Once upon a time there was a visiting minister preaching a real barn burner about how the church was being called to go to great lengths, do great things. Near the end of his sermon he said “this church has really got to walk” and someone in the back yelled out, “Let her walk preacher!”
This really got the minister going. “Yes” he said, “this church has got to get up and run.” And someone else in the back shouted “Let her run, preacher!”
Overcome with emotion, the minister cried out, “If this church is going to do what it’s called to do, it needs to fly.” And again, louder this time, someone yelled, “Let her fly preacher, let her fly!”
Knowing this was the moment, the minister said “Now, for this church to fly, it’s going to need money!” and that’s when someone in the back said, “Let her walk preacher, let her walk!”
It does take money for churches to function, but that should be no surprise to this congregation. Every single Sunday morning we invite one another to give an offering, as much to support UUCSS as to give people the chance to practice generosity. And just over a month ago our auction raised a whopping $30K for the church. This is a community that knows what it takes to run a church.
But what it takes to run a church has changed. A lot. Faith communities were in slow decline for two decades even before the pandemic came along. Not only is our society becoming less religious; the cost of doing church is getting more expensive. Working families have less wealth now than they did just a generation ago, which means they have less to give. Meanwhile, older buildings like ours require financial resources to maintain, it costs more to compensate staff fairly, and even things like insurance for the church building and liability are becoming more expensive.
As we heard about in our reading, these and other factors have forced a lot of faith communities to close their doors. Some sold their buildings because they disbanded as a community, no longer able to make a go of it. Others made the choice to sell their buildings because they wanted to leave building maintenance up to a landlord so they could focus all of their energies on ministry. The church is, after all, the people, not the building.
UUCSS decided before I even began my ministry here that maintaining this campus was worth the investment of time, money, and responsibility it would take to do it well. So close to the beltway and right on a bus line, this campus is well-placed, not just for the convenience of our own members, but for impact in our neighborhood and wider community. And because you all believe in the potential of this community, too, and because you are a generous and forward-looking people, the vast majority of you made generous financial pledges last year during the Capital Campaign. Thanks to your generosity, work to renovate our Community Building and improve the sustainability and accessibility of our campus began last month, and is expected to be completed at the end of the summer.
I’m really excited about that work coming to an end so we can see the newly designed Community Building space, so we can spread out and use those spaces for coffee hour and retreats, for RE classes and fellowship events. But even after the Community Building renovation is complete, there will still be work to do on our campus. Most of our parking lot is gravel, which is hard to clear snow from. We really do need to have an asphalt lot poured. At some point we will need to renovate the bathrooms in both the Community and Sanctuary Buildings so they are fully ADA compliant and accessible. Installing a full catering kitchen would make all sorts of things possible that right now are not possible. Also, our Administrative Building is not in good shape, and will one day need to be renovated or torn down and completely reimagined. And all of the things I just named don’t even include the cost of ongoing building maintenance.
The truth is, UUCSS has underfunded building maintenance for many years in order to fund its ministries. In other words, this congregation has for years chosen to allocate less money to pay for regular maintenance on our buildings and grounds, less money on administrative staff, less money on staff to manage our facilities, so that we would have more money to pay for more music, RE, and ministry. The truth is, most congregations this size don’t have the benefit of a 3/4 time Music director and ¼ time accompanist. Most congregations our size must make do with a lot less staff support for Religious Education. Let me be clear; I am not criticizing this at all. This congregation’s history of funding ministry first and foremost is a beautiful testament to its ongoing commitment to what church exists to do. But if we don’t start investing in our building, if we don’t start addressing some of our campus-related challenges, at some point we may face repairs or other problems we can’t afford to fix.
Your Board and I have been thinking about this a lot. We are guided by the vision of a vibrant, healthy, financially and environmentally sustainable UUCSS that will be here for our children’s children. And we are guided by a desire to be good stewards of this campus that was gifted to us by earlier generations. We do have limited resources, and we have to decide as a community how to marry them to our mission and vision. No one wants to make cuts to our staff and undercut all of the great progress we’ve made together toward our vision. And so, the question becomes, what changes can we make now that will help put UUCSS on a path toward sustainability? What measures can we take now so that our buildings serve our needs, so that our campus can become a tool that serves and empowers our entire vision?
The short answer is that the Board is moving toward a significant expansion of our rental income. Don’t make the people serve the buildings; make the buildings serve the people. This is as much to serve our mission as it is to balance our budget. As Donna Schaper writes, “Removing the pews is not just a physical act. It is also a metaphor. Opening our buildings is also about opening ourselves to new revelations.”
Our mission as a congregation is to “create joyful spiritual community where we connect deeply, serve, and mobilize for our collective liberation.” The vision we are making a reality over the next 5-7 years is of a congregation with vibrant ministries for children and youth, a congregation that is deeply engaged in our neighborhood, a congregation known for being a partner with other organizations in advocating for what’s good and just in our community. Rev. Caitlin, Sara Scott, and our amazing RE task force members and volunteers have made incredible progress in less than a year toward the first part of our vision. I wonder how reimagining the way we use our campus might help us make progress toward the rest?
There are a lot of UU congregations around the country with aging facilities who have had to answer these questions. Those who are doing the most vibrant ministry are the ones moving their focus and their ministry outward, sharing use of their buildings to grow both their income and their mission. The Live Oak UU congregation in Austin, Texas is busy 7 days a week. Their Minister, the Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford, tells me that rentals provide enough income for full time staff to professionally manage the facility, plus enough to offer space to some groups for free. This is especially important in a state where many of the values dear to our liberal faith are under attack.
In Massachusetts the context is a bit different, but the congregation there has also leaned toward being generous with their space as a way to expand their mission. Conservative governors have been bussing migrants to Boston, and the homelessness crisis has been growing there. In response, the UU congregation in Malden is exploring how to offer temporary space on their campus to families who otherwise would have to sleep outside. And much closer to home the UU congregation in Columbia began sharing their campus with not just one but two other congregations.
UUCSS is doing well today. Our attendance is growing. We have a gifted and talented staff team. Our ministries for children and families are taking off, and our music ministry is doing great things. We are making excellent progress toward our vision. Yes, we need to figure out how to get onto a path toward long-term financial sustainability even as we address some capital improvement challenges that come along with owning and operating a campus for almost 70 years. But UUCSS is not in crisis. Our society is, and many in our neighborhood are. And that’s why it’s so vital that we continue to get our house in order. Our call is too great, too important, to be derailed because of money.
In the midst of a world struggling with war, division, and climate catastrophe, in the midst of a country facing threats to democracy, the liberal religious community and ministry we create together is only going to become more important. In a culture that tells us we are only worth as much as we can produce, we need this church where we are reminded again and again that we are all of sacred worth, that we have a dignity nothing and no one can ever erase, that our community is beautiful and strong because it is diverse.
Your Board is already hard at work assembling a Rental Committee to help increase our income and expand our mission so that our buildings, campus, and our ministries are here for years to come. So many of you are already sharing your gifts of time and talent in the service of our purpose and future as a congregation. So, as our Annual Budget Drive begins today, as you begin to consider your pledge for the 2024-2025 church year, as you think about how much you can increase your giving, I ask you this: How has UUCSS changed your life for the better? How do you hope UUCSS will change the lives of others into the future? How are you being called to help this congregation fly? What are you being called to bring to the table to empower UUCSS to serve out mission and vision?