Monthly Archives: November 2013

How to Complain At Church


or: transforming a MRC or CoM to
a Healthy Communication Team

Do you have a good “complaint” system at your church? Every church can benefit from a complaint system that is:

  1. easily understood
  2. widely accepted
  3. endorsed by the leadership
  4. available any time church is “in session.”

This is particularly helpful in a multi-site situation when not everyone “knows” everyone else– including who the leaders are, what there portfolios are, or which campus they happen to be at.

And of course– If you don’t have an intentional grievance procedure, then people will usually use the default method.

What is the default method? To complain to a lay leader, hopefully the board president.

Note, that I have never seen a job description for a board member, officer, or anyone else specifically include: “listen to complaints from anyone who happens to be around.”

Assuming the church has a minister, and that to the extent people think the minister is responsible for everything, that the board president is likely hearing negative things about the minister– and rarely positive things– since most people will use face to face when it comes to positive communications.

This means the board president is likely to get a skewed view of what others think of the minister. This makes a certain amount of sense: if you hear more complaints than compliments, what is a logical conclusion?

Worst of all, the default complaint system in a church frequently have the following components–

  1. triangulation (venting about a 3rd person)
  2. pass through communication (to get a message to someone, you tell someone else)
  3. anonymous feedback (deal with the problem I’m telling you about, but don’t mention my name: I want to vent, not solve my problem)

These three problems prevent forward progress and increase anxiety and dissatisfaction for everyone involved. If this is a perennial problem, why hasn’t it been solved?

People have come up with a lot of ways to avoid conflict and dealing with complaints, and they mostly– don’t seem to work. Perhaps we frequently prefer subtlety, tact, and the desire to spare people’s feelings. So, over the years, folks have come up with various euphemisms, strategies, and committees to deal with complaints– although these groups rarely make that explicit.

For congregations that have a minister, an old name for this kind of group was: Ministerial Relations Committee (MRC). This group would be the official group you could complain to about the minister. But it was also the group that would advocate for the minister’s compensation: big mistake. People on the MRC would try and remain ‘impartial’ but were frequently seen as either “in collusion” with the minister, or worse– antagonistic to them. There were little tricks to try and change that mindset– the minister would select twice as many nominees as needed, the board would pick from that group, 3 year revolving terms, and so on– but this did not change the basic dynamic.

A new euphemism came up in place of the MRC, it was called “Committee on Ministry” (or CoM) and it’s purpose was to look at the overall ministry of the church and then the minister’s place within that overall ministry. Alas, this didn’t seem to change many people’s minds, since just changing the name and widening the scope didn’t do much about the inherent problems with the complaint system.

When I came to Houston in 2010, I decided I wanted a different procedure to be used: a new method. It was, in fact, the very first team of leaders I assembled, because it’s that important. I read & questioned & queried colleagues & read some more. I took ideas formulated and written about by others and came up with two things:

  1. Healthy Communication Team concept
  2. Grievance_Procedure

Like many colleagues, I have been greatly influenced by the idea of making church more simple, accessible, and easily understood. If you’ve been a UU for any length of time, you know this is an inherent challenge of our religion.

The Healthy Communication Team (HCT) is available after most regularly scheduled church services. There is at least one person there, with a book and a pen. There’s a sign on the table, so it’s easy to spot. If someone has a comment– about anything– they write it down in the book, along with their name. The key item here is– no anonymous feedback.

The folks on the HCT follow the process on the Grievance Flow Chart. This chart is printed in the church “Information Guide” (our main print publication) and is available at the HCT table. Board members, most lay leaders, know that if someone has a complaint (or more rarely) a compliment, and the “messenger” isn’t sure what to do with it, then they are guided to the HCT table.

The HCT does two main things: triage the grievance, and provide guidance to the aggrieved. They are basically the same process.

Triage: A grievance generally falls into 1 of 3 categories:

  1. Preference
  2. Performance
  3. Policy

In a non-scientific sampling, I’d say that

  • 95% or greater grievances have to do with preference.
  • 4% have to do with performance, and
  • 1% has to do with policy.

Preference is about personal preference: music, wall color, the use of pew ropes, publications, religious education curricula, and of course sermons. Because we operate by policy governance, and because most decisions of consequence are clearly delineated via our governance documents, most of the time, individual preference is acknowledged, and occasionally changes or adjustments are made. Most of the time, the preference is simply acknowledged.

Performance would be things like: not returning email in a timely manner, failing to perform some essential function of a job, that kind of thing.

Policy has to do with violation of board governance policy– failure to comply with government regulations or failing to report something essential to the board, that kind of thing.

Every month, the HCT sends a summary of whatever was written in the book over the preceding weeks to the senior minister and to the board of trustees. There is rarely conversation about these things at the board level, usually the senior minister reports the status to the executive team. The senior minister usually responds in person or via email to the aggrieved. Often, that is the end of the matter. Occasionally, given enough people with the same preference, a change is made to the governance policies to avoid future incidents.

The system serves us well. People feel heard. The emphasis is on clear, straightforward communications that avoids anonymity and encourages direct communication.

What’s your default grievance policy? Can all you lay leaders tell you what it is off the top of their heads?

Daniel O’Connell is the senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, TX. One Church in Three Locations: Copperfield, Museum District, Stafford




Team Sermon Building

Several people wanted to know how we could only spend a few hours a week on Sunday service preparation. This is a perfectly reasonable question.

The first thing you must understand, is that there are 4 ministers and 1 Religious Educator working on this, along with the occasional music director. So, none of us are working on these services alone.

It also means that if I run across a particularly juicy illustration or anecdote that would work better in a colleague’s sermon than the one I happen to be working on, she gets it. Note– that if you adapt this model to where you are preaching to different audiences (i.e., it isn’t the same church– you can each use the juicy illustration).

Back in the day– when I was preparing sermons all by myself– it could take anywhere between 12 and 20 hours each week just to get everything ready for a single Sunday:

  • sermon title
  • sermon blurb (for newsletter)
  • hymns
  • readings
  • call to worship
  • prayer or meditation
  • Children’s time
  • special music
  • special liturgical element
  • Order of Service graphics
  • Order of Service worksheet
  • integrating music with words
  • Consultation with other Sunday Service participants (musicians, choir director, liturgist)
  • Etcetera.

So, as a team, we get all these things done, but we spend about 3 hours per week each week over a 6 week (42 days) period (working on more than one sermon at a time) to get that done. The Creative Team meets every Tuesday for 2 hours to “discuss & decide” everything related to the services.

Here’s our process.

We already know we are doing 3-4 sermons on a theme. The themes for the regular program year (September through May) are jointly selected by the ministers by May of the previous program year– often earlier than that. Just for kicks, here’s our current set of themes:

    1. Isolation v Intimacy
    2. Stagnation v Generativity
    3. Gluttony v Temperance
    4. Envy v Kindness
    5. Sloth v Diligence
    6. Greed v Charity
    7. Lust v Chastity
    8. Wrath v Patience
    9. Pride v Humility

Remember– When we work on services, we work on 3-4 at a time– the whole series.

First week: we each do Initial Research (ITR). This means we look for book reviews, blog posts, TED talks, colleague recommendations, magazine articles, online videos, anything that relates to the theme. Each of us spends about 3 hours during the course of a typical week doing that ITR. We post our research in a cloud based project management system called TeamworkPM by a Friday afternoon, so we can read each other’s work over the weekend.

2nd week: Meeting of Assignment. Based on what we’ve found, we assign further reading to get the juicy bits– now we’re looking for actual material to use in sermons. Our ITR is going to suggest an arc. But we also ask ourselves: What is a uniquely UU viewpoint on this particular topic? We begin to get ideas about what the sermons are likely to be about and who is likely to do them at which location. Assignments for further research our handed out here. Begin research & writing (3 hours).

3rd week: more research & writing (3 hours). Hymn / music  suggestions

4th week: Building the Arc, Part 1. Here’s where we “build the arc” of the sermon series. How shall we approach this? There are lots of ways–

  • personal / family & tribe / church / world
  • past / present / future
  • direct experience / words & deeds & world religions / humanism & science / interdependent web
  • psychological / sociological / radical / reverse radical
  • fears / tears / outrage / saying the other side / light of hope
  • and many more

And obviously you can play with the order of things and mix & match, depending on the circumstances.  This week we frequently get everything we need: hymns, graphics, music, titles & blurbs. Also, we often have a sermon outline by this point, certainly by the following week.

5th week: Building the Arc, Part 2. If we need it, or for further refinement. Many times we’re done with everything but the individual sermon outlines.

6th week: Sermon Prep and Review. The first preacher in the series posts an outline and draft of their sermon. Remember– they’ve gotten a lot of help from other people’s research. We all critique the sermon– ask questions about clarity, suggest a better order of sermon ‘moves,’ that kind of thing. Even the senior minister (me) gets critiqued. We finally settle on our Big Idea (an upgrade replacement to the idea of ‘Children’s Time’ AKA ‘Time of All Ages.’

And by the end of that 6th week, the 1st sermon in the series gets delivered at the Museum District campus.

Frequently, this means that a sermon is basically done the Tuesday before the Sunday of first delivery. And, it usually means colleagues– given our critique process– have made the sermon better than it would otherwise have been.

It makes the ‘arc of the series’ much more coherent.

Given the abundance of research material we’ve gathered– and not all of which we’ve used we now have plenty of material for an ADULT RE SERIES– that runs concurrently with the sermon series. Talk about value added!

For those of you who like spreadsheets, below  is a version of what we do.

Undoubtedly there will be more questions. Put them in the replies below, and I’ll try to answer them in future posts.

In the meantime– if you’re a solo minister (as the vast majority of UU ministers are), can you begin to see the advantages to a team approach?

What if you put together a team of 3-4 colleagues, agreed to monthly themes, then meet (physically or virtually) to accomplish the same purpose? I guarantee you, that you and 3 colleagues could start with the same sermon outline and wind up a week later with different, personalized sermons that benefited from your research collaboration. Plus your preaching skills would increase since you’d have more time to practice delivery (if you chose to do that).  Frankly, I think it would be fun to run a ‘boot camp’ for people who are interested in getting this going, but timing would be tricky.

12/15/2013 Sunday
12/16/2013 Monday Greed versus Charity
12/17/2013 Tuesday Do initial research ITR, 3h prep
12/18/2013 Wednesday
12/19/2013 Thursday
12/20/2013 Friday Post  ITR, each minister
12/21/2013 Saturday Read colleagues ITR
12/22/2013 Sunday
12/23/2013 Monday
12/24/2013 Tuesday Meeting of Assignment, 45m
12/25/2013 Wednesday Research & Writing (RW), 6h prep
12/26/2013 Thursday
12/27/2013 Friday
12/28/2013 Saturday
12/29/2013 Sunday
12/30/2013 Monday
12/31/2013 Tuesday
1/1/2014 Wednesday
1/2/2014 Thursday
1/3/2014 Friday Post  RW, each minister
1/4/2014 Saturday Read colleagues RW
1/5/2014 Sunday
1/6/2014 Monday
1/7/2014 Tuesday Building the Arc, Part 1, 45m
1/8/2014 Wednesday
1/9/2014 Thursday
1/10/2014 Friday
1/11/2014 Saturday
1/12/2014 Sunday
1/13/2014 Monday
1/14/2014 Tuesday Building the Arc, Part 2, 45m
1/15/2014 Wednesday Write & Prep 1st Themed Sermon, 5h+ sermon outline, sermon draft, Sunday worksheet
1/16/2014 Thursday
1/17/2014 Friday
1/18/2014 Saturday
1/19/2014 Sunday Read colleagues Sermon Draft
1/20/2014 Monday
1/21/2014 Tuesday Sermon Review, 30m
1/22/2014 Wednesday Final draft, rehearse, polish, 2h
1/23/2014 Thursday
1/24/2014 Friday
1/25/2014 Saturday
1/26/2014 Sunday Sermon 1: Greed versus Charity