Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Transitions (long)

OK, it’s official: as of midnight August 20th I am no longer the settled Parish Minister of the [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], Massachusetts. And even though I’ve been out of the parsonage for several weeks now (at their request, so that they could prepare it to rent out to new tenants), living here in Portland and ramping up for the start of the new program year with my new congregation, I’m still feeling very much “in transition,” and trying to find closure on my four year ministry among the mosquitos in Thoreau’s “City in the Woods.”

But first, the Big Move. The crew of two strong, healthy young men and a rented truck was scheduled to arrive at 10 am two weeks ago Friday to help me finish packing what I thought would be “a few last things,” then load the truck for the two hour drive back to my new place here in Portland. A week earlier I’d rented both a lovely two-bedroom walk-up apartment on the second floor of an old Victorian house in the West End, and also a studio at the Eastland Park Hotel (which I’m planning to use as my study), and I thought I’d been pretty specific over the phone about everything that needed to be moved. But when the truck pulled into my driveway (at about a quarter of 11), the two strong, healthy young men took one look at the stuff I’d packed so far and said “We’re going to need a bigger truck.”

So they called their boss back in Maine, who arrived around 2 pm with yet another guy and a second truck, and between the five of us we managed to get everything packed up and loaded by around 7 pm. When we arrived back in Portland two hours later, we were met by two MORE guys, and still it took us until nearly 2 AM to get both trucks unloaded.

As they left one of the strong, healthy young men mentioned to me that there had been over 250 cartons of books alone (I’d lost count after the third trip to the store to buy more boxes), so if you figure an average of 20-25 books/box...well, you can do the math. And no, I haven’t read all of them; haven't even come close. I could probably start reading right now and do nothing else for the rest of my life, and still not finish them all before I died. So keep your eyes peeled for a “help me find my peace of mind by buying a piece of my mind” used book sale. I mean, do I REALLY need six copies of Walden? Simplify! Simplify!

I’ve also been thinking about my UUA exit interview, which for various reasons (time, distance, conflicting schedules, and intervening events like the death of my mom) I still haven’t completed. But at least I've seen the exit interviews from the previous minister and lay leaders of my present congregation, so I kind of know what I’m in for. The first two questions are “What do you see as the three most significant accomplishments during your tenure?” and “What were your frustrations and disappointments during this time?” -- and that little one-two punch alone is enough to lay me out cold. Because in many ways, my entire four year tenure in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], was simply one long ordeal of frustration and disappointment. And even though four years is the longest I’ve ever served any single congregation, it still feels like I accomplished very little there.

The reasons for this are complicated, but one key theme I’ve identified is that most of the other congregations I’ve worked with in the past were highly motivated to change and grow, and had contracted with me specifically to facilitate that change and guide them through it. But in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT, AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES}, as it turned out, the situation was just the opposite. This was a congregation which had pretty much done things the same way for so long (and already felt like everything was perfect and they could do no wrong), that over the years they had gradually lost touch with their growing edge in the surrounding community, as well as started to lag seriously behind their nearby neighboring UU congregations in terms of Programing, Stewardship, and Membership Growth. Many of them envied all the excitement and activity of the so-called full service "Program" churches they saw all around them, in Concord, Bedford and especially Littleton; but at the end of the day the stubborn minority didn’t really want to have to pay the price of change and growth...or for that matter, really change or grow at all.

I know it’s a cliché that New England churches are set in their ways, change-resistant and conflict-avoidant, reserved, tightfisted, and frugal to the point of parsimony, but I'd always thought that those were just stereotypes. And despite its "rurality" (a made-up word frequently used by [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] to describe the attractiveness of their idyllic "faux rural" suburban lifestyle), [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] is anything but your typical New England small town. Statistically, [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] is the third wealthiest community in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (trailing only Weston and Dover). The median household income in this affluent and privileged bedroom community of two acre minimum zoning is $144,000/year (and the average closer to a quarter-million). Housing prices start at around a half-million dollars...for a tear-down. But the average pledge at the [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], was (and, unfortunately remains) less than $1000/year -- two-thirds of what it is in both neighboring Concord and Bedford. Correspondingly, my salary was only two-thirds of what a High School teacher with similar credentials is paid at Concord/[NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], High School. And, unlike those schoolteachers, I did not receive a single raise (or even a Cost Of Living Adjustment) the entire four years I worked there.

But enough of my whiney bad attitude. There were a lot of good things about my ministry in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] too. In fairness, the faults of the congregation in many ways merely reflected the larger faults of the town itself, where taxes are high and expectations even higher, and nobody wants ANYTHING in their back yard (except maybe acres and acres of town-owned Conservation Land). The church itself was actually one of the happier and more humane landmarks on the landscape of that community, and one of the few places (apart from the Post Office, the Public Library, the little "Country Store" and the Transfer Station) where someone could actually sit down and speak with their "Neighbours & Fellow Cretures." I made a more than a few new friends there myself, did some especially effective one-on-one pastoral care, dragged the church kicking and screaming (and I do mean kicking and screaming, and at times even biting and scratching) through the Welcoming Congregation process, and was at least able to bring out into the open some of the (how should I say?) "less-than-optimal" institutional dynamics that were frustrating to everyone and holding the church back. Our All-Church "Open Space" Visioning Event last February was truly inspiring, and almost tempted me to stick around a little longer. But God was calling me to "a greater field of service," so once again this restless, peripetatic soul packed his library and migrated back to the sea.

And I guess I would have to say that this was my most important learning experience in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES. There is an awful lot of territory between perfection and catastrophic failure. Most leadership takes place somewhere in that ambiguous realm between “Sustaining Success” (and possibly even eventually “taking it to the next level”) and the painfully obvious need for a dramatic “Turnaround.” The [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] could have been a textbook example of what Harvard Business School professor Michael Watkins calls a “Realignment” situation, where the greatest institutional challenges are not so much finding new technical solutions to glaring technical problems, but rather getting people to see and recognize that there are problems to begin with, and then creating the momentum (and sense of urgency) to build upon existing strengths in order to overcome those shortcomings. It’s about navigating institutional cultural and politics rather than providing professional expertise; or, more precisely, about changing culture by introducing new “external” benchmarks, and getting complacent people to buy in to re-evaluating old standards of success and performance which are now out of touch with evolving external challenges.

Once I’d figured this out, it became my mantra for the last year and a half of my ministry there, although by that point I already had one foot out the door anyway, so I’m not really sure how effective I was. I started out as a cheerleader, but I ended up a scold.... And I never really did get a chance to be the quarterback -- that would have just been too much authority for someone who basically earns less than a schoolteacher. In fact, I couldn't even get them to look at the playbook.

On a more positive personal note, I also arrived in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES]with an undiagnosed health problem (sleep apnea) that one of my parishioners noticed (since her husband suffered from the same issue), and since being effectively treated for that my quality of life and general energy levels have improved dramatically. And I still feel like [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES]was a good place for me to land after completing a very satisfying two-year interim ministry on Nantucket (which was unfortunately accompanied by the end of my 18 year marriage). And it did serve as the springboard for me being called to this pulpit in Portland, about which I could not be more thrilled. I’m sure as time passes and memories fade, the things I will recall most will be the happier times, and not the financial stinginess, the petty bickering, and (of course) the ubiquitous mosquitos. And it really is a very pretty little church. Always looked beautiful on my business card, or at the top of my Annual Christmas letter.

In any case, (and with a tip of the hat to the movie “High Fidelity”), here are the top five things I am going to miss about my ministry in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES]...

5) Concord. And not just the “historic” Concord of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Old Manse, Little Women and Walden Pond, but the community of Concord...with its restaurants and bookstores, its active adult recreation program, its train connection into Boston, and all the other little cultural amenities which [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], lacks. I’m especially going to miss the Monday/Wednesday Over-35 pick-up basketball games at the Hunt Gym. Those guys were great fun to play with (with one or two exceptions) as those of you who have ever read my Obi-Wannabe-Kobe blog already know.

4) The Neighborhood of Boston. Harvard University. Davis Square. The North End. The Quincy Market and Fanueil Hall. The Boston Athenaeum and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Fenway Park. Beacon Hill and the Back Bay. Not to mention UUA headquarters and all my wonderful colleagues in the Mass Bay, Ballou/Channing, and Clara Barton Districts. Even though I grew up in Seattle and lived for fourteen years in Portland Oregon, Boston still seems like a second home to me. And I suspect this is true for a lot of Unitarian Universalist ministers.

3) The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at the Bamboo Restaurant in Westford...now also served at their new location in Bedford. Fred Small (the minister in Littleton) introduced me to this place, and I’ve been eating lunch there practically once a week ever since. The Chang An in Concord has a pretty decent buffet too, but it’s nothing compared to the Buffet @ Bamboo, which features not only a fantastic assortment of both appetizers and main dishes, but also fresh Sushi and Ginger Ice Cream for dessert!

2) The Boston Sports Club in Waltham. Where the Celtics work out. One of the great things about this gym is that I was able to join in Lexington at a sharply discounted “clergy” rate, but then was allowed to upgrade to “Passport Premium” and work out at whatever club I liked (including those in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York) for just an additional $5/month. Or something like that. Frankly, it’s been so long I can’t remember. Fantastic facility. Olympic-sized pool, a wide assortment of cardio- and resistence-training equipment, a full-sized basketball court, a sauna, steam room, and Jacuzzi...plus an on-site masseuse. I just wish there were one in here in Portland (where it looks like I will be joining the “Y” instead).

And I guess this is all a little disingenuous, since NONE of the things on my list so far really have ANYTHING to do with [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES per se. But perhaps these these next half-dozen small things together will add up to one big thing worthy of the final spot on the list.

1a) Kimball’s Ice Cream stand. Of course, there is a bigger Kimballs in Westford. And another one right up the road in Bedford which is generally not nearly so busy. But at least I could walk to the one here, and if I was lucky and timed it right I could also sometimes stop and watch a ball game at [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], on my way back home.

1b) Dribbling a basketball in the house whenever I wanted at any hour of the day or night without having to worry about disturbing the downstairs neighbors. Who were mostly mice, ants and silverfish anyway. With an occasional rat or roach thrown in.

1c) The Belltower. I know a lot of folks would find it annoying to live next door to a church clock which chimed the hour 24 hours a day. But I generally found it comforting to be routinely reminded of the time, except maybe on those Saturday nights when I was still up late working on my sermon, or perhaps just tossing and turning in bed trying to get to sleep.

1d) Huber Honey. Produced by local bees kept by local beekeeper and longtime choir member Ernie Huber. Available only at the annual Autumn Harvest Fair (and sometimes, if the bees have been especially busy that summer, at the Annual Christmas Greens Sale). It’s the best.

1e) The Annual Strawberry Festival. And OK, if the truth be told, also the Harvest Fair and the Greens Sale. But NOT Old Home Day (except maybe for the traditional firefighters community chicken BBQ)....

1f) ...being able to walk the dog off her leash without ever having to worry about picking up “lawn sausages” with a plastic bag....

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Crucifixion Redux

PB & J — PeaceBang and Jesus. One of my all-time favorites.

My pal Vickie Weinstein (who once made me famous for 15 seconds by giving me a fashion makeover on ABC's "Nightline"), has written a thoughtful reflection on "the way we treat the J-Man in the UU Church", which she's titled "The Meaning of the Cruxificion." I commented over on her blog, and now here's a slightly expanded version of that comment here on my own.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve taken a very simple and pragmatic view of anastasis — the Teacher is Dead, but the Teaching Lives On, and that everything that Jesus ever said or did or stood for still "stands up," and is just as True Now as it was then (or ever more shall be). And back when I was young and fiesty and preaching in West Texas, I often liked to blow away my more evangelical friends by suggesting that I was seeking a Christian Faith which I could still trust and live by not only if Jesus DIDN’T rise from the dead, but even if it could be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had never lived at all.

We live in a culture which, for better or worse, has been profoundly shaped by Christianity as both it and us have evolved together symbiotically over the past two millenia. It's true that nowadays we tend to see ourselves as a pluralistic society (and this "liberal/secular humanism" is itself very much a product of the Christian experience -- or perhaps I should say "the Judeo-Christian heritage"), in which values of dialogue, toleration, and respect for diversity are essential components to our self-understanding (even if they do sometimes bring us into conflict with less "enlightened" faith traditions for whom Zeal still trumps both Reason and Understanding). But unless we are also capable of understanding ourselves and how we came to BE this way, we still run the risk of falling back into the slimey swamp of sectarian self-righteousness out of which our forebearers so boldly crawled.

Our post-modern, post-Christian liberal Protestant "living tradition," which so enthusiastically embraces the Wisdom of ALL the World's "authentic" Faiths, also has a specific history and cultural context. We may like to THINK of ourselves as the most pure and perfect expression of 19th century Transcententalist minister Theodore Parker's "Absolute Religion." But we are really just a blister on the butt of the Body of Christ, where the Armour of God rubbed a little too uncomfortably around Christendom's expanding girth.

I won’t preach the whole sermon here, but if anyone wants to read more about my views (and assuming my html tags are OK), here’s a link to what a retired Methodist minister once told me was the best Easter Sermon he'd ever heard, “Easter, Again?” And a SPOILER ALERT!!! to the good people of First Parish: you're likely to this same message next Spring, when I deliver my first Easter Sermon for you.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Congregations Count"

Thought I'd take a break from the Herculean (or is it Sisyphusian?) task of unpacking books here at my new place in Portland Maine to post something I've been carrying around on my hard drive for over a month.

These are some notes and reflections from a workshop offered at General Assembly by Linda Laskowski, who as I recall (having long ago tossed away my GA program) is or was the Membership Coordinator at our church in Berkeley CA.

This was one of the best GA workshops I've attended in a long (and I mean LONG) time, because it brought together several different things I've been interested in almost my entire career and presented them in a very thoughtful and (more importantly) useful package.

So thanks Linda! (although in fairness I really ought to mention that anything here that doesn't quite seem to make sense was probably added by me).


Processes are things that happen over and over again. Process Improvement Techniques can be used to evaluate and improve them.

• break down each process into its separate and discrete steps

• measure each step and convert those measurements to a ratio

• track change over time, and

• compare your ratios to external benchmarks in order to measure your performance.

Sometimes just the process of identifying your "key processes" and analyzing their constituent steps will bring noticeable improvement all by itself, since this also encourages simplification, thus helping to make things that are done routinely as “routine” as possible. Simply creating clear and coherent “Standard Operating Procedures” (SOPs) which are transparent and measurable, easy to teach, and consistently repeatable, will often improve performance dramatically.

With respect to the processes related to Outreach and Membership Growth, Linda has essentially defined steps very similar to the ones outlined by Roy Oswald in The Inviting Church. So if you're familiar with that work, this will all make even more sense.

Generating Public Awareness (Oswald's "Attraction") -- Membership Growth teams often want to start with ways to do better publicity in order to create “increased visibility.” But from the perspective of process improvement, this is both a difficult benchmark to measure, and also the trickiest to significantly influence. Based on previous studies, only approximately two-tenths of one per cent of the general population are “aware” of Unitarian Universalism in any significant way beyond the level of a punch-line on “A Prairie Home Companion.” So one should assume low public awareness from the start.

More to the point, campaigns to raise public awareness are generally very expensive and yield only marginal results in comparison to their cost, thus making it at best a step to be taken later rather than sooner, only after you have already improved the portions of the process over which you have more effective control.

First Time Visitors ("Initiation" or "Orientation") -- Make it a priority to greet and welcome ALL visitors warmly, but track the local ones who are also prospective new members. Three most frequent sources of visitors are friends, family, and the internet. How do we know? We ASK right on the visitors card. The use of “check the box” rather than “fill in the blank” (i.e. “how did you hear of us?”) significantly increases the response. Also:

• Greet people AS they arrive...first impressions are formed in the first five minutes, and will generally determine whether or not a visitor will return.

• Ask how they learned about you. Ask what they are interested in.

• Help them create a handmade name badge, and use that time to collect their contact info.

• Send e-mail or post card within the week! (preferably within 48 hours).

Benchmark: growing churches have a 1:1 ratio (or better) of annual first time visitors to actual members (so, “each one bring one” really is true); churches which are NOT growing generally can’t meet that benchmark.

Return Visitors (Oswald's "Exploration") are three times more likely to join the church than one-time visitors. So focus on creating more of them!!! Have a permanent name tag waiting for them, as well as some sort of “coupon.” (coffee with the minister?) Then ask everyone to return their badges to a central location (like a basket) so you can measure attendance that way.

Track attendance for at least six months (Linda had several good ideas for doing this, but mostly it's a matter of paying attention) -- try to measure ratio of repeat visitors to total visitors (i.e. what percentage of first time visitors return within six months).

Also attempt to track the non-returnees. Try using the anonymous “Survey Monkey” for an informal "exit interview"-- What was your experience here? Why did you decide not to return?

Benchmark: growing churches report anywhere from 20-40% of first-time visitors return for a second visit.

Formal Membership (Oswald's "Commitment"): what percentage of visitors actually eventually “sign the book” (& pledge)...

Growing Churches: 15-20%+

Declining Churches: less than 10%

Active Membership (“Going Deeper; Being Sent”) “task, role, group” -- track this carefully! The point is to encourage everyone to do one thing for themselves (i.e. a class, or participation in an on-going Fellowship Circle like a Small Group Ministry Covenant Group) and one thing for the Church/Community (some sort of volunteer or leadership position).

Often these things overlap, but don't ASSUME that they will -- actively encourage people to think of their involvement beyond Sunday Worship in both of these dimensions (which are basically just synonyms for the old-fashioned practices of "Discipleship" and "Vocation" or "Ministry").

Also remember this: NO ONE in their right mind joins a church because they want to give away their money and serve on a committee. They do those things because by doing so they contribute to something larger, more meaningful and more important to them. So make sure that they aren't disappointed!

Benchmark: 65% or more (the higher this number, the less likely they will be part of your “back door”...

Attrition Most churches typically lose between 10-12% of their membership each year. Much of this is unavoidable -- perhaps 5% move away, and another 2-3% die...leaving only about a third of this number (i.e. 3-4%) up for grabs.


The nice thing about tracking these numbers is that they not only allow you to measure how well you are doing, they also force you to pay attention to the process itself, and to focus in on the places where you are either doing well or falling short.

But even before you begin to target your efforts this way, here are The Five Best Membership Growth Ideas Ever (i.e. the five more effective things you can do right away to improve newcomer hospitality and increase the likelihood that first time visitors will return and eventually become active members of your congregation).

• Hire a paid, part-time Membership Coordinator. Or (if you must) find someone who has the both time and the inclination to do the work of a paid, part-time membership coordinator without pay.

• Develop a highly visible, easy-to-follow “Pathway to Membership.” Some folks like to stick their toes in the water, while others like to plunge right in. But a well-defined path can accomodate both, and still allow them to move along it at their own most comfortable speed.

• Use Roving Greeters Effectively. You can call them whatever you like -- Hospitlers, Guardian Angels, even “Pineapple People” (as they are known in Berkeley) -- but meaningful, one-to-one personal contact is essential! So assign an adequate number of “roving greeters” for every service, and give THEM the Gold Coffee Mugs! Recruit your greeters from the demographic groups you hope to attract, and make sure they are knowledgeable about the programs that newcomers are likely to be most interested in.

• The Personal Touch. Greet newcomers as they arrive at the front door, make a friendly follow-up contact within 48 hours, and make a point of personally welcoming them again (by name if you can) when they return a second time.

• Website, Website, Website!!! Back in the day, the one piece of publicity a church couldn’t live without was a good Yellow Pages ad. Before that, it was a great sign or a sidewalk readerboard. And before that, it was a tall steeple, and a loud bell. But today it is a great webpage. So don’t ignore your web presence -- it is probably the first thing about your church people are going to see and notice. Make it user-friendly and easy to navigate, fill it with friendly and inviting images (rather than a lot of dense text), and make sure it gives newcomers the kind of information they will want to know (like what time church starts, what to expect during the service, how people dress, etc. etc.). You won’t regret it.