The Interim Leader’s Tasks:  Leadership (and Changes During the Interim Period)

This is #3 in a series of blogs on the work of interim religious leaders and specifically, my work here at Follen in religious education.  I hope these blogs are useful to the Follen community in planning for the future, as we begin to say our goodbyes. We’ve already looked at Heritage (Coming to Terms with History), and last week, at Mission (Developing a Unique Identity).  This week we’re looking at Leadership – both professional and lay, since both are present and important in any congregation.

The interim time is all about leadership transition – among members of the staff and sometimes, members of the congregation.  Among the highlighted changes that the interim religious professional is called to focus on in this area are the following key elements:

  • Helping to identify changes needed in RE program structure and staffing
  • Clarifying the multiple dimensions of programmatic leadership and helping to navigate the shifts in leadership that accompany times of transition
  • Advocating for strong lay RE leadership development
  • Helping to empower the congregation and RE leadership
  • Modeling new approaches, practices and procedures
  • Nurturing collegial relationships with other staff

Often these leadership changes are viewed, during interim times, as ‘spring house cleaning,’ because frequently, the arrival of interim leadership is an opportunity for the congregation or its professional leaders to re-examine existing behaviors and job profiles and recalibrate for the future.  It is also true that during this period, the changes that come are experienced much like an extended case of influenza: “Why are all these changes happening? What was wrong with the way we’ve always done it?”

During the time I’ve been at Follen, we’ve added an Administrative Assistant to our staff.  Laura VanderHart supports the religious education and community engagement programs and sometimes steps in to help with music or worship assignments.  Brian Sewell, our Youth Program Coordinator, has had his hours expanded to help meet the growing needs of a larger high school youth program. We’ve expanded the number of lay youth advisors to build additional support and safety into the program.  We’ve changed the PreK-K staff description to one that recognizes the importance of having a professional educator who is well versed in UU values work with our young children; this educator, Jody Gray-Linden, also leads our One-Room Schoolhouse programs with creativity and expertise.  We also revitalized the Middle School Youth Program with a group of creative adult volunteers, who have developed a mix of service and entertainment programs that have drawn enthusiastic response from our 6-8 graders — hopefully building commitment for engagement in FUUY and Follen programs in years to come.

There is no question that we could use more administrative support in all these areas, as Follen’s programs continue to grow.  And while there have been some changes in personnel in other positions over the last several years in staffing, the overall staffing structure, save the creation of the position of Director of Community Engagement, has remained stable.

What about other leadership structures and issues?  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Follen’s been known as ‘assertively,’ ‘aggressively,’ ‘confidently’ lay-led (pick your descriptor).  Like any congregation that is mid-sized, leadership has shifted depending on the governance structure and those involved in the congregation.  As many of you know, Follen’s current governance structure (a Parish Board to make policies, a Parish Council to manage leadership programs and practices, and a Coordinating Team to oversee relations and ‘assignments’ between the two) is relatively new: about ten years old.  From all reports the current system, while challenged in some ways, is functioning more effectively than prior governance models for the church, and large numbers of lay leaders are part of each of the Action Teams that oversee much of the ongoing programmatic work of the church.

In Religious Education, there have been triumphs and a few challenges. Follen has many stories of lay leaders who gave their all and more at times when professional leadership fell short; and times when there were not enough volunteers to support a dynamic ongoing religious education program (a common theme in UU congregations that rely on volunteers to staff programs).  There have also been times when a group mobilized and developed programs that then became much-beloved and part of the ongoing life of the church. Creativity and commitment are present at Follen and the result includes programs like Follen Responds to Racism, Food for Thought, the Operetta, and more.

But here’s a truth:  although some are fond of calling Follen a ‘lay-led’ congregation, that’s a misuse of the term. “Lay-led” really applies to congregations with no professional staff, not even a minister. Follen has a senior minister, a director of community engagement who is also a minister, a music director, a religious educator, an administrator – and others.  These people are asked to fulfill the mission and vision – the one that you, the members set – and carry it forward, partnering with you to build a church that will provide hope, inspiration, programs, and support. Follen’s lay leaders and professional leaders share this ministry together.

During this interim time we have worked to re-vision what the religious education program can offer in terms of curricula that are meaningful and interesting, and have studied additional programs that will serve the needs of families and youth.  Offering programming meant to nurture faith development among the youngest of our children is important, and so is offering a significant Coming of Age experience, a service learning trip that includes understandings of racism and economic disparities, and a high school youth program that offers youth the opportunity to lead.  

Developing programs that will affirm Follen’s important role in introducing the Christmas Tree to America at holiday time, or supporting a holiday craft party or a multi-age “Soup and Pumpkins” event make these valued parts of this church’s identity that are supported by lay leaders.  The annual musical theater presentation which has, for many years, taken the form of a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta, draws dozens – perhaps more than a hundred – volunteers and is one of this church’s gifts, not only to this faith community but to the Lexington/Arlington area as well. These programs are part of the tapestry of Follen Church, and they contribute to the gifts that both lay and professional leaders can offer to Lexington, Arlington, and the wider UU community.



Deborah Weiner, Interim Director of Religious Education