Being a Learning Community

Blackboard with the word "together" and figures holding hands

By Renee Ruchotzke

Congregational leaders today are facing challenges that have no easy answers or quick fixes. Developing practices that enable the congregation to use its collective wisdom to experiment with different ideas and approaches.

Understand Your Congregation as a System

Systems theory, applied by thought leaders like Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer and Margaret Wheatley, shows us that human groups can develop a kind of self-awareness, emotional self-control and creative intelligence. This is the core of the work of your UUA Congregational Life Staff when we work with congregations. We may work and train individual leaders, but it’s really in service to promoting the self-awareness of the whole congregation as a system. Discerning and living into a shared mission and vision is part of bringing a kind of consciousness in the form of purpose to a system. Developing and living into a covenant creates an opportunity for group emotional self-control for a system. Shared ministry, when done well, provides opportunities for creative intelligence. These are all ways to become a learning community.

Experi-Fail as a Leadership Culture

Religions in the 21st century need to adapt to a changing world. Congregational leaders need to be bold and creative, with an entrepreneurial spirit. This means giving yourself permission to not only try new things, but to make mistakes and learn from them.

Develop Feedback Loops

You’ll want to be intentional about your experiments by setting goals and developing meaningful metrics (what are we trying to do and what will it look like if we are successful) and reporting back on them. In the spirit of the scientific method, look for “peer review” opportunities to help determine if your experiments are headed in the right direction.

Preparing for the Future

Pro-active, visionary boards set aside time to think about open or powerful questions about the future of their congregation. These are generative questions that help you frame and reframe how your congregation is serving your members, your future members and your community.

Such questions invite the opportunity for you to learn about the present and emerging context of your congregation’s ministry. You may want to discuss a book that you choose as a “common read.” You may wish to take an online course together and follow it up with additional learning activities. You may wish to invite an outside consultant to offer fresh eyes on your church.

Many boards have developed the practice of using the first thirty minutes of their board meetings for this time of reflection and discussion. Boards leading a major change (e.g. ministerial transitions, growth initiatives, culture shifts or other adaptive challenges) often schedule a second monthly meeting for these conversations.