When Jen and I took on the position of Stewardship Team co-chairs, we thought we knew where the path would lead us. We’d have meetings, we’d set themes, plans would be made and executed – perhaps a bit differently than in the past, but that was all part of the plan.
And then it happened. I was traveling for work when Jen texted me the news – “Just got a letter announcing Leslie’s resignation.” The news hit me like a ton of bricks – not the least because I’ve enjoyed Leslie’s time with us, but also (selfishly) because it didn’t fit into the plan. What would the reaction of the congregation be? Would this sudden change have an impact on membership and giving? Would people throw in the towel and start disappearing into the woodwork? Could the church survive?
Pause. Deep breath. It’s going to be ok.
In times of change and chaos, it’s all too easy to get dragged down by the maelstrom of drama. When I start to feel that downward pull, I find that history can help me see things from a new perspective.
Fact: The Unitarian Church of Elgin is 151 (…or 172 by my reckoning…) years old. Over the course of our history, we’ve had 25 ministers – which means 24 have moved on to other communities and we’ve searched and found 24 more. Many of us here today were members during Dan Brosier’s tenure of 25 years, so to us, a “permanent, settled minister” means a “permanent, settled minister”. That, however, is an outlier in the world of ministry. Ministers are hired, churches grow, directions or needs change, ministers and churches move on. That is normal.
Fact: As a church, we’ve also had our share of bumps in the road. Here’s a fun one that’s not mentioned in any of our histories: In 1890, during their annual meeting, the congregation of the First Universalist Society of Elgin passed a seemingly innocuous resolution to restrict the use of the sanctuary to worship only, thereby prohibiting the young people of the Fortnightly and Doric clubs from performing their “operatic or dramatic exercises”. That unanimous vote set in motion a series of events that were most likely not a part of anyone’s plan. Over the course of the next four months, Rev. A.N. Alcott surprised the congregation by announcing his resignation to take a job in Peoria, the entire board of trustees quit, a new board was elected that persuaded Rev. Alcott to stay, delegates were sent to Peoria to get them to release Rev. Alcott from his newly signed contract, and the original resolution was rescinded and the church expressed its “entire confidence in the good judgment and good taste of the young people of the Fortnightly and Doric clubs, in the selection of entertainment.”
In more recent times, there was the fire in 1977 that so badly damaged the Villa Street church that the difficult decision was made to sell the property and move out of the city. I can only imagine how painful and difficult selling, finding, and moving was – and then having to go through it all again just over ten years later. It is a testament of the strength of our community that some of the members from that time are still with us today – Alice Macy, Diana March, Elizabeth Olsen, have all shared stories, happy and sad, from our church’s younger days. And here we are today, four decades later – still a church, still a community, and still strong.
So why am I bringing up all of this history on a day when the rest of the team is talking about generosity and stewardship? Because after we took a deep breath and let the anxiety go, we all realized that this doesn’t change things. Things will be different, but the vision we have for our church remains the same. This community, the people, the activities, and the friendships that bind us together are still here – we’re not going anywhere, so neither should you.
As I reflected further, I decided it’s rather fitting that this change is coming to us when it is – just a few weeks from the start of spring, a time of birth and renewal. Every year I am amazed at the resilience of nature – no matter how cold the winter is or how dead the trees look, every spring the world comes back to life. The crocuses are blooming, the sap is running, and a new year is about to begin. The same is true for all of us.
One month ago, we announced that this year, Stewardship would be focused on “generosity” and the joy of giving “happy money” instead of a budgetary goal. This morning we’ve heard stories and sermons highlighting the generosity of spirit, generosity of time, and yes, generosity of money. As a self-funded church, everything we do is made possible by your generosity, and this morning we humbly stand before you and ask for your help. Stewardship isn’t about asking for money – together we are building the foundation for our future. Your generosity is what makes it possible for us to grow and thrive, both now and for the generations to come.