© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 6, 2011

Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)

I remember quite clearly the first time I had to ask a stranger for a financial donation. It was the summer after my freshman year of high school and I was desperate to find a job that would allow me to escape the furnace-like heat of the bagel place I had been working at. Walking to work after school, I had seen a flier that yelled to me in all capital letters: EARN MONEY WORKING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT!

To a naive teen like me, this sounded like the ultimate summer job, whatever it was. So without much further thinking I called up the number and made an appointment for an interview. A few days later I took the Green Line train from the stop in my leafy little suburban village into Park Street in downtown Boston. My pulse quickened as I walked up the ancient steps from the subway and emerged into the sunlight of the Boston Commons, a gorgeous park smack in the middle of the city.

I had been here dozens of times before with my family, on school field trips, and recently with some friends whose parents also trusted them to make the trip in for Saturday fun unaccompanied by our parents. But this was the first time I had taken this trip alone, and I felt more adult than ever before.

I found the office suite down a nearby side street, rode the elevator up a few floors, and emerged into a big open space that looked like a mix between a war room and a bachelor pad. Everyone was young, music was playing, and people were in various stages of preparing for the day's work.

After being brought into a small conference room and meeting the woman that would interview me, I was handed a short script and told to quickly memorize and deliver it to my interviewer as if I had just knocked on her door. It was short and simple:

"Hello, my name is Jeremy Nickel and I am here today representing MASSPIRG. Did you know that more than half of Massachusetts' home water supplies are contaminated by environmental toxins? MASSPIRG is working on a campaign to regulate what goes into our water, and I am here today to ask you to become a member and support this vital work with a financial contribution of at least $25."

As I looked over the script, I suddenly realized that I was swimming in far deeper waters than I had imagined. I flashed to all the times my families evening meal had been interrupted by just this kind of intrusion. I remembered how frustrating it was for my parents who both worked hard all day and looked forward to the peace of our time together every night. And now I would be that person, intruding on the evening's peace, and when I met this annoyed person at their door, I was to ask them for money, gulp. Suddenly, this no longer seemed like the perfect summer job; it seemed like a horrible string of anxious moments.

With all of these thoughts suddenly crowding my mind, I began my attempt at regurgitating the script; "Hi I am Jeremy," I began... "Um, I'm with this really cool organization called MASSPIRG, and like, um, well, we heard that the water around here is really bad, most of it is polluted with who-knows-what, but it's bad... and um, we wanted to know if you would join as a member for twenty-five bucks?"

Honestly, I'm not even sure it was that coherent. Without even so much as a follow-up, I received a warm smile and was led out of the room and back to the bagel store for the summer.

But from humble beginnings can come great things. And that first experience, rather than scaring me off from the subject altogether, instead made me aware at a young age that asking for and talking about money comfortably was an important skill that I lacked.

Over the years I have learned that there are really only three secrets to successfully asking people for money. The first is to practice doing it. And I have done just that in many jobs over the years, beginning two summers after the one I just told you about when I returned to the same office and this time successfully got a job going door to door and ruining people's dinners. I also worked in fundraising as a student in college, helping call alumni and asking them to pledge. I also have been used by several different non-profits over the years to ask for special gifts from donors on their behalf.

From all that practice I learned the second secret to successfully asking for money, and it is really the most important one. And that is: if you believe in the cause, really passionately believe in it, asking for the money needed to support it suddenly becomes very easy. I have been in many situations around financial solicitation, and I cannot tell you the difference it makes in the entire experience when I was truly passionate about the group or issue I was working for at the time. All that anxiety disappeared for me, and I was able to communicate the essential nature of the cause, turning it from an uncomfortable instance of me asking them for money, into a situation where I have just provided them with an opportunity to do something important.

And so, standing up here in front of you all today, I have zero qualms and only much excitement about asking you all to continue and hopefully even to go farther with your financial support of Mission Peak. You have called me to be your minister here at Mission Peak and I have now been on the job for six months. I was of course already passionate about this job even before I arrived here. But spending this time with you, laughing and crying, connecting spiritually, sharing stories and getting to know you as individuals has only increased my passion for Mission Peak.

And I hope that you have found me open to your feedback and needs, willing to try new things but also respectful of tradition, a listening ear that you can call on, an able but learning worship leader, and above all a minister who is excited to be here with you in this exact place, to continue learning and growing right alongside you.

I am so thrilled with what was already here upon my arrival. Although we don't own our own building, we are very lucky to have found this lovely home on Palm Hill. You are an eager and committed group, blessed with strong lay leaders, amazing musicians, and a genuine love for spending time with each other.

At the same time, I strongly feel that my call to this congregation, and the enthusiasm that you met it with, is a clear indication and mandate on my part to help Mission Peak accomplish some of its as-yet-unattained dreams.

I know there are many ways to categorize those dreams, but I think what it comes down to is that you all know that the tri-cities area could not only support a much larger liberal religious home, it needs one. Demographically, I couldn't think of a more exciting place to imagine what the future of a liberal religious home could be. Our all-encompassing umbrella has a lot of stretching to do if we are ever to truly serve this area the way our rich tradition of welcoming calls us to.

Which brings me to the third and final secret to successfully raising money: You must be clear both about what the money will actually do and how much you are asking for. So let me tell you about what the money we raise in this year's canvass will do, and also how much we are asking from you to make it happen.

The vast majority of the money will go to continuing what we already have in place. Between my salary and our Director of Religious Ed, Sally's salary, that is just under 60% of the budget. The next biggest chunk, just under 20%, goes to our facility. We also have growing administrative costs, and we pay dues to both the district and national association.

Beyond supporting the people, space and programs we already have in place, we are asking for an 8% increase in budget over last year for a total budget of just over $170,000. Some of that will be used to increase the hours of our administrator Sandra, some to updating our website and A/V equipment, and most excitingly we will begin a "Space Consultation" fund of $5000.

A huge key to our future is how we approach our next step in housing our growing faith community, and we are already at the cusp of having to answer this question again. The rule of thumb is that growth stops when a congregation reaches 80 percent capacity in their worship space. We Americans have a large sense of personal space, and study after study on church growth has shown that 80% is the magic number. If new people do not see space for themselves to comfortably join you, they don't come back. This is, by the way, a very good problem for us to be facing, and there are an almost limitless set of options for solving it; we could stay here and move to two services, find another, bigger rental home in the tri-cities area, partner with a local organization to find a permanent home... But rather than grasping around at what will be our best option, we need to consult with some professionals. And that, at least in part, is what this fund will enable us to do. It is the next responsible step in moving us towards our ultimate goal.

So that is what the money will be used for. It is pretty straight forward and is also laid out in the pamphlet you should have received recently in the mail. We also hope that you will sign up for a canvass social where we can talk in more detail and answer any questions that you may have.

The final part of the equation is how much you should give, and that is of course a little more tricky. I can tell you this much, if we take the total amount we need to raise and divide it by our pledging units, we need just short of $1500 from each pledging unit to make our budget. Last year almost half of you were able to do that. For those who can't, its okay. The point is not to do something irresponsible, but to push yourself a little bit beyond where you feel comfortable.

And that ultimately is the best way to determine how much to give Mission Peak to make these dreams happen. Recently in a meeting someone shared the old line: "Give until it hurts." Our Community Minister, Rev. Barbara Meyers was quick to correct this person by saying: "No, give until it feels good." I think that is a very important reframe as you approach this decision. Giving to Mission Peak should be a joyful act, whatever the amount you decide on. I have no doubt you will find your joy is increased if you stretch yourself just a bit further beyond your comfort zone than you ever have before. Because our canvass is not simply something we must do to keep Mission Peak financially afloat. Beyond that, it is an opportunity for you to put your money where your heart is. It is actually one of the most important spiritual disciplines we can take on because of all the pressure to anxiously cling to our money rather than to have a healthy relationship with it. Your life and your happiness follow these bolds acts; they are part of what draw us into the place we are trying to get to.

The stronger and deeper you invest yourself in Mission Peak, the more it will give back to you. Money is of course only one way to invest yourself, and for some it is simply not an option. We take seriously our desire for your time, talent and treasure, and trust that you will figure out for yourself what is the right balance of giving.

I have no doubt that we will be successful, because the main thing I have learned in these first six months with you is how vitally important Mission Peak already is to all of you, and how important it could be to so many other people.

As we heard so clearly on the video I played earlier, there are very few mechanisms left in society for people to share community and all that comes along with it - feeling connected, feeling fed and at home, taking a stand together, learning and having fun. We need other people to do these things. Mission Peak is more than just a congregation, it is a meeting place for the liberal religious spirit, that rambunctious, inquisitive, pain-in-the-butt spirit that is not satisfied with one answer, or any answers at all. We are the safe place for people who are threatened elsewhere, for people who need to be reminded that they have value. We are the home of those who are alone and wandering and lost in the spiritual wilderness. We are the open arms of universal love. To live up to the best of that, to take our good intentions and passion to the next level, we all need to step up so we can burst into bloom together.

May it be so, ashe.

May it be so. Ashe.

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