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Vulnerability and Leadership Reflection

Good morning. My name is Tricia Dell and I am the Vice President of the Board of Trustees. It didn’t take a Soul Matters theme for me to agree to share my vulnerabilities as a Board leader with you; I need to share them.

To offer a little context, shortly after Reverend Ben left last year, Becky Howland and I agreed to run as a President/Vice President team for the Board of Trustees. There were several areas that needed support and attention, including staffing, the renovation project, and worship, just to name a few. At the beginning, our zest for building trust and a high-functioning congregation drove our efforts, so we didn’t notice that we were performing at a level we couldn’t sustain.

I’m on several UUSM committees, all of which are important. But it was my role as leader of the worship associates this year that gave me a frame of reference for how much time goes into planning worship services. Making sure that Sunday services were operational each week for nearly a year turned out to be a huge job.

Over-performing for a long period of time, of course, leads to stress. At some point along the way, this became an ongoing issue for me. I still felt all the good feelings that came from doing my best to make a difference in our community, but the stress was there, too, right alongside the “highs.”

Most of the time, I love what I’m doing here at UUSM. There’s simply too much of it and not enough time to breathe. Being retired makes it easier to spend this kind of time volunteering at UUSM, but devoting as much time as I have been means that I’m neglecting other areas of my life, and the stress can negatively impact my health.

I’ll never forget my a-ha moment many months ago when I realized that we didn’t have a minister. It’s funny how I missed that part, given that I was also on the Ministerial Transition Team. I was awkwardly operating in the combo role of minister, worship associate, and at times staff administrator. What I saw clearly was that the minister is the glue that holds Sunday services together–even services that the minister does not attend.

One of the things that has made my role with worship so hard was that I didn’t have the experience or the background for this highly specialized job that often took 15–20 hours/week—and that didn’t count my other committee or Board work.

With all of this said, my work was still deeply satisfying. I grew spiritually, gained many new skills, and met great people, both in and outside of UUSM.

I like to think I stepped up to do all of this under extenuating circumstances. But in fact I continue to over-function in a way that’s not healthy for me or the congregation. I am clear that I don’t want to be part of the problem by creating unreasonable expectations for those who come after me.

And it isn’t just me. Many others at UUSM have put in these kinds of hours as well. I’m learning that over-functioning is a systemic issue common in families, organizations, businesses, and yes, religious communities.

So how did we get here? And what can we do about it? Is it embedded in our culture? Or is it a personality thing like perfectionism or difficulty setting boundaries. Or maybe it’s a human thing if there’s simply too much to do and not enough people to do it.

One of my theories about UUSM is that we have been understaffed for many years, and that has created an outsized expectation for volunteers that builds on itself.

Then there’s the issue that blew up during COVID across denominations—too high of expectations for ministers. If our staffing structure and budget is based on the minister having an outsized job description, we have been understaffed.

As a member of the Ministerial Transition Team, I know that the ministerial market is highly competitive and many ministers will no longer agree to the job descriptions of the past. Turns out, they’re not superhuman. And neither are we.

I thought a lot about why it feels vulnerable for me to share all this. I know much of the time, I present well (or well enough), and I must look like I’m holding up okay.

Furthermore, you as a congregation express your care and gratitude often. I do appreciate that. But I also realize that if I don’t take this scary step of being real with you, my dream of UUSM becoming a robust, sustainable community making a difference in each other’s lives, in our North Central neighborhood, and beyond, is not likely to happen.

So here goes.

Deep down, I feel like I need to get to a place with my UUSM work where others can step in easily. It doesn’t need to be perfect —thankfully perfectionism isn’t one of my vices.

The truth is that I’m embarrassed to pass on what I consider to be a disorderly mess to someone else. Why? Because that means I’m a mess underneath a facade of looking good on the outside.

In the meantime, I think to myself, I’ll just take the brunt of it until I can get things better organized. But “in the meantime” is taking longer than it should because—in fact—my inadequacies and shortcomings are real. I need help. I’m not perfect.

Thankfully, people like John Farrow, Laura Bull, Kathy Kinner, and Becky Howland, among others, have stepped up and made it possible for me to get by. These people in particular have done heavy lifting on my behalf. There are many others that have stepped up in a variety of ways as well. I’m grateful.

My hope is that if we can share when we’re starting to feel overwhelmed or burned out, we can change the way we operate. If we’re going to dream and grow and become all that we want for our beloved community, we’ve got to figure this out.

So here’s what I’m doing now. #1: Allowing myself to be vulnerable with you by pulling back the curtain a bit on what it’s been like for me as a lay leader this year. #2: Letting the holes in my UUSM work show during stressful times instead of trying to fix them or cover them up. #3: Creating some boundaries between my personal life and UUSM. I’m finding that letting more joy, delight, and humor into my life helps.

And lastly, I plan on advocating like heck to make sure we have adequate staffing to operate this congregation keeping in mind the health and well-being of our ministers, current staff, and volunteer leaders.

Becky has done an extraordinary job as staff supervisor looking under the hood and streamlining our systems. And the Board is working hard to figure out what it will take to staff and operate UUSM next year. Of course that will require more money. Yes, I’m planting a seed.

Lastly, Worship Associates Charles Du Mond, Shaun Collins, and Bill Heavlin were my backbone for much of the year. And the ministry of Joel Chapman, Jac Brennan and Rev. Stefanie made my work possible. We wouldn’t be here right now without them.

And Tovis, thanks for supporting me in sharing in my truth.


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