Our exploration of the tasks of interim religious leaders and the congregations they serve, who are going through the interim period, continues this week. We focused for five weeks on the work of the congregation during the interim period. That work breaks into five distinct chunks: an examination of the congregation’s Heritage (coming to terms with history), Mission (developing a unique identity), Leadership (and changes during the interim period), Linkage (the ways in which we renew and deepen connections to our faith and denomination) and Vitality (how to ensure ongoing health in the church.)
Interim leadership is sort of a ‘dance’ between the leader and the congregation. It’s important for the congregation to engage in transitional work, but what is the leader doing during the same period? That’s what we’re exploring now. Thus far we’ve looked at the way in which the interim leader enters the congregation, which is all about Joining the System. Beyond that there is the study and analysis of what’s going on in the church – working to figure out the church’s behavior and unique identity. This week we’re looking at the relationship the congregation has with the denomination of which Follen is a part: the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
In many UU congregations, you’ll find individuals who love their congregation – and know very little about the larger denomination of which most churches are a part. Follen Church is part of more than 1,000 congregations in the US who all identify as Unitarian Universalist – a denomination with historic roots, which consolidated Unitarianism and Universalism in the early 1960s. While it is surely true that all UU congregations are different in the ways in which they embrace governance, offer programs, and perhaps, conduct some parts of worship, there are also similarities. And it is true with our congregations that ultimately (even though we may like the idea of being unique) we really are ‘more alike than different’. If you visit UU congregations in Florida, Washington State, Illinois, Texas, Maine you will recognize elements in the service that are similar, and you will likely identify with the music, the ritual (at least the lighting of a flaming chalice, our particular religious symbol) that tell you this is a UU congregation. Even in other parts of the world (the Khasi Hills in northern India, the Czech Republic, or Great Britain) you will find that a flaming chalice is lit, and you will be able to identify what make these sibling congregations to your own.
And it is great to know that we are not alone: there is a larger organization to provide resources, support, religious education curricula, ideas, consultations – that can help each church focus on health and vitality. While it’s common – particularly among congregations in other parts of the US, I have observed – to show a bit of hostility toward what “Boston” wants (skepticism about the larger UUA’s headquarters offices and the staff who work there) – the reality is that each UU congregation is independent and, as a member congregation of the larger Association, supported in its independence and its own ministry in the community. The UUA also has regional offices with staff who are available to help provide more direct support to congregations. Our regional office is in nearby Watertown, MA (although staff members are spread through New England) and have offered Follen Church consultation, over just the last few years, in interim leadership, transitions, staff development, safety issues, justice ministry, and more.
Because Follen is in the enviable position of being a healthy and growing congregation, and one which has had a history of supporting the regional staff and denomination with contributory funding, the members of this congregation have received generous support in return. And it makes a difference! John Donne’s famous poem, “No Man is an Island,” lifts up the importance of inter-relationship, one to another and in the case of the congregation, between the church and the larger denomination. We are stronger together: having a strong connection to our Unitarian Universalist Association helps to ensure that this congregation will have access to the best information, resources and staffing support available – and the benefits then return to all who are part of Follen.
Interim Director of Religious Education