Friday, 2 April 2010

Managing your minister

How do you manage your minister?

Trick question... "manage" is the wrong word.

I gave a presentation at the Midland Unitarian Association's AGM a week ago in Birmingham. [Kudos to the MUA leadership! They run a good meeting (even with building alarm bells ringing), they are doing a great job running the district, and they put on a brilliant spread for lunch!]

I talked about congregational growth [of course]. I talked about "letting go." (The whole slide set from the presentation is available online here)

Growing our congregations is not about getting more people like us to preserve what we have now and make it a little bit bigger with a little bit more money. Growing is about letting go of our grip on Unitarianism and the way it is today. This is a religion that was built to change and built to be in motion, so any notion of 'preservation' is not only ineffective, it is frankly un-Unitarian!

I wasn't talking about tactics but about something much harder - the fact that healthy, authentic, robust, faithful growth can really only happen when we are prepared to give our congregations and our entire movement away!  Growth requires letting go. Grasping and clinging on to what we have today keeps it small and guarantees its decline.

There can be no message harder to hear than to let go of what you love. [I remember hearing that old line about "if you love something, let it go..." when I was a kid. I though it was ridiculous then! I'm not sure I buy it entirely now!!] Very few of us came to a congregation with giving on our minds. We were looking for something to sustain and nurture us. When we found it, we were sure that we didn't want it to change dramatically. To their great credit, the MUA crowd seemed to accept what I was saying.

[Of course, as I said to a someone looking for donations in the street the other day using my most American voice, "I don't speak British."  It may be that they completely disagreed and the nodding and positive feedback was simply 'British' for what Americans would phrase as "get out of town now or we'll kill you." I checked in the mirror for knives sticking out of my back and there were none... so I remain hopeful.]

In my presentation, I suggested two ways we needed to let go. The first is to "them" - the people who seem 'different' and who will change Unitarianism if we let them. Let them!  They are the future and even if we don't like it any more than the generation before us liked what we did to Unitarianism, letting go is what a faithful Unitarian, a faithful congregation, and a faithful movement does.

It was the second type of letting go where I felt myself get nervous. I was talking about letting go to leadership.  While I was including all qualified and capable leaders in "leadership," I realized as I was saying it that I was certainly talking about ministers - of which I am one. I knew that in an audience that was almost exclusively non-ministers - many of whom have had bad experiences with ministers - that what I was saying could seem self-serving.

"How do you work with a solicitor, a doctor, a chef, a carpenter, or an accountant?" I asked.  Do you tell a solicitor what words to use and what legal precedents to cite? Do you tell a doctor what diagnosis to reach and what treatment to offer? Do you tell the carpenter what kind of screws and glue to use and what saw to cut with?

The way you work with these professionals is collaboration. You do what you do best - which is say how you feel and the desired outcome. You let them - the expert - determine how to get there. It has to be the same with ministers.

And, I said, if you don't like the way your legal case is going, or your health is not improving, or your meal doesn't tasted good, or your bookcase is not shaping up in the way you asked, and if your feedback doesn't get what you want from these professionals, what do you do? You fire them. Yes, that's what I said... Give your minister the freedom to act as he or she sees fit to pursue the vision that the vision at which the congregation has faithfully arrived. Trust that they are the professional. If they don't do it - if they can't do it - get a new minister.

This is not obvious to everyone. Committee members often don't know how to work with ministers.  They may take their cue from the world of management and supervision where they see themselves as 'the boss' and the minister is the 'employee.' This not only makes a mockery of our tradition - it is not only demeaning to a committed capable minister - it is just plain ineffective. I am convinced that many of our congregations are in such bad shape because they want to treat a ministers like an employees and manage them, rather than treat them like professionals and collaborate.

And then came the comment from the audience that threw me... I wasn't prepared and I didn't have a good response. The comment was essentially, "there aren't enough good ministers." What it meant was that we can't fire a bad minister because we can't get a better one!

There are not enough British Unitarian ministers at all, and not all of us are up to the challenge of taking a dying congregation and helping it become a growing thriving one.

I mumbled some sort of answer. It wasn't satisfactory.

I've been thinking about it. There is no answer that is politically palatable, so I'll just be my direct American self and say what I think. I offer two answers:
  1. If there is no adequate minister where you are, then import one. There are about 38 active non-retired British Unitarian ministers. There are about 1,000 American UU ministers. Yes, I know there is a cultural divide between the countries. There are vast cultural differences within the UK too. Would national origin really be an insurmountable obstacle for many congregations when their future hangs in the balance? I hope not.  The immigration challenges are not a major issue! I'll be happy to explain about that to anyone who asks.

  2. Help your minister to become the minister you need. No minister knows everything. Most ministers trained in the British Unitarian system have not studied congregational growth. They have generally not spent much time working with a successful minister or with a growing congregation. The brevity and nature of their training leaves many important skills underdeveloped. If it's needed, insist on ongoing training for your minister. Arrange that training wherever the best training is available. It may be British Unitarian, but open your horizons to consider other British religious movements, secular training, and online training from other countries. Require continuing education. Give the minister the time to do this work. Pay the expenses. It is an investment in the future of your congregation and in your movement. We should be doing this for all ministers in any case. What serious profession does not have continuing education?
Thanks again to the MUA for giving me the opportunity to speak to them and for their open-minded reception!  There is faith in the Midlands!


    1. Yes, yes, yes!

    2. A lot of really good stuff here Andy.

      Yes, we need to work hard at recruiting new ministers, and the training should be increased to three years.

      In the meantime we are going to need to recruit American ministers, but perhaps this needs to happen in a more sytematic way. American ministers need to realise its not just UUism with a different accent. They need to much more have the attitude that they would have if they were going to become ministers in the Brahmo Samaj in India: understanding that this is an entirely different religious movement in a different culture. In other words they need to understand themselves as missionaries. Good mission theory will tell you you need to spend a good amount of time studying the culture before you can engage with it. Perhaps there's a better way we can help American ministers adjust to cultural and religious differences.

      Summer internships for American seminarians would also help with recruitment.

    3. Thanks Stephen. I'm pleased that the ideas in the post strike you positively. I think your suggestion of using short-term internships or placements would be a great way to begin generating interest for recruiting!

      I hope too that we can see the length and depth of our British ministry training increased.

      I do agree that there is some cultural acclimation to be done when overseas ministers come here. The extent of that depends on the part of the UK and whether the congregation is rural or urban. I know that London is not Britain [I've been told to think of it as a different country altogether!], but at least in London, adapting has not been a case of entering into a completely different culture. It has been no more [and no less!] of a dramatic shift than going to a US congregation in a different location or with a different socioeconomic makeup.

      Interestingly, when British ministers have gone to the US, there have not been major concerns raised about cultural training. I don't know if that is because the American UU culture is more open to diversity or that Americans are simply more accepting of the the British than vice versa.

      I have had the label "young American" hurled at me as an insult here - and a room full of British people voiced no objection whatsoever to the comment. [I'm delighted by the 'young' part, btw...] I do wonder if part of the perceived incompatibility has to do with a more specific negative attitude toward Americans. Perhaps at least some of the cultural work needs to be with the congregation receiving an 'imported minister' and not simply adapting the minister to the congregation?


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    5. Think I've posted here before calling for American "missionaries" to save British Unitarianism from itself... in any case I agree wholeheartedly with Andy's call - let's hope its taken up.

      Culturally I think Stephen has a point however - some kind of induction could be useful. As Oscar Wilde said, we are two cultures divided by a common language. I think it is easier for the British to go West because our media has been dominated by American shows/ films for years, and also the British are less demonstrative - as a non-ideological culture they don't really have a point to make, while you Americans often appear (and perhaps are!) much more "driven"...

      Actually, I don't think congregations are the bar to progress, more an excuse. Surely the real problem must be at the top, in so much as the leadership is not now, this very moment, actively seeking to inject new blood and ideas in to the church and thereby keep it alive. The excuse I presume is that the "three old ladies" who make up too many dying congregations wouldn't like it, but I suspect those old ladies might be rather more tolerant than the decision-makers in the movement itself - a good minister would after all make space for them as well as opening it up for others. Surely that's the point of Unitarianism - modern Unitarianism at any rate.

      Another concern is of course that for all their talk about inclusiveness, the leadership really want to hang on to a form of British Unitarianism that went out of fashion in around 1900 and most people left. Perhaps they see themselves as protecting the "true" Unitarian religion, which is understandable but does not stand up to much scrutiny - Unitarianism by its own definition rejects dogma and embraces the world as it is, hence its insistence of "Jesus the man". Hanging on to a Victorian conception of what Unitarianism is is like rejecting television, modern medicine and the internet which in which case I suppose we don't have to worry about them reading any of this!

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    7. Interesting discussion. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the comment that a Wiccan friend of mine posted on my article about Pagan tendencies in Unitarianism: Mmm, the conversation we had with our local Unitarian minister at Todmorden's Unitarian church was very much along the lines of "oh we couldn't use the church for any Pagan celebrations"

      I think perhaps one wouldn't open the conversation with "can we use your church for Pagan ritual" but by responding in the way that he did, that person missed an opportunity for growth, as I had told my friend about the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network and how inclusive we are, but that response put my friend off completely, I imagine. I have also read similar stories from members of UESN who have gone to their local Unitarian church, only to be told that there won't be any mention of the Goddess / Divine Feminine.

      As a relative newcomer to Unitarianism, I don't think I can expect it all to change instantly; trust has to be created on both sides - but I think people should be open to newcomers' ideas.

    8. Hi Yewtree

      We do various pagan/Paganish celebrations in my congregation, so I certainly can't relate to the notion that Pagan is off-limits.

      I think this points to a tremendous differences between congregations as to how much diversity they will permit. This may not have been so much a question of new ways vs old as it was a question of theological openness.

      I do insist that we must draw some boundaries, but mine would be primarily around keeping an open heart and open mind and not permitting abuse of any kind. This would exclude any group or person that insists aggressively that there is only one answer, one path, or one way.

      Open-minded, open-hearted Pagan practitioners who affirm Unitarian values should - in my view - be welcomed with open arms.


    9. Hi Andy,

      Oops, er...I guess it was was me that probably caused you the consternation at the MUA. Certainly not meant.

      The backdrop was;
      1.We realised that we needed a new Minister at our `New Meeting Church` to take over from the brilliant but exhausted and `retired` existing Minister-all this was agreed with her full support. We have subsequently applied, so far unsuccessfully, for a funding contribution toward this appointment.
      2.Disappointing though this was, there was the blunt reality also that there aren`t that many Ministers out there anyway, and new trainees were/are very thin on the ground.

      So even though the comment could naturally be read in the way you interpreted above,it was offered,if you like , out of a frustration that
      (a))Yes, there aren`t that many Ministers around and...
      (b) Just maybe the `leadership` of our national community hasn`t quite come to grips with how significant this issue is.

      This needs to be a priority for the GA. Growth and renewal needs effective leadership, full stop. Financial capacity needs to be prioritised in this area.

      So that was the logic if you like behind the comment. It was an observation on the current state of play rather than a criticism of any propositions you were offering. Unfortunately it may have come across as one of those `deflating` comments that no one really needs.

      Thanks for the thoughts you have since given to this matter, and they`re certainly one`s we shall give full consideration to. Thanks also for your excellent contribution to the meeting in Birmingham-it was a breath of fresh air.

      Keep doing what you`re doing. Not a deeply philosophical comment, but totally relevant.

      Kind regards,

    10. Hi Ash - I was truly grateful for the comment because it made me think more deeply about this. That's what we need to do. Not deflating, but appropriately challenging!

      btw, I'm pretty sure it wasn't your comment... but I do appreciate everything you said above!


    11. I do insist that we must draw some boundaries, but mine would be primarily around keeping an open heart and open mind and not permitting abuse of any kind. This would exclude any group or person that insists aggressively that there is only one answer, one path, or one way.

      I agree very strongly, and think this is why most Pagans are natural allies of Unitarianism, if only some Pagans could get over their Christianophobia. Most Pagans take the view that all religions are different perspectives on the same underlying reality, and the reason they get riled with Christians is because most Christians take the opposite view.

    12. Perhaps the reason my congregation doesn't have a problem is that Christianity is just one of the many flavours present - no the dominant or default one...