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Leadership Starts With Ownership
Leadership Starts With Ownership

There was a time when “leadership development” in a congregation might have referred primarily to the nominating committee’s assurance that “We know you can do this,” as it handed a committee assignment to you.

Times have changed. Congregations today generally try to be more deliberate about training leaders and prospective leaders. Toward that end, the number of leadership development opportunities available to them has grown. Congregations are creating their own, other leadership programs are available at General Assembly (GA) and through the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and district offices, and organizations such as the Alban Institute offer still more.

Nominating committees themselves are morphing into leadership development committees in many congregations. “Leadership development is one of the top two or three things that lay leaders want from us,” says the Rev. Dr. Richard Speck, district executive of the Joseph Priestley District. That can range from information about board leadership to the basics of running a committee, he adds.

The First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Columbus, OH, is one of the places where leadership development has evolved. “There was an earlier time,” says Karen Dawson, chair of First UU’s leadership development committee, “when the nominating committee would start in February to scramble to find people to fill our elective offices and the major committees.” She explains that people were afraid of getting on a committee and never getting back off again. “People who had been on a committee for a while wanted off,” she says. “We knew we had to do things differently.”

Dawson, who in her professional life runs LeaderSpark, a leadership skills development program for teens, worked with other church leaders to form a task force that developed a Path to Service and Leadership. “We looked at the issues we were dealing with in church, what outcomes we wanted, and how we could get there,” she says.

“We knew that we had to start by giving people the confidence that they could lead,” Dawson says. “People were scared of the word ‘leader.’ So it was hard to find new people to step up.”

That was three years ago. The congregation now has a four-course leadership program: "Soup, Service, and Leadership". It begins with “Navigating the Church,” a course to acquaint people with the church’s organizational structure, history, policies, and decision-making processes. The others courses, Nurturing the Leader Within, Conflict as Opportunity, and Working Effectively with Volunteers, give potential leaders a good grounding in leadership practices.

Dawson says that things still aren’t perfect, but they’re better. “A lot of people are more comfortable now about being asked to do something.”

Rose Riccio and Kaiya Iverson presented a workshop at General Assembly 2009 on leadership development. Riccio is fulltime membership director at DuPage UU Church in Naperville, IL. Iverson is DuPage’s board president.

Iverson says that cultivating leaders begins at a young age and involves every aspect of church life. “Everything you do in all your interactions with your members and visitors, you’re setting the stage for future leadership. When our children do joys and concerns in children’s chapel they’re learning to speak in front of other people. When middle school youth do a check-in, they’re learning to listen to each other. When visitors are welcomed each week and introduced to others, they learn to do that to others. That’s demonstrating leadership.”

How can one identify potential leaders? Go to the “connectors” in your congregation, says Riccio. “They’re the people who others seek out for advice, and the ones who are always meeting and greeting and getting to know everything about everybody. They’re in everyone’s business in a good way. They can tell you who might be ready for a leadership role.”

Other advice from Iverson and Riccio:

  • Be honest about the requirements of the job.
  • Honor volunteers’ time by ending meetings on schedule.
  • Remind them it’s their church.

An outline of Iverson and Riccio’s GA presentation, plus two handouts, “The Conversation and the Ask,” and “Ways to Identify a Promising Person,” can be found on DuPage's Denominational Affairs page.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Chulak, district executive of the St. Lawrence District, observes that congregations that have difficulty finding leaders often need a new way of relating to members, visitors, and others. “Leadership is directly related to ownership. And ownership is connected to stewardship. Ask yourself, ‘Whose congregation is this? Who makes the decisions?’” He says that congregations that are very open tend to have less difficulty finding leaders, while those that are more closed—where only a few individuals hold all the authority—have a more difficult time.

Chulak recommends that congregations develop succession plans so that new leaders have something to guide them. “When someone new comes into leadership sometimes we just assume they’ll figure out what to do,” he says. “Ask yourself how well your congregation supports the people now who are in key positions. That will help you understand why others might not volunteer.”

Jeanne Crane has written a six-session leadership program, in cooperation with the St. Lawrence District, which congregations can use to help them assess and improve their leadership culture. Request the In-House Congregational Leadership Program from Crane’s website. She says 65 congregations have used it so far.

A new UUA curriculum, Harvest the Power: Developing Lay Leadership, in the Tapestry of Faith series, is being field-tested this year and at the same time is available online to other congregations. One of its three authors, the Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle, minister of the Bay Area UU Church in Houston, says Harvest the Power is designed to help UUs learn more about themselves and how they can serve in the world.

He said many of the exercises in the curriculum are focused on helping people get to know each other, then getting them to work together for a common vision. “It’s a practical curriculum that anyone can teach.” Harvest the Power has 12 units, which can be taught independently.

The other two authors of Harvest the Power are Gail Tittle, the manager for curriculum development at the Protective Services Training Institute of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and Gail Forsyth-Vail, adult programs director in the UUA’s Lifespan Faith Development staff group. Forsyth-Vail notes that, “Harvest the Power supports the spiritual practice of leadership and also offers practical guidance to help address the challenges leaders and congregations face in changing times.”

Sarah Prickett was president-elect of the UU Church of Little Rock, AR, when she attended the Southwest District’s Fall Conference several years ago where Matt Tittle was teaching an early version of Harvest the Power. “It was incredible,” she says. “I found that I had been downplaying a lot of my skills. It helped set me on a journey to a better understanding of who I was and it gave my leadership a purpose.”

Increasingly, lay leaders can get high-quality leadership training without leaving home. Several UUA districts now offer online trainings or “webinars” using Persony, a method of connecting groups and individuals at individual computers, for conferencing via the Internet. Electronic conferencing has surged because of the economy, a desire to be greener, and as a way of reaching people who are reluctant to attend weekend workshops. Trainings via Persony are often an hour and a half long, scattered throughout the week. There is a nominal fee to register, often $15. It is helpful if callers have phone plans with unlimited minutes.

Find out what electronic leadership workshops are available by checking your own district’s website. Trainings in other districts are often open to people outside the district. The Florida District staff present one or two online conferences monthly, plus several face-to-face conferences, says the Rev. Kenn Hurto, district executive. “Part of the value is that we can communicate content in small packages during the week as opposed to tying up a whole weekend.” Other districts that have taken the lead in online conferencing include Prairie Star, Pacific Northwest, Joseph Priestley, and Ohio-Meadville (in cooperation with three other districts).

What to Do First

Not sure where to start with leadership development? Start by making sure that newcomer classes include content that allows participants to develop a commitment to the congregation and to share their own passions. People come to church, in part, from a desire to change the world. Get to know those folks who are not involved in leadership. Connect them into small social groups and then invite them to take on small tasks. Ask your district office about leadership workshops, including the increasing number of “webinars” being offered by various UUA districts.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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