Here’s what I said this morning at First Parish in Bedford, Mass.:
I am Doug Muder, representing the Stewardship Committee. Today is the beginning of the annual stewardship campaign, when we ask you to make a financial pledge to First Parish for the next church year.
This year’s theme is “Make it real.” What we’re trying to call attention to with that slogan is the difference between groups that have good intentions and groups that actually make things happen in the real world.
Fundamentally, that difference boils down to two factors: If you’re going to make real things happen, you need people who are willing to commit their time and energy, and you need money.
Money is what we can quantify, so that’s the number we ask for. But stewardship is really about a bigger question: What are all of us willing to do in the next year to make things real? How are we going to take the ideals and hopes and visions of this congregation and turn them into events and actions and things we can touch with our hands?
I can’t ask you for a number that sums up how much effort and creativity you’re going to contribute next year, or how far out of your comfort zone you’re going to be willing to push yourself to make things happen. But those also are questions we all ought to be thinking about during this campaign.
Over the next few weeks a number of parishioners are going to be up here doing what we call “Stewardship moments”. In other words, they’re going to explain in a few minutes what First Parish means to them and why they are committed to it.
Those moments have a deeper purpose than just to convince you to give more money. What they’re about is getting you to examine your own relationship to First Parish, what this community means to you, and what it could mean.
During my 23 years here and my 30 years as a UU, I’ve thought about my pledge in four very different ways. But what that’s really about is that I’ve experienced four very different kinds of relationships to my church.
The first time I pledged, I had what you might call a transactional relationship. I wanted to pay for what I used, so I tried to figure out what that would amount to. Coffee and cookies, my UU World subscription. I know it costs something to put on a service, so I invented a ticket price to cover that. I added something for all the other events I go to: classes and concerts and discussion groups. I like to talk to a minister once or twice a year about what I’m trying to do with my life and how it’s going, so I added a little more for that, and so on. Eventually I came up with a number that represented the transactional value I was getting from the church. If I contributed that much, I figured, then I was paying my way.
Before long, though, my relationship changed to what I call a charitable relationship. I started to believe in Unitarian Universalism as a movement, and I liked the idea of an institution spreading UU values in this community. So I wanted to support more than just what I used myself.
That kind of relationship means that I want this church to have good services even on Sundays when I’m not here, and I want them available to people who can’t afford that imaginary ticket. Even though I don’t have kids in RE, I like the idea of teaching UU values to the next generation. I want to support a broader array of social justice activities than I can work on myself. I want our ministers out there being a voice in the community, and I want them to be available to whoever needs them, not just to me.
That thinking led to a different pledge because it was a different relationship.
A few years after that, my relationship changed again, in a way that’s a little hard to describe. The best analogy I can think of is what happens to homeowners, when they stop evaluating improvements in terms of resale value, and start thinking: “This is my home. How do I want my home to be?”
In other words, I started to take ownership of First Parish: “This is my church. I want it to be a good church.”
So, for example, it’s not just that I want some church to give sanctuary to immigrants facing an unfair deportation order. I want my church to do it. Last year when I went to the Women’s March on Boston Common, it made a difference to me that I wasn’t just one more face out of 200,000. I was there with my people. The plan to make this building as close to carbon-neutral as we can get it — I supported it because that’s how I want my church to be.
That sense of ownership, of deep belonging, it led to yet another way of thinking about my pledge.
Originally, I was going to close with that, but as I was explaining those three relationships to my wife Deb, she pointed to a fourth: a legacy relationship.
There aren’t many things you do in life that leave a mark on the world, something that continues through the years, maybe even beyond your lifetime. Raising a child can leave a mark. Maybe something in your career will leave a mark. There are a few other places you might try to leave a mark, but there aren’t many. Most of what we do in life is stuff that evaporates almost as soon as we finish doing it.
But the people who started this congregation left a mark we can still see almost three centuries later. The people who built this meeting house in 1817 — we’re still benefitting from what they did.
And we’re continuing that work. I was pretty new in this church when I started seeing drawings of what would become the Common Room. Then we had a capital campaign, and we made those drawings real. That room will probably outlive all of us.
I’ve talked to older members who were on the search committee that decided that this young John Gibbons guy might do OK as our minister. What if you did something like that? You think you might still be proud years and years later?
First Parish is a place where you might try to leave a mark. That is a different relationship from paying your way or supporting UU values or even taking ownership.
So today we’re starting a stewardship campaign like we do every year. In a few days you’ll get a mailing that has a pledge card in it. We hope you’ll write a big number on it and send it back. In the coming weeks, you’ll hear all kinds of numbers from us: how many pledges we’ve received, what they total up to, and how much we still need to make our goal.
But through it all, I don’t want any of us to lose sight of the lesson of the stewardship moments: that numbers are just the surface of this campaign.
The deeper point is to get you thinking about the relationship you have to First Parish now. And even more important, thinking about the relationship you want to have.
And to leave you with a question: In the coming year, what might you do to make that relationship real?