Recently I had the honor of collaborating with my friend and colleague, the Rev. Naomi King, on the 2013 Minns Lecture “Ministry in the Age of Collaboration.” We were asked to speak on social media and Unitarian Universalism in the 2st Century.
We are both sharing core messages from our talks via our blogs, and videos of the lectures will be available later this month.
For this first post of mine, before I start in on social media, I think it is helpful to speak to the issue of our congregations being out of synch with time. I’ve discussed with United Church of Christ colleagues the fact that the UCC seems, to me, 10 years ahead of the Unitarian Universalist Association in some regards. They in turn chuckle and say they feel the UCC is 10 years behind where they should be. That puts us, if you do the math, 20 years behind!
Our lagging leads to significant problems with our ministry. Most frequent in my conversations with our leaders:
- Why don’t our children grow up to be adult Unitarian Universalists?
- Why aren’t families participating the way they use to?
- Why aren’t we attracting all those spiritual and not religious people, the nones?
- And while we’re at it, why aren’t people drawn to, and participating in the work of good institutions like ours the way they use to?
These are complex issues with no one simple answer or quick fix. But there is a common problem plaguing many of our congregations which is directly contributing to them.
Our congregations? They’ve gotten lost in time…. I know, it sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?
Ministry Time Bubbles
Many congregations are living in what I call “ministry time bubbles.” You see, for many congregations — maybe yours — the world has changed around you. Not a little. Not a lot. We’re talking massive mighty change impacting every aspect of our human society.
How did some congregations get stuck in time? A content membership, leadership and staff with enough money to care for themselves, coupled with sudden rapid technological innovation in the world at large.
When a congregation has stable membership numbers, enough funds to meet its own needs, it is easy to focus on caring for that immediate community. That’s the congregation as “safe harbor.” And believe me, plenty of people are looking for a safe harbor, including being sheltered from change.
With a reasonable membership and sufficient budget, a congregation can go about its ministry in this way, with attention on its membership and little attention on the rest of the world for years.
To create a significant ministry time bubble, take this set up and crank up the rate of change in the larger world. Presto!
In this illustration you can see a congregation starting in synch with the world – blue, then while they were busy with their internal ministry, the rate of change outside picked up. Uh oh…
For a very long time change in our world came at a rate that was challenging, but not too drastic. The difference between “congregational time” and “world time” was reasonable. Leaders were able to slowly soak in the change. Taking time was okay. A decade to get the congregation set up on email? No problem! Five years to debate a new website? Why not!
Things are different today. We’ve recently gone through three major technological revolutions:
- Development of the internet
- Creation and proliferation of social media
- All that tech in your pocket thanks to mobile computing
These technologies are fundamentally changing the culture, norms and expectations of human society. And not just once, they’re impacting human behavior day after day after day.
While many congregations have been going about their business of faithfully changing the world locally (focus on core membership), the very world they’re called to change — it changed. Result? A congregation out of synch with time, technology and culture.
These ministry time bubble, they may be fine for a while. But increasingly the discrepancies are too great to maintain. And what was chalked up to technology becomes a matter of clashing cultures.
New Norms for Humanity
These discrepancies between how our congregations are going about ministry and what is increasingly mainstream culture - big problem. It is easy to discount technology we don’t care for. But we can’t minister effectively if we discount a changing human culture. And that’s the scale of what we’re talking about.
Think about that. Your congregation, if you aren’t actively staying in touch with present day technology and resulting culture — and this is a moving target — will be increasingly out of touch with the culture of those people you are seeking to minister to and with.
What culture am I talking about?
We’ve been globalized, interconnected and sci-fi like devices have been placed in our pockets giving us mind boggling creative, collaborative, and coordinating powers! These powers are rapidly changing how we do everything from work and play, to how we learn and organize ourselves to face the injustices of our time.
Unfortunately, this growing culture clash isn’t readily apparent to many of our leaders. Why? Because our culture being out of whack with what is becoming mainstream present day human culture simply results in humanity wanting nothing to do with us. It is like a silent force gently pushing people away from us, including our young people who want to be active and effective agents for change.
You might say that we raised our very smart children well enough for them to know that our congregations, those stuck in time, are not the best places to invest their time and energy. Great leaders (and aspiring leaders) don’t suffer through mediocre leadership. They find an institution or revolution ready to help them be of service.
The Good News!
The good news is that our mission, our purpose, that change we and our congregations are (hopefully) called to make in the world — there are more people than ever interested in that. We know this because we’re increasingly networked together.
But…. (Drat! You knew there was a but.)
But the people we are trying to minister to and with are different now. You see, we’re all adapting to this new world. We are learning to do amazing things with the creative, collaborative, democratizing, gamified, hierarchy crushing, grassroots coordinating, rapid response, instantaneous, “fail often, fail fast, fail forward” tools and culture of this time.
We need your Unitarian Universalist religious leadership more than ever!
We just need you to be a religious leader differently.
We need you to understand the cultural shifts that are reshaping our human society, reshaping the world, and how to harness them to unleash our shared ministry in a world increasingly characterized by connectivity and openness.
An Open World
I’ll reference his four principles in my next post. They are: