The State of the Church

January 28th, 2018

The State of the Church

I Corinthians 12:4-11;25-30

January 28, 2018

This is the Sunday on which we have our Annual Congregational Meeting. This means I really try to finish worship a few minutes early. This means that the children are downstairs a little longer. This means that some people will make a beeline for the door as soon as the last words of the benediction are pronounced. However, what it means at its heart is that today is our family meeting. Really…It’s not all that different than what might happen every now and then at home when we gather around the table and discuss what needs to be discussed.

Meeting and talking is a fundamental affirmation of the core values of our church family. This is who we are! We are a member driven church. There is no denomination that defines us or makes our decisions for us or supports us. There are not pastors who say, “This is my agenda!” (I hear, historically, some tried…Then, they became history, themselves!) Tracy and I go to plenty of meetings but we don’t even have a vote. Every decision that is made in the Board of Elders or the Board of Trustees is made by people who sit in our pews. The best expression of this is today, when all of those decisions are subject to the review of the congregation.

If we are member-driven, we also strive to be as open as possible. There are churches which are member driven but, officially or unofficially, you have to be a member forever before you actually get to be involved and lead. In our church, you don’t have to be a member to be on a committee. You do not have to be a member to attend a congregational meeting or to speak in that meeting. You do have to be a member to vote and you have to be a member for at least one year before you can be a Trustee or an Elder. However, there are literally people who have entered our church family and profoundly shaped the direction in which our ministry went, almost as soon as they walked in the door. The bottom line is that we make decisions as groups and pretty much anyone who wants in gets to be a part of the group.

Of course, it wasn’t that those folks bullied something through. Instead, they inspired others with their words and their actions. They invited us to dream. I remember the day when a list went up of 63 things that needed to be fixed, from doorknobs to air conditioning for the Manse. In two weeks, folks had signed up to pay for every one of those 63 things. The church family was energized. I remember the day in a congregational meeting when someone had the audacity to suggest that we should double what we give to outreach. Everyone laughed! Then, we were inspired to become a church which has service to others not as an afterthought but as one of our most defining features. The Union Church has always been a place where, if you want in, you are in! Our doors are wide open. Our communion table is wide open. Our arms are wide open to those in need. This is one of our shared values that I love most.

If our doors and our communion table and our arms are wide open, so are our books. Transparency is another core value. We work very hard to keep the amount that anyone pledges as confidential as possible. Occasionally, there might be personnel issues that are confidential, as well. However, beyond that, if you want information, we will share the best information that we have. So, when we have our Annual Congregational Meeting, we share a lot of information. You can read or not read it. That choice is yours. However, it is here if you want it—the best information we can share about our budget, our outreach work, our building… If you have a question, ask it. We will do our best to answer…as long as everyone remembers that, for the most part, we are all volunteers, doing the best we can.

The Union Church of Lake Bluff is member-driven, open to anyone who would choose to participate and transparency is our default setting. We are a come-as-you-are, join-in-this-effort, bring-your-brain-with-you, kind of church. We laugh together and think together and eat together and serve together. I like to think we work hard to take ourselves seriously but not too seriously. I like to think we work hard to maintain perspective.

Perspective is what I want to offer you today. Paul starts that perspective in our text for this morning from I Corinthians 12. Everyone has been given different gifts. As it reads in our translation from “The Message,” “The variety is wonderful!” That’s one of the ways that I think we know that we are in the “zip code” of being the church, when the things which make us different are celebrated instead of feared. If we have some sense that God is behind this creation and we look around us and see an incredibly diverse order of things, why would we think that God’s calling to us is to make everything and everyone the same?

Paul’s image for this diversity is a body. A body has many parts. It is possible to imagine those parts arguing with one another about which part matters most. Paul points out what a dead end that is. The body is healthy and whole when each part does its job, when harmony is the order of the day. He points out that when any part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. He points out when any part of the body rejoices, the whole body rejoices. In essence, Pauls tells us we are not only different from one another, those differences, in fact, make us stronger—as long as we work together, and most importantly, as long as we remember that Christ is the head of the body.

Part of being the church is constantly checking on the health of the body—which brings us back to something like the Annual Congregational Meeting. We don’t want to neglect parts of the body. We don’t want to overtax other parts. We want to tend to the ways in which the whole body functions with an eye toward things being sustainable. On those lines, I would like to share a few thoughts…

When I began here years ago, we were almost always in crisis mode. How will we cope with the latest financial challenges? What happens if something really disastrous happens? What if the boiler breaks. Thanks to the patience and time and energy of a lot of people—people like Borge Smidt and David Spadaforra and Gene Cacciatorie and Leona Helming—we made it through. And what we discovered when the boiler died was that the new boilers were so much more efficient that they nearly paid for themselves over time.

We moved from how will we cope to how will we plan. Proactively, we learned to take care of the building in a different way. Proactively, we met as a congregation to discuss how to plan for the time when the new children who were all in grade school became junior high and high school students. We made choices differently. We staffed ourselves differently. We went from a nearly full time custodian and a full-time secretary to a cleaning service and a task oriented approach to staffing which includes a pastor who changes and dodges falling lightbulbs and produces the “typo of the week” in the bulletin.

Thanks to an incredible amount of volunteer energy with people freely sharing their gifts and talents and money, the church has stabilized and grown profoundly in our faith and our service to the needs of others. We have moved from worrying about our latest crisis to helping care for the homeless, sharing our food with the hungry and caring for the needs of so many different people in so many different ways. Those acts of care—within the church and well beyond our walls—are the lifeblood of our life together. When we live what we believe, we thrive.

This is reflected in our financial life. We are never going to be a big budget congregation—thank God! However, we have gone from tapping the interest on the Endowment Fund, years ago, to having budget surpluses for the last two years, surpluses which allow us to have an operating reserve fund which stabilizes the church’s finances through the year. We have not only had an extraordinarily successful Capital Campaign, people have faithfully fulfilled those commitments. Never in a thousand life times did I ever imagine I would see such things! I am flabbergasted to the point where all I can say is, “Thank you!” You are an amazing church!

Here is the vision that I want to put in front of you today. Thanks to the work that has gone on for years, we have an amazing future that is unfolding in front of us. Yes, I look forward to living in the new manse. However, what I really relish is the thought that pastors for decades to come will be able to live in this community and be the pastors of the Union Church. That is absolutely critical to the future of our congregation. Now, it can happen!

Imagine the fun we are going to have together in our new courtyard! Our children will be married there. We will sit and have our coffee hours outside whenever we want. It will be a place where we remember those who have made this church the place that we love. It will be a worship space in which we reconnect with God.

Imagine the stability that will come with a more robust endowment fund. We will be able to continue to plan and make good decisions rather than walking the path of fear. We will be able to make strategic decisions that continue to allow us to grow.

Really amazing days are ahead of us! We do need to be careful to not ask more of any “part of the body” than we can give. There are discussions for us to have about what tasks should be covered by volunteers and what should be done by paid professional staff. And yet, I have every confidence that we can think through staffing choices and make decisions that reflect our core values in new ways as our members’ life circumstances change.

We are being called together, as one body, as one church family, into a really exciting future. We are being called to be the Union Church, in this moment, in this place. We are being called to be a source of God’s light and God’s love in this lifetime…

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