Giving Goodness

Human beings are amazing to me.  The idea that one of our members at First Parish Church in Taunton had a few weeks ago of a toy drive for children who have been displaced by Hurricane Sandy has grown to something I could never have imagined.

Last week, we held a clothing and necessities drive for the hardest hit areas of New York.  We collaborated with the Taunton Fire Department, and were able to send down several bags full of warm clothing, blankets, toiletries and basic necessities. On Tuesday, I shared at the meeting that our clothing and necessities drive was finishing up, but that we were looking forward to collecting for the toy drive for Christmas.  Several people asked about expanding the drive to include different kinds of toys, and other needs the people in New York might be having right now, as they are struggling to rebuild.  I shared with them that though the church would be happy to help in any way we could, we were limited by the amount of things we could ship down.

Enter fate and angels in the form of Judy Witkowski.  Judy is an agent for , and approached me during a breakout session of our meeting.  ”I texted a friend of mine while you were talking.  He owns a moving company, and I think he would be able to help you and the church.  I’ll send you his information today.”

After a few voicemail and email exchanges, Judy’s friend and I caught up.  He is a such a welcoming and kind person, it was a delight to visit with him!  As I told him about our drive, and about the needs of the people in New York, some of whom had four feet of water in their homes, he said without hesitation “We’ll be there to help.  Anything we can do.  We can commit at least five trucks and we’ll help take care of this.”  He is an owner of ., and is willing to give  of both his time and his company…….his generosity is such a gift!  It is this kind of person, and this kind of company, that makes the world a better place.

The donations will be going from  to the , who have generously donated their space in Sayville to be a distribution center.  I’m also so grateful to their president, David Jarmula, for organizing all of this on their end.

Human beings are amazing.  AMAZING.  The destruction that was caused in New York and New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy is virtually unparalleled on the East Coast.  The images of those days, with the water rushing into the subway stations, and the houses being turned on their sides – it’s not something I’m going to forget any time soon, and it still fills me with sadness.   I’m so profoundly grateful that our community here in Massachusetts is willing and able to give to our friends and neighbors.  This is the goodness and greatness of us – what we are able to do through giving, and through truly being part of something greater than ourselves.

So let’s move together, friends!  To find more specifics of the drive, including drop-off times and needed items, check out our .  Let’s fill those trucks from  and help lighten the load of our neighbors this holiday season!

Room to Grow

The First Parish Church in Taunton has grown a lot in recent months.  It’s been exciting to be part of such a vibrant community, and I feel like we are doing something both amazing and transformative.

But let’s be honest.  Growth does not happen magically.  There was thought put into our growth, and a decision made on the part of the church that we had both a theological and moral responsibility to grow.  Our spiritual community has changed a lot in the past few months, and will continue to change as we develop, becoming an ever-more vibrant and relevant home for more and more people.  It’s a tremendous thing to be part of – so tremendous that I’m even having a hard time putting the joy and excitement into words! – but it is something that we know we cannot do alone.

So a few months ago, we decided to ask for help.  We went to Paul Nickerson, a veteran church coach, and person who I worked with when I was re-starting the First Unitarian Church of Norton.  And through some conversations, we came up with idea of hosting a .

To say that I’m excited about this conference would be putting it REALLY mildly. I’m excited about what we will learn from Paul, and about how the Vitality Team that will come out of the conference will support us in the year to come.  I’m excited about how this can help our church grow and develop in sustainable, healthy ways.  And I’m THRILLED at the idea of  sharing this learning opportunity with my friends and colleagues!

As of today, the registration for the Growth Conference is officially open.  Registration is through Eventbrite, and all you have to do is , and you’ll be brought right to the site.  Feel free to contact me with questions, and I look forward to seeing all of you in October!

So how does a church run, anyways?

Last week, some people came by when I was between appointments and wanted to see our building.  They explained that they had often driven by the church, but had heard around town that new things were happening in the church and that they wanted to learn more.  I gave them a tour, and talked to them about all of the exciting growth and new programs that are going on in the church.  One of them, who has never been part of a church before, asked “How does a church run, anyways?  Where does your money come from?”

It’s a good question.  Churches have been around for so long, one might think that they have always been here and will always be.  As those of us in the business know all too well, however, churches (and any religious institutions) do not have guaranteed financial survival.  I explained to this young woman that churches run off of charitable donations, otherwise known as pledging, from people who are part of our community.  She remained confused and asked “Is that what people put in the basket on Sunday mornings?  That’s where all the money comes from?”

I couldn’t help but smile at that point.  It would be so awesome if we collected enough on Sunday mornings to support all the work and ministry of the church.  How simple that would make life!  But the reality is that the Sunday morning offering is just a small section of our budget, and that the majority of our funding comes from our members, friends and other members of the community through pledging.  I explained to her that each year, churches hold what is called a “pledge drive,” where we ask everyone who is part of our community to commit to giving a portion of their income to the church for the next year.  From the pledge cards, we are able to know how much money to expect in donations for the year to come, and create the annual budget based on what people have volunteered to donate.

It was a timely conversation for me to have, since this Sunday is the kickoff to our pledge campaign at First Parish for the 2012-2013 church year.  I’m really excited about this year’s pledge campaign, mostly because there is such energy and capacity in the church!  I’m also excited, though, because we have been given a wonderful challenge and gift this year from an anonymous donor who has agreed to match all of the funds we raise, dollar for dollar, during this year’s pledge campaign.  This means that all of the donations made this year will literally be doubled!  It is a tremendous opportunity, and I am confident that our community will rise to the occasion.

As I explained all of this to our guests earlier this week, their eyes grew wide.  ”You mean, a church has to run things like a business?”  one of them questioned in disbelief.  ”You have to have income and expenses and salaries and everything?”  I nodded.  Surprisingly, she smiled.  ”That’s so cool.  So this church really is about being for the people and by the people – a real community.”

On being a member

A few weeks ago, I attempted to cancel (for the second time) the newsletter which continues to come to my house, addressed to “Rhode Island Baptist Women.”  I called the number that seemed logical for this newsletter, and explained as gently as I could to the woman who answered the phone that I was not part of the “Rhode Island Baptist Women’s Group” and that continuing to send a newsletter to my house was not helpful for either one of us.  The woman on the other end of the phone sighed and said “It’s such a shame….we’re losing so many members.”  I hastened to tell her that they weren’t really “losing” me – the only reason I was ever on their list was because once, years ago, I served as the chaplain at a historically Baptist nursing home and did an event with the Baptist Women’s Group.  ”I’m Unitarian Universalist!” I cheerfully told her, “you don’t want me on your list anyways!”

The woman on the other end of the phone did not share my excitement.  ”But you’ve been on our LIST” she said flatly.  ”I’m sorry you don’t want to be any more.  Even if you are Unitarian Universalist now, you might change your mind.”

I felt there was some kind of miscommunication going on between us.  I explained as clearly as I could that I was highly unlikely to convert to being a Baptist any time soon, since I was a minister in another faith, and that though I had a great deal of respect for the Rhode Island Baptist Women’s Group, I was emphatically not one of them and never would “come back.”  Particularly since I was never there in the first place.

This all got me thinking about what it means to be a member of something.  Some of my memberships I take very seriously – the membership to my college alum association (I love my college), for example, and my membership to the UU Minister’s Association.  Others mean less to me….like apparently my membership to the Rhode Island Baptist Women’s Group.

I think for membership to be relevant, three things have to be present in the relationship:

1). You have to care about the organization you are member of and contribute to it through time, money, skills etc.

2). The organization has to care about you and value you as a stakeholder, even if they do things you don’t always agree with.  You have to be valued.

3). The organization has to be relevant to your life and meaningful to you.  Otherwise, the membership is pointless.

How do we keep our memberships reflecting who we are in living into our best selves?  And what do we as churches do with our “members?”  What does that word mean in the context of a church whose goal it is to help people become their best selves and live their spiritual lives to the fullest?

Our beautiful church. We don't fill the sanctuary yet, but we will!

Today I led my second service at First Parish Church in Taunton as their minister.    It’s almost shocking to me how comfortable and at home I feel at First Parish, and how the pieces of our ministry are coming together in ways that I could never have imagined.

Easter can be  tricky holiday for Unitarian Universalists.  Since we don’t generally believe that Jesus died for our sins, and was resurrected for us to be saved, there sometimes is a bit of “what’s this all about?” the comes together on Easter morning for me.  But this year, the message of re-birth that is a part of all of us feels so true to me – so tangibly real – that I believe I have come to a new understanding on what Easter really is all about.  It is truly about the re-birth of all of us, about the chance for all of us to acknowledge that we have made mistakes in our lives, and that we can start over, just as we do every year in the springtime. We all have the chance to be reborn – as friends, as parents, as brothers and sisters, and as spiritual beings.   This Easter Sunday was a day of re-birth, and it was glorious.

And for those of you who could not join us this morning, a little taste of our music this week……….!  Nothing like five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes to help keep things in perspective.

It is a wondrous time.

It’s been quite a month.  To all appearances, our church re-start in Norton has been moving along beautifully.  We’ve had between forty and fifty people at our January and February services, and vibrant small group communities in our Roots groups, Buddhist groups, and Young Adult group.  People are inviting their friends to our events, (hooray!)  and we’ve been growing by about 2 or 3 people per week.

Then……

I received a letter at my home a few weeks ago.  It was from an attorney who the Parish Committee of Norton had hired, and it notified me that when my contract with the church expired on May 1, they would not be renewing it.  Further, it appears as though the Parish Committee has decided not to formally meet and therefore allow any of the new people to become actual members of the church.

When I first received the letter, all I could think of was “this must not be over.  We are onto something here, and something beautiful is happening in this community. It simply can’t be over!”  For a short period of time, my vocational path was clouded, and with it, the future of the spiritual community we have been building.  I had felt so sure, you see, that this church, at this location in Norton, was the way to bring about a version of vibrant, transformative, Unitarian Universalist faith.  But as I started to talk to people – people who have been part of the Norton community and the Unitarian Universalist community, and the people who are interested in what we have been doing in Norton – a path opened that I never would have expected a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, I signed a contract to become the full time minister at the First Parish Unitarian Church in Taunton.  First Parish Taunton is a small congregation just seven miles away from Norton Unitarian.  The Taunton church has been following the Norton re-start with interest, and even spoke to one of our denominational officials last fall about possibly doing a similar program in Taunton.  They were in search for a minister who could help them grow their congregation, and who was tuned into how to reach those who are “spiritual but not religious.”  They are delighted to welcome in our members from Norton, and to continue to grow the church into a welcoming, spiritually based community for the twenty first century!

When I first began the conversations with First Parish Church in Taunton, I was excited about the idea that our church re-start would not die. As I have continued to speak to their governing board and learn about their community, I have become truly convinced that moving our congregation to Taunton is the calling of our church community. Not only are the people in Taunton excited and welcoming, they have a large, up-to-date building, including all kinds of fancy assets that we don’t have in Norton, such as a telephone, and more than one toilet. They have several rooms for their children that have doors on them, rather than an outside door leading straight into a parking lot, and they even have computers!

They also have some staff, which means that I would be able to do two things – stop taking out the garbage myself, and allow me more time to take the next step in our ministry. You see, the goal for us before starting weekly worship in Norton was to reach a critical mass. I’m delighted to say that with addition of the people from the Taunton congregation, we have met that goal, will be able to begin having weekly worship when I start my ministry there on April 1.

It is the sort of story that you can’t possibly imagine, and yet when it does, it seems like it was all meant to be.  I’m so excited for this move – for the new opportunities for growth and creation, and for all that this congregation can become!

On December 24, 2011, I did something I don’t always do on Christmas Eve.

I went to church.

More than that, I led worship at the First Unitarian Church of Norton – the first public worship we have had since the re-start began.  It was an amazing experience – not just to be leading worship again, but to see this community literally grow and begin to take shape on a beautiful Christmas Eve.

Several people have asked “How many were there?  Were there more than ten? ”  There were in fact, more than ten…..our final head count came in at seventy-eight.  It was a fun group of people – a warm and welcoming group, which I believe will continue to grow because of our warmth and welcoming.  People were so happy to be there!

It was an amazing thing, to be leading worship for a congregation that has such a history and yet is so entirely new.  We learned some important things about our historic building – for example, that the current electrical circuits cannot carry both lights and a coffee pot simultaneously on the same breaker – and that the church decorates beautifully for Christmas.  We also learned that the creation of community is magical.

Our next worship will be January 29.  We will be having monthly services for January and February, and see where we are in March in terms of our goals and needs for our growing community.

Someone said to me several months ago “This re-start is just a giant experiment, you know.  But so are all churches, and communities, and societies of people.  So just enjoy the science of it all.”

See this website the smart cash system

I have to tell you, this is the most fun experiment I have ever been part of!