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Happier and healthier
what happens when we find our sweet spot
It gets earlier and earlier every year.
The leadership exhaustion, I mean.
It used to set in just after Easter, when folks could see the end of the congregational year, the board planned for leadership transitions and the religious professionals planned for General Assembly.
And then in the first year of the pandemic, it seemed to kick in earlier, somewhere in early March. That made sense, as it marked the first full year of online church.
But then it was Valentine’s Day. Then Christmas.
And now, it’s only mid-September, and folks are already exhausted.
It’s not surprising. Even before the pandemic, both lay leaders and religious professionals were feeling exhausted and burned out; the demands of running our congregations and ministering to one another just seemed to increase. Gone are the days of the country parson, strolling across the village green without seemingly a care in the world, maybe even having enough time to solve mysteries in the British countryside…(I’m lookin’ at you, Father Brown).
And I’m not sure exactly when this happened, or how – but I have an idea: that at some point in the 70s and 80s, as we faced decline while Christian evangelical churches were on the rise, we decided we needed to be everything we could be to everyone to have the greatest chance of attracting the most people. So we increased programming, we built additions to accommodate more people, we planted more congregations to reach the people, and as the internet age blossomed, we expanded those offerings too – more so when the pandemic struck.
And of course the demands went beyond simple management, as we learned more about the work we must do to dismantle systems of oppression both in the world and in our own congregations.
We have been doing all of this in a culture that says we should be looking out for ourselves, to be expecting a return on investment, to be making sure we are getting what we’re paying for and expecting accountability to look like a reality show where you’re in or you’re out.
That stuff – that sneaky capitalist philosophy – sneaks in everywhere, and is infecting us.
Now I want to be clear. I am not saying that we Unitarian Universalists are individualistic. Even Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance” is not about individualism. No, that’s capitalism, twisting Emerson’s words and even ours, attempting to turn us away from a community of free believers to being isolated individuals. From our very beginnings, we have been about community, and it is that thread which is, in fact, counter-cultural.
Which then becomes hard to fight against inside our walls. Many of us work or have worked in systems consumed by corporatism and a retail culture. We don’t like a thing, we line up at the customer service desk to complain, and then buy something else. Which is fine when it’s a toaster and less fine when it’s a congregation’s processes.
Without realizing it, we have built our congregations into organizations that are bigger and harder to manage than the bylaws and procedures allow. And we have allowed people to demand more from our congregations (even though there are still people who don’t bother to tell their minister when they are in the hospital, or going through a difficult time, or (and yes, this happened to me) when their spouse dies - those times when pastoral care is often helpful). And even when those demands are met (i.e.; we need adult RE), they aren’t actually used (oh, but we aren’t going to actually attend); folks want to know it’s happening because that’s what a congregation does.
And an exhausted religious educator or minister or lay leader sits in an empty classroom when they could be getting some much needed rest.
We have a problem.
But unlike Will Bailey in The West Wing, I’m not coming to you like you’re Toby Zeigler with half a thing and not able to, you know, after I’ve walked you to the brink and say, ‘We've got to do this, it's important, though I have no earthly idea how.’ (from S04E21, “Life on Mars”)
One solution is weirdly a lesson from Barnes & Noble. (I know, I just ranted against capitalism, and here I am, talking about retail, but, well, this post contains multitudes.)
About six months ago I read an article by Ted Gioia talking about how the bookseller, whose market share utterly tanked as the digital age took hold. In the face of drastically declining sales thanks largely to Amazon, and seeing their main bricks and mortar competitor Borders shut down, Barnes & Noble attempted to imitate Amazon, expand their offerings to include music, a coffee shop, and gifts, toys, and even their ebook reader, the Nook. And by 2018, the 120-year old company faced total collapse.
Instead of closing for good, they hired a new CEO, James Daunt, who had saved the UK-based bookstore Waterstones, and they followed Daunt’s lead and tried a different way – namely to go back to their roots, to what they are best at: selling books. They stopped all the food and electronics, the gifts and the games, and they even stopped kowtowing to market forces that led to terrible decisions based on promotional money from publishers to push books that are, by and large, not the best.
As Gioia explains, when Barnes & Noble put their passion for good writing front and center, and allowed the staff to follow and affirm that passion, that vision, the company began again to thrive. They put books and readers first, and everything else second.
What happens when we stop trying to be all things to all people?
We have a niche – and important one at that. Our saving message is so desperately needed, and we must empower people to put that front and center. We don’t need more meetings, we need more energy to meet the moment.
Last year was our year of returning to our buildings and remembering what it is really like to be with one another again and ‘do church’. Maybe this year is our year of looking at what we brought back (or added) and determine if it really is serving our mission and actually caring for our leaders.
Imagine the message that seeing a congregation of healthy, happy, energetic people will send to those who visit.
Imagine if we focus not on all the things we do but rather how we are. An emptier calendar isn’t a bad thing, if the things on it are meaningful and generative.
Because ultimately, how we thrive and how we mean to be with each other and the world is our saving message.
Let’s make that our aim.
Speaking of sweet spots, don’t forget to purchase your copy of Jen Shattuck’s sweet book The Tending Years: Understanding Your Child’s Earliest Rituals, available at InSpirit UUA Book and Gift Shop! (To learn more, check out our conversation a few weeks ago.)
(Also, if you would like to promote a project here, please contact me!)