Best Practices for Leadership

      I  conducted a leadership development training workshop in York, PA  a few years ago for representatives of several congregations. Each time I do this workshop, I have small groups of people brainstorm the best parts of meetings that went well. I am gratified that the individuals realize what makes for a good meeting whether it is a committee or the board.  I have been collecting these best practices and offer them to you for your consideration.  How well do you do in including these things?Leader on Arrow

Best Meeting Practice


Timed agenda sent out in advance

Post agenda before meeting for others to see

Assigned roles and tasks

Realistic agenda

People come prepared

Agreed to agenda

Adequate time

Vision and goals for organization

Invite the right people




Create a covenant for behavior

Use of religious symbols

Mindfulness of UU principles

Leader attentive to group process

All feel heard

Deep listening to each other

Sense of humor




Mutual trust of each other

Equal participation

Civil treatment of all

Environment comfortable


Be on the same page

Consistent attendance



Leader who leads

Agenda driven and followed

Meeting kept on track

Strong chair or facilitator

Have action items and responsibilities

Use variety of activities for discussion

Don’t get bogged down

Delegation of tasks

Time limited remarks

Prepared to decide

Parking lot for later discussion

Know why they are present

Use handouts and visuals for understanding

Use electronic visuals to keep confusion down

Provide a narrative with financial reports

Table disagreements

Small group discussions of contentious issues

Building strong relations

Welcoming disagreements

End on time



Create summarized reports

Have sense of accomplishment

Good minutes

Minutes issued timely

Structured feedback

Prepare stakeholders for decisions

Have clear outcomes

Perform a check out on the meeting

I would throw in one other best practice — one I got from Bill 

Bowen’s “Inside the Board Room” (he has a newer book out as well).  

That is to have an annual agenda of things that have to be done: the budget has to be passed the month before the annual meeting, the plan for the Canvass has to be approved six months before the annual meeting, etc.  Our biggest issue is, I will run the board for two years and have all kinds of great ideas (even the ones that don’t work out will be well intended).  Then I will turn it over to someone else who heads off on their own and focuses on other things,  The annual agenda helps the church institutionalize continuity, it also helps keep some things on the table (any needed bylaw changes are started on three months before the annual meeting).

        I will continue collecting best practices at future trainings.  I hope they help you as you improve your meetings.

Yours in the Faith,


Piloting A District to Safe Skies

Airplane          “Attention, this is your captain speaking from the flight deck. We have reached our cruising altitude of 39,000 feet. We have been notified of some rough air ahead of us. We ask that all passengers return to their seats, fasten their seat belts, and remain seated for the duration of the flight.”

I would guess that most of you have heard words similar to these when you have traveled by air. We sometimes encounter a smooth flight that is totally uneventful and we enjoy the time reading a book, talking to our seatmate, or watching the in-flight movie. We know that we aren’t responsible for the ultimate fate of the ship and passengers so we can relax. Yes, we might get anxious when the pilot announces the encounter with rough weather. It can result in injury or even death when the gyrations are violent enough.

I’m a private pilot with over 1,000 hours in command of a small airplane. As a pilot I know what goes through the mind of the airline captain during inclement weather. No pilot looks forward to flying on instruments with lots of turbulence. It is hard enough to keep the airship steady just by reference to dials and gauges. Bouncing around makes it just that more difficult. And it makes the passengers very unhappy.

Have you ever stood on one foot and closed your eyes? Most of us can only do this for a few moments before falling over. It is hard to stay balanced without visual reference to your surroundings. Yet this is what pilots have to do when flying on instruments. We have to ignore what our body is telling us and pay attention to that the flight instruments visually show us about the orientation of the airplane. Our internal sensors can be fooled just like standing on one foot with your eyes closed.

Thirteen years ago I embarked upon a new adventure for me that kept me from feeling totally balanced at first. After nine years serving the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, Florida, I took the position as Acting District Executive for the Joseph Priestley District (JPD). I went from a congregation of 130 where everyone was within 25 miles of the sanctuary to a district that encompasses almost 15,000 Unitarian Universalists scattered across parts of five states.   There are almost 70 congregations ranging in size from a handful to over 1,000 members. The flying analogy is to go from the Cessna 172 that I currently fly to piloting a Boeing 747. While the basic fundamentals of flying the plane don’t change, the complexity of the system has intensified greatly. There is a lot more going on in the JPD than in a small parish in Florida. As the DE I am expected to be aware of and knowledgeable about a whole host of activities from antiracism to youth empowerment.

When I took this position I knew it was something only a crazy person would take. I served as chair of the search committee for the Florida District and knew firsthand what the demands would be for a person in this position. Now when people ask me why I agreed to do this work, I tell them I am certifiably crazy.

What are the challenges that face a DE? There is more work to do than can humanly be done. There is always one more project to shepherd, one more workshop to prepare, one more e-mail or phone call to answer, one more trip to a congregation to make. We deal with the joy and sadness of ministry as we assist colleagues as they start a new ministry with all the hopes and dreams of a bright future or are there to help a congregation end a ministry, sometimes not by choice. We are called to give sage advice, find resources, counsel colleagues, and be the font of wisdom about all things Unitarian Universalist. It is humanly impossible to do it all. Yet, there are a dedicated group of men and women who take on this challenge on a daily basis throughout our association.

I do this work because I know that I am making a difference in our UUA. In small ways I may help a congregation become more healthy, help them find new forms of building community, and strengthening our faith in the local setting. I don’t mind the long hours when I see a group of people relating to one another in new, more productive ways.

In some ways I have to fly blind in this position. I don’t know all the people or the history of the congregations to the District. This has been somewhat advantageous in allowing me to ask lots of questions and gain valuable information. It also means that I have to keep my focus sharp for any potential bumps along the way so that I can react quickly and right my craft.

To a certain extent my work that year was like serving as a student pilot who practiced under the supervision of a more seasoned pilot instructor. I then reached the stage of flying solo and built my hours toward the day of taking my check ride. The flight examiner put me through my paces and decided I am a safe, competent pilot. I was selected to be the District Executive for the JPD and earned my wings.

I leave you with some flying wisdom sent to me by a friend.

1.                   Every takeoff is optional. Every landing is mandatory.

2.         A ‘good’ landing is one from which you can walk away. A ‘great’ landing is one after which they can use the plane again.

3.         Learn from the mistakes of others. You won’t live long enough to make all of
them yourself.

4.         Never let an aircraft take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to five minutes

5.         You know you’ve landed with the wheels up if it takes full power to taxi to the

These are valid for ministry as well as flying. May your ministry enjoy smooth currents and your skies remain clear.

Steering By the Light of Faith

     My friends, we live here in Wilmington in interesting times.  Some would say extraordinary times in the life of this country and the life of our faith.  In the larger culture, the fastest rising demographic group according to a study called the American Religious Identification Survey is those Americans who claim no religion or who are actively opposed to religious institutions.  They now make up 25% of the population up from 8% only twenty years ago.  If we include those who said they don’t know their religious preference or refused to answer, the percentage jumps to 30%.  This means that about one in five Americans, 46 million people do not have a religious faith as an integral part of their life.  And we say we can’t find people who are possible Unitarian Universalists.  The mission prospects are all around us if we would only reach out.

        Within Unitarian Universalism, our numbers of new members have been anemic for years.  With over one thousand congregations, we have averaged one new member per year per congregation.  Let me repeat that so you will grasp it.  We gain one new member per year per congregation or about 1,000 new members combined for the whole association.  The US population over the last twenty years has grown nearly 53 million people over the age of eighteen.  And we have been smug in our congregations to celebrate one new member per year on average.

        Let me bring it closer to home.  For the third time in fifteen years the Joseph Priestley District recorded fewer members this year than the year before.  The other time was just five years ago. Since 1995 we have added thousands of new members but we have also lost thousands of new members.  We have averaged about a 2% growth rate over the past three years.  That is a plan for not being viable in twenty years or less.

        Our office is not too far from the Cristiana River where there used to be a very large ship building industry fifty years ago.  You can go down to the riverfront and still see the massive cranes that helped construct the ships that carried American goods around the world and helped win World War II.  But that industry is now gone from the landscape.  It was not able to adapt and change with the currents that flowed through the ship building industry.  And we will be gone in a generation if we do not adapt to the religious currents that threaten our survival.

        The warning signs are all about us.  The clouds have been gathering in the storm that has the potential to sink our ship of faith.  We have been ignoring the rising water in our boat and bailing will not be enough to keep us afloat.  We may become the shipwrecked remnants of a once vital faith cast away on the shores of forgotten religious movements.

        But it is not too late.  We still have time to repair our craft and batten down the hatches to withstand the storm that is about to engulf us.  We can still plot a course that will take us safely to the other side of the rough seas that we find ourselves in.  There is calm water that awaits us, but we must be smart in how we chart our path.

       seawitchhornNow is a time for us to reflect deeply on the faith that sustains us and make the corrections that will bring us safely home with more hands on deck.  We have far too long claimed the individual search for freedom of religious exploration.  We have ignored and downplayed the need for communal action in accomplishing the work of the church.  If we were an ancient Roman galley propelled by ranks of rowers, we would be going in circles since everybody would have their own opinion of where and when we should row.  Our churches and fellowships cry out for effective leaders who have scanned the horizon and set a course that the others will follow.  Without leaders who are clear headed, in control of themselves, and grounded in their convictions and faith, we will eventually crash upon the rocks of indifference and insignificance in the public sphere as a faith movement.

        Now is the time for deepening our sense of mutual accountability to each other and our faith movement.  Now is the time that we come together in common purpose to lead and be led by those with a crystal clear understanding of the issues that confront us in the Twenty-First Century. 

        To keep the nautical metaphor going, now is the time for all hands on deck to join in making our ship of faith ready for the storm that is almost upon us.  The symbols for crisis in Chinese are made up of these two words: They are pronounced wei ji.  Wei means “danger; peril”.  And ji means “opportunity; crucial point”.  So literally wei plus ji equals “danger” plus “opportunity”.  However in reality, a crisis is still a dangerous state of affairs – regardless of the language.  Crisis wei ji still means “a situation that has reached an extremely difficult or dangerous point”.

        I hope that each of you realize that we have reached that crisis point in Unitarian Universalism.  The seas before us will be rough with waves that are high and currents that are treacherous.  But if we trust the deep principles of our Unitarian Universalist faith in our work for justice, in our faith development for our children, youth, and young adults, in our worship of all that is worthy, and in our communal sharing of knowledge and resources, we will pass through the storm.  We have the faith that will sustain us in these uncharted waters.  Our faith is our compass that can guide us toward that dawning future. 

        So we gather in community to deepen our faith, gain new skills, and build a stronger crew for the challenges ahead.  I urge you to get to know your shipmates better.  Discover the gifts and talents that reside among us.  May we find the path that leads us safely home to a calm harbor.  Amen.



Leadership is an Art and a Science

Leadership is both an art and a science. There are many books published each year that contain the wisdom of the titans of industry on how they were successful in building their business into what it became. There are numerous tips and techniques on how to run a meeting, make a long range plan, and create a budget. What most books on leadership fail to discuss or even acknowledge is the emotional system in which people operate. It is the emotional maturity of the leadership that will in many cases determine the success or failure of a given organization in the face of a crisis.

Take for example the current situation that each of us faced in leading our congregations through the economic meltdown that engulfed this country in the past several years. There were many forces at play that are far beyond our control. Our people lost jobs, businesses cut back on purchases, our retirement accounts were shrinking as the stock market tumbled, houses were being foreclosed on at record rates, and nobody seemed to be able to get a loan to keep operating. In several ways one or more of these forces are still affecting our congregations. And that in turn is affecting the congregations’ abilities to carry out their missions. It also is impacting the larger Unitarian Universalist Association and its districts.

I can honestly report that at the present time, our congregations have continued to support the JPD at the level we projected. We have not seen a decrease in giving levels from among our congregations. I am starting to hear of a few congregations who feel that next year will be harder for them to sustain full fair share giving with us.

Let me return to the opening thought about emotional maturity. I knew that the American society had become highly emotional over this crisis. People were panicking on Wall Street. But even as I saw my own retirement account decrease by tens of thousands of dollars, I remained calm. I know that the stock market will come back and I will have bought stock at a much cheaper rate during this period. I reduced some spending accordingly, but I knew I already had enough of everything that I needed. I had managed my debt to not live beyond my means. All of this has given me the ability to not panic and react to the crisis in a highly anxious state. High anxiety would cripple me and keep me from being able to think strategically. Being able to contain my own anxiety, I have been able to work with others in the JPD to lessen theirs and thus allow us to use our higher brain functions to reason out a path that preserves services while facing decreased revenue.

As leaders in our congregations, this ability to contain our own anxiety and calm those around us in the emotional field is now more needed than ever. This is not a technique but a life style learned through self-examination over time. We offer the Healthy Congregations workshops to teach how to gain this emotional maturity for leaders in congregations. If you are interested in such a workshop series for you and your leadership, contact me.
So, stay calm, focus your energy on making emotionally mature choices for your congregation based upon what information you have. Know that you will never have all of the information you need. Know what you stand for, what your values are, and follow them in making the tough decisions. Concentrate on your own being and doing, your own presence and functioning.

The captain of the Titanic was a good manager but a lousy leader. He could steer the ship well and organize the crew, but he failed to chart the course safely through treacherous waters. The leader charts the course for the institution, not just pointing the ship in a direction. Be a great leader.

Yours in the Faith,

Self-Differentiation in Leadership

Self-Differentiation in Leadership

            Leadership is the art of casting a vision, staying the course, and encouraging others to follow.  We saw this in the recent election when Barack Obama cast a vision of change that people believed in so much that he was elected the first bi-racial president of the United States.  I believe that this country has entered a new era of enlightened leadership that is not afraid to confront the issues in our society and state forthrightly that it will take sacrifice by all to overcome these challenges.

            While we do not face the same level of issues in our congregations, we are called on for the same type of leadership.  I have been studying Bowen Emotional Systems for several years now.  A critical component of Bowen theory is the concept of self-differentiation.  The best leaders in a system, whether it be a church, a business, or the government, are able to know who they are, often at a deep level.  They are able to manage their own anxiety in that system and stay connected to others even if they are reactive to the chronic anxiety of that system.  They can take a stand even if it is unpopular with the masses.

            Ed Friedman, a strong disciple of Murray Bowen, described differentiation as: “the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation.”  It is a clearheadedness that uses the highest cognitive ability of our brains to solve problems and manage one’s own anxiety.  It is staying in relationship with others through both easy and hard situations.  It is choosing a responsible course of action based upon an inner guidance based in principle.  It is the capacity to take “I” positions in the system based upon principles and stay connected to others in a responsible way.

Rev. Frank Thomas is the minister of a large Christian church in Memphis, TN, who has been using Bowen Emotional Systems in his ministry for some time.  He wrote: “Leadership is the spiritual process of discerning what one believes (clarity), acting on that belief in the public arena (decisiveness), and standing behind that action despite the varied responses of people (courage).”  He has been working on his self-differentiation for many years.  He described several events in his leadership of the church where his ability to keep a non-anxious presence and stay connected to those who were reactive helped him in his ministry.

Thomas F. Fischer writes in Self-Differentiation: An Essential Attitude For Healthy Leadership: “Self-differentiation” is a term used to describe one whose emotional process is no longer ultimately dependent on anything other than themselves. They are able to live and function on their own without undue anxiety or over-dependence on others. They are self-sufficient. Their sense of worth is not dependent on external relationships, circumstances or occurrences.

            This healthy self-differentiation is characteristic of individuals in healthy churches. Healthily differentiated individuals can maintain their focus even under stress. They are not easily “infected” by the pressures of others to share—or absorb—their anxiety.

            They no longer become “symptom-bearers” for others’ issues, problems, failures or anxieties. Instead, they have a clear understanding that those participating in the addictive emotional process are trapped and fused in a system which is intended to weaken, demoralize, devalue and destroy them and the ministries which they value so greatly.

            In their book, Family Evaluation, Bowen and Kerr speak of the critical importance of self-differentiation.  “The highest the level of self-differentiation of people in a family or social group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one another’s welfare, and stay in adequate contact during stressful as well as calm periods. The lower the level of differentiation, the more likely the family, when stressed, will regress to selfish, aggressive, and avoidance behaviors; cohesiveness, altruism, and cooperativeness will break down.” (Bowen And Kerr, Family Evaluation, New York: Norton and Company, p. 93.)

            We will never have enough information, skills, or techniques to master every type of event that comes into our lives as leaders in congregations.  We will never have enough knowledge, expertise, or personality to be able to solve the world’s problems.  All we have are ourselves.  As leaders we influence the emotional field through our living.  As Ed Friedman said: “The differentiated, non-anxious leader works on SELF, one’s own functioning.  His or her influence does not rely on personality, gaining consensus, techniques or skills, piles of information, or expertise.  The field’s force is influenced by the leader’s BEING (presence) and DOING (functioning).”

            So I encourage you to delve deep into your self, to understand who you are and what you stand for.  I encourage you to have the courage of your convictions in leading your congregation.  Know that you are only responsible for yourself, not anyone else.  If you practice daily the path of self reflection, your leadership will be noticed and people will respond appropriately.

Yours in the Faith,