Monday, May 19, 2008

Sermon: "Who Owns the Church?" (Delivered 5-18-08)

I begin this sermon with two stories for you to consider. Both are true stories that involve children in our church community.

The first story: One morning a mother and her child entered the church and the child made a bee-line for the downstairs classrooms. “No,” the mother instructed, “You are supposed to join the other children for the first fifteen minutes of the worship service.” The boy responded, “Oh yeah, well I want to go ask that Thom guy, you know, the guy who owns this place, and see what he says.”

The second story: A four year old was visiting with his grandmother who attends a church that is more theologically conservative. The four year old asks his grandma if she should come to church with him. Trying to be polite the grandmother replies, “Well, I will have to ask your parents if I can go.” The child responded, “Grandma, it is my church too.”

So, which is it? Is it, “let’s go ask that Thom guy, the guy who owns this place”? Or, is it the second story? “It is my church too.” Who owns the church? I bet you can predict how I am going to answer this question. How many of you think I’m going say that child number one is correct, that I own the church? How many of you think that child number two is correct, that the members of this church own the church? However, the answer I’m going to give may surprise you, but before we answer this question, I better say a little bit about what it means to own the church.

It is true that the second you sign the membership book in this church, you become a co-owner of this church. You own the church together with all the other members of the church. You own the church. I like this language of ownership a lot more than I like the language of membership.

As some colleagues have pointed out [on the Minister’s Chat List], membership is a word whose currency is losing value. Most of us are members of something. Sometimes “membership” just means the right to use. This is the case with something like gym membership, where we pay some amount per month for the right to use all the services of my gym. Other times, people pay for membership in something that is free for everybody. Some of you are members of KCUR or KCPT. Public radio and television are completely free, but some of you pay a fairly small amount to join as a member as a way to show that you support the services they provide for free to everyone in entire community. Similarly, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is free too. But some of you pay for a membership because you believe in having a great museum in our city. You support the services they provide for free to everybody and you derive very few tangible benefits from being a member. I am a member of American Civil Liberties Union. I paid about $30 to become a member. I derive absolutely no benefit from this. If my first amendment rights were violated, the ACLU will not ask if I am a member before they take up my case. No, I am a member because I believe in what the organization stands for and am willing to support it.

Sometimes, membership means even something weaker than this. I decided to go searching through my wallet to see what was in there and discovered that I was a Borders Rewards Card member. What does it mean to be a member of Border Rewards? It costs nothing to join. In fact, all I did was give them my email address and they knocked about $10 off my purchase. They don’t call me to ask me to help work the register or paint the store. They don’t ask me to pledge or serve on a committee. They don’t seem to notice if I go months without walking into their store. They don’t even care if I make purchases at Rainy Day Books. They expect no fidelity and demand no loyalty. In fact, they just send me lots and lots of coupons.

More and more, the word membership means less and less. This isn’t good news for those of us in the world of the church where our concept of membership involves active service, frequent participation, and high levels of generosity. In fact, we often ask for lots and lots of service, intense participation, and sacrificial generosity.

So, instead of talking about membership, I am going to talk about ownership. I want to say that when you sign the membership book you actually become an owner of the church. You own part of the church. What does ownership look like? What does it mean to be a good owner? Everyone here owns something. Some of you own a car or a house, or you own a small business or a pet cat. And along with owning that thing comes responsibility, a duty of care, and a certain amount of pride of ownership.

Let me digress for a minute and tell you that while my parents were visiting last weekend they announced to me that they got a new cat. This was a big deal to me as all the animals that were a part of our household when I was growing up – the dog, the two cats, the ferret, the turtle – have all gone to heaven since I moved out. Then, my parents confessed to me that the cat was invisible. I wondered if dementia might be setting in. I asked them to explain what they meant by an invisible cat and they told me that when they brought it home it ran and hid and they haven’t seen it for weeks. They know it is alive because it comes out to eat the food they set out and it uses the litter box. They just never see the cat. They’ve searched everywhere – and mind you, they don’t have a large house – and the cat is utterly undetectable. They are currently in the process of setting up “nanny cams” all over the house to try to find this cat. By the way, they named the cat “Smuuch.” They call the cat “smuuchy”… smuuchy, their invisible cat.

But I digress. I want to talk to you about membership and ownership. There are various ways of being an owner, some more honorable than others. Our goal is that every person in our community takes pride in ownership. Although there are too many examples to lift up, I want to lift up a few examples of pride in ownership. The first example is the Julia’s Voice group. Sara and a couple of members had the idea of starting a “Mothers for Peace” group. So they organized and went out and got $6,000 in grants and studied and invested themselves in putting together what I understand to be the largest peace rally in the Kansas City Metro Area in the last five years.

Two women had the idea of sponsoring a day of programming for women in the church and took ownership of this idea and organized a wildly successful women’s wellness retreat attended by 44 members of our church.

One member had the idea of starting a children’s performance group. You saw the fruits of her act of ownership earlier in the service. And how can I forget the angels who demonstrate their pride in ownership when things just sort of appear in the church without anyone taking credit for them? Brand new flat screen TVs and DVD players show up in Saeger House. Wireless internet arrives in Saeger House. I get this cool head set microphone I am wearing. The Saeger House kitchen gets a new stove, a new microwave, a new coffeemaker. Saeger House gets news guttering and a fresh coat of paint. All from angels who take pride in ownership.

It is not just members of the church either. I decided that one of the things that would be very good for the church and very exciting for my ministry would be to have an intern minister. I told the board that it would cost the church less than $3,000 to have a full-time intern. They said, “Go for it.” I assembled an intern committee to select a candidate. I secured $8,000 in grant funding and $4,500 in additional funding. The church agreed to come up with the other $2,500. All of these: Julia’s Voice, the Women’s Retreat, the Children’s Performance Group, and many others are examples of pride in ownership.

What does pride in ownership mean? It means taking good care of our buildings and grounds and taking responsibility for our property. It means paying our staff fairly and not exploiting them in the work they do for us. It means offering benefits and valuing the work they do. It means fully funding our programs. It means stepping up to serve. And, it can mean exercising ownership by going above and beyond. Those in our church community had a passion for an intern, a “mothers for peace” group, a children’s performance ensemble, and a women’s wellness retreat. They went out and made it happen. You can too. You can too. Two men can organize a men’s retreat. Ten parents can get together and fund a position like a youth-advisor. Five can do it if one of them is a decent grant-writer. Each of us has the potential of practicing ownership.

Of course, there are lots of ways to practice ownership poorly. I do this with my car. My car is filthy. I wash it about once every two years. And when I do, it gets washed by some middle-school soccer team trying to buy uniforms by washing cars in a mall parking lot. And I feel really embarrassed about how filthy my car is so I make an extra-generous donation.

Ownership is a responsibility, an art, and a sacred act. When done well, it enriches our lives. When done poorly, the results are highly disappointing. When done poorly, ownership can be a kind of “slumlord-ship” in which you do not fulfill your responsibilities of ownership. Or, ownership can be a kind of “squatter-ship” in which you take what the church has to offer without adding much. Or, it is possible to stake one’s claim as an owner and then practice abandonment or neglect. Or, you can practice ownership and membership like my parents’ cat practices “cat-ship.” Lots of time in hiding, coming out to sneak a morsel, and then dashing off. Undetectable membership.

During the annual meeting following the service, the Finance Committee will present the congregation with a budget with a $30,000 deficit. During the service and during the annual meeting we will pass out green forms with opportunities for you to raise your level of ownership. A balanced budget is not a fancy budget. If we have to make budget cuts, they will not be fun ones. If the church was a car, we’d be talking about cutting brakes and seatbelts; not Bose surround-sound speakers. If the church was your house, we’d be talking about cutting running water, heat, and refrigeration; not putting off installing granite countertops.

So, who owns the church? The answer is more complicated than you figured it would be. At the beginning of this sermon I presented you with two false choices. Does that Thom guy own the church or does the church belong to each and every one of you? You expected me to say, “you.” But, my answer is actually “both”… and it also “neither.”

I consider myself a co-owner of the church. In addition to the $8,000 in grant funding I secured I also make a generous financial pledge. [During the sermon, I disclosed what this amount was. I don’t feel comfortable posting it on-line, but I did feel comfortable sharing the amount with the worshipping community at SMUUCh.]

On one hand, I am proud of the fiscal contributions I make to SMUUCh. On the other hand, it represents a dynamic which I sometimes see, a dynamic of myself or other staff members or a small handful of members filling the gaps when everyone, collectively, does not live up to their responsibility and exercise pride in ownership.

I’ve taken a small, informal poll of some other UU congregations around the country to see how their stewardship drive turned out this year. Some report falling short whereas others have recorded hugely successful drives. One UU church in Iowa roughly half our size exceeded their goal and will expand several staff positions. Another UU church with about double the membership of our church set and surpassed a $1,000,000 pledge goal. If we pledged at the same level as they do, we would have a $100,000 surplus instead of a $30,000 deficit.

So, who owns the church, the membership or the minister? Both and neither. The answer, in fact is this, when you sign the membership book, or enroll your children in religious education you have made a commitment to practice responsible ownership. The real owners of the church are whoever exercises ownership over the church, everyone who takes responsibility.

And, in a different way, we are not the owners of the church. The church is neither owned by its members or its minister. It is actually owned by the living tradition which embodies the values, virtues, and sacred purposes for which we exist. We are merely asked to be stewards and caretakers of it for the brief lifetime in which we are have been blessed to be entrusted with this holy purpose.

UU Minister Dan Hotchkiss has written about this concept here.

We own the church; we don’t own the church. But we are surely entrusted to its care, to its vitality. We are surely its fiduciaries. We steward something much bigger than ourselves, for more than ourselves. We guard something that will outlive us. And, right here and right now we have the chance be the stewards of all the sacredness and possibility with which we have been entrusted.

I recently told a friend of mine about my parents’ cat “Smuuchy.” The friend, in turn, told me about her cat, who went into hiding for six months when the cat first joined the family. After time, the cat decided, “Well, I guess I can be a part of this family.” The cat came out of hiding, and sought out meaningful human contact, relationship, and community. It is a choice we all can make.

At our annual meeting, our members filled out commitment forms for an additional $13,240. In addition, 5 members volunteered to help organize fundraisers during the 2008-2009 church year. We are very, very close to closing the gap!