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What Color is Your Ministry Traffic Light?

Do you remember playing a game as a child called Traffic Light where a leader called out “green light!” and we children behind them would race to tag them. And then they’d call out “red light!” and we’d stop instantly. Sometimes so suddenly that we’d fall over with the momentum and giggle in a pile. When “yellow light!” was called we’d move into slow motion, exaggerated running pantomime toward the leader. The goal in this game is to tag the leader first, and then you become leader.

The goal is different for this metaphor, but the task for the runner is the same. When you’re displaying Green Light Behavior – run, hop, skip, dance as you wish. There’s no finish line. The goal is vibrant, thriving congregational health.

When Yellow Light Behavior creeps in, and it likely will, because we’re human, that is a time to slow down and reassess your choices. It’s a time to ask for help and gather in your support group. Call a Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association Good Officer, your Congregational Life Staff and/or you mentor. Get some honest feedback and care to get back on track. This is an opportunity for rich learning and growth.

Red Light Behavior calls for a full stop, because harm is being done that will be very difficult to undo. As in the game, leaders often fall over and it’s painful. In the red zone the question becomes, “is this relationship salvageable?” It is possible to work through serious issues with deep reflection and an authentic process of forgiveness. I don’t believe anyone really wants to be in this zone. Call a Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association Good Officer, your Congregational Life Staff and/or your mentor. Some regions have a Healthy Congregations Team who can help tend to the entire system and get them on the path to healing.

Here’s the truth – we are not born with a manual of appropriate behavior. Our covenants and professional guidelines give us standards, and sometimes those are not enough when we are in pain. This Traffic Light metaphor is just one tool among many. I came up with the metaphor and then your Congregational Staff teammates added the healthy and the problematic behaviors. Please feel free to use this tool as a starting point for a conversation with us or the leaders you share ministry with.

Green Traffic Light

Green Light

  • Collegiality

    • shows up for minister meetings and retreats

    • connects with colleagues, therapists, and/or spiritual directors

    • has a life and support outside of the congregation

    • does not expect congregation or its members to provide theological, spiritual, or psychological support of the minister

  • Shared Ministry

    • works with board, other key leaders (such as Committee on Shared Ministry and certain committee chairs) and other staff collaboratively to build the mission of the congregation

    • open to having their ideas challenged (in appropriate ways)

    • willing to find mutual shared solutions

  • Health and Vitality

    • considers the impact of the congregation and makes their health a priority

    • does not lead with their own needs, but instead puts fidelity to the congregation as a whole (not subsections) as the priority

    • emotionally intelligent enough to understand the difference between their intention and their impact, and readily and non-defensively owns that impact.

    • considers the health of the congregation and makes the congregation's health a priority in their actions and decision making

  • Integrity & Humility​

    • acts in a way that fosters trust (i.e. a “no surprises” policy)

    • Incorporates covenant as a continual practice and models covenantal relations and restorative repair.

    • gives permission to risk and make mistakes, learn from mistakes and ask for forgiveness

    • willing to ask for help/advice from colleagues, Regional Staff, Good Officers, or UUA Staff when needed

    • inter-culturally competent and committed to dismantling white supremacy culture

  • Spiritual Care

    • Has a spiritual life outside of the congregation such as spiritual practices and spiritual director as needed

    • Balances the emotional closeness of caring for congregants and being cared about by congregants with appropriate boundaries while still expressing care and accepting expressions of care.

Yellow Traffic Light

Yellow Light

  • Isolation

    • Absent from collegial gatherings; isolates in other ways from outside support networks

    • Either under-functions (stops showing up to parts of their ministry) or over-functions (over time is classic)

    • can overfunction in one area of ministry while completely neglecting another.

    • Fosters isolation of their congregation from networking with other congregations and UUA resources

  • Poor Professional Boundaries
    • Boundary between their personal life and ministry becomes gray. “Friends” in the congregation; preaching sometimes contains an uncomfortable level of self-revelation.

    • Has "friends" in the congregation - friendships in which the boundaries of minister - congregant are less visible, for example, the minister leans on the friend emotionally or has special favorites

  • Poor Leadership
    • Undermines board or staff in word and/or action

    • Undermines staff and lay leaders by not letting them have permission to risk and make mistakes

    • excludes staff and lay leaders from important decision making processes

    •  gatekeeps in ways that undermine shared ministry.

    • Uplifts and insists upon certain covenantal norms and disregards others.

Red traffic light

Red Light

  • Abusive

    • disparages colleague and/ or tradition; this is different than appropriate challenge or critique in on-going communication and idea sharing

    • is abusive towards staff. For example, requiring perfection, emotional abuse if standards aren’t met, punishment if staff stray outside their “lane”

    • uses appropriate employer/supervisor support as reward and withholds it as punishment

    • abusive towards staff. For example, requiring perfection, berating if standards aren’t met

    • punishment if staff stray outside their “lane”

    • staff feel afraid to talk to leaders about the minister.

    • Gaslights frequently (blames others and manipulates feelings)

  • Conceited

    • declares that they know better, and won’t engage in open conversation with the intention of learning more and challenging one’s own ideas.

    • Demonstrates alienation from and antipathy toward congregation or from all but certain segments that support the ministe

    • ignores the impact of the minister’s behavior on the rest of the congregation

    • Claims to be an expert in any given situation, even ones they clearly possess little knowledge of

  • Crosses Boundaries

    • relies on members for social or psychological needs being met

    • becomes sexually involved, or other intimate relationships with people they are serving

    • has clear favorites and insider group.

    • Refuses to meet with staff or leaders or segments of leaders

    • shows favoritism for those who agree with the minister

  • Lack of Integrity

    • dishonest, both in what is said, and what is not said

    • comports themselves in a way that diminishes the role of minister

    • regularly triangulates others into their grievances in order to obfuscate, confuse, or demean or diminish the other(*see note)

    • doesn’t own up to their own responsibility

    • ignores covenant as the foundation and focus of our community building and binding efforts.

*Note: It may be appropriate to involve other parties if direct communication is not culturally appropriate for that group. Any indirect communication must be done with the aim of working to resolve issues.

About the Authors

Tandi Rogers

Rev. Tandi Rogers is a Congregational Life Staff member for the Pacific Western Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), serving as Emerging Ministries. Tandi teaches Religious Education for a Changing World at Meadville-Lombard Theological School. Two of her meditations appear in...

UUA Congregational Life Staff Group

The regional Congregational Life staff are congregations' local connection to the UUA. All of the program Congregational Life staff have expertise in most aspects of congregational life and each also has a few program areas of expertise. See the...

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