Who’s Driving This Thing?

Who’s Driving This Thing?


Like the annual New Year’s rituals celebrated through the centuries, this Sunday we will be gathering for UUCE’s 154th Annual Meeting. As we prepare ourselves for the passing of the torch, we’ll use our time on Sunday morning to consider the different kinds of leadership that keep our ship sailing in the right direction, and the active participation needed from each of us to keep our flame alive for another year.


As Tom mentioned at the beginning of the service, today we will be holding our (roughly) 154th annual meeting – and for the first time ever in the history of our church, it will be held virtually via computers. That’s something the Board of Trustees from 1866 never would have dreamed of – but today, you will have the opportunity to live it.

With the meeting being scheduled for today, and since I’m currently on the Board and the Leadership Development Committee and the Worship Team, it seemed like an auspicious day to present some thoughts on “Leadership” and the part we each play in keeping our church going year after year.

The Role of the Congregation

Like many of you, I did not grow up in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I grew up in the Catholic church where the governance of the church is very much from the top-down. My dad served on our church’s parish council, but as the name implies, their job was only to advise the parish priest on the running of the church. Neither the council, nor any of the other parishioners, had any final say over how the church was run – or even who was in control. In the Catholic Church, the parish priest is appointed by the bisoph, who was appointed by the archbishop, who was appointed by the cardinal, and onward and upward until you reached the Pope. The top-down approach affects all aspects of the Catholic Church – from the governance to the rituals to the beliefs.

So you can imagine my surprise when Jen and I first started coming to UUCE and every week was different! After a few weeks we started getting used to the general flow of the service – but then our minds were blown when we visited another UU church and they did things differently! Then there was the time when Reverend Brosier announced his retirement and it was up to all of us to find a replacement! Coming from the Catholic Church where congregations have no say in who their parish priest is, it was both exhilarating and bewildering to have that decision left up to us.

These differences between the bureaucratic top-down structure of the Catholic church and the democratic nature of the Congregational churches – out of which Unitarian Universalism evolved – have their roots in the Cambridge Platform written in 1648. To give a super high-level and probably not 100% accurate overview, at the time there was a disagreement between the colonial New England Congregationalists and English Presbyterians over how the colonial churches should be governed.

To keep the English Parliament from stepping in, the Massachusetts’s ministers met to establish a uniform model of church governance for the colonial churches. The group met in Cambridge, MA (hence the “Cambridge” Platform”) and ultimately came up with a very long document that we won’t go into too much detail here. The highlight of the platform – at least as it relates to today – is that “there is no greater Church than a Congregation” which consists of people in voluntary agreement and covenant with each other to “worship, edify, and have fellowship.” In other words, while the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we are completely autonomous and independent – and it’s p to all of us, the members of UUCE, to determine our direction and make our place in the greater community.

Because of that, being a Unitarian Universalist carries some weighty responsibilities. Our fourth principle calls for the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and the fifth for the “use of the democratic process within our congregations.” Unitarian Universalists don’t have the luxury to sit back and wait for the elders to tell us what to believe or what needs to be done and how to do it. At its very core, being a Unitarian Universalist means being an active participant in the life of the congregation. Without each of us, we – as a community – can’t persist.

But, as our reading this morning illustrates, with this responsibility comes a tricky challenge: how do we walk that delicate line between participating enough and participating too much?

The Chicken and the Pig

I once worked with a sales guy that loved to tell the fable of The Chicken and Pig.

A pig and a chicken are walking down the road when the chicken says, “Hey Pig, we should open a breakfast diner together.” The Pig thinks about it for a bit before saying, “Sounds interesting, but what should we serve?” The chicken responds, “The usual – bacon and eggs.” The Pig thinks a little more before saying, “No thanks – it sounds like you’d be involved in the restaurant, but I’d be committed.”

How can we be heavily involved in the life of our church without being so committed that we end up like bacon on a plate? In her book, Beating Burnout in Congregations, Lynn M. Baab writes:

We expect our congregations to be places of health and healing, an oasis in the midst of the demands and stresses of daily life. Yet some people experience great pain in their congregations, pain that robs them of the comfort their faith could give them. Burnout is one kind of pain that goes against the very promise of congregational life…

In a congregation, the goals are often lofty and energizing: rich and celebratory worship services, stimulating adult education, outreach to people who are poor and in need, care and concern for children and youth.

This is a tension, an irony that always exists in congregations. The need for hard work pushes congregation members toward diligent service, and that kind of service can take away the sense of rest and refuge that people need. The congregation that has the goal of bringing life and health to its members may also push people toward burnout because workers are needed.

The congregation as a system will tend to call people into service for the sake of duty, which unfortunately moves so easily into workaholism. It takes effort on the part of leaders to keep priorities straight. Congregational leaders need to expend significant energy with deliberate intention in order to affirm the call to serve with joy, from the heart, so that burnout will be less frequent.

One way that we can avoid burnout in our congregation is by ensuring a healthy rotation of leaders. Today, as a part of our annual meeting, we will be practicing that kind of healthy rotation as we elect new leaders to replace those whose terms are ending. But this annual rotation shouldn’t be limited to only the elected positions we’ll vote on today. Every team and committee should experience a similar life-cycle of older members making room for new members. This process accomplishes two things: first, new members bring new perspective and ideas that can keep us from falling into the trap of doing things the way we’ve always done it.

Second, it allows the longer-term members to step back and reevaluate where their skills and interests best match with the congregation’s needs. With a build-in schedule of rotation, serving on a team or committee is not a life-sentence. Every few yeares you get the chance to try your hand at something new.

It’s kind of like the description of a fictional small town’s Fourth of July parade. The town was so small, that in order to have a good parade, half the town marched while the other half watched – and then they switched places so everyone would have the opportunity to participate in the parade and also to witness the pageantry.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret – rotating of a team isn’t always easy, especially if you’ve been involved for so long that it’s become a part of who you are. An important part of leadership is being able to be a mentor to new members and then trust them to carry the flame into the future. It is a bittersweet but incredibly rewarding moment when you pass the reins to someone new and watch them grow your “baby” in ways you never dreamed possible.

Leadership at UUCE

So what kind of people and skills do we need for UUCE’s metaphorical Fourth of July parade? The Adult RE curriculum, Harvest the Power, describes two types of leaders necessary for a healthy congregation. First there are the “directional” leaders that ask the big picture questions like “Are we doing right things?” or “Why do we exist?”

The second type of leaders are those focused on “management.” These are the leaders that focus on the down-to-earth questions like “Are we doing things right?” or “How do we accomplish our goals?”

At UUCE, the Directional Leaders are the Board of Trustees, and the committees that report to them. It’s the Board’s job to consider the direction of the church as it relates to our Mission and Vision. The Board creates very broad policies that define what it looks like when things are going well, but they don’t get into the details of how things are actually going to be done.

For instance, the Board has a policy that the church and its belongings need to be safe, but the Board doesn’t say exactly what steps need to be taken to keep things safe. That responsibility belongs to the Executive Team, who comes up with the procedures for locking up the doors and ensuring the fire extinguishers are up-to-date. But if wouldn’t be fair to leave all of that to only the four or five members of the Executive Team – which is where all the other teams come into the picture.

And this grass-roots level is where things get even more interesting. At this level, each Team needs both directional and managerial leadership to fulfill their duties. For instance, the Building Team needs to have a big picture idea of why they exist – they keep the building safe and usable for the rest of us. They also need the managerial leadership to devise ways of accomplishing their goals. They also need dedicated volunteers that are ready to roll up their sleeves to get things done.

While I’m only highlighting the official Teams and Committees of the church, this also applies to all of the various groups and activities that take place. From the Buddhist Sangha, the Circle Suppers, the Bike Trip – all of these were started by one or more people that had an idea, figured out a way to make it happen, and then rolled up their sleeves to bring it to life and keep it going.

So as we approach the close of our current church year, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone that has served our church this year. Nearly half of our members have been actively involved in one of the many teams and committees of our church. Without your contributions, we couldn’t do what we do or be who we are.

During the Stewardship campaigns over the last few years, we presented the idea that a community like ours is supported by a three-legged stool of Time, Treasure, and Talent. The annual pledge drive focuses on the Treasure leg by raising money that keeps the doors open and the lights on. But without a similar Time and Talent drive, it can be challenging for us to ensure everything that needs to get done can get done.

So I’d like you to consider today a sort of Time and Talent Drive. What skills and passions do you have and how they can fit with the needs of our community. And if you’re not sure what’s needed or how you can fit in, the Leadership Development Committee is available to help play matchmaker.

Another part of this Time and Talent Drive is reflecting on how you’re feeling about the service you’ve provided. Have you been involved like the chicken or have you been over-committed like the pig? A few months ago I asked myself that very question and came to the realization that I had become over-committed. Spreading myself over three teams meant that each one only got one-third of my attention. It also left me feeling like the author of our reading this morning – tired and cranky. Which is why I’m rotating off those teams so others can take my place with new enthusiasm and ideas. At the same time, I’m moving into a new team – just one – which is allowing someone else to rotate off so they can shift their energy and passion somewhere else.

As you consider how you can bring your full self into the life of our community, my hope is that we can each find that place of healthy balance between the desire to make UUCE an oasis in the midst of our daily lives and the need for the peace and rejuvenation that this community can provide.

May it be so.


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