Sermon: "Trusting in Us"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs
The graduate program for your Masters of Divinity is a rigorous one. It takes at least three years, and often longer, to complete. It took me four years to finish my MDiv and all the additional requirements that the Unitarian Universalist Association has for ministers. When you go to seminary, they teach you all kinds of things. They teach you about church history. They teach you about theology and world religions. The MDiv includes classes on practical skills like pastoral care and religious education. There are even courses on church administration. But, just as with any academic education, there are some things they don’t teach you in seminary. Like what to do when you find a raccoon in the sanctuary early on a Sunday morning. Or how to handle it when the groom passes out in the middle of the wedding.
There are, of course more serious things that seminary doesn’t prepare you for, either. And because today is the kick-off to our Annual Fund Drive, I want to reveal to you how unprepared I was coming out of seminary for this time of year. I’m not talking about being unprepared to preach a sermon to inspire you to make a pledge to the church. I’m not talking about being unable to support leaders and other volunteers as they launched and pursued the annual campaign. I’m not even talking about working with others to develop budgets for the coming year (although a course in how to use Excel spreadsheets would have been helpful). What I’m talking about – and I realize that this is something of a confession – is how vulnerable one feels as the minister during the annual campaign. You see, I entered the ministry from the corporate world, where your compensation is linked to your performance. Generally, the better you are at your job, the more you’ll get paid. But church work isn’t like that. In a congregation like this one, the minister’s salary, just like all of the staff’s, is completely dependent upon the results of the pledge drive. That means that one’s very livelihood relies not on your skills, abilities and talents, but on the good will of the people of the church and their willingness and ability to be generous. You could be the best minister in the world, and it wouldn’t really matter when it comes to your compensation. The minister has absolutely no control over it.
And, so, for many years – to be honest, for about the first decade of my time here with you, I was extremely anxious during the Annual Fund Drive. Every year, for about two months, I felt exposed and apprehensive. I never knew whether we’d be able to raise enough money so that I could keep paying my mortgage and my tax bill, or whether, as in many churches, we’d need to slash salaries to make the budget balance. Believe me, horror stories abound in minister’s circles about shortfalls in annual fundraising and the impact that has on our lives and those of our families.
Now, I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad. And I’m certainly not telling you this to guilt you into giving to the Fund Drive this year. I seriously doubt our fundraising consultant would endorse that as an approach. I’m making this confession to you because, a few years ago, something changed. Something shifted. I realized one spring that I wasn’t feeling anxious or afraid or vulnerable any more. I wasn’t worried about the viability of my financial future. In fact, just the opposite. I had every confidence that you all would come through.
What shifted inside me, after years of anxiety, was that I came to trust. I came to trust the process. I came to trust the outcome. I came to trust in the leaders and the volunteers who worked so diligently on the Fund Drive. But most of all, I came to trust all of you and your generous, giving spirits. It wasn’t that I actively didn’t trust you before, but I do, now, actively trust you. And it feels so good!
Trust lies at the heart of everything we do here. None of us is a part of the church because we have to be. We’re here because we choose to be. We’re here because we’re called to be part of something that’s unlike anything else we can find in our lives. Think about it: if your passion is social justice, you could serve on the boards of a dozen or more non-profits dedicated to the causes you adore. Outside these walls, you can find yoga classes and meditation groups to support your spiritual growth. There are plenty of community programs for your kids that help them grow into good, upstanding citizens, and there are plenty of support groups and therapists out there to help you navigate life’s challenges. There are even ways to find fun things to do, ways to make new friends and socialize out in the wider community, or so I’ve heard.
But church – our church, this church – is this amazing amalgamation of all of that. Somehow, we manage to package all that up and provide it to whomever walks in the door. Plus, as an added bonus, here we find people who actually love us. People who love our kids. Who cherish us for who we are. It’s miraculous, really, when you stop and think about it. And it all comes back to trust.
The foundation on which this church is built is trust. We trust each other to be there when we need it. We trust that, when we’re hurting, there will be people here who are willing to help get us through. We trust that there are loving grownups here who will nurture our children and our grandchildren. We trust that people will step forward and say “yes” to leadership opportunities when they’re presented. We trust that we’ll have enough quilters to make the beautiful baby blankets for our child dedications and the quilts we give each year to our graduating seniors. We trust that, on a Sunday morning, when we need a little something to touch or move or inspire us, a little something to think about or challenge us, a little something to sustain us in the week ahead, that we’ll find it here. It might be in something that’s said from the pulpit, or in the beautiful music that’s offered, or in the silence we share, or simply in having someone reach out and take our hand and make real human contact during our benediction. But regardless of where we find it, we can trust that it’ll be here when we need it.
It’s simplistic to say that you can’t spell “trust” without “us.” But consider the power of the “us” when we grow, nurture and sustain that trust. When we trust each other, we can get creative together. This church is a laboratory for experimentation and innovation. Our Growth Through Service program is a perfect example. Eight years ago Jody Malloy and Laurie Cooke came up with a vision of how to link spirituality and service through a program that encourages conversations and helps to match interests with opportunities. Today, that program is vital to our congregation, and we’ve exported it to several other UU congregations across the country. Trust begets risk-taking. The same can be said for our participation in Family Promise, which used to be called Interfaith Hospitality Network. On its face, there’s no way that we could accommodate several families living in our church for weeks at a time, feeding them, hosting them, getting to know them. But we’ve been doing it for years now, because of the dedication of a large crew of volunteers. and leaders. And we do it at the toughest time of year, when other churches shy away from opening their doors to the most vulnerable. Here’s another example of the power of trust in our community. We were one of the early adopters of the Soul Matters approach to our small group ministry. When we looked to sign on to that program, existing participants were willing to try something new because they trusted those who advocated for it. Now, more than 1/3 of our adult members participate, and Soul Matters has become a central point around which much of the spiritual life of the church revolves. On a more personal note, as I’ve said several times before, without the trust, love and support that all of you give me, I could not have traveled to the southern border last December. These are but a few examples of how a foundation of trust – trust in each other, trust in the “us” of our assembled body – enables this congregation to thrive.
Now, I know that the story I started out with today said that it took me a while to get to a place where I could trust that the Fund Drive would raise enough money to provide me with a stable living. So I need to address that. Because, like life itself, trust is a gift, but it’s not a given. While we’d like to think that there’s a bottomless well of trust in a community like this, we know that trust can be gained and it can be lost. It can flow and it can ebb. It can be earned and it can be squandered. So, I understand if you’re sitting here somewhat skeptical. Maybe your experience makes you wary of trusting us. Maybe you’re here for the first time today and you’re regretting your decision and wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. Our community isn’t perfect. I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that there are times when it and we will let you down. It’s painful to admit, but it’s true. But the good news there is that we’re also pretty good at extending olive branches. At naming our mistakes and our shortcomings. At showing our willingness to rebuild broken relationships and offering second chances. We may not believe in the Easter story, but we definitely put our stock in the power of resurrection. As people of covenant, we agree not just to honor each other’s differences. We also agree that, when those differences rub up against each other, we will stay at the table and work through them. We’re not an “I’m going to take my ball and go home,” kind of community. That’s another thing you can trust, or learn to trust, about us.
We here at UUCDC are engaged in a grand and glorious enterprise, one that challenges long-held assumptions. Assumptions that say that we can only create community through shared doctrine and belief. That difference only leads to strife, not strength. That we must wait until a hereafter to find heaven. Ours is a courageous community founded on principles of compassion, justice, love and trust. We dare to strive to create the Beloved Community in the here and the now. But make no mistake about it: This enterprise is a fragile one, too. It requires all of us to offer our gifts to each other. Gifts of time. Gifts of talent. And, of course, gifts of treasure, in whatever amount we feel is sustainable. As you consider how you are willing and able to participate in this year’s campaign, I invite you to consider the power that comes from the “us” in “trust.”
This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.