Building an Audacious and Dangerous Faith
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 29, 2017
I invite you to take a quick glance at the back of the order of service. You’ll see two of our grounding statements for our congregation – our mission and our vision. We wrote the mission together about 6 years ago, the vision came a few years back. It’s a great pair of documents. On the one hand we say we offer a spiritual home, and then we declare we will become a beacon to in the larger community. We will support each other, creating a home built on acceptance; and we will challenge each other and the world around us to become better. They combine as elegant guiding documents.
Recently our congregation has been talking about building renovations. It is important to make such decisions through the lens of mission and vision. As we wind our way into a capital campaign, it is important to have clarity about our values before talking about the particulars of the projects. We need to know and name together what grand thing are we aiming to accomplish before we begin collecting any money.
Allow me a small digression into church business before I carry us into building an audacious and dangerous faith as promised by my sermon title. Well, not so much ‘church business’ as revealing to you the sort of work leaders of the congregation are doing that may not be otherwise evident.
For example, you may be asking yourself, “Capital campaign? What capital campaign? Did Douglas just say we are winding our way into a capital campaign?” Yes. I did. Here’s where we are with that: The board and a handful of other key leaders have been talking about this since June. With the summer renovation of our sanctuary, we have accomplished a major piece of work. We paid for it through a loan and we will be having a capital campaign to raise the money to pay that loan off. And, there is more work to do.
We have renovations to do throughout the rest of the building. But before we do any more work, we need to have that capital campaign. And before we have a capital campaign, we need to agree as a congregation as to what the projects will be, what work we want to have done. And before we make a list of what the projects are, we need to talk about why we would do this or that project in particular. Answering “why” will lead us to the answers for “what” which in turn will lead us to know “how much” we are aiming for in a capital campaign.
One big question the Board and other leaders are working through now and should have a resolution on in the next few weeks is a question of a timeline. Will we have all of this figured out in time to do a capital campaign this coming spring 2018 or will we need to push it out a year to the spring of 2019. Stay tuned. We are working that out now and will know soon.
Part of the equation is factoring in all the other things going on in the life of the congregation right now. The Faith Development Transition Team is discerning changes for Faith Development and our Faith Development staff position. The Town Hall meetings after services today address that. Our Caring Team and Social Action HUUB are each doing some revitalizing. Worship committee has presented the Board a plan to return one service every Sunday, discussion and conversation across the congregation are needed for that. And I am going away on sabbatical from January through April 2018. These four sabbatical months are being carefully planned with worship and pastoral care coverage. More information about the sabbatical will be forthcoming soon. But you see, there are several things occupying the attention of our leadership, several additional factors in play as they discern the timeline for a capital campaign. Our Board and other leaders are trying to shepherd each of these conversations and topics through with care and attention and as much efficiency as possible.
My purpose in revealing all this church business is twofold. One: to encourage regular members to ask questions, to get involved in whatever way makes sense, and to watch for upcoming decisions and votes to be made regarding these various topics. Two: to offer appreciation to the various leaders and board members who are guiding us through these conversations.
And all that is the prologue to the heart of the sermon. Dream with me for a moment. If you had one big wish for this congregation what would it be? We’ve asked this sort of question before. What is the magic of this congregation? What draws you? What is essential to UUCB? And with all that good stuff in mind, consider: what will we be doing better in 5 years?
As we think about changes to our physical space, renovation and additions, consider it through the lens of our mission and our vision. Consider what we might do for our building as a way to better live our faith.
Certainly, we will want to take care of the deferred maintenance: lingering mold issues in the basement, new floors for the hallway, the skylights and the bathrooms need attention. And while taking care of deferred maintenance will enhance our space with beauty and improved functionality, it is the minimum level. We’re not really changing anything, not risking anything. Deferred maintenance, while significant, is not audacious or dangerous, why it’s barely controversial.
Dream with me for a moment. Some of the dreams I have heard are for safe, gender neutral bathrooms, a larger kitchen that can pass stricter health codes, a larger social hall, a dedicated chapel in the RE wing, adjustable walls like accordion walls or folding walls for some RE rooms, a substantial entry foyer where we can better greet people as they come in, enhanced outdoor green space and use of that space. People like the sanctuary, we’ve given the sanctuary attention – maintenance for the roof and a little extra for the floors and chairs and paint on the walls. What about other rooms in this building? The sanctuary is fresh, the rest of the building is a little stale. What could we do to some of the other spaces to enhance our mission?
Let me walk through two ideas to highlight the ‘why’ of a few projects. First: the kitchen. The renovation committee has been talking about expanding the kitchen. Depending on potential changes to how we heat the building, the large furnace room between the Kitchen and Fireside room may become obsolete. The committee is looking at ways we could expand our kitchen using that extra space. They have Alex Lehman’s exciting 3D renderings to share, ideas and possibilities that capture the attention.
As we’ve been dreaming about changes to the square footage, many people have become excited about what we could do with the space. We stumbled a little in answering why we would do it. Why would we expand the kitchen? Is a bigger kitchen something that would meet our needs, or our mission?
A few months back, widow of a recently deceased congregant called me. She scheduled a brief visit. She simply wanted to give me a check for several thousand dollars in her husband’s memory. She told me, “He wanted it to go to feeding the hungry.” In consultation with his widow, the Board distributed half of the gift into places that serve directly to feed the hungry: our Community Nutrition fund and the Minister’s Discretionary fund. The other half we set aside for the capital renovations of the kitchen.
And here we shift from question of what we could do to renovate the kitchen, to why we would do so: to better feed the hungry. Our kitchen does not meet health codes to be able to prepare or serve food to the community. We could change our kitchen to meet those codes. We can step up to serving meals, possibly being a community dinner site for hungry people in Broome county because that is how we can live our mission which calls us to “Act with justice and compassion.”
This is an example of what is meant by having a vision leading our building plans. We aren’t going to expand our kitchen because it seems nice and we have the room to do it. We would expand our kitchen because it would help us put our faith into action, we could better feed the hungry.
This is how ‘thinking beyond our walls’ leads us to improve what is here within our walls, to even improve our walls! It is audacious and bold! Maybe it is even a little dangerous because we are taking a risk, a risk to commit to making changes that could change us as well as heal some of the hurting in the world. Breaking from the status quo can be dangerous, and good.
Here is the second idea. Earlier this week I did a child blessing for a family. They had no connection to us as a congregation, they just wanted a place where they could have a religious ceremony to bless their child.
They thought about doing it here in our sanctuary, but with less than 30 people attending, this space would feel empty to them. Now, I’ve done things in here with less than 30 people before. It can be done and it is quite nice for different contexts, different activities. The sanctuary had a worshipful and reverent feel they wanted, but they felt it was too large and grand for their event.
We did the service in the Fireside Room. The Fireside room is more like a living room, not so much like a chapel. Don’t get me wrong, they appreciated the space. They felt it was just right for them, but I … I wonder what it would be like to have a dedicated chapel space – a space that has some of that reverence similar to this space. A small place that feels like this sanctuary, but cozier.
We would use it for our children’s chapel, we could use it for meditation groups or prayer vigils, we would use it for small weddings and blessings and funerals, we could use it simply for an individual to have a quiet place to pray.
Where would we put this chapel? How big would it be, how many should it be able to seat? Will it fit in the existing footprint of the building or are we talking about an expansion? Frankly, it is too earlier for those questions. First let us ask “Do we want a dedicated chapel, and why?” Then we can talk about those other questions. We had a children’s chapel for a little while, room 3. We painted the walls differently and put in particular furniture: benches, piano and such. But it still felt like a converted classroom. In all the years we had that space set aside as our chapel, no one asked to rent it for a child blessing or a wedding. We didn’t use it for adult meditation. It didn’t feel like a chapel. It matters. Would our children learn better how to be in our large sanctuary if there were a quiet chapel in which they practiced and grew into the experience? Maybe?
That family from the community just wanted my help in blessing their child. I could have blessed their child in my office, over the phone; I could have simply told them their child was already blessed, they didn’t need the ceremony. But ceremonies are important, we enact the blessing; the ceremony matters. So, we did the ceremony. And we did it in the Fireplace room. The setting mattered. Our building matters. How we use the building matters more, but the building does matter.
As the Board and leaders work their way through the conversations about when and how to do a capital campaign, keep an ear out for the proposals, weigh in on the ideas. But mostly, listen for why the various projects would help us better live our mission, our essential work as a congregation.
In the end, we don’t have to do any of these building projects. Our physical space is not who we are, it is not the point. The point is our community, our values, our service to the broader community. Our building is merely the shell in which we do the deep and beautiful work of our mission. And yet, and yet … yes, it is merely the shell, but it is also a reflection of our community, of our values and service and mission. Our building is a sign of our beauty and our love. Does that show now?
I encourage you to look with discerning eyes today and for the next few weeks. Is our building a reflection of our love? I anticipate the answer is mixed. Some parts of our building a perfect through your eyes, some parts are good enough, and some are troublesome. Notice.
And then dream a little. Imagine how we could use the space to better enhance our mission, to help us live our faith more boldly, more audaciously.
In a world without end, may it be so.