State of the Church Address: 2/26/23

Address Delivered by Maria Baratta on Stewardship Sunday, 2/26/23

State of the Church – UUCWC in 2022-2023

We wanted to have today’s meeting because it’s one thing to ask you to contribute to the congregation’s health and future; it’s another to make sure you continue to feel a sense of ownership and relationship with all that is happening here – the good and the challenging. As members and friends, this is our responsibility. It’s also our opportunity. 

So here are just some of the things that have been happening since the start of our fiscal year; an overview of the last 7 months: 

We Create Community & Celebrate Life

Our Sunday morning attendance reflects a healthy and engaged community. On average, there are about 170 people who gather on Sundays with about ⅓ participating entirely online. Beyond the numbers, think about the services you’ve experienced over this same time.  They’ve been amazing and inspiring.

Our ritual of Joys and Sorrows has been given new life and meaning through Kim’s vision for our time together. 

Our incredible Erin Busch has deepened our music ministry – from the joyful and rich new sounds of our choir,  to guest musicians like Carlos Santiago last week, to the way Erin supports Kim’s meditation words. Shout out to the Choir, they were awesome today, weren’t they?

For the first time in two years, our children and youth not only have a faith engagement program to gather for, but all ages other than our pre-K and K children are currently involved in OWL (Our Whole Lives), a lifespan sexuality educational curriculum.  In addition, there is a parent’s group that is discussing what it means for parents to be sex educators. 

We currently have 12 chalice circles meeting, with 90 members and friends involved in this shared spiritual practice. This includes a chalice circle for couples, another that involves the creative process, and two that are for folks who identify as LGBTQ+. 

Kim holds a drop-in poetry and prayer class every Thursday afternoon. There are two small groups – that are not chalice circles – starting for people in their ‘80s, with 15 folks online and another in person. Since July, there have been 23 folks who have participated in Pathways, our path to membership conversations. And, on average, about 6 people attend Faith Forward each Sunday. 

We do all this, while remaining fully committed to being a multiplatform church community.

We do all this, and more: 

We Change the World

In August Rev. Kim led a social justice retreat where many people attended who want to further their involvement in one of the three themes that arose:  

  • Racial justice, including immigration and reparations
  • Climate justice, an expanded path for our Earth Ministry
  • Community response, providing a progressive voice to respond to school issues related to LGBTQ+ rights, book banning, gun violence, and teaching our children about America’s difficult history steeped in slavery and racism  

And of course, our long term justice ministries continue with creativity and strength: Food Ministry, Racial Justice, Faith Expression and Funding, Social Justice, Faith Action Ministry and more. 

Our Capital Campaign Team continues to work with contractors to keep building costs reasonable.  The trifecta of the pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and inflation are making this vital project more expensive than we had expected when this campaign started years ago.  Our congregation voted to move forward with the capital project with a new, leaner footprint and we are joyfully expecting a mid-May start date. It will be a real celebration when we break ground.  

Because we know our congregation dreams big while keeping within the limits of our financial capabilities, the Board called on some members to serve on a Financial Sustainability Task Force to look at how our friends and members approach charitable giving and stewardship, how they best want to hear about finances from church leaders and much more.  The findings of this Task Force’s work are helping to inform the Board on the directions we must take in the coming few years, while we fulfill our capital project plans and seek to sustain ourselves for the future.

You can hear, you can feel each time we gather, that we remain a healthy, dynamic congregation. 

And, there are challenges, changes and opportunities in front of us. 

We are currently in search to fill the open – half-time – Director of Faith Engagement position. As Kim mentioned some time ago, we are, despite what it may feel like, church planting right now. We are building and rebuilding a church that was changed by the pandemic in dramatic ways. We currently have a total of 40 children, (21 families), in our faith engagement program – that’s less than half of what it was 3 years ago. 

And while that might seem like a dire signal, as of the end of 2022, our membership numbers have stayed relatively stable. We have 272 members – a 4% drop over the last two years (for comparison, the UUA advised congregations to expect a drop of 10%). And, if we were to count friends and participants, we are actually serving a community as large as 350 adults. 

Which is important to note. Who we are serving is stable, if not growing. But there will be changes in our staffing very soon: 

Susan Irgang, our rock star administrator, and  Robin Pugh, our powerhouse Director of Congregational Life, have both announced their plans to cut back their hours and eventually retire. Starting July 1, Susan will be cutting back to at least 3/4 time. Robin will be cutting back to half time, leaving Kim as the only full time staff person for the first time in her ministry with us. 

Over the last few years we have increased staffing in crucial areas to lift burdens from some of our major volunteer roles.  This includes hiring a controller, Lynne Quinto, to support our Treasurer and Finance team.  We hired a Sunday Tech professional, Ariel Schwartz,  to keep our multiplatform services successful and less burdensome for some of our tech volunteers.  We hired Roberto Santiago, as both our Sunday steward and our sexton.  Remember what coffee hours were like when we had to rely on volunteers only for getting coffee out each week?  I do.  It wasn’t pretty.  Roberto and Susan coordinate our building maintenance so that we don’t have to burden volunteers with that work.  These paid staff are invaluable in helping our congregation members participate more fully in a spiritual church life without feeling burdened by routine work that could sometimes feel like a never ending list of chores.

Well, our staff now need some of that same relief that we have provided some committees.  With Susan and Robin cutting back their hours, even once we’ve filled the 1/2 time religious educator role, there won’t be enough staff hours to cover the growing spiritual, pastoral and administrative support expectations of our Congregation during a tender and critical time of need among our members.

Our church, like any church, relies on three things to remain vibrant and engaged in meeting our mission to Create Community, Celebrate Life, and Change the World.  Think of these as 3 legs of a stool.  We need:

  1. Highly professional staff who can respond to our spiritual needs as well as the many administrative demands that help us achieve our shared congregational vision
  2. Committed volunteers to build and sustain our community while we work to achieve our stated mission 
  3. Funding to meet our staffing and operational needs, in both the physical and virtual spaces we find ourselves

If we weaken any of those three legs, the stool becomes unstable.  That first leg, our Professional Staff is carrying more and more of the burden.  We’ve seen volunteer burnout (leg #2), which means staff have taken up more work to keep things moving.  We have a projected deficit budget this year (leg #3) that makes it a challenge for us to shore up our staffing needs.  The results are that we are exhausting our current staff.

As we consider this upcoming year: how can we each participate in rebalancing this place, this support system, we rely on and want to see thrive?

We, the Board, ask that everyone – members, friends, active participants – we ask everyone to make a generous annual pledge, recognizing that for some, it isn’t possible to be as generous as they would wish.  That is all the more reason for those who can… please be generous.  To everyone who pledges, we thank you so very, very much.  Helping to sustain us now means we will continue to be here in the future to sustain our community long after the trials of the pandemic end.  Looking out for our shared future is one of the most generous gifts we can offer as a community.

Another critical way our members and friends can be stewards of our congregation is by being brave and willing to take on volunteer roles in many of our committees and ministries.  This doesn’t mean you have to jump into a leadership role.  Simply show up and participate in a committee or ministry.  Learn how we operate and make decisions.  Try your hand at supporting our Sunday Tech Team (I’m looking at you everyone on Zoom), volunteer as an RE teacher, be a Sunday Host, work with a ministry that makes your heart sing.  Help us do big and little things by offering your time and talent.  No experience is necessary for almost any volunteer role we have.  

You’ll find so many opportunities to participate in church life outside of Sunday Services.  I attend a LOT of meetings in my work life, but church meetings are something else completely.  I often look forward to them.  While serious work gets done, they are often joy filled as well as a great way to get to know people.  Bonus – most meetings are virtual.  No matter how far away you are from Titusville, NJ, there is a Brady Bunch box on Zoom waiting for you to join.

So as we kick off our Stewardship Campaign this week remember that we are all stewards of this congregation.  Investing in us, both financially and with your time, will be one of the most significant and meaningful decisions you make this year.  

I want to share a very short story with you.  During the Depression, the Kellog company (you know, the ready to eat cereal) decided to invest in their brand with advertising and new product development.  Their rival, the Post cereal company decided to play it safe and cut costs.  Whose corn flakes do you remember today?  Research shows that when there is an economic downturn, there are more opportunities for growth, not less.  

While the pandemic may have set us back a bit, it has also revealed who we really are.  We are builders and dreamers and makers of community and purpose.  Join us as we continue building UUCWC.