When I was doing my internship in our congregation in Concord, Massachusetts, the Senior Minister there, my friend and mentor Gary Smith, started off one sermon in a way I’ve never forgotten. He had a knack for that. Usually ended them well, too. On this occasion he looked out at the congregation and said, and I paraphrase because it was nearly twenty years ago now:
The dinner party was a success. Everyone had a great time. The guests have gone home. We’ve cleaned up the table. The dishes are done. We’ve turned the porch light off. And it’s just us. It’s just us, just family, sitting around the kitchen table, and we’ve got to talk.
What followed was a sermon challenging that congregation to step up to the plate in a way it hadn’t recently. Their pledge drive had just come in seriously short, and it was time for some serious conversation around that kitchen table. Just family.
Now it’s our turn.
In the first congregation I served, up in Yarmouth Maine, we created a term for it – “it” being the fairly constant state of not quite getting enough money from our pledge campaigns to fund the budgets we wanted to. We called it, “muddling through,” and I can remember one memorable year when our treasurer presented to the congregation both our “dream budget” and our “muddling through again budget.” That’s what we actually called them that year.
I was ordained nearly twenty years ago, and in that time I’ve served three of our congregations. In my training I also had experience at both a student ministry site and an internship site. So that’s five congregations I know pretty well. Then there was my first UU church, my home church, The First Parish in Waltham Universalist Unitarian Unitarian Universalist Church, so that’s six. And then, of course, during my years on the UUA staff I got to see quite a number of our congregations both up close and from a distance. And then, as you can imagine, when we clergy folks get together we like to kvetch (and gloat) a bit, so I’ve heard about . . . well . . . countless others.
And what I can say, from the vantage point of all of this experience, is that just about every congregation struggles with money at least some of the time. In fact, I once read a book on church finances that said one of the ways you can tell the health of a congregation is whether or not it sees its money troubles as a crisis or as just one of the realities of being a church.
Well friends, we’re looking at the “reality of being a church” . . . big time. Last spring the Board brought to the congregational meeting a budget of a little over $600,000. That was roughly a $63,000 increase over the actual results of last year – a 12% increase, give or take. And that increase, believe it or not, was not because we were proposing to do some grand, new, exciting things; it wasn’t because we were revolutionizing the way we’re doing church in Charlottesville. It was largely because in the previous year we’d added some staff and we’d realized that we really ought to be compensating all of our staff fairly – salaries and benefits. There were also some minor increases here and there, and we wanted to add a ten-hour-a-week youth coordinator position and increase our Church Secretary’s hours a bit. But that was it. It’s important to realize that that wasn’t some kind of “Dream Budget.” It was, in fact, despite the increase, really a kind of “muddle through budget.”
Where there was a real jump was in the area of pledging. We had hoped to be able to increase our pledge revenues by about $90,000, but this was really because we knew we were going to have to compensate for the loss of rental income from the Molly Michie Preschool, which has rented our basement but is moving out, and from U-House, which we were hoping soon to sell (and, as you heard earlier, we just have). Since the largest percentage of our revenue is from the pledges of members – both formal and informal – that’s where we looked to make up this difference. And we were so confident that the increase in energy and satisfaction we’ve been feeling these days would generate this kind of enthusiastic generosity that we decided to run a low-key campaign.
A mistake, as it turned out. Yet even now, after we’ve literally spent months trying to contact each and every person who had not pledged during the campaign, we are still looking at less pledge income this year than last. The revised budget that was presented for a vote at that congregational meeting a couple of weeks back is actually smaller than last year’s, and even with that there’s the possibility that the Board may need to tap our reserve funds, and your staff was directed to come up with some $20,000 in additional cuts should the need arise. As of right now, it looks like they well may be needed, and those cuts include reductions in compensation – a quarter of it will be coming out of my package – and may eventually include hours as well. Already we did away with plans for that much needed youth coordinator and we’re keeping the Church Secretary at the hours she currently has.
Now I’m pretty far into this sermon this morning and I’ll bet that many, if not most (if not all, actually) of you are expecting me to start asking anyone for money. “Increase your pledge if you can! Pledge if you haven’t!” Right? Well, I’m not going to do that. I’m really, really not. Some of you have already given generously, some “sacrificially,” as we call it. You’ve done your part and I’m not, absolutely not, asking you to do more. And some of you have not given anything, and I trust that you have your reasons. There has been more than enough time for you to be swayed if swaying were possible. So I’m not asking you to do anything more, either.
So what am I asking? I’m asking us to realize that all of this means something. I’m asking us to realize that all of this means something, and that we – you and me and all of us together – really need to figure out what it means.
It means something that one quarter of our members – fully one-out-of-every-four members – makes no pledge of record. Nothing. I know that some people donate their time and talent instead of money, and I in no way want to discount that. Oh for our volunteers. Bless you. We need you. But for there to be no pledge of record – not even $1 a week, not even $1 a month, not even $1 a year! – to have no pledge of record from 25% of our members? Well, that means something. I don’t know what it means, but we, as a community, need to figure it out. It might mean that the economy’s changing, and money’s tight. It may mean that some folks think that a small pledge won’t matter much. It might mean that people figure someone else will take care of the money stuff or, maybe, that we’re doing okay and don’t really need the support. (You know, the way a lot of people feel about NPR.) It may mean that some folks are displeased about this or that and want to send a message by withholding their pledges. It may mean that we don’t have a culture here – yet! – in which people realize that their pledge is only partially about paying bills but is really about being connected. I don’t know what it means, but when I checked in with the UUA staff about pledging trends around the country every one of the consultants who responded said that having a quarter of your membership without a pledge of record should be cause for at least some serious reflection. Friends, we need to figure it out.
And it means something when our church leaders personally call folks who pledged last year but not this year and don’t ever get a call back. Even after several tries. It means something. Again, I don’t know what, but we need to figure it out. Because when someone chooses not to return a call from another member of their church family, well, it’s not about possibly lost revenue at that point. It’s about lost connections. When a leader repeatedly calls a member (and I’m actually talking about 30 or 40 members) and hears nothing back it’s a sure sign that something’s broken, but, of course, we can’t tell for sure what because, after all, the calls aren’t being returned. We need to figure this out.
You know, as Adam and I talked about this service this week he made a really good point. Some of you know that Adam’s not only one of our new Worship Weavers but that for several years he led our canvass efforts, so he’s given this a lot of thought. And Adam suggested that I honestly and openly tell everyone a bottom line truth. You see, there is a figure that’s absolutely necessary if we want to have a church. And that figure is $0.
That’s right. We can have a church on no money at all. It’ll look a lot different than TJMC does right now, but we could do it. There’s a great story, probably apocryphal, that’s making the rounds on the Internet right now. I won’t go into all of the details, but it ends with a preacher looking out at the congregation and saying, “I look out and see a group of people, but not a church.” He’s supposed to have dismissed them to go home and think about it until the next week. Well, we can have a church with a budget of $0, but we can’t have one if we don’t have committed, engaged, involved, and connected people.
And that’s what I’m asking for this morning. Not more contributions, but more commitment. Not more pledge envelopes, but more people engaged. And by this I don’t mean busier people. Some of you out to have a bunk installed you’re here so often. A lot of people are doing a whole lot of things, so that’s not the commitment I’m talking about. But when it comes to “owning” the mission of the church? When it comes to even knowing, clearly and with certainty, the mission of the church and making sure we stay true to it? Who’s committed to that? The financial situation we find ourselves in right now is, in and of itself, not such a big deal. The budget will work itself out, or it won’t, but either way no doubt the universe will keep unfolding as it should. But the financial situation we find ourselves in right now means something, and we really need to figure out what.
What kind of church do we want to be? What kind of church are we, actually, now?
It turns out that this is a perfect time to be asking ourselves these questions, because we’re starting our Strategic Planning Process and it’s designed to investigate two fundamental question – what kind of church do we want to be in five, ten, twenty years and how do we want to get there? The foundation for all of that, of course, is knowing what kind of congregation we actually are right now.
TJMC prides itself on being a growing, vibrant church. We know that our space is too tight, we’re bursting at the seams, and many of us are imagining expanded space, new buildings, increased professional staff, more real engagement in justice work in our community. Our Staffing Task Force of a year or so ago discovered that we are actually currently understaffed for this sized congregation, and that if we really want to grow we need to not only catch up to where we should be, where we need to be to support what we have, but need to be thinking about “staffing for growth.” And if we’re to grow we really, really need more space. Many of us are really excited by the possibilities in all of this.
And yet, this year’s budget is currently less than last year’s, and for the past several years our budgets have been essentially flat. Stagnant. By that measure, at least, we are not vibrant and growing. We’re not even really “muddling through.” We’re treading water. And some folks think that we’re showing signs of getting tired.
Now, this may surprise you to hear, but it’s not the worst thing in the world for a congregation to stop growing – in numbers and in budget. There are other kinds of growth. Pruning back a wild and scraggly bush is not a sign of defeatism, but rather an excellent strategy for promoting greater health. We are currently a roughly 450 member congregation. That means that roughly 450 people have taken the step of formalizing their membership and have “signed the book.” Some of those are not particularly active, and there are lots of active folks who haven’t taken that step, so this is not necessarily a very useful number, but we are currently a roughly 450 member church.
Another, and many think more useful, number is the average Sunday attendance – this we’d get by literally counting every person, of whatever age, is in any part of our church on a Sunday morning. Do this for a year and then divide that number by 52. We’ve never done this to my knowledge, but I’d wager that the figure would put us squarely in what’s called the “Program Sized Church.” This is a congregation with an average Sunday attendance of between 150 and 350 people. It’s worth noting that only one-in-six UU congregations is in this category. Only one in six.
It’s worth noting, too, that the transition from “Pastoral Church,” the next size down, and “Program Church” is notorious for floundering congregations. It doesn’t just happen. It takes intentionality and courage; it takes faith and trust; it takes will. And for the vast majority of congregations trying to make that step it takes time – years can be spent caught on that hump, stuck on that plateau, hoist on that petard, stranded on that sandbar. Just as we’ve been for the past several years. Just as we are, apparently, right now.
I want to reiterate – I am not asking anyone to pony up more money so that we can make that leap. That would presuppose that we really want to, and that all it’d take would be money to make it happen. As Adam said to me this week, “we don’t really need any more money. Before we ask people for more money we need to really decide if we want it, and we need to decide what we want to do with it.”
I can honestly say that out of all those congregations I’ve known over these last two decades, none has been a better congregation than this. None has had more promise that this congregation has; none more possibilities. Think about the testimonials you hear on a pretty regular basis during the time of Joys and Sorrows – people saying how much this church community means to them. Think of the energy you feel in this sanctuary on at least most Sunday mornings, and the excited hum you hear from the rooms where our RE program is taking place here and at Summit. Think of the growing throng of students from UVA, and the parents, and the grandparents, and the great-grandparents, and all the kids who call this place “home,” who find here “family.” Some in ways they’ve never known before . . . have never known were even possible. And think of all the good work that TJMC is involved in – in Charlottesville and in the wider world – making a real and positive difference.
We have been entrusted with an incredibly powerful resource, and it is up to us to decide how best to utilize it. Those who have come before us are trusting us to hand this community of faith on to those who have not come yet. I can say with complete certainty that it is not more money that we need. It is greater clarity of vision and greater clarity of purpose. And that we can only get by coming together and making it so. We have a year ahead of us in which to do just that. May we do that, and may our future be bright.