When my nephew was a toddler, he was getting a little fussy at a family gathering. He had a little zebra stuffed animal but he wasn’t all that interested in playing with it. When his attention was elsewhere, I hid the zebra under a couch cushion, then asked “Where’s the zebra?” We searched together until we found it. This was a big hit, so we continued to play “zebra hide-and-seek” for the rest of the day. So the next time I saw my nephew, guess what he wanted to do? :-) Yes, I became the “zebra hide-and-seek aunt” every time we got together until he finally outgrew the game (or maybe he just lost the zebra).
Our congregations can get stuck in similar patterns with events or traditions but we don’t always notice when a committee or a program has outlasted its relevance. If we apply the Healthy Congregations® lens and understand the congregation as a system, we may notice the effects of homeostasis—the tendency of a system to maintain an equilibrium between its parts. In systems, any change within the system elicits one of two reactions. The first and strongest reaction is push-back: the system wants to return to its previous “comfortable” state. The other reaction is for the system to change and establish a new equilibrium of the parts, and a new homeostasis. It’s the role of the leaders to help the system to respond to change based on the congregations core purpose rather than to react based on habit and individual desire for comfort.
What if we could stamp a “use by” date on committees or programs to remind us that we need to constantly reevaluate what our congregations are offering. Are we serving our core purpose? Is it relevant to people’s lives? If it’s a tradition, does help reinforce a key part of our congregational identity, or is it a snapshot of a culture from our congregation’s history or story that may be interesting or sentimental, but doesn’t inform how we might live into our future.
One of my favorite examples is the church rummage sale. The decision to hold a rummage sale is usually based on a “fundraising income” line item in the church budget. But let’s get on the balcony to look at everything involved. Rummage sales take up a week or two of the congregation’s attention. A large space needs to be set aside from other programming for the collecting, sorting and pricing of all of the stuff. A large group of volunteers are needed to set up, staff the sale, then clean up afterward. Most rummage sales don’t make very much money when you look at the profit compared to the volunteer hours. Also not included in the calculus are the programs and participation not happening because of the rummage sale’s consumption of space, volunteer energy and time.
If a newer member (who is more likely to take a balcony view) invited to volunteer for the rummage sale questions the logic of hosting a rummage sale, they may hear explanations that are expressions of the homeostasis of the system: “It’s a service to the community.” (Really? Buying our unwanted stuff?) “It builds community to work together.” (Maybe, but I’d rather be a part of a potluck or a chalice circle.) “It’s an important fundraiser!” (Let’s see…6 people working 3 hours a night for 5 nights to set up, then another 4 people to work 6 hours the day of the sale, then another 6 people to work 5 hours to clean up, and we made $500. That works out to $3.47/hour for our volunteer time.)
Let us be open to checking the expiration dates on our programming so we can respond appropriately; replacing what is stale or sour with fresh and tasty alternatives.
In faith and service,
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Regional Leadership Development Consultant
CERG – Central East Regional Group of the UUA