Some People Lead, Others Choose Not To

Those of us who are leaders in our congregations are sometimes puzzled by those who sit on the sidelines. Why, we wonder, did we get involved and why do those folks choose not to?

Here are stories of a few people who chose to get involved. There may be lessons here that will help us help others to find leadership appealing.

Wendy DeRosis was desperate for community when she came to her first Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation, the UU Congregation of Marin (228 members) in San Rafael, CA. She had just finished treatment for breast cancer and her husband also was coping with a medical condition. They had recently added to their family through adoption. "My little family was weary," she said. "But we were embraced with compassion and love. The UU community was there for us with meals, cards, calls, and visits. I experienced just how important the support of a truly giving community can be."

And so at the first opportunity Wendy started giving back. "Two years ago when I was asked to be on the governing board, I said 'yes.' And then when the president stepped down last year I said I would be vice president. And last year, when asked to be the president, I again said, 'yes.'"

She added, "When things get tough, I remember all the ways my church was supportive to me. I have been so focused on giving back as my reason to step into leadership that I was actually delightfully surprised at how the experience has led me to grow and mature."

Shortly after Arthur Kull and his wife joined a Connecticut congregation in 1978, they were asked to organize the annual finance dinner. "Being new to the church we could not say no," he said. Doing the dinner, "we fell in love with the church and it just seemed natural to volunteer for many positions over the years," he said. However, he adds that the dinner was more work than they'd been told it would be. "It was quite a job and although quite successful, it left a sour taste in our mouths. But it didn't discourage us from volunteering again."

When Jacqueline Pratt and her family moved into a new home in a new community, a neighbor invited them to a pool party where they met members of the Roseburg Unitarian Fellowship, now the Umpqua UU Church in Roseburg, OR (72 members). "We were attracted by these folks' energy, their enthusiasm for their adventure into Unitarianism, and their sense of community," Pratt said. When they asked her to teach religious education it was an easy first step. "I loved that feeling of inspiration and enjoyment," she said, "and I get great joy in helping others feel it too."

Gail Sphar has always been a leader. But a few years ago she got burned out and dropped out of most of her leadership roles at the First UU Church of Nashville, TN (366 members). Then two years ago a member of the nominating committee asked her to serve on the governing board. "He was very up-front with me," she recalled. "The committee felt I had talents that were needed on the board and they envisioned my becoming president before long. It was impossible for me to look this person in the eye and say I'm too busy, since he himself devoted so much time to the church."

A year into her board term she was invited to be chair. "All of my old insecurities resurfaced and I convinced myself I couldn't do it," she said. "The chair was very patient, listened to me, and told me why he and the rest of the committee thought I could do it. As I began to think about it, I realized I didn't have to be perfect to be a leader. And I knew I wouldn't be alone. That won me over."

John Brewer was already an active volunteer at the Lawrence, KS, Unitarian Fellowship (147 members), when a friend suggested he attend Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, WI. The experience deepened his commitment. He decided to go in part because the fellowship always budgets the leadership school tuition and travel expenses for whoever will become fellowship chair the following year.

Brewer came home and published a booklet on his MLS experience describing his initial misgivings about going and his transformation from a "skeptical curmudgeon to a shameless evangelist in what I would have to classify as a bona fide UU miracle."

He wrote another booklet on his experiences at General Assembly 2003 in Boston. Last summer he concluded his three-year commitment to the chair cycle at Lawrence—vice president, president, past president. "This work and the world it opened for me were spiritually broadening and deepening." He also launched a weekly religious odyssey program and accepted the responsibility to start a new committee on adult religious education. He adds, "It's a surprising amount of commitment for a guy who is basically a lazy introvert who prefers the company of wine, women, and song."

One of Brandi Janssen's first volunteer stints with the UU Church of Rockford, IL (416 members), was helping with the stewardship campaign. She says, "I said yes, quite simply, because I was asked. Not just that, but because I was asked in a way that made it clear that what I would be doing would be important to the church, and I was asked in a way that made clear what my time commitment would be," she said. "I've gained a lot but I can't really give myself too much praise for agreeing to serve—rather I have to praise those who took the time to ask."

Barbara Cornell, director of religious education at Shoreline UU Church in Shoreline, WA (171 members), believes that a key to people's transformation to leadership is to first nurture and support them. Then transformation can happen through such things as good worship experience.

"Good worship opens hearts and connects people to one another," she said. She also believes small group ministry performs this role "by giving people an opportunity to love and be loved. I also think that when we can encourage folks to go to district or continental events or trainings, huge shifts in their perspective can result."

Volunteering with children and youth can do the same thing, she said: "I've had people burst into tears when I call them to say, 'A youth in our congregation has chosen you to be their mentor this year.'"

Tandi Rogers Koerger, Program Specialist for the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Pacific Northwest District, was already a committed volunteer when in 2000 she attended a service at the Shoreline UU Church and heard the Rev. Thomas Anastasi preach. He transformed her that day, she said. "He preached with such conviction, and sang and played the piano as if his life depended on it. I thought, 'This is what I want for the rest of my life. I must go out and be the saving message and invite others in.' I've never been the same."

To summarize: If you want people to become active congregational volunteers and leaders, first give them support for the personal reasons they come to church. Inspire them with good worship, tell them why they'd be especially good in a particular role, give them a clear description of it, and make it a manageable size. Offer to pay their way to General Assembly or leadership school, and give them lots of encouragement and thanks along the way.

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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