Sunday, June 24, 2007

Extension Ministry That Might Work

(Or "UU Minister Missionaries Teach Churches to Fly")

In my fantasy "if I ran the world" musings ...

LE's Extension Ministry Program

I used to work in a chain restaurant. Now, the way that many chains work opening a new restaurant, is they have their "Blue Ribbon" team. The best wait staff around the country, the best busboys, cooks, etc. That team goes in, hires the people and trains them. It's a big deal to be part of the "Blue Ribbon" team, and it's reflected in your salary. The restaurant company wants the best of the best to be setting up shop.

Wouldn't it be cool if that were the case with the Extension Ministry program? Now, I know of one church that had a wonderful experience with the program and it really grew their church. I know of another that had a completely awful experience and it damn near killed the church.

So, in my fantasy ...

Number one, the EM program should not in any way, shape or form be seen as a mutually beneficial program in which we have a program to place ministers, AND we have a way to help out churches. Nuh-uh. Two goals can lead to a big mess. Goal: to help churches. Period. Noble goal. Greater good. All that.

Of course, I'm not the first to come up with that idea. In more conservative churches, it's called missionary work. A minister will leave his/her church for a period of time -- often, 1 or more years -- to go work a continent away. They -- and their home church -- believe that they are doing something profoundly important. Saving souls.

So ... a super UU minister leaves his/her congregation for a couple of years, to go help a new congregation in Duluth. It is a sacrifice, both for the minister, and the home congregation. But hey, no malaria!

The minister would be a great minister, with lots of experience. NOT someone straight out of seminary. (This, coming from a seminarian.)

* any minister in the program would have been given special training in the areas of "Training Wheels,+" church growth, and "dealing with people unfamiliar with having a minister."

+Training wheels: many new churches, or churches who have not had a full-time minister, don't understand how to have a minister. They don't "get it." I say this, as a member and former Board officer of such a church. I didn't get it. Does the minister lead the church, or follow the Board's leadership? And writing a sermon, that only takes an hour a week, right? And the minister works for the church, right? So his job is to serve me, a member?

I would love for there to be "training wheels" ministry. Like interim ministry (real interim ministry, not "marking time til we get a minister/I get a perm job" ministry), but with an emphasis on teaching churches what to expect, how to work with a minister, etc.

For "training wheels" ministry, it's absolutely crucial to have a well-adjusted minister who knows how to lead. Someone who isn't going to get his ego hurt; someone who will not put "being liked" before "must ready this congregation for a full-time minister." A minister who is ready to roll up her sleeves and get down and dirty.

Okay, back to Extension Ministry.

Four aspects that must be there for this to work:

1) Understanding by the new church that this is a noble endeavor for all involved. That it involves sacrifice on all sides. Sacrifice from the UUA of funds/energy. Sacrifice from the minister for having to uproot for a period of time. Sacrifice from the minister's home congregation by being without their main minister. Major sacrifice from the new church, who will be expected to give up a lot of evenings/weekends/energy/blood-sweat-tears in order to get their church to be in a position of self-sufficiency, and ready to welcome a new minister.

2) Understanding by the minister that this is a labor of love; only ministers who truly believe that they are being called to save souls and begin a new community that can transform the world should apply.

3) Understanding by the minister's home church that as UUs, we are called to extend our gifts outward, that if we have more thriving UU churches, full of enthusiastic members bent on sharing our UU values, the world will be a better place. You will certainly not get unanimity, but the church as a whole needs to be behind the endeavor. (And along with the greater good, don't you think they'll get back a minister full of new ideas and vision? I do.)

4) Understanding by the UUA that this is missionary work, and that ultimately, the UUA will reap the benefits. They will not only get a new, thriving church, but that church will be full of members who understand the greater UU picture, a church full of members who will be going to UU conferences and GA and workshops (because that will be one of the things the minister will teach them). They would provide for the minister's salary during that period of time, so that there is little chance of "oooh, we don't have enough money to pay you, so after only 9 months, we need to let you go ..."

Meanwhile, the church would be required to pay a growing amount of money into a UUA fund. At the end of the extension period, some of that would go to the UUA as seed money towards the next Extension Ministry endeavor, and a large chunk would go into dedicated savings as a "just in case" for severance pay for the church's first full-time/perm minister, so that the church need never be in the position of saying, "Okay, things are iffy right now financially, I guess we need to let you go now, while we can still afford your severance pay." How often has a church been in an iffy position, only to have a burst of growth, or some other financially propitious event?

Obviously, there's tons of details and unanswered questions in all this. But if I ran the world ...

* Oh, one other detail. I don't know how this would work in. But there should be an element of choice with the above, for both the minister and the new church, in regards to choosing each other. Something other than telling the church, "Here he is ... you can reject him, but then you might lose out on this program." And no punitives for the minister, either, if he senses that they just aren't going to fit each other. That, in itself, is a learning experience for a church. How to choose. And how to learn to trust their instincts.


Boobless Brigade Master said...

Hmmm,sounds good in theory, but people tend to complicate the simplest of things, don't we?!?! LOL.

But going along with your theory...
There should be some kind of ground rule that the two work together. If the two cannot work together than the minister makes the rules for an alotted time period without any hassle. If things still aren't running smoothly after the alotted time period, than the minister abides by the church(s) way of doing things for an alotted period of time...then maybe the two can find a compromise that 'works' or go their seperate ways.

Reason being...most people HATE change, especially closed minded people...but if they are forced to change, they do so a little more willingly if they know it's only for a set amount of time...which might just give them time to realize that change can be a good thing...and that road goes both ways if you get what I'm saying.
Not to mention...people have a tendency to take the easy way out and if rejection is an available option from the get-go, it will be utilized more than it's not.
Just my two cents;)

Anonymous said...

I chair the Extension Committee in my UUA District, and we have been having very similar conversations about growth and a new form of extension/reach out ministry to help churches without ministers learn how they might benefit from one.

Can you elucidate on why the church with the bad extension ministry experience had such a bad time? Was the congregation not open to change? Was the minister a poor match? What elements differentiated the two? Our church benefited from Extension ministry in the 80's- and the church is much more healthy as a result. We did call that Extension minister. He moved on to a larger church after a few years. It did teach us the advantages of ministry.

Larry said...

Well, this string is something that I have been thinking about for a while as well. I also believe that the UUA needs extension ministers for the start-up transition from fellowship to church but I think it needs to be done differently.

Instead of the “great minister” (however that is defined, sounds like the “great man” theory of history), why not employ interim ministers in this position? They are accustomed to being uprooted for a year or two, most have twenty years or more experience, they are change agents as well as trained in explaining to congregations the norms of ministry and the Unitarian Universalist way. It seems reasonable that anyone interested in doing this would receive extra training from the Extension Department (or whatever it is being called these days.) Most of the “great ministers” in our movement, (if that is meant to mean ministers of large churches) know very little about small congregations and have very little experience as change agents. Several times I have seen a minister who served a big church move to a small church and hit the wall. Their skills were not transferable.

Several congregations in our movement are trying to make the transition from fellowship to church. Some of them have tried to make this transition before without success. It is hoped that by hiring interim ministers that they will make the transition rather than taking a minister right out of seminary and assuming that he or she can do this task (when he or she is also just learning how to be a minister.) We need to be more intentional about this process.

Just my two cents. . .

Anonymous said...

Sounds good to me. But.

This is based on a particular model of new churches. A band of a few UUs start meeting in an area that has no UU church. They meet as a fellowship. After a while (usually a decade or two), they've grown enough to ask Boston (or the district) for some help. But by that time they are set in their ways.

My impression is that Boston is, or was, moving away from that model towards new UU churches that are planned and ministerially-led from the get-go. I haven't heard where that stands now, after the Pathways disappointment.

Any chance we're ever going to plant a church up in Humble / Kingwood?

David Throop