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.