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How can we respond to the 21st Century Issues?
Mental Models in a Changing World

The world around us is changing at an exponential rate, so it is often difficult to respond to the new reality.  What is true for individuals is even more true for institutions, including our “living tradition” Unitarian Universalist congregations.  I’m not saying this to scold or to shame, but to point out that responding to a changing context is hard….really hard.

Brain science helps us to understand that we create and use mental models of our reality that help us to filter and make sense of our experiences.  But our mental models aren’t always accurate or helpful.  As a white middle-class female, I grew up with a mental model of the world operating in a way that gave men privilege that they didn’t see, especially in my previous career as a mechanical engineer.  My mental model did not enable me to see that I had my own privilege–being white.

I find that metaphors can be helpful in helping us to articulate things that can’t be articulated using rational prose.  The modern metaphor for mental models that resonates with me is exemplified in the movie The Matrix, especially in the Red Pill/Blue Pill scene.

Congregational leaders who choose the “blue pill” don’t want to challenge their current mental model of how their church is functioning.  They are comfortable with continuing being a church that meets their needs, offering them:

  • community-building social events
  • pastoral care provided by the minister
  • inspiring Sunday services
  • forums for lively discussion
  • space and programming for their children and youth

What we are learning is that most of the churches that continue to operate in this comfortable mode are declining…including Unitarian Universalist congregations.

My invitation is for our congregational leaders to be willing to take the red pill and open themselves to challenging their own mental models of what our congregations could and should be.  We have many Unitarian Universalist congregations that have done just that and are now vibrant and growing.  Some are new, such as the Wellsprings Congregation in Chester Springs, PA. Others have been around for much longer, such as First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, organized in 1829.  And some started as fellowships back during the post WWII baby boom, such as the UU Congregation of Fairfax, VA.

Here’s a short list of qualities that these vibrant congregations all share:

  • A clear and inspiring mission that guides their ministry
  • Paying attention to the changing cultural context and responding by staying relevant to younger members
  • A commitment to individual spiritual growth–and most importantly–depth
  • A commitment to a high level of lay leader training and meaningful service
  • A commitment to serve needs beyond their walls

I know there are other congregations that are doing similar work!  I would love to hear about them in the comments.

As  leader, it is all about you, just not in the way we usually use that phrase. As leaders we must always be finding ways to improve our own understanding of what is going on around us and how our personal functioning--good or bad--is contributes to the situation. We need to be aware of our own biases, limitations and assumptions.  We could be stuck in a way of thinking that is keeping the congregation from going forward.  We could be responding to a symptom rather than a deeper root cause. The best way--and I would argue the only way--of testing our own mental models is to truly hold our ideas accountable to critique by others.  A key part of the scientific method is peer review, a method used in academia to maintain standards, improve performance and provide credibility. Our congregational polity has this same ethos.  Our forebears believed that the will of God, (those of us who operate out of a process theology might call this the persuasive direction of the Holy Spirit) was best determined by a community of people of good will and forbearance, bound by covenant to each other and to God. Faithful leadership becomes a covenantal relationship when congreational leaders become--as Peter Senge states in his book The Fifth Discipline--fearless in their openness.  Senge quotes former Harley Davidson CEO Rich Teerlink:

You have to believe in your heart that people want to pursue a vision that matters, that they want to contribute and be responsible for the results, and that they are willing to look at shortfalls in their own behavior and correct problems whenever they are able.  These beliefs are not easy for control-oriented managers, and that is why there remains a big gap between the "talk" and the "walk" regarding developing people.  (pp. 262-3)

Our theology and p0lity were founded in resistance to the corruption inherent in hierarchical structures that include bishops and presbyteries that one might describe as "control-oriented managers."  To be faithful leaders in the congregational tradition, we must create and nurture communities that have a clear mission and that encourage their members to hold themselves and each other accountable to that mission...and to do so in love. Still, it takes much courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, but the results can be transformative.  

About the Author

  • Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) has served as a Congregational Life Consultant in the Central East Region since September of 2010. She serves congregation in Northeast Ohio and Western New York. She is part of the LeaderLab Design team providing Leadership Development resources and other trainings to congregations.

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