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The Power of Symbolic Language

UU Value words, Love, Justice, Hope, Faith and Community, projected on to a building for light show.

By Renee Ruchotzke

plumb line

plumb line

Unitarian Universalists tend to use a lot of words when we attempt to explain our religious beliefs and values.  We have a complicated faith that does not fit into typical questions about religion from outsiders. This makes sense at a national level. We have a big tent that makes room for a lot of diversity of belief. But at the level of the individual congregation there needs to be more focus and purpose.  Unless your congregation has over 1000 members and a full staff, you can't do it all.  Congregational leaders who understand this have been crafting mission statements and developing strategic (not long-range!) plans to give them direction. There is a trend for these congregations to state their mission in 3 words:

  • Inspire - Connect - Serve
  • Invite - Inspire - Involve
  • Listen - Open - Serve
  • Inspire - Serve - Grow.

At first glance this may seem a bit simplistic. How can a few verbs guide congregational decision-making? Such words are really just shorthand, pointing to a much more complicated understanding. Using a three-word mission statement can only work when there is a deep and shared meaning of what the words mean. Creating a shared meaning requires time and intention by your congregation's leadership.  Larry Osborne, in his book Sticky Teams: Keeping Your Leadership Team and Staff on the Same Page, suggests creating "Ministry Plumb Lines:"

 The most powerful tool I've found for overcoming these differences (in understanding) and for making sure that my staff is aligned in terms of their day-to-day values and decisions is something I call "ministry plumb lines." I first started using these years ago in an attempt to find some way to quickly and accurately convey the values and priorities I wanted our staff members to keep in mind when making decisions. Ministry plumb lines function much like a carpenter's or mason's plumb line. They make sure our programs, ministries, and decisions line up with the core values and priorities we claim to have. And they let everyone know how we are supposed to do things around here. In a sense, they're organizational proverbs -- a list of pithy sayings that describe clearly and concisely what we value and what I expect our staff to think through when making ministry decisions.

In a congregation with shared ministry, the understanding is co-created and the plumb lines guide both paid staff and volunteer lay leaders, providing for a permission-giving culture.  

About the Author

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) has served as a Congregational Life Consultant in the Central East Region since September of 2010. As program manager for Leadership Development, she is responsible for providing consultation, programming and training material (including webinars and videos) on...

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.