A Sermon by
James Ishmael Ford
2 March 2014
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
At the back of our Meeting House, centered on the wall of the balcony, hangs an old clock. I think it’s hung there since our Meeting House was dedicated in 1816. On Sunday mornings, during the silences of our service, I like to listen for that clock. I like to listen to it mark the passing of the moments in the life of our congregation.
That quiet clock has marked the moments for almost two hundred years now, as our congregation has gathered together on Sunday mornings, through good years and bad. Many of those years were good years. But not all. Financial panics have swept through people’s lives before. During those two hundred years, a civil war rolled across this land, along with two world wars and a great depression. Most of us have never lived through days like that. But the life of our congregation has been through it all.
And through it all, the clock continued to mark the passing of the little moments of all of those Sundays, when people in our congregation paused in their daily tasks of work and family, to come together in our Meeting House. They came together for the same reasons we come together now: to affirm and draw strength from a shared faith.
Now, this is our time.
Cyrus O’Neal, “President’s Column” September, 2008 “News at First Unitarian”
If you’re visiting us today, congratulations, you’ve arrived on our annual budget drive kick off Sunday. Of course this means you are here on a Sunday where there’s a little more elbowroom than usual. Feel free to spread out. Gloria Steinem once said, “We can tell our values by looking at our checkbooks.” And so today, we’ll be doing a little of that looking, which will give all of us a more transparent picture of how our vision manifests than one might get on any other given Sunday. So, again, congrats.
Now, in church leadership circles there’s a famous story of someone who wrote to Horace Greeley, of “Go west, young man” fame. Greeley was a journalist, an abolitionist, a founder of the “party of Lincoln” Republican Party. He was once described as “the most perfect Yankee the country has ever produced.” And, by the bye, he was a Universalist, one of the two spiritual currents that have birthed our contemporary expression of liberal religion.
Anyway, the writer noted her church was in terrible financial straits. They’d tried and I quote, “fairs, strawberry festivals, oyster suppers, box socials, mock weddings (I wonder what in the world those might be), grab-bags and lawn fetes.” She then asked, “Would Mr. Greeley be so good as to suggest some new device to keep (this) struggling church from disbanding?” to which he replied with the shortest canvass sermon ever. “Try religion.”
Because we have no creed, people sometimes have trouble discerning what exactly is the message at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. We are a covenantal church, which means that instead of a creed we are bound by a covenant of presence to each other, and out of that with the world. But, with that freedom of no creed we can be hard to define.
However, there are underpinnings to who we are. And our contemporary Statement of Principles and Purposes, while not meant to be a creed, is a very real snapshot of what we as a community writ large hold dear. Not being a creed this statement is dynamic and can and will shift over time. But, I think the statement raises up three important points about how we see ourselves and how anyone who studies us is going to say is generally our shared spiritual perspective, the religion of our hearts, the religion we try.
One, we hold each person precious beyond words. Two, we know we are woven out of each other and the world, a world of intimacy, a wondrous and sometimes terrifying web of interdependence. And, three, we are called by our humanity to understand these things as, not just a good idea, but as our own intimate truths, and then to act from that insight into who and what we are. And, I think we can call that insight love.
Love pursued deeply within a community of care and quest, becomes something powerful and transformative. Out of this sense of love we are deeply concerned with what a responsible, ethical life looks like. We apply this concern to our individual lives, trying to be more gentle and caring. And we teach this as a way of life to our children. Also, because of this sense of love manifest as a spiritual community, as a church, we Unitarian Universalists are often on the front lines of social concern. That’s what people often see about us as we apply these values to our communal lives, which has given us the nickname, derived from those t-shirts many of us wear at public events: the love people.
That’s who we are, our religion, and that’s what we are trying to support in our annual budget drive.
We do this as a spiritual community. The way we organize this community is very American. We’re congregationalists, which means the basic unit of our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association is the congregation, is this congregation. The people here who have signed the covenant of our membership book, literally own the church. While there are larger associations like our district with its forty plus congregations and the denomination itself with its more than one thousand congregations, the basic unit is this congregation. We who sign the book own this building and the one behind it. We own our bank accounts. We own our endowments, which we are fortunate, mostly, to have. We call and dismiss our ministers, and we hire and fire the staff. We set our priorities and we live them.
As a visiting financial consultant once said here, that cushion you’re sitting on, it’s yours. If you like it, you can take it home. While we hope you won’t take it home, his quip speaks to a fact, it points to a deep truth. We, that is you and I own this community, this building, and its projects and programs. There is no one who can tell us what we can or cannot do. The denomination, the association is strictly voluntary. As a congregation we can quit the association anytime we want. Now, what goes with that is that there’s no one to bail us out if we get into trouble. Well, we do have connections within this association, we do have bonds of love and affinity. And we can get advice and counsel. And we might even in a real pickle get a little bit of financial help. But, in a real bottom line way, we’re it. We are the owners here. We are the responsible parties here.
Now, there are divisions among us about how we should talk about money. Some would rather we don’t at all. I find that contrary to our spirituality which is rooted in the here and now. Others think that going into the weeds and explaining problems is an exercise in some kind of scarcity thinking, and rather we should embrace an abundance mentality. Truthfully, I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Me, in my heart of hearts, I prefer assuming we’re grown ups, stating the facts and that we can handle it.
Now, we’ve been around for a long time, just seven years shy of three hundred years. We’re in fact the third oldest congregation in the state. And in these years our ancestors have been generous in creating a space for us, shelter for we wild birds of heaven. Two hundred years ago, almost, those ancestors of ours built this Meeting House, which is actually a bit more than our spiritual home; it is a community treasure. And they built the Parish House behind us that gives us meeting rooms, offices and classrooms. This commitment to providing a home for our people has in fact continued. There are those in this room who were part of the major renovations that made those offices and classrooms pretty close to state of the art.
These days our near five hundred members and almost one hundred more pledging friends together with our more than two hundred children and youth support this mission of love and intimacy, of creating a safe place for us to explore our own paths toward depth and to manifest that depth in how we live and act in the world, as ourselves, and as a spiritual community. Anyone who has been around a bit knows this is a lively, dynamic and exciting place.
Now, let’s open our church’s checkbook and take a peek at what supports all of this. We currently operate with a budget of about six hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Approximately three hundred and fifty thousand of those dollars come from our annual budget drive. The rest comes from rentals and fundraisers and a draw of about one hundred, eight thousand dollars from our endowment income. For purposes of pledging we have something under four hundred families or households or units, pick your accounting number that divvy up the responsibility for that three hundred, fifty thousand dollars, or so. So, far, so good.
But, there are problems. One is the fact that this is a barebones operation. We’ve been cutting in every area ever since the great recession hit. Also, while there are close to four hundred families or households or units, a bit more than fifty of them account for the lion’s share of our pledge income. The third big problem is that we’re relying too heavily on our endowment income to close the gap for what as I said was already a pretty bare bones operation. It’s a bit too easy to see the near four million dollars in our endowment and to think, what’s the problem? The problem is how ethically that money should for the most part be going to the ongoing care of the campus, particularly our Meeting House, which as I’ve mentioned is not only our spiritual home, but also it is a community treasure of which we are the stewards. Our living congregation is supposed to be caring for the program part, and we’re not fully doing that. Oh, and one more thing, a one off problem we’re facing this year. We’ve lost our top two financial supporters, one to death, the other to a move out of state. They were very generous. And along with the rest of our plan, we need to make their contribution up this year.
Those are the problems. Here’s a bit of an embarrassment of good news. You’ve heard the babies burbling their amens to what’s going on. If you’ve been coming to church regularly over the last five or six years you may have noticed something of a shift in the makeup of our congregation: we’re growing younger. Our message of radical interdependence, our deep commitment to individual freedom of thought and conscience, together with a lightly held but very traditional service including world class music and, well, generally adequate preaching, has found resonance among many younger people, every year, more.
Nowhere is this generational shift more obvious than in this year’s annual pledge drive committee. The co-chairs are Anne Connor and Lisa Sampson. Anne, what can I say, she’s younger than me. And she brings a sense of history and continuity as well as her wide-ranging intelligence to the table. Her co-chair, Lisa, could be, what can I say, my granddaughter. She brings new eyes informed by a burning intelligence, an endless curiosity, and a level of commitment to our shared vision that takes my breath away. Of the five core members of the committee three are in their twenties or very, very early thirties. Our next wave of leadership has already stepped up, and they’ve taken on the most thankless of our many tasks, this pledge drive. I hope and believe we will live up to their belief in us.
They’ve closely examined where we’ve been and project where we might go, and here’s what they see. We need, in addition to meeting our budgetary concerns, to make two shifts in our culture. The first is to share the financial burden more equitably. Some of the imbalance is right, our older members, those who have a little bit more money, can and, I believe, should shoulder more of the costs. That’s inherent in the nature of community and no less true for spiritual communities. That acknowledged too many of us are relying on others and our endowment to take care of business, and we need to share the burden more widely. Too many of us don’t pledge at all, and a much larger number pledge only in the most nominal way. Our committee asks, and I ask with them, that everyone make the best commitment you can. This will allow us to address the other problem, our drawing too much money from endowment income for operations.
And so the committee, of three brilliant and informed and energetic younger members and two older and tired from trying to keep up with those younger members are calling us to a “race to three hundred.” All we ask is a thoughtful and considered pledge. For some among us that can be making a commitment of twenty or thirty dollars for the year, for most of us, it really can be more. For all of us we’re providing guides to help in sorting out what a fair commitment might look like. Whatever, we really need all of us stepping up and making that commitment. Let’s have one hundred percent participation. Please.
And there is just a little more. We hope you’ll be willing to allow a fellow member to visit briefly with you at a suitable location to share the details of what is going on and how we hope to go forward before you privately make your decision about what that pledge will be. Or, come to one of the half dozen scheduled cottage meetings in member’s homes where you’ll get to meet one of these wildly interesting committee members, and me, speaking, again, to the details that I didn’t have time to address here.
We’re embarked on an ambitious, but realistic campaign to create the financial base from which to live our mission of love manifest, of intimacy with our own hearts, with each other, and to reach out healing hands to this hurt and longing world for another three hundred years.
No guilt. No shame. No smoke. I hope I’ve given you enough bare facts to get started for this year. And, visitors, I hope you got a sense of what it means to be part of a spiritual community that’s made up of spiritual adults.
Maybe you’ll want to join us.