Lay Leader Blogs
President’s Column, October 2018
This is a very uncomfortable time for some of us at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. We’re being asked to look at ourselves and to change. Asked may be a nice way of putting it. We’re having to look at ourselves and as a community we have to change. What we’ve been doing for a long time isn’t working. The most obvious example of this is that we’ve had to let staff go and this summer we didn’t have enough cash to pay our bills and make payroll for the staff that’s left. Like my mother during the periodic recessions when I was growing up, we had to decide what bills to pay and what bills could wait.
I have been asked why are we suddenly having money problems? There’s nothing sudden about it. This is a problem that’s been building for a long time and one that’s been hiding in plain sight. The charts Linda Laskowski has been showing to the board and board information meetings this past month are from 2015, and the problems we’re having now were discussed at a congregational meeting in 2015 and then again at the January congregational meeting. We didn’t fix it then and we still haven’t fixed it now. The only difference now is that the first aid that we’ve had to apply requires a much bigger bandage than it has in the past. In fact, this is a gap that only gets larger each year. It’s cumulative. It’s been going on for a long time.
The gap this year was covered by very generous members, or angels as we call them, who put up the money to cover our cash shortage, but it’s a loan, not a grant. It’s a loan because we’re not going to survive as a congregation if we have to keep turning to angels to save us. There’s only so much generosity or divine intervention that we can expect. It’s a loan because our generous angels are challenging us to step up and do what we have to do.
As members we have to look to ourselves to pay our own way, to be self-supporting as a congregation. That means signing up as members and contributing as we can afford it, pledging, and when we pledge it means making the payment. If we have shortfalls on our pledges from previous years now is the time to make them up.
We can’t count on others’ generosity without being generous ourselves – money, if we have it, but also with our time. There are a core of volunteers who make UUCB work, but with the staffing cuts our need for volunteers is even greater. Yes, we older members have more time and there are some younger leaders, but more of the next generation need to contribute what they can and renew, refresh, and replace the leadership of the church. It’s an ongoing process and if the board, our programs, and the day-to-day tasks are going to get done, more members have to step up.
Does our current financial reality require that we sell assets? Freestone, move from the hill? I don’t think so. It does mean we have to be realists. Look at our assets, look at our mission and look at our part in it and ask the hard questions. What do we need to keep our congregation strong? What does it cost? With large cuts to staffing we have balanced the operating budget this year. We haven’t begun to address the $250,000 annual maintenance required for our Kensington property. What sacrifices are we willing to make to keep the assets we have? How can we be sustainable? What am I willing to do and how much can I afford to contribute in time and in money?
I’m not as worried as some are about our congregation. I think by all accounts we have a very strong community. I believe our community will do what it takes to stay together and do the things that we need to do to be true to our principles as Unitarian Universalists. But the changes we will have to make as a congregation and as members will not be easy. The task of leadership is to make clear what our reality is, and the task of the congregation is to make sound decisions that are good for now and for the future, based on those realities. The task of our members is to make the sacrifices in both time and money to make those decisions work.Continue reading →
President’s Column, August 2018
I’ve been thinking about what UUCB means to me. I came to UU to go to church on Sunday but in 12 years it has come to mean much more.
I came for community, for connection with people that wasn’t work related, not a hobby, or a commercial transaction. I wanted to connect with people based on our shared humanity and the traditional Sunday church gathering seemed to be a place to begin. A few Sundays ago I had to schedule a meeting at the church. I went to the calendar to see if there would be a conflict. Of course, there was a conflict. There was a long list of things going on and that was just Sunday. Almost every other day of the week had one or two things scheduled as well.
It occurred to me that in some ways we’re more like a community center than a church. Some of the activities were “church” related but many more were community activities, community organizing, writing, yoga, rehearsals, Buddhist sangha. We are as much a community center as a church. We are like the Jewish Community Centers I was familiar with in LA or even a YMCA without the sports focus. I think in this form there is a lot of potential for us as a community. As a community center we can tap into the need of today’s “Nones” to connect and to be spiritual and without the negativity that’s associated with “church.”
At the same time I like going to church. I like taking an hour each week and quietly sitting in an assembly to worship together, to acknowledge that there is more to the world and being human than just stuff. I like to meditate together and to listen to a sermon that will make me think, will challenge me. I love the music. If I’m feeling more empirical than metaphysical I can join the Humanists or do both.
It’s this mix of spiritual and community that I’ve come to think of as being Unitarian Universalist and particularly UU Church of Berkeley. We are not just a church for Sunday worship, we are a community bound together by our common principles that everyone has value, sharing the common goodness, that we accept people as they are, and together we search and strive for the common good and that it’s not just us, the members, but that it includes everyone who comes to us and our community around us. As a community we seek justice and equity for everyone and we seek to practice these principles out to the world, Contra Costa, Alameda and beyond.Continue reading →
From the Board of Trustees, July 2018
As this issue went to press, Board President Jack Duggan was attending the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Kansas City. So we will use this space to share with you the new “Ends” adopted by the Board at its May meeting. In policy-based governance, ends statements are intended to provide guidance for decision-making to volunteers and staff, based on the congregation’s mission and vision.
UUCB is a vibrant multicultural, anti-racist, anti-oppressive congregation:
- We embody and share Unitarian Universalism.
- Our communities experience UUCB as an active and dynamic partner in pursuing societal and environmental justice.
- People rely on UUCB in times of need.
- We invite people of goodwill to make a spiritual home with us.
- We celebrate the diversity of our congregation in the fullness of who we are.
- We reach out to one another across differences to connect in shared purpose.
- We have fun!
- We are generous with our time, talent and treasure.
- We steward our financial resources responsibly.
- We are comfortable, open and transparent in discussing both personal and congregational financial matters.
President’s Column, June 2018
I believe we should sell the Freestone property and the Board has made a motion to be considered by all church members at the Congregational Meeting on October 21. It’s not an easy decision. We all know the people involved in Freestone are among the longest and most respected members of our community. It’s not easy to say no to them. We appreciate what they have done for the last forty years; we appreciate what Freestone has meant to them and the congregation in the past; but it may not be part of our future.
In the past it was wonderful, a retreat, where members could get away from it all and share nature and fellowship, not a formal retreat center but a place to get away. Freestone was never a money maker but was a benefit of belonging to the church. The property was bought with money from the Freestone Committee and the church. It’s never been self-supporting through rental fees. The building itself was built and maintained with money from the sale of one of the four parcels and volunteer labor from the Freestone Committee.
And now, after forty years, the Freestone building is in need of repair. We can argue endlessly what repairs are needed and how much they should cost, but the money isn’t there. This year in the congregation we have had to face our financial situation harder than we ever have before.
The Congregation voted to use funds from the Board Designated Endowment earnings to make needed repairs to the Kensington church property. In the last congregational meeting the members approved a budget that made substantial and painful cuts to staff. The operating budget is balanced but there is no surplus. We still haven’t solved the problem of how we raise the $250,000 annual budget required to maintain the property.
For a long time Freestone served its function but in the last few years the need for repair and maintenance has become critical. The forty-year-old geodesic dome has not aged well. At a minimum the repairs will cost $50,000 and probably much more. That’s $50,000 we don’t have. In another 10, 20, 30 years another substantial investment will be needed. Freestone has never made money and there’s no reason to think it will in the future. Is it possible? Sure, anything is possible with enough effort and money. But is it likely? No.
In the coming discussion we will look at selling parcels to raise money for repairs. The two parcels in question do not seem to be suitable for development. The only bid was by our neighbor and they withdrew that offer. We are now in a water dispute with that neighbor over their violation of our easement and that has gone on for over a year with legal costs to defend the integrity of our property.
The mission and the ends we worked on as a congregation did not make a retreat center or Freestone a priority. As hard as it is to face it, Freestone is no longer an integral part of the UUCB community and its mission. At one time it was an important community builder, an activity that brought people together. However the interest in a getaway in Sonoma County has waned, notwithstanding the valiant efforts of the Freestone Committee to promote it.
We have five months before the vote. Let’s explore the possibilities and the reality. But let’s be realistic about our resources and how we use them. Since I’ve been a member of the Board we have considered and discussed Freestone at great length. The conclusion of the Board at our May meeting was to call the vote. We need to decide whether to put the money into Freestone to make it usable or to sell it and move on. The Board of Trustees recommends to the Congregation that we sell Freestone.Continue reading →
President’s Column, May 2018
On April 21, the Board of Trustees had a retreat in which we worked on the Ends (goals) for our congregation. It amazed me how easy it was. The work had already been done by the congregation in our Mission and Visioning meetings. The results were nothing unexpected. We know who we are and what we want.
We want financial sustainability, a strong unified congregation and to make an impact for the good in our community beyond our church and congregation.
What strikes me now is how open this process has been. This isn’t the work of a focus group or a key committee, but the work of the whole congregation in open meetings. Simple to state but not so easy to live. Change isn’t easy. There’s nothing new about these ends, it’s who we are. What has changed is the world around us.
We will be who we want to be as a congregation if we work together openly and with trust.
This is an open process. There are no secret agendas. We are family working together. The broader, the deeper, and the better the participation, the better will be our outcomes.
I would add that all Board of Trustees meetings are open and everyone is welcome. We meet the first Wednesday of the month at 7 pm.
[Editor’s note: There is also generally a table in the Atrium on Sundays where a board member (often Maryann Simpson) will be happy to answer questions and listen to your ideas.]Continue reading →
President’s Column, April 2018
At the April Board of Trustees meeting I will make a motion for the Board to recommend to the congregation that we sell the Freestone property. The motion if it passes will be voted on at a September Congregational Meeting. This has been a long time coming, and I think now is the time to call for a vote. The Board cannot sell Freestone, only the Congregation can make that decision.
When my family joined UUCB in 2011 we were introduced to Freestone by an enthusiastic member of the committee and invited to join and contribute any skills we might have to the upkeep of Freestone. The next year we went to Freestone for the first time and enjoyed a weekend with two other families from the church. We visited Freestone a couple more times.
Freestone has a geodesic dome with a communal area and kitchen and three bedrooms and a deck with a view through the woods and hills that calms the soul. It sits on approximately ten acres of wooded land with large oaks and redwoods. It is about sixty miles from Kensington, between Sebastopol and Bodega Bay. It is a stunning piece of property. If you haven’t visited Freestone and want to, I’m sure the Freestone Committee will help you do that.
Unfortunately, the dome itself has not aged well. It is coming apart at the seams and the deck and other structures need serious repairs. Two years ago it was determined that the structure was unsafe to use and since then the Freestone Committee has done some work but there is a real need for substantial investment and a professional contractor.
The Freestone Committee has worked valiantly to do what they can, but a real update is needed and that takes money. The most optimistic and conservative estimate to repair Freestone will take $50,000 and probably much more. To make Freestone a viable and enduring option will take much more than that, upwards of two or three hundred thousand dollars. In the beginning, to build the dome and provide funds, one of the four Freestone parcels was sold and there are two remaining parcels that the committee has talked about selling to raise funds.
The remaining parcels may not be developable and it is probably more valuable to sell the property as a whole. Even if we did sell parcels to raise funds for Freestone, that is not a sustainable solution. The funds would be short of what’s really needed and only put the problem off until the next time maintenance and upkeep require another capital input. Freestone is not sustainable.
This year we have been struggling with the financial sustainability of our congregation. We are using $750,000 from the board-designated endowment, albeit from the earnings, not the principal, to make long delayed repairs to the buildings on the Kensington campus. This was a difficult decision for the congregation to make. Like a homeowner who has a home and a second property and is struggling to maintain their home and keep it in repair, now is not the time to keep a second property that is badly in need of repair. Selling Freestone is a sacrifice that will cause our congregation anguish but it is a decision that needs to be made.
Selling Freestone is not a solution to our financial situation. The proceeds of a sale would add to our financial stability but more importantly would relieve us of the financial obligation to maintain Freestone with funds we don’t have. We need to focus on what we genuinely need to be sustainable and unfortunately in my opinion Freestone is not part of that. If the board makes the motion, now is the time for questions and comments. Let the discussion begin.Continue reading →
From the Board of Trustees: Call for Working Group Volunteers
Cindy Maxim, Board of Trustees member
Do you want to help UUCB find a path to long-term financial stability? Do you have knowledge, skills, experience, or an ability to think outside the box? Consider becoming a part of one of the Working Groups of the Financial Sustainability Task Force. The Board of Trustees is seeking volunteers for three Working Groups:
- The Alternative Location working group is tasked with gathering information on two things: 1) alternative properties for the congregation to consider should our Kensington campus come to be too expensive for us to maintain, and 2) other organizations with whom we might share our campus. This working group will need to be creative in their possibility thinking – people who think outside the box are especially welcome here!
- The Capital Campaign working group will help identify goals for an effective capital campaign. You’ll look at what’s been effective in past campaigns, and what hasn’t, in order to come up with a plan for a potential future campaign. You’ll also help identify ways to increase participation and discover what resources the UUA might have that can help. Do you like talking with other people and gathering their opinions? This might be the place for you!
- The Staffing Structure working group will explore our current staffing structure and better clarify how our staff contribute to UUCB’s mission now and in the future. You’ll work with our UUA contact to compare our staffing to that of other UU congregations of similar size and mission, and talk with staff members about how they and the congregation can better work together to fulfill our mission. To be clear, you won’t be evaluating the performance of individual staff members; rather, you would be discovering how we can receive the maximum potential our staff can offer.
We are seeking members of all ages and backgrounds for these important positions – don’t worry if you don’t have experience on UUCB Committees, we’re looking for a balance of ideas and energies! If one of these positions interests you, please briefly respond to the following questions (you can also find blank forms at the Board Listening Table on Sundays), or fill out the form electronically at https://tinyurl.com/uucbsustainability. Please respond by March 28.
- How can we reach you?
- Are you a member of UUCB?
- Why do you want to serve?
- Which working group are you most interested in?
- Tell us about any skills, knowledge, or experience you might have in this area.
- What else do you want the board know about you?
Paper responses may be returned to Maryann Simpson’s mailbox in the UUCB mailroom.
The Working Groups will be asked to submit their reports by December 18, 2018 so this is not a long-term commitment. If you have more questions about the working groups or their tasks, contact any member of the Board of Trustees, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.Continue reading →
President’s Column, February 2018
One of my goals as a congregational leader is that this community we call UUCB be as strong for the next 127 years as it has been for the last 127. To that end, the board is taking steps to ensure the financial sustainability of the congregation. We don’t expect this to be an easy or quick process, but it’s an important one and one that will take all of us.
As this newsletter goes to press we are engaging the congregation in considering needed repairs to the buildings and how best to pay for them. Just as importantly for the future, we have been involved this year as a congregation in a process of Mission and Visioning. Who are we? Who can we be? How are we going to be sustainable?
The time for action is here. The Board of Trustees is putting together working groups with board members and other congregational members, who will collect information about several important factors over the next year.
1) A feasibility study on a capital campaign to update and repair our buildings.
2) A full staffing assessment, to identify what our needs are and what we can afford. Some of this work was done during our interim ministry, but more remains.
3) Whether, in the long run, another location for the church is possible and whether it would make sense to consider it.
Also we’ve been talking about Freestone for a very long time. We need to make decisions about Freestone, our Sonoma County retreat property, and the board will be facing that issue and working with the Freestone Committee and the congregation to reach a decision on what to do, possibly selling Freestone or investing in making needed repairs. What we do has to be compatible with our vision as a congregation. The plan is to present a board proposal in Fall 2018 about how to move forward.
We’ve been waiting and preparing for this moment in our congregational life for a long time. For the last three years we’ve been taking a hard look at ourselves, looking at our resources and our needs. We called new senior co-ministers and now together we are working on a sustainable vision for the next era in our congregation’s life. The board’s job in this work is not to make decisions, but to offer concrete proposals to the congregation who will make the decisions guided by our mission and vision.
This month we will be asking members to join us in the working groups to look at these issues and to make recommendations. In the coming months the board will be considering the recommendations of the groups and making proposals based on those recommendations. About a year from now we will have finished the first stage and we can move forward with a plan for the future.
The time to be sustainable is now.Continue reading →
President’s Column, January 2018
This is going to be a hard year at UUCB. The financial reality of 380 some members in a facility built when UUCB had a thousand members has finally sunk in and now we must figure this out, not put it off any longer and make concrete plans for a sustainable future. One of the obvious answers to our dilemma is to grow our congregation larger to support our church. It’s not just our problem; most old-line liberal churches including other UU churches are declining in membership the same way. The long-term trends are against us.
We are all members of UUCB because it fills a space in our lives and our families that is very important to us. For me the key to UUCB is fellowship, a place to bond with people of different backgrounds and experiences in a community of respect and open inquiry. Unitarian Universalists are not unique in providing welcoming fellowship; our liberal sisters and brothers do much the same thing and their numbers are dwindling too. The difference is we guide ourselves by our principles, not a creed.
I think in a way we are failing our broader community. We personally know the hunger for a human fellowship of values that we satisfy by being UUs. We heartily welcome people when they find us, we are a vital community with new people joining us, but are we actively going out and sharing what we ourselves have found? For most of our history Unitarians have been a small group of people not tied to the strictures of the past, outliers. More than a hundred years ago Universalists actively shared their understanding of God’s universal love, but when that message began to spread through other denominations the evangelism of Universalists dwindled. It’s wrong to keep it to ourselves, we’re not an exclusive club. Our community needs what we have.
We have members who already think this way and are taking action, but as a congregation we need to support their efforts, make it more central to our mission and follow their lead. I think we’ve kept the secret too long, that one can be a rationalist or a mystic with an open mind and still deeply involved and accepted in a religious fellowship, that creed is not necessary.
I’m not comfortable “selling” Unitarian Universalism. When someone asks I get all gummed up in explaining what we’re not. Proselytizing evangelicals, whether they’re pushing the Bible, a guru, or chanting to happiness have never made me comfortable and I’m not about to go knocking on doors or passing out literature at BART stations. But I think as an Association and a Congregation we need to overcome our shyness and frankly our elitism and get out there and reach people, not because we need members to sustain ourselves but because now more than ever our religion without creed, our spirituality without strictures is a desperate need in our world.
There are people out there who know that there’s more to community than a digital connection and that consumerism, individualism and materialism don’t satisfy the human spirit. We need to seek them out and tell them who we are and what we do.
I’m not aware of any campus outreach on our congregation’s part even though Cal is an important part of our history and many members are associated with the university. Have we even considered Contra Costa College? Reverends Christian and Kristin have begun Church on Tap. Should we be stepping out of our comfort zone more? And by actively reaching out to the people who need a place for connection and values we can become a stronger community and we hope a sustainable community. Instead of needing people to fill the space we would need space for the people.
Is it time to consider becoming Evangelical Unitarian Universalists?Continue reading →
President’s Column, December 2017
I believe my job as President of the Board of Trustees is to work to find a consensus of what the congregation wants to do, aware of what sacrifices have to be made to be the congregation we want to be.
I have opinions but my opinions aren’t my guide. For instance, when I joined the congregation I didn’t like the way our location put us so far above our community. When I joined the leadership, I realized that our congregation wouldn’t survive whole if we tried to sell the Kensington property and resigned myself to making the best of it. When I wrote the article last month on how expensive it is to keep our large church maintained, I wondered if I really wanted to keep maintaining an expensive piece of real estate. Does the property really support the mission of our congregation? Do we need to change the way we use it? I don’t have an easy answer for that. I trust our congregation, and I trust the process we are using to make decisions. My opinions count but only as another member of the congregation, and I have a lot of listening yet to do.
In the end, all of us will be called upon to make sacrifices. I’m not saying we will have to sell our cherished and time-honored site, but if we choose to keep it we will have to make the personal sacrifices to do that. What is valuable to us and what contributes to that value?
I see my most important goal as President of the Board is to keep the congregation whole and vital. In other words, whatever decisions we make we do it holding hands, and at the end of this process we are still holding hands, acting together and aware of the sacrifices we have to make to do that.Continue reading →