Rituals Help Boards Focus On Religious Meaning
Rituals Help Boards Focus On Religious Meaning

When the board of trustees of First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of San Diego, CA (656 members), was simultaneously struggling with some complex issues around a transition in ministry plus the renovation of its meetinghouse, the board found it helpful to take time for the same simple rituals it had been following for many years.

The board opens each meeting by lighting a chalice and listening to a reading. Then at the end of each meeting members join in singing a hymn. Those rituals really paid off, says board member Larry Porter. “We were having to deal with issues that were sometimes very complicated and difficult. But I cannot recall a time when we even once treated each other with disrespect. I think our opening and closing had something to do with that.”

Meetings of religious bodies, whether they be the governing board or a committee, are different from meetings in business corporations. Keeping them focused on the fact that religion is at the core of their existence can help them proceed more smoothly and help participants reach decisions that are in line with their religious principles.

The Rev. Dr. Bonnie Devlin minister of the First Congregational Parish in Kingston, MA (78), likes to open meetings of the parish committee with a chalice lighting and a reading. Then comes a prayer “asking for the wisdom and compassion to carry out the work of a religious organization and to remind ourselves that we are the chosen spiritual leaders of the congregation. Then we have a check-in when each member shares how they are doing/feeling.”

She added, “These practices really help clear the air and allow us to re-focus as a spiritual and intentional group.” At the conclusion of each meeting there is time for a brief checkout. Devlin observes, “I have found this approach to be very beneficial to both our social and task needs, and most of all, to remind us to pause for a moment to reflect on why we gather and how we can respect one another while engaged in the process of spiritual leadership for our congregation.”

At the UU Fellowship of Wayne County in Wooster, OH (113), the Rev. Elaine Strawn opens meetings with a meditation or “spiritual focus” followed by an invitation to “check in” using a talking stick. “As the president leads the business meeting, I consider it my ‘job’ to keep the focus on our spiritual discipline,” says Strawn.

A process of chalice lighting, special readings, and recitation of a covenant (calling people to speak and listen respectfully) takes place at board meetings at First Unitarian, Providence, R.I. (409), says past president Marilyn Eanet. “It does change the tone of meetings considerably,” she said. “I think people would be upset if we discontinued it.”

Elaine Yehle Bowen, moderator of the board at the UU Church of Kent, OH (150), chooses a reading each time “that reflects the topics facing us on the agenda. Perhaps there is a particular need for hope, courage, strength, or perseverance that evening. Often I add the following, ‘May the light of our chalice illuminate our hearts and minds as we undertake the work of our church tonight.’”

Other suggestions from Bowen are: Use the plural pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us,” rather than “I,” “me,” “mine.” Close the meeting with an affirming, positive message as the chalice is being extinguished. “It is important for the participants to know that their time and contributions have been valued,” she says.

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.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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