the parish minister and the board more efficient and more effective.

Next post in this series on ministers as leaders.

“Option D”

My dad and I have been talking a lot about humanism. So when it was time for me to preach here in Palo Alto back on November 1 (I only preach twice a year), I decided to preach about humanism. When faced with the question “Do you believe in God?” our society likes to force us to choose from three options: (A) Yes. (B) No. (C) Don’t care or don’t know. In the sermon, I held out for a fourth choice: (D) All of the above. So, Dad, the text of this sermon is now online.

You know you want to try this.

Bay Area Sacred Harp (BASH), the people I sing with most Monday nights, will be singing at the open house at Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse this Saturday. We’ll be there from 2-4 p.m. singing traditional 18th-20th C. American 4-part harmony — low-stress workshop, some instruction by BASH’s experienced singers, lots of (slow) singing, fun people to hang out with. And hey, it’s free.

Reflecting on the role of board and staff in congregations

Recently, I’ve been reviewing The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994; now superseded by the second edition). In the essay titled “Board Leadership and Board Development,” I was struck by this passage on the roles of board members and staff:

“One of the conventional pieces of wisdom in nonprofit governance is the adage that policy should be made by the board and implemented by the staff. While the underlying principles is sound, the aphorism itself is an oversimplification. In The Board Member’s Book, Brian O’Connell (1985, p. 44) states the following objection: ‘The worst illusion ever perpetrated in the nonprofit field is that the board of directors makes policy and the staff carries it out. This is just no so. The board, with the help of staff, makes policy, and the board, with the help of staff, carries it out…. Also, it is naive to assume that the staff doesn’t have considerable influence — usually too much — on policy formulation.’ [pp. 131-132]”

This argument is developed in more depth, and is worth reading. But it confirms two assumptions that I make as a staff member of the specialized nonprofit organization which is a congregation:– (1) Since board members are ultimately the ones who are legally liable for actions of the board and the organization, therefore I assume that as a staff member one of my primary obligations is to be sure that the organization complies with the law. (2) I assume that the best way for me as a staff member to aid the board in setting policy is for me either (a) to be a sort of organizational archaeologist and help identify a mission and goals that are already present in the congregation but not clearly visible; and/or (b) since Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to have similar missions and goals, to be a sort of organizational field anthropologist and report on the best missions and goals that can be found in other similar Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Obviously, in all Unitarian Universalist congregations, there will certain commonalities; and obviously, as a minister trained in Unitarian Universalist practices and values, I am in a position to educate a given board about such practices and values. But no matter what I say or think, it is ultimately the board’s responsibility to implement Unitarian Universalist values and practices in a specific local congregation — which I should let them do, even if I disagree with them — because “the board, with the help of staff, makes policy, and the board, with the help of staff, carries it out….”

Next post in this series on ministers as leaders.

Winter: dark, wet, and green

By now, the sun had gotten about as low in the sky as it will get. We will lose a few more minutes of daylight between now and the winter solstice, but it almost won’t be noticeable.

Over the weekend, we got some more rain, not a great deal of it, but enough to make a difference to growing plants. While the hillsides still look brown, there are even more tender green shoots coming up in odd places.

Mass American culture tells us that spring is associated with tender green shoots and lengthening days. But that’s not the way the seasons work here. Right now, our days are short, and at the same time we have tender green shoots coming up. We don’t dash through the snow to get to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving; we dash through rain showers and greenery. The Advent or Yule season is dark, just as it is throughout the northern hemisphere, but it is also wet and green. Mass American culture stems from North Atlantic culture, but parts of it just don’t apply to the Pacific Rim.