Annual State of the Church Message

© Dr. Chris Schriner 2006
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 26, 2006

Do you believe in "destiny?" I guess I do - and I don't. I do not believe we have a destiny in the sense that some force of fate controls our lives no matter what choices we make. So I don't think anyone is "destined" to win the lottery. But I do believe in destiny as the potential that we have in our own time and place. I believe Unitarian Universalism has a special destiny, and that Mission Peak could help our denomination fulfill that potential.

If you are visiting us for the first time, I should make it clear that this will not be a typical sermon. This is my annual talk on the state of our congregation. Today you will hear more about our internal concerns than you would on most Sundays. So this is one of the best days to visit us, because you will learn a lot in a short time about this spiritual community.

So what great potential could Mission Peak help our denomination fulfill? Part of it involves letting the world know that we offer a new kind of spiritual community. Most religions say, "We have the truth. We will give you answers that are guaranteed to be correct about life, death, God, and all the other great mysteries." Unitarian Universalism does just the opposite. We do not expect to discover final answers to all of the big questions. So we give you the freedom to develop your own philosophy of life. Our spiritual community is united by common values rather than by common beliefs, held together by our commitments, not by our opinions. Coming here reminds us to focus on our core values, week after week, and this helps us stay on a path that inspires us and challenges us and empowers us. People need communities of commitment such as this one. As one of our members, Mark Rahman, once said, "It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a community to raise an adult."

In this nation that is so deeply divided and so full of fear, Unitarian Universalism is a both/and religion in an either/or world. It offers a powerful combination of something we do have and something we don't have. We do have values and we don't have dogma.

Mission Peak also has a particular role to play here in the Tri-Cities area, which has such a strange mixture of progressive thinking and narrow-minded prejudice.

To play our proper role we need to function well, and some of our members spend enormous amounts of time helping us do that. As a result our web site is gorgeous and beautifully maintained. Our newsletter looks great. We have lots of publicity from paid ads and from newspaper articles mentioning Mission Peak. The Sunday services team is well-trained and well-organized. Worship associates enhance the service, and our members offer excellent sermons when I'm not in the pulpit, such as Doug Rodgers' from last week. Our volunteer musicians are gifted and creative. The choir has lots of fun preparing music that is sometimes lovely, sometimes whimsical, and always worth hearing. Meditation before the Sunday service creates a quiet spiritual bond. We have deepened our sense of community with a women's group and a men's group, with pot lucks, hiking, Service Auction events, and special programs such as the Sunday salon this afternoon. This year most of our spiritual retreat was planned by volunteers, and it went very well. We continue to have a strong program of Pastoral Associates, plus a Caring Circle that helps members who need assistance. We are deepening our commitment to social concerns - more about that later. Our membership committee does terrific work and we now have 109 members.

We are also blessed with our staff. Barbara Pendergrass handles our orders of service and other administrative details. Rev. Barbara Meyers' community ministry is off to a marvelous start. And the quality and attendance level of our children's religious education program has greatly improved, under the guidance of our Directory of Religious Education, Sally Ahnger.

We are accomplishing a lot, partly for the sake of what we are today, and partly for the sake of what we can become tomorrow. We have big dreams for this little group, and I believe our dreams are lifting us in the same direction as our destiny.

That's all good, but we can't just congratulate ourselves and rest on our laurels. As Will Rogers once said: "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." So what's next? In traditional language, what is God calling us to do now? Or using Carlos Castenada's phrase, what would be a path with heart, for Mission Peak?

I'd like to talk about four steps we could take to further realize our dreams and our destiny, and my first suggestion involves the vision of becoming a "moral beacon" in our community. A couple of years ago our former president, Lorna Jaynes, shared this idea with us. And in recent months the Board and the Program Council have talked how we could become better known for our commitments to certain principles. In January, John Porter facilitated a meeting with some of our social concerns and publicity people and they highlighted three of Mission Peak's key priorities:

  • Our mental health ministry
  • Our support for the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender persons
  • Our concern about ecology, trying to protect Mother Earth

    Last month the Board ratified the idea of focusing our outreach efforts by emphasizing these three issues.

    We are also very happy to see people work on other issues, and there are dozens of possibilities, but it seems good to make these three commitments clear to people in the Tri-Cities area so they know what we stand for. We stand in solidarity with those who are rejected by outdated prejudice, and we cherish "the interdependent web of all existence." A lot of what Unitarian Universalism is about could be summed up as Respect for All and Care for the Earth.

    My second idea involves the dream of owning our own building. When we developed our Comprehensive Plan, we discovered that the main obstacle to having our own home is not the challenge of making the down payment. The main obstacle is being able to make the monthly payments once we move in! So we need to grow until we can afford these payments, to grow in the number of our members, and the size of our budget. We are making progress in these areas, but we are not yet within sight of having a home of our own.

    Or are we? One thing that might move us more quickly is a "virtual mortgage," a line item in the budget equal to what we would pay if we did have our own facility. Since we don't actually have a mortgage, the money could be placed in the building fund, or we could use it to rent additional meeting space. We would have to phase in this virtual mortgage, but we could make a good start in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

    My third suggestion is that we continue strengthening programs for children and youth. There is a lot of enthusiasm for adding money to our religious education budget, to provide more staff time and buy appropriate curricula. I was pleased that after our annual auction was even more successful than we expected, the board allocated much of the extra money to RE.

    And my final idea is that the destiny of this congregation is to grow, and it is good to embrace that destiny. This is a step forward that we can make in our own minds and hearts, becoming comfortable with the fact that growth will bring changes, knowing that the challenge of handling change can keep us alive and flexible and young in our spirit.

    Later this morning we will talk about expanding to two Sunday services, and I am very excited about this prospect. I suppose that's because I wasn't here when you tried it before in the late 1990s. Yes, there were problems, but you went to two services during a difficult period in the history of Mission Peak, and you were a new and inexperienced organization. We can learn from the mistakes we made then, so that it will be different and better this time. For example, we know that we can expect to have one service that's larger and one that's smaller. I look forward to using a somewhat different preaching style in the smaller service, to foster more feeling of intimacy and interchange in that smaller gathering.

    I admit there are potential negatives. For example, it might start to feel like we have two congregations, two groups which attend at different times. But as we grow, we will have more activities, more opportunities to meet on a deeper level than is possible on Sunday morning. That should actually strengthen our sense of community.

    So this morning I'm talking about our dreams. Some people dream in color, and some in black and white. But if a congregation wants to accomplish great things, it probably needs to dream in green. Notice how much of what I have mentioned involves money. If we want to be a moral beacon in our community, I doubt if we can do that on the cheap. We need money for a virtual mortgage, and more staff time for religious education. And there are extra expenses for having two services.

    I don't talk about money every week, but we are now approaching the canvass, which is our annual season of reflecting on the health of Mission Peak, renewing our personal commitments, and pledging financial support for the new fiscal year. Our members have historically been generous in supporting our programs, and let me share a little background information about our pledging patterns. At the end of last year's canvass for 2005-2006 we had 64 pledging units, meaning either individual contributors or couples who were contributing jointly. 26 pledging units committed to less than $1000 per year, 28 pledged $1000 to $2999, 5 pledged $3000 to $4999, and 5 contributed $5000 or more. Clearly some of us are moving toward the level of generosity that is often found in "traditional" religious groups. Last week Doug Rodgers mentioned a big fundamentalist church attended by one of his co-workers where tithing is the minimum expected level of contribution. Well, we're getting there. Some of us have publically committed ourselves to tithing as an eventual goal.

    Our clergy sometimes debate whether parish ministers such as myself should disclose our level of pledging. Most of us do agree that if the parish minister isn't pledging very much, that information should remain private! I feel comfortable giving a general idea, and this year Jo Ann and I were considering a pledge increase of 6 or 8% - until we discussed the concept of pledging as if we already had a building - the virtual mortgage. That changed our thinking, and as a result we will increase our pledge by about 17% for 2006-2007. We're not yet ready to tithe, but that will be roughly 7-1/2 percent of our combined incomes. Think seriously about taking a stand for Mission Peak's future by helping fund a virtual mortgage. We realize not everyone can make this step, and that is absolutely not a problem. But if most of us made that commitment, we might have our own congregational home a lot sooner than we think.

    Mission Peak is doing well, and this morning I have suggested some ways that we might do even better. We could emphasize our mental health ministry; gay, lesbian, and transgender rights; and our concern for the environment. We could strengthen programs for children and youth. We could fund a virtual mortgage. And we could welcome the changes that will come with growth.

    Unitarian Universalism gives people the chance to develop their own faith, drawing on all the world's wisdom. Our special destiny includes offering freedom in community to those who can embrace this great gift. I hope our dreams will move us in the direction of our destiny, so that Mission Peak becomes notorious as a safe haven for those who love values without dogma, a spiritual community that walks its talk of respect for all and care for the Earth.

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