(Rev. Chris Schriner's 2005 State of the Congregation Message)

© Dr. Chris Schriner 2005
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 20, 2005

Sometimes Unitarian Universalists feel a little vague about their sense of spiritual identity. How do I know that I really am a UU? Well, now I can help you answer that question, with a checklist from the Internet. You may be a Unitarian Universalist if:
- you know at least 5 ways to say - Happy holidays!
- if unleavened bread is part of your Easter Brunch.
- if the name of your congregation is longer than your arm.
- if you identify as male, your idea of a guy's night out is going to a women's rights rally.
- if you identify as female, for a formal evening out you wear a little black dress and Birkenstocks.
- you find yourself rewriting a church survey, rather than taking it.
- to explain your personal theology, you have to use interpretive dance.
- you think the Holy Trinity is "reduce, reuse and recycle." And finally,
- you get e-mail from committees you didn't know you were on.

I'd also say that you may be a Unitarian Universalist if you find yourself reinterpreting traditional religious ideas in ways that fit your experience. Many of us search for the core spiritual themes underneath the rituals, dogmas, and traditions of the world's religions. And one spiritual idea that we can interpret in our own ways is a sense of calling. People of all faiths have a sense of being called by something greater than themselves, called to stretch themselves toward a higher ideal. In traditional religious language, we are accountable to the will of God. If that language doesn't fit for you, find your own way of expressing the idea that we are being asked to do something in this world. We can listen for what life calls us to do, or hear the challenging voice of our own inner wisdom.

This morning I want to talk about what I believe we are called to do at Mission Peak. For our visitors I should make it clear that this won't 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 times to visit us, because you will learn a lot in a short time about this spiritual community.

If we listen for what we are called to do, what do we hear about MPUUC? I believe we are being challenged today to reach out and reach in - to reach out to connect with the wider world, and to reach inward to deepen the quality of what we do at Mission Peak. We have something to offer. We have answers for the questions people are asking about how to live their lives, how to bring up their children, and how to serve their community.

Outreach includes involvement with social issues. Our Social Concerns Associates got a big boost from the leadership of Karin Lin. Karin passed the torch on to Louise Lefkort and Mary Ellen Costello, with help from the head of the Caring Circle, Janet Wilson. We are beginning to be known as a moral beacon in our community. And just yesterday at a Social Concerns Associates meeting we decided to help support efforts to promote respect for all in our local schools, including respect for ethnic minorities and for gay, lesbian, and transgender teens

Barbara Meyers' new mental-health community ministry is another example of outreach. Due to her dedication and generosity, Barbara has agreed to do most of her community work without pay. I hope many of us will generously volunteer in ways that support her ministry

A third way of reaching out is to let people know that we exist. Last year some ads in the Argus helped us increase our membership. When that happens, publicity essentially pays for itself. After the rent increase, we cut back our publicity budget. But now that we have a solid religious education program with dedicated staff and volunteers, this seems like to perfect time to reach out to families through advertising

So outreach involves social service, social action, our community mental health ministry, and making Mission Peak more visible. Now let's turn from outreach to "inreach." Within this spiritual community, I think part of what you and I are called to do is to continue what we are already doing well. It is just amazing that there is so much going on with only 105 members. During the past year, we have deepened our sense of community with a women's group and a men's group, as well as Spirit Buddies. Meditation before the Sunday service creates a quiet spiritual bond. We also offer social opportunities, including pot lucks, hiking, and Movie Madness. Our newsletter and web site are exemplary. We also continue to have strong programs in membership, publicity, stewardship, Worship Associates, Pastoral Associates, Social Concerns Associates, and music, including the choir. Our Caring Circle helps us channel concern about members who need help. The Sunday services team is dedicated and well-organized. We have improved our Lifespan Learning programs, and we have added a second Youth Group and Coming of Age. I am thrilled with what you have accomplished, and it just keeps getting better.

Now I'd like to focus specifically on what we are called to do to strengthen our programs for children and youth. There is a lot of enthusiasm these days for adding money to our religious education budget. Last year Sally Ahnger, our Director of RE, needed to cut back her hours, but now she can increase them again. Sally has done a great job and we would love to bring her back up to one-third time. If pledges increase sufficiently, she could even move up to half time.

Sally has told me that with more time she could: support the youth programs more fully, prepare a teachers' manual and a children's hymnal, work with teachers to evaluate our curricula, help parents provide religious education within the home, organize files, catalog our curricula and children's books, adapt curricula to better fit our needs, discover new and unusual curricula, attend Pacific Central District quarterly RE meetings, and attend more Mission Peak functions such as pot lucks. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

In my State of the Congregation sermon for 2004, I noted that one of our challenges in religious education is that there is so little continuity of attendance from one Sunday to the next. Sally and I have talked about setting up short-term programs in which we ask for a solid commitment of regular attendance, for just a few weeks. We did that recently with an excellent series of classes on mental illness conducted by Barbara Meyers and Peggy Rahman. I hope attendance was better because of our making this special appeal.

So I believe we are called now to focus additional energy and resources on religious education. I also want to say some things about the larger picture, the broad objectives of our Comprehensive Plan. The Plan aims at steady membership growth, and eventually buying our own building. At some point we will re-evaluate the Plan, and ask ourselves again how many members we must have in order to launch a capital fund drive to purchase a facility. This is a difficult judgment call, a tradeoff between prudence and daring, playing it safe versus going out on a limb. What is our highest wisdom saying to us? Is it calling us to take it slow and steady, or calling us to take a risk? My heart wants to take a risk, but my mind is also listening to those who counsel caution.

The bottom line is that I would love for us to find a way to buy a building while the people who founded this congregation can still enjoy it. This is a mobile society, and several key members have already moved away. If we don't conduct a capital campaign within a couple of years, some strong supporters of this congregation may never walk into that new facility to sing and laugh and share with people they love. It would be as if Moses had never gotten to gaze into the promised land! So I hope we will move ahead as quickly as is practical. Let us keep in mind that a capital campaign does not happen overnight. Even once we get started, it will take quite a bit of time. And after we complete the campaign, then we have to wait until a suitable building is available, and that might be another year or two.

Obviously the best way to move ahead quickly is to gain more members, and the best way to do this is to invite our friends to attend a service, a social event, or a workshop. The Rev. Dick Gilbert says that the average Unitarian Universalist invites a friend to church every 70 years. So let's prove that he's wrong!

I want to remind you that when we invite our friends to Mission Peak, we are not trying to give them a new religion. We are encouraging them to develop their own well-grounded faith, drawing on all the world's wisdom. Traditional religion says, "Come to us because we have a truth that is better than yours. Convert!" Unitarian Universalism says, "We want you to deepen your own philosophy of life. We want you to march to the beat of your own drummer." On the surface, it looks like when we're inviting somebody to church we're doing the same thing as a Baptist or a Lutheran. But actually we are doing the OPPOSITE of what members of traditional congregations and temples do when they invite newcomers.

I realize that some of us would rather be bound to a chair with barbed wire for 48 hours listening to hell-fire sermons by a hard-shell fundamentalist preacher than muster up the courage to tell a friend about Mission Peak. But your friend might be very grateful. And fortunately Unitarian Universalism is much easier to explain than a theology based on things people thought thousands of years ago. When I talk to people about UUism I just tell them that "Our denomination is unusual because every Unitarian Universalist develops a personal philosophy of life. We learn from all religions and philosophies, and from science, art, literature, and current events. And what unites us is that we share certain values, such as respect for other people and reverence for life, and we want to do what we can to leave the world better than we found it." It's that simple.

Of course, membership growth will bring both benefits and challenges. So I'd like to hear what you think will be the best thing about having more members. Just call out a word or a phrase. (Sharing.) Now tell me what you see as the biggest challenge of having more members. Again, just a word or a phrase. (Sharing.)

Thank you. The challenge I want to talk about is the prospect of having two Sunday services. Those of you who have been here more than six years recall that Mission Peak tried this once before and a lot of things did not go well. So if we shift to two services, that may bring back painful memories for some of us. I hope we will use that as an opportunity to look back, reflect, and experience some healing, rather than as an opportunity to become anxious. Remember, you tried to shift to two services when you were going through a difficult period, and you were a young and rather green organization. You are much more experienced and solid today.

A great many UU congregations have two services and thrive on it. Here in the Pacific Central District close to half of the congregations that are our size or larger have at least two services. We are just as capable as any of these groups and if they can do it so can we. And we might as well face the fact that multiple services is probably a part of Mission Peak's future. We will need more members than we have now to be able to afford a building. But we will probably buy a building that has about this much space or less. So in order to buy a building, we'll need to be too large to have just one service in that building. Now of course, if someone laid half a million bucks on us, we could purchase more space. But we can't count on that happening.

We are now setting up a task force to develop a plan for possibly moving to two services. If we choose to add a second service, it won't happen soon. A lot of preparation is involved. But the most important preparation is in our own minds. I realize there would be some negatives, but I think these would be more than offset by some wonderful benefits.

Some have asked, "If money is the root of all evil, why do churches want it so badly?" Well, notice how much of what we've been talking about involves money. Take social concerns, for example. A couple of years ago several hundred dollars was budgeted for Social Concerns Associates to support positive programs in our community. When we got hit with a big rent increase, that was essentially cut to zero. We would love to put Social Concerns back in the budget for 2005 - 2006. It will take money to advertise our programs, expand the hours of our DRE, and purchase new curricula. I will be taking a mini-sabbatical soon, and we need additional paid speakers while I'm away. During the sabbatical we also need pastoral care in case of tragic events such as a life-threatening illness. Our community minister, Barbara Meyers, has agreed to help out in major emergencies. But of course she needs to be paid for that work. And finally, even though we hope Kidango will not increase our rent again this year, they may do that.

I am emphasizing these financial considerations today because we are coming into our annual pledge drive. And I want to share a little basic information about pledging patterns at Mission Peak. At the end of last year's pledge drive for fiscal year 2004 - 2005, we had 59 pledging units, meaning either individual contributors or couples who were pledging jointly. 24 pledging units committed to less than $1000 per year, 25 pledged $1000 to $2999, 5 pledged $3000 to $4999, and 5 contributed $5000 or more. We are moving toward the level of giving that is often found in "traditional" churches, temples, and synagogues. In recent years, some members have publically committed themselves to tithing as an eventual goal, and of course tithing is common practice in some religions.

My wife Jo Ann and I are excited about the opportunities I've been talking about, such as the possibility of Sally Ahnger moving to half time. Our response will be to increase our annual pledge by 10%. In combination with our other contributions to Mission Peak this will amount to about 7% of our combined incomes. I hope you feel as good as we do about investing in our spiritual community

Mission Peak is acting like a congregation with a clear sense of calling. Some hear that calling as coming from God, and others hear it in the inner voice of wisdom, or from life itself. But all of us want Mission Peak to make a positive difference. I hope you know what a special spiritual space we are creating in the Tri-Cities area. Here we can say Happy Holidays five different ways, serve Matzo at Easter, and reinterpret ancient religions to fit our experience in this new century. So let's hear it for "reduce, reuse, and recycle," and all the other ways that we say, "I am a Unitarian Universalist."

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