Category Archives: Teams

These posts are about our Team Structure, with special emphasis on our Creative Team and our Admin TEam

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

Two Paradigm Busters: Frequency of Ministry Presence & being a Minister led Church

Let’s start with the idea of the role of the “campus minister.”

Invariably, there is some confusion when we use the phrase “campus minister,” because folks thinks it means a community minister doing outreach at a local college or university.

However, we haven’t found a good substitute (yet) and so we should be clear about what we mean in the multi-site context of how we define a campus minister.

In our church, we have 3 campuses, identified by their geographic location within the greater Houston area metroplex: Copperfield, Museum District, and Thoreau / Stafford.

Each has a campus minister. The campus minister is the face with the place. They are physically present on their campus almost every Sunday, even if they are just part time. This is part of the magic of multi-site ministry.

In the older way of thinking, a quarter time minister would preach about once a month, meet with leaders periodically, maybe go to board meetings, and not much else. Typically, the minister does not reside in the same town, and frequently has other employment– either with another church or something else.

This means that when newcomers arrive, the minister is “never” there, and there are clear doubts as to the long term viability of the church. Often, the pool of available ministerial talent is much smaller for part time ministry as for full time ministry.

It is a classic no-growth situation and is part of the catch-22 nature of small congregations– they don’t have the resources bring on staff that can grow the church to the size where it can afford those resources– and even if they did– it seems like it would take waaaayyyy to long to bring about the desired reality.

How to get around this conundrum? Well, what if the quarter time minister only had to preach “live” once a month, but acted as a liturgist– became the face with the place– and was there almost every Sunday, while the other 3 Sundays, a preacher from a larger campus had their sermon up on a projected video screen?

Suddenly, the quality of the sermons have probably gone up. More importantly, the consistency has been established. There is a minister physically present to lead worship almost every Sunday, and the church now seems viable in a new way that it had not seemed before.

How do we make this magic happen? What is the nature then, of the Campus Minister’s time breakout?

Here is the Campus Minister Weekly Time Breakout–

12 hours per week = Quarter Time.

  • 3 hours Sunday morning, 1 hour prep, 1 hour service, 1 coffee hour
  • 2 hour weekly staff interaction (local & senior minister)
  • 2 hours supervision: Team Leaders (1 weekly meeting, 4x month)3 hours creative prep
  • 2 hours flex time

20 hours per week = Half Time.

  • 3 hours Sunday morning, 1 hour prep, 1 hour service, 1 coffee hour
  • 2 hours weekly staff interaction (local & senior minister)
  • 4 hours supervision: Team Leaders (1 weekly meeting, 4x month)3 hours creative prep
  • 6 hours flex time

40+ hours per week = Full Time.

  • 3 hours Sunday morning, 1 hour prep, 1 hour service, 1 coffee hour
  • 4 hours weekly staff interaction (local & senior minister)
  • 2 hours Team Leaders (1 weekly meeting, 4x month: ½ hour prep, 1 ½ hour mtg)2 hours counseling, rites of passage prep
  • 2 hours service prep: offering partners, liturgical considerations
  • 8 hours creative prep
  • 19 hours flex time

Several things must be noted. First, this is an early draft of the time breakout– recent events will modify this draft breakout.

“Flex time” usually means administrative projects of one kind or another. For example, all 4 ministers worked on developing a leadership retreat for the end of September: we each had different roles with different amount of time responsibilities.

Two Paradigm Busters: Frequency of Ministry Presence & being a Minister led Church.

The key thing to note here is that we have broke out of the paradigm of a quarter time minister only being physically present once per month. Now, it is almost every Sunday– and this has led to another key difference: even a small campus can be a minister led church, which is different than a lay led church. This is a huge mental shift in thinking about how the church campus gets run.


UU Religious Education: Immigrants Teaching the Natives

Tim Atkins, a UU religious educator in New Jersey, recently (10/18/2013) did a Facebook post on the six sources and our religious mission. In it he mentions that some religious education programs over-emphasize the first source over the other five.

As a refresher, here are shortened versions of the 6 sources of UU-ism (the full set can be found here):

  1. Direct experience of …transcending mystery and wonder,
  2. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men…
  3. Wisdom from the world’s religions…
  4. Jewish and Christian teachings…
  5. Humanist teachings…
  6. Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions…

He further comments–

…It’s too easy to slide down to community being the goal in of itself. What’s the mission of the church and how does that related to the mission of Religious Education?

It’s a really great question. At First Church, Houston, we are one church in 3 locations. We want to do the religious education program that can be replicable and scalable at all 3 locations.

What is unique to each campus, and what is shared among us?

We decided we have 9 core ministry areas. I go through this in my last post here. The 2nd and 3rd areas are Faith formation for children, and faith formation for adults.

Unitarian Universalist religious education is tricky because unlike most churches, we face an unusual situation with our teachers. Most of them did not grow up in the UU faith.

This means immigrants are teaching the natives.

More context:

  1. Newcomer adults often get into teaching fairly early on:
  2. Our children’s faith formation program always needs volunteers;
  3. parents are eager to integrate their families into their new church; and,
  4. church becomes more of a family activity, rather than an individual one.

These are all good things. But they come with an inherent problem. You might imagine the problem this way. You are just beginning to learn Spanish, and you are trying to teach what you know to someone who knows even less than you do. At least with Spanish, there’s a book you can go to.

What authoritative texts can newcomers to Unitarian Universalism turn to? Well, probably the greatest single repository of UU thought is in our hymnals. You can find out what UUs “believe” by reading through them. If you pay attention to when they were written, you can also pick up an evolving theology.

But with no creed, the only other– and shorter– options are the Principles & Purposes and the Six Sources. Some colleagues don’t like these, but their chief complaint is that they personally don’t like them. However, they are still useful to newcomers– who want clarity, and not waffling, or overly definitive obfuscatory verbosity.

 If we’re going to do UU faith formation– we have to ask– what’s the point?

The frame I like to use is– if we take a child all the way through our program , from nursery through high school graduation–

  • what experiences do we want them to have had?
  • what do we want them to know about each of the six sources above?
  • what constitutes a spiritually mature young adult UU?

If we know the answers to these (and similar questions), then we can design a faith formation program for the immigrants (teachers) and the natives (students) taking their context and stage level into account.

Another similar question is:

what does a spiritually mature adult UU look like? Sound like? How do they behave? How do they model UU elderhood?

For me, these are the questions that adult faith formation have to answer in order to come up with an excellent faith formation ‘program.’

But I hesitate to say faith formation program. Why? Because really, our faith formation isn’t a program, it’s a step.

When we think of programs, they can have a life of their own, their own agenda, ideology, mission statement, angel investors, and constituency: in other words the classic toddler’s parallel play (that’s when toddlers play in the same room, but my not interact with each other much). And the problem with that is that you end up with a lot of separate programs that don’t interact with each other very much: they can end up being focused on their own program needs, to the exclusion of integrating into the overall church mission.

What’s an alternative? Our Creative Team approach is one example. We combine

  1. Sunday service monthly themes, with
  2. writing/ interpreting children’s faith formation materials (some from the UUA), and
  3. our only adult faith formation program / step: Growth Groups.

I’ll explain how we do that in a future post. Suffice it to say, that all 3 areas are integrated. We have 4 UU ministers and 3 UU religious educators all working on the three things above together.

For now, I’d like to leave you with the idea that when thinking about UU faith formation, consider the following:

  1. The six sources are the most powerful and easily understood template for what undergirds UU-ism to newcomers.
  2. Our faith formation relies on the unusual setting of immigrants teaching the natives.
  3. If we can name what a spiritually mature UU is, then we can design a series of steps (a program, if you will).
  4. Our faith formation ought to move a person along this path, and we ought to be able to measure the results.
  5. If we find out our ‘steps’ aren’t getting the desired results, we change them.

What do you think?

The Core Curriculum in Becoming a UU of Spiritual Depth

common-core-image1UU Core Curricula & Electives

I have identified 9 core ministry areas for our church. What does that mean?

We asked the question– if we were going to replicate & scale the programs we use at one location, which ones would we absolutely HAVE to include at the other locations? What is necessary and what is extra?

For example, an adult discussion group is a fine thing, as are yoga classes, identity groups, and so forth. But they are not essential to a UU church.

What’s an example of something essential? Teaching our faith to our young. No one else can do that for us. It is a core ministry.

We decided on the following Core Ministries for our church– at any campus, no matter the size–

  1.  Sunday Celebration
  2. Faith formation for children
  3. Faith formation for adults
  4. Stewardship
  5. Social Justice
  6. Care of Souls (Pastoral Care)
  7. Care of Congregation (Healthy Communication)
  8. Welcome (hospitality through membership)
  9. Leadership Development (from membership to leadership)

Each of the areas above has a Team appointed by the senior minister. This is where the ministers and staff put most of their energy into.

Items 1-3 are served by the Creative Team, which is the ministers, a religious educator, and occasionally, a music person. That team now meets every Tuesday for 2 hours.

Items 4-6 are served by the Administrative Team (A Team), which is the ministers, administrator, and facilities manager. This team also handles facilities, logistics, and governance compliance. This team meets every Thursday for 90 minutes.

All the information in the Core Ministry areas is kept in the church Information Guide. It gets updated at least twice a year. It also includes floor plans, organization charts for staff and teams, membership and joining information– all the things we want EVERYONE in the church to pay attention to. It is our priority.

Everything else at church is extra. For adults, we call these “enrichment groups.” Typically, these are:

  • concerts
  • adult discussion group
  • tai chi class
  • yoga
  • women’s circle
  • men’s group
  • and many, more.

Consider the Core Ministries as the core curricula for developing UU elders. Consider the enrichment groups as “electives.” It gets it’s own paper and electronic publication that is separate from the Core Ministry areas. It’s called the Enrichment Guide.

This means it will be fairly easy to see how staff time, publicity, and other resources will be allocated: primarily to the core ministries. However, people want access to the electives, so we will put forth an Enrichment Group catalog twice per year.

And because we do so many social justice activities (monthly projects, multi-year Signature Project, &c), we also publish an all-3-campus Social Justice Guide.

The Guides are usually published twice per year. Since information doesn’t move that slowly, we also have weekly electronic communications with the latest updates.

This is how we provide focus to our ministry areas, while making sure information about everything we do is easily available to folks.

If you had to list just 10 areas of essential ministry– meaning you could give up other things, if you had to, in order to ensure the success of the essential– what would they be?




Getting Started With the Merger Model


Teams – How to Get Started with the Merger Model?

Lots of questions to consider. First, we have to set some definitions, and some guidelines about nomenclature.

First UU Church of Houston was the Adopting Church, at 360 members. Northwest Community UU Church, at 50 members and Henry David Thoreau UU Congregation of Fort Bend County, at 70 members were the Joining Churches.

Combined, we’re now at about 480 members.

We look at everything through the eyes of simplification and context for newcomers. This meant changing the informal name of the church and the names of the campuses.

Some people wanted First UU to be called “Main” or Main Street or another nearby street name. But Main Street in Houston, runs more than 50 miles long, so you’re not really helping. And “Northwest” doesn’t really help  in a city the size of Houston, and there is no Thoreau, TX.

So, we are Copperfield Campus, Museum District Campus, and the Thoreau/Stafford campus.

Copperfield had just lost their 1/4 time minister. And while Thoreau/Stafford had a couple of full time interims, that did not look to be financially viable going forward. Why is that important? Because it made the leadership more open to radical ideas about their future.

What is merger about for the Joining Churches? It’s about giving up control for a new chance at success that has previously been out of reach.

It’s frequently about a significant jump in ministry quality. And it is especially about long term thriving.

What is merger about for the Adopting Church? It’s about creative collaboration, economy of scale, better use of resources, and expanding Unitarian Universalism in their geographic area.

As you might imagine, as the first senior minister of a 3 campus UU church, I have been approached by colleagues who are wondering if times are ripe in their neck of the woods to consider a massive change to “How We Do Church Now.”

Let’s say you are a minister or a lay leader at a potential Adopting or Joining church. How should you even begin your journey of inquiry?

Read “Better Together,” have your leadership read it. Meet to discuss. It is an eye opener. And it is extraordinarily helpful to set the context. It puts everyone on the same page.

Now, let’s consider a typical scenario for an Adopting Church and 2 Joining Churches and just ONE of the many advantages, which can best be described as:

A quarter time minister is there (almost) every Sunday of the year, and becomes the “face with the place.”

Let’s say each of the potential joining churches  can each afford a quarter time minister. Normally, that would mean they’d get a live preacher once a month. That preacher probably wouldn’t be on the same level as the senior minister of an Adopting Church, and newcomers would “never” see the quarter time minister because they’d usually come on a day the minister wasn’t there.

If those quarter time ministers worked with the senior on sermon development, they could be the ‘campus minister,’ the face-with-the-place, and be there almost every Sunday, conducting the liturgy, doing each part of the service, except the sermon. The quarter time minister would preach live once a month, and the video recorded sermon would be on screen the other Sundays (lots of people fear video sermons, but research– and our own experience– doesn’t bear that out).

Our model– one church in 3 locations– means we really are just ONE church. It meant the Joining Churches gave up their non-profit state charter, and all joined the Adopting Church. That’s pretty radical, but it also– almost guarantees– their survival and thriving.

Can the multisite model be done with out that? Maybe. But I wouldn’t want to try it. Because we commit to that campus’ thriving. We don’t just provide sermons.

We provide children, youth, and adult RE, which is tied into sermon content. Plus, we have taken over all operations, administration– everything.

Our two satellites dissolved their non-profit corporate charters and are now officially part of us. That’s going ALL the way.

Needless to say, this whole thing is made possible by policy governance, which is often a shock to leaders in small congregations– usually a welcome shock, but a shock nevertheless.

If you’re interested in exploring the idea of UU church mergers in order to become a multisite church, then

The number one thing you should do right away is get the book “Better Together” from Amazon or wherever and read the whole thing, as fast as you can.

It will provide some context for the next steps. If I were you, I’d also get a few copies for the leaders at the two congregations you are talking to, so you all can be on the same page.

I suppose at some point– probably not this GA in Providence, we should think about putting together something like a 4 day midweek boot camp to thoroughly soak folks into “How We Do Church Now.” I have no doubt that this model is going to take off.

Seriously, read “Better Together,” but don’t be put off by the evangelical credentials of the authors. It is ground breaking work.

Resistance to Simplification

Resistance to Simplification

One of they keys to the daunting complexity of becoming One church in Three locations (and for church growth in general), is to try and simplify everything.

I explain our thinking in a previous post here.

What is transient? What is permanent? What is it that only we can do?

For example, faith formation for our children, youth, and adults is permanent. It is essential. We can’t contract it out to anyone else.

Discussion groups, tai chi, yoga, identity groups, activity groups– these are– for the most part, non-essential. The folks who are active in those things might disagree, of course.

What that means is that we must make sure we do the essential things, and let the non-essential things take care of themselves. If folks want an adult discussion group, fine. Let them set one up. If it begins to falter due to lack of participation, then let it die.

Religious Education? It’s a given. The ministers and staff will drive the content and be responsible for its success and failure. If the program begins to falter due to lack of participation, then the program needs to be evaluated and adjusted. Trial and error.

And what is the purpose of church programs anyway? They are not necessarily useful in and of themselves. I prefer to think of them as “steps.”

Our faith formation for children, youth, and adults, are steps– to what? Toward spiritual depth as a Unitarian Universalist.

Then, of course, you have to define what a spiritually deep UU looks like 😉

What else is essential? We have identified 9 Core Ministries. Everything else is an Enrichment Activity (it gets its own publication).

I like to think of this as the core curriculum (majoring in become a UU with spiritual depth), and elective classes (the enrichment activities, e.g., tai chi, yoga, identity groups, activity groups).

So, I am not proposing we drop enrichment activities or electives– just that we put them in their proper place.

I am also proposing that in a minister led church (as  opposed to a lay led church), the minister(s) and staff be responsible for the Core Ministries.

What are these Core Ministry Teams?

  1. Worship / Celebration
  2. Faith formation (children & youth)
  3. Faith formation (adults)
  4. Social Justice
  5. Stewardship
  6. Welcome
  7. Leadership Development
  8. Care of Souls (pastoral care)
  9. Healthy Communications

In future posts I can outline how we do each of those teams. We also have two primary staff teams:

Creative Team. 4 ministers, 1 intern, and a religious educator meet weekly on a 42 day cycle to plan out our monthly sermon themes, the arc, and the religious education components (we adapt some for children, but primarily write our own for adults).

Administrative Team (A Team). We discuss & decide logistics of the 3 campuses and how to do team development.

Have we faced resistance to the simple church concept? Of course we have. What did we do about it?

  1. My whole board of trustees read the book and then dedicated most of a board meeting (with me gone on vacation) to discussing it.
  2. The staff and I prepared a workshop on it for 45 leaders of our 3 campuses.
  3. We discuss it wherever and whenever people in our church bring it up.

This means we are on the same page. Of course, some people are uneasy– does this mean the senior minister is going to get rid of the choir? Of course not– it’s an essential component of our Celebration Ministry (#1 above).

But we trust each other– the ministers and leaders– and that means everything.

The Path Toward our UU Spiritual Depth

Most people have to parcel out their time– work, family, recreation, and church. So, we need to be clear about what we are inviting people to do. And we want to be excellent at what we offer. So, we’re going to do fewer things, but with greater quality.And we’re going to be realistic about what we ask people to do.

As mentioned in a previous post, most people will only go to two things at church. For us, that’s (1) Sunday Service; and, (2) Growth Groups– our adult faith formation.

But those two “asks” are part of a larger strategy toward our plan for UU spiritual depth (note that this is our plan, you may have a different one, and that’s just fine).

The path toward spiritual depth, at our church, can be summed up in three simple words:

Connect, Grow, Serve.

What does that mean?


  1. Show up on Sundays
  2. Be curious & open minded
  3. make a connection to those around you,

Grow: Our Growth Groups, which

  1. encourage you to a spiritual challenge
  2. support you when you falter & cheer you on when you thrive;
  3. are a tribe where you are truly known, and where you can truly know others.


  1. participate in a Core Ministry of the church
  2. rise to the challenge of ongoing charitable depth.

So, first: Connect. Come to these Sunday services. Next: Grow. Pick & try out a growth group. And, serve. Look for opportunities to live out your faith in & through our church.

 Connect, Grow, Serve: it’s How We Do Church Now.

It is a simpler, more straightforward way to talk about what we are already doing. It makes it much easier for newcomers & old-timers alike to understand our process toward spiritual depth. It means we can identify where people are in their spiritual journey, and encourage them to move to the next step.

Do you have an easily understood and verbalized process for UU spiritual faith formation? Can you put it into 140 characters or less and have it be memorized by your elementary aged children?


Getting past “A Mile Wide, and An Inch Deep”

To get 3 churches to be excellent together–we have to simplify just about everything.

So much church programming is a mile wide & an inch deep.

It comes from an understanding that the more choices, the more options you give people, the more entry options there are, the more likely people will come to, and join, your church.

Except, that understanding is wrong. The New York Times story on how too many choices actually reduces commitment or buying, is here.

It turns out that more choices don’t actually help– attract or keep people. For one thing, it makes a church lose focus– because newcomers can’t tell what’s really important.

Let’s see– yoga class, New U, adult discussion group, or a congregational meeting. I guess since they’re all getting equal space, they’re all equal.

No wonder newcomers are confused. And this is an epidemic among our churches. From the smallest fellowship to the largest churches– if you check their newsletter– so many programs, and not enough time.

And, when we’re spread too thin– excellence is unlikely. We have less coherence, we confuse newcomers, we won’t list a hierarchy of importance of what we do at church– we– frankly– fail to lead.

Larry Osborne, in his classic book, Sticky Church, says we can really only ask our people to go to two things for church.

If one of them is Sunday Worship, then what is that 2nd thing you want people to go to? (for us, it’s Growth Groups).

So, the general idea is to do fewer things, but go deeper. Needless to say, this frequently creates a political problem, which is one of the reasons it is so hard to implement,.

Our sermon series concentrates our programming. Sunday worksheets help us focus. And Growth Groups give the Sunday experience more depth.

What do you think about the idea of having 10 or fewer programs / ministries at your church?

And. While we’re at it– let’s not divorce the sanctuary service & religious education. Let’s make them the marriage they were meant to be.

Want to dig deeper into this concept? Check out this book.

The Power of Collaboration


Teams 001 – Collaboration on a New Scale.

The way folks have traditionally operated a UU church– you would think we never heard of the interdependent web.

In the old model, say– there are 3 UU congregations in geographic proximity, to some degree. Everything they do is separate– operations, administration, finance, tax compliance, music, sermons, lifespan faith formation . They do this in triplicate– week after week, month after month, year after year.

All of the work necessary to do UU church well, but– multiplied by 3. And are all 3 churches equally good at everything they do? Of course not. Why wouldn’t you have the church best positioned to do say– bookkeeping– do it for all 3 congregations? Why should 3 nearby UU churches have 3 different part time bookkeepers using 3 different systems? That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Apparently, we prefer duplication and triplication of effort. Why?

Perhaps it is that we prefer hands-on control to potential excellence, increased productivity, and simple coherency.

I understand people don’t want to “lose control” over parts of their church. But is that what church is supposed to be about– that you get to control something? Would it be worth losing “control” if you could achieve a new level of success that has been heretofore unavailable to you?

Think of it this way: what if– these three congregations worked together? There would be an economy of scale. There would be a standardization of chart of accounts, procedures for money-handling, tax compliance– all of that. And you could use the best bookkeeper rather than the most available one. You could consolidate the best practices for Operations & Administration– but at 3 locations.

And that’s just for the “back of the house” stuff. That’s the power of administrative collaboration. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more!

What if you could leverage the power of creative collaboration? Again, consider the current model of 3 local UU churches.

  • 3 ministers hole up for half a week, thinking up a sermon– on their own.
  • 3 religious educators, producing & organizing content– on their own.
  • 3 sets of leaders– doing leadership development, canvass, facilities management, governance, speaker recruitment– on their own.
  • 3 sets of bookkeepers, each with their own software, procedures, chart of accounts, and ideas about how to receive, save, and spend money.
  • 3 sets of wildly variable skills, competencies, and abilities.

Now imagine, that if you looked at these 3 congregations as a network– or an interdependent web, if you will– you would see that they are doing a huge amount of work– in triplicate– especially the lay leaders (who could otherwise be free for more traditional ministry).

What if we went further– and combined these churches? What if we were one church in three locations? What if instead of duplication or triplication– we put people to their best & highest ministry?

The ministers & educators could collaborate on monthly sermon themes, and content for sermons, for children’s faith formation, and for adult faith formation. Different people with different strengths could use them better for a larger group of people.

That’s what’s in it for you. That’s what’s in it for all of us. That’s the power of collaboration.

That’s what we’re doing at the First Unitarian Church of Houston. I’ll have more to say about the creative weekly process we use and our 42 day countdown to producing sermon and faith formation content in a future post.

Are there churches near you that might be open to either administrative or creative collaboration? Think about it.