What UUFP Has Taught Me

by Chris Hockman

Since we didn’t get a recording of Sunday’s services, I thought I’d provide you with the reading and sermon. Enjoy!Mount+Fuji+13

Two travelers on their way to Japan were standing at the rail of the ship looking out upon the vast open sea. After but a few moments, one of the men turned about and walked away, disappointment written on his countenance. Throughout the day, the man returned to the deck rail and then turned his back upon the scene, each time appearing more disconsolate than before.

 Finally, the second traveler, who had remained at the rail, felt compelled to ask his fellow traveler what it was that made him so downcast on what was evidently a pleasure trip. The first man replied that he had been told that at this point of the voyage he would be able to see Mt. Fuji rising in the distance. However, the haze over the water was apparently not going to lift, depriving him of a sight that he had so long anticipated.

Taking him by the arm, his shipmate led the man back to the rail of the ship and said quietly, “Look higher.” The traveler, raising his eyes above the haze, saw, in all its beauty and majesty, the great mountain peak.  — Ann Bowman

What UUFP Has Taught Me

Well, here it is, my last sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, or at least the last sermon for quite a while. It’s been a wonderful two years of learning about ministry and getting to know you as a congregation. And – as the sermon title implies, you have taught me a lot. There are things you do exceptionally well. From the very beginning of my time here, I was struck by what a friendly and welcoming congregation this is. As your first intern ever, I wasn’t sure how I’d be received. Some congregations that aren’t used to having interns can actually get freaked out by the whole concept. They get anxious about all sorts of things – senior ministers delegating, interns dropping the ball, congregants getting shunted off to a newbie when they really want to deal with a trained professional. But by my account, I was accepted and supported pretty much unconditionally for two years. That’s pretty remarkable.

And the general friendliness and welcoming you all show to everyone on a regular basis is not always a given in congregations. Internal conflict between various interest groups and personalities can have a bad effect on a congregation’s personality. But here, the culture is one of friendliness, warmth and mutual respect. Some folks here who have been around for a long time told me this was not always the case – so I’d like to congratulate you on how far you’ve come in becoming a congregation that knows how to treat one another.

Another thing that struck me almost immediately is how everyone pitches in here. And again, that may not seem like an unusual thing to you, but it is not the case everywhere. As evidence, I’ll share a little story from a certain unnamed congregation located somewhere in the continental U.S. Here, one Sunday morning, a volunteer layperson was minding a volunteer station. While manning the station, the volunteer was approached by a congregant who said, you need to water those plants – pointing to some of the church’s decorative plants located nearby. The volunteer was incredulous that somehow because she was a volunteer, she was being directed to water plants. She quickly responded to the congregant, if it’s so important to you, why don’t you go water them yourself?

Here at UUFP, I don’t think anyone would think twice about watering a plant, or fixing something, or cleaning up something. You all do what needs to be done. You take ownership of the space, the hospitality, the set up and clean up and in a flurry of activity, everything somehow gets done. It’s like when the church flooded in winter of last year. Within a couple hours of discovery, I was viewing from Richmond, Facebook photos of numerous people who dropped everything on a Saturday to help clean up the church. The job wasn’t someone else’s to do – it was yours. And that’s pretty awesome.

Another really special thing about UUFP is that it is a place that likes to say “yes.” I don’t see a lot of resistance or negative attitudes toward new ideas here. When I introduced the Boys & Girls Club project, I was met with nothing but enthusiasm and support.

I cannot say the same for some of my classmates and their projects. Your willingness to jump on board with something brand new, directed by an intern, of all people, rather than provide a list of 20 reasons why this is a bad idea and will not work, shows the great potential in this congregation to continue doing wonderful things.

So, in sum, I think you’re all pretty awesome. You know how to be friendly; you treat each other well; you’re affable – you’re not afraid to try something new. You do the work. You show a great deal of positivity and optimism. But all of the wonderful things aside, part of my mission here today is to challenge you, that is to lovingly challenge you, before I slip out the door one last time.

I chose today’s reading because I see UUFP as the man looking at the misty horizon. I want to encourage you as a congregation to look higher. To audaciously reject the status quo and hope for and work toward something bigger. To take the risk that more is possible, that more is achievable, that you can do more as a community and do more for the world.

Like one of my mentors, The Reverend Dave MacPherson says, the reason we are here, the reason our faith tradition exists, is because we have the power to transform the world. We are not limited by our theology – all are worthy of salvation on earth. We have the tools of reason, science and inclusivity. But yet, before we can transform the world, some things have to take place.

After observing you for two years, especially after 13 years in non-profit fundraising, I feel I must bring up the “M word.” Money. I think most everyone here knows that next year’s budget is the second shoestring budget in two years. This frightens me, and I’m not exactly sure why others are not frightened as well – or at least more vocal about their fear. Do you all realize the fine line that exists between “just getting by” and diminishing, petering out? If this trend gets just a little worse, there will be nothing left to cut – without cutting the already meager staff. What does the future look like without a full-time minister or no DRE? Where is the fear? Where is the anger? Where is the resolve to ensure the Fellowship’s future?

And I don’t believe all of the slack can be picked up by fundraising events. They are a lot of work and they don’t always raise a lot of money. I still see the greatest upside in pledging, but I’ll get back to that.

At the same time, I’m not sure you realize how squished you are and how this lack of space inhibits opportunities for growth in membership – growth that would be one potential way out of financial difficulties and more importantly a way to fulfill our mission as Unitarian Universalists. Although we may be used to being in close quarters – it’s not so easy for all new people. They may not be able to articulate it, but a lack of space can make people so uncomfortable they may never come back.

In February I visited four congregations, three of which had about 100 members, making them about 1/3 smaller in membership than UUFP. Two of those congregations had sanctuaries more than twice the size of this one. Another congregation of 100 members had a sanctuary comparable in size and was in the process of expanding it. You need more space. You’ve needed it for a long time. But yet, if the annual funding of the church budget isn’t stabilized, building expansion isn’t about to happen anytime soon.

So here’s my proposed solution to the budget problem, which involves some simple math – here goes. The average household income in Newport News is presently around $50,000. So let’s just assume that is the average household income for UUFP. Some people make more, others less, and that’s fine. UUFP currently has 118 pledging households. Let’s assume each household pledges 5% of their income every year. If that happened, the pledge total would be $295,000, an increase of $131,000 over this year’s actual total. UUFP’s financial worries would be solved and then some. Can you imagine what this congregation could do with an extra $130,000 every year? It’s time to look higher. This is not a poor congregation. And dear ones, it’s time to stop acting like one.

And if I haven’t made you uncomfortable enough yet, imagine what tithing could do. I know this is less realistic for UUs, but hang in with me for a moment. If everyone tithes, meaning giving 10%, UUFP would have an annual pledge income of almost $600,000 per year, more than three times the current annual budget. And this isn’t something I made up. Plenty of churches do it. And they do it all the time.

But let’s get back to the 5%. It, also, is a thing. Recently the UU congregation in Media, PA was designated as a UUA breakthrough congregation. Here’s some information from a UU World article about their fundraising:

We realized that the original number people pledged was just an arbitrary one in the first place. From that discussion came the idea to ask members of the congregation to pledge 5% of their gross household income. Some congregants were already pledging beyond that amount, and we asked them to consider keeping that pledge at that level or beyond. For others, the team knew the 5% would be a stretch, so we asked them to pledge to get to that level in three years. People responded positively. There was a significant increase in pledging with an average increase of 22% over those who pledged the prior year. The congregation was able to meet all costs as well as increase funding to some programs.

They called their program “Five to Thrive.” I hope it will become your new fundraising mantra. Look higher. You don’t even know the amazing things you, as a congregation, are capable of.

In my visits to the church in Corpus Christi, I keep hearing from the congregants about a sermon given by their interim minister about how their congregation serves as a sanctuary. This concept is very applicable to UUFP. This fellowship serves as a sanctuary for many who do not fit into the religious mainstream for any number of reasons. So we tend to huddle in our congregations, our safe places. It is no wonder that we want to create our own little communities of like-minded people, bar the doors from the barbarians at the gate and not interact with the world around us on any given Sunday. We’ve been rejected. We’ve been hurt. We’ve felt like outsiders.

But for all of the comfort we are getting in our sanctuaries, we are missing out on a lot by not being engaged as a congregation in the world around us. And can you blame us? It can take a solid five minutes or more to get anyone to understand what Unitarian Universalism is, and that we’re not the Moonies.

And sure, UUFP does outreach like PORT and First Fridays at St. Paul’s, and the Boys & Girls Club, among other things. But yet, I still get the feeling that this fellowship is hiding. I invite you to continue to challenge yourselves – make a splash in the community. Get out of the fort that is UUFP. Take risks, reach out, be proud of who you are. Continue to invite people in. There are people out there who need UUFP but don’t know about you yet. Instead of using this place simply as a refuge, use it as a launching pad from which you engage the neighborhood, the community and the world.

And there’s one big thing I see that’s holding you back from this type of engagement. Are you aware that you all spend a lot of time keeping the Fellowship running? Of course, you do. This is typical in a very small congregation, but not so much in one of your size. Although there will always be church volunteer jobs – with proper funding, the Fellowship could increase staff hours and use more contractors – so that members can focus on the more fulfilling aspects of church – spiritual and personal development, religious education, fellowship circles and reaching out – like Reverend Dave said, to transform the world.

And let me talk for a moment about committees and leadership development. As a member of Generation X, I will share with you my first committee experience. I was asked by the chair to come to a meeting, where I found a committee all of people my parents’ generation or older, at least one difficult personality, and a lot of people talking at once and no progress being made. I could have spent that hour or two being more helpful to the church at home on my laptop. I never went back.

I’m not saying that your committees function poorly like this one – but the difference between a Generation X, perhaps, and a Millennial is that an X might try a committee and run screaming for the hills. A Millennial probably won’t even see the point in showing up in the first place. So the next time you’re feeling the pain of graying, burned out leadership – reach out to some of the younger people.

We talk a lot about leadership development, but I often find young people in our congregations who are already leaders in other aspects of their lives – they are just not seen as leaders because of their age, or because the leadership doesn’t know them, being in a different age cohort. If you’re a boomer (or older) try getting to know the younger members – they have a lot to offer. And don’t try to mold them into committee structures of decades past. Be receptive to them using different technology and processes than you do. Don’t insist on having them meet in person on a monthly basis whether there is pressing business or not. You may find their methods offer efficiencies that operate outside the typical committee structure.

And I dare everyone to be bold – to experiment with structures and formats for getting church work done. Do what makes sense. Do what works. Question all old habits, structures and traditional ways of doing things. If it’s still working, keep doing it. If not, try something new. Vital and vibrant church life comes from members doing soul-fulfilling things, and there is no time or energy for soul-fulfilling things when everyone is warming chairs in committee meetings or scrambling to find people to warm the chairs in committee meetings.

And finally, I want to see this congregation have a more well-defined mission – one so simple and straightforward that everyone knows it by memory. I want this mission to include something that makes engaging with the outside world a priority. I also want to see a vision for this congregation: one that is motivating and inspiring and challenging, that will blow away any newcomer who reads it so they will immediately want to join you all on your magnificent journey. Because you are worth being with and have the capabilities to do so much good in the world. And the world needs you desperately.

And UUFP, I want to know where you’re going, because although I love you, I fear that as a church community you are going nowhere in particular. I know that stasis is comfortable. I personally am a big fan of stasis, sameness, routine – but I know it is almost never the best thing for me. It’s also not the best thing for congregations that have a theology calling them to create heaven on earth. That’s a tall order and a blessing to have the opportunity to try and make it happen. And stasis won’t get the job done.

So UUFP, I still think you’re fabulous. You know I wouldn’t bother challenging you if I didn’t think you had it in you to be an even more loving, vibrant, spiritual, activist, and impactful congregation in this world. So I am asking you to come out of the sanctuary, the comfortable fort you’ve created and engage outside the church walls. I’m asking you to find your inspiration, find your imagination and look higher –look above the haze on the horizon to see the glorious, magnificent mountain you haven’t been able to see, but has been there all along waiting for you. So may it be.

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2 Responses to What UUFP Has Taught Me

  1. David Walsh says:

    Chris, you should have also “learned” that:
    • In the last two years, we spent volunteer hours and members’ money to help make marriage equality a fact.
    • In the last two years, we have actively fed close to 2,000 needy people in our community with our money and our volunteers.
    • In the last two years, we have grown a small discussion group of 8-10 into a vibrant roomful of intellectually hungry people—members and visitors— of 25-35. That’s a 300% growth!
    One that I have learned about the Fellowship is that we are driven to make the world a better place to live. That’s why I’m so happy the Pam Luke and Carey Hall have grabbed the reins of the Social Justice committee and why I’ve pledged to support them any way I can. Social Justice will build the Fellowship!

    As for the financial aspects, we’ll agree to disagree.

    My questions are why did we lose 17 members from 2014 to 2016? And, second, why did almost one-third of our members cut their pledges by $20,000 this year? That’s what I want to learn.

    I think we need to focus on where we are, not where we could be. Let’s fix our house before we worry about building a bigger one.

  2. Lehni says:

    I appreciate your printing this. I was sorry I had to miss this past Sundas and your last sermon. I was glad we were recording so I listen to your sermon later. I am glad I had the chance to hear your thoughts.

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