The Emperor's Berries

By Renee Ruchotzke

two red raspberries on a bush

This is the first year that our backyard food forest has blessed us with fruit. A strawberry, raspberry or blueberry fresh off the plant is full of flavor, inviting me to savor each berry in its peak moment of ripeness. We love to invite friends’ children over during berry season so that they can experience the magic of discovering each berry under cover of leaf, and tasting its sweetness.

It’s that experience that tempts me to buy the plastic clamshells full of off-season berries in the fresh produce section of my local grocery store, hoping to capture a taste of summer. But experience has taught me that the clamshells are a trap, especially when it comes to packaged raspberries, which never taste anything like a fresh raspberry.

Our modern, international food supply web has created expectations that we can expect fresh fruit all year long. The reality is that growing seasons need to be balanced with fallow seasons – times for the soil to be replenished with nutrients. This natural cycle is out of sight and out of mind. Consumers have a seemingly endless supply of fresh berries, but they may not notice that the berries come from different parts of the western hemisphere, depending on the month. The reality is a little like the fairy tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where no one dares to admit that the Emperor’s Berries have no flavor.

How might our expectations about year-round berries impact our expectations around our church’s programming? Sometimes we see consumer expectations show up in our faith communities when it comes to Sunday services, religious exploration, and so on. The work of the staff and other leadership can also be out of sight and out of mind. We sometimes ignore the signs of weariness. We dare not admit that our leaders need a break or that we need to build in expectations for fallow time and opportunities for replenishment.

I know that I’m hearing stories of burnout from our leaders, both paid and unpaid. Staff have taken on extra responsibilities as part of the pivot to online church 18 months ago, and even more responsibilities as they look at ways to support multiple platforms for congregational engagement. Lay leaders have taken on more responsibility. The extra stress and work take their toll. Leaders are feeling less creative. Expectations are as high as ever. Tempers are shorter.

How do we respond?

The principles that we at the UUA have been using for gathering guidance (PNG), slightly modified, can be a starting point:

  • Root our expectations of one another in the values of inclusion and consent.
  • Make changes slowly and be flexible.
  • Be realistic with expectations of ourselves and others.
  • Follow our covenants.

I have noticed that some of our congregations are already being realistic with expectations by sharing programming with one another. “Visiting” another congregation one Sunday morning a month, or inviting another congregation to share children’s programming have helped to get the leaders’ work back to a more manageable level.

It's never too soon to say, “Hey, let’s sit down and share with one another about what our expectations are, and whether they are realistic.”

In faith and service,
Rev. Renée Ruchotzke(ruh-HUT-skee)

About the Author

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) is a Congregational Life Consultant and program manager for Leadership Development.

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