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Congregations remain hopeful in face of recession

Some congregations have pared back budgets. Most are worried about finding ways to support members in need.
By Donald E. Skinner
Spring 2009 2.15.09

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Members of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, are watching out for each other. With the economy in decline and the prospect of job layoffs and home foreclosures, they want to be ready to catch those who might find themselves in economic difficulty.

“We’re aware that many families are having challenges,” said the Rev. Dr. Lindsay Bates. “We try to track that so people who start to have trouble don’t just drop out because they can’t pay their pledge. We want to make sure they understand we want them for themselves, not their checkbook.”

Congregations across the country are being equally vigilant.

At the UU Con­gregation of the Cat­skills in Kingston, New York, the Social Action Committee has formed a sustainability group, which has held several after-service forums focusing on social ser-vices available in the community. The Caring Committee makes more frequent contact with people. A financial planner will be making presentations on ways to survive hard times.

“I’m seeing more anxiety than usual in people,” said the Rev. Dr. Linda Anderson in Kingston. “It’s not necessarily about the economic situation directly, but about everyday things and just the uncertainty in life right now. There’s some irritability, some impatience. Other people are more lethargic. I think our day-to-day struggles have gotten harder to navi­gate because times are so uncertain.”

On the positive side, “People seem more committed than ever,” she said. “The current crisis has made it clear to many how important our congregation is for them.”

The economic downturn has created challenges—and opportunities—across the UUA. The Rev. Kenn Hurto, district executive of the UUA’s Florida District, held a conference call with lay leaders in November. “People generally agreed the recession is definitely affecting people’s lives,” he said, “but it may be too soon to say how it will affect congregational giving. They shared stories of personal urgency—job losses, small business downturns, foreclosures.” He said some congregations have pared back budgets in response to reduced giving or in anticipation of it. Mostly, he said, congregations are worried about keeping in touch with members, finding ways to support those most in need, and ways of minimizing cuts in programming.

Anderson has invited her congregation to think about “the kinds of transforming actions we can take if we find ourselves or others in dire need. Can we take someone into our homes for a while? Would we think about sharing living space in order to save money and cut costs?”

While she counsels being prepared she also urges congregants to not “catastrophize” the future. “We need to be careful not to assume only the worst-case scenario,” she said. “Let’s not stoke the fires of fear and anxiety.”

The UUA has lowered its income expectations for the current fiscal year by 7.5 percent and reduced expenditures by the same amount, UUA Treasurer and Vice President of Finance Tim Brennan said. But fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1, has a bleaker outlook. Brennan projects that revenues will be down by 10 percent, or $1.8 million. “We’re anticipating the current economic distress will be felt more by congregations and the UUA this spring and next year,” said Brennan. (See “UUA prepares for belt tightening,” page 43.)

Despite the somber economic picture, Brennan remains upbeat. “While budget reductions can be painful, they are also an opportunity to refine our focus on what is really important,” he said, “and to tap into the creativity of the entire organization as we attempt to serve our congregations and the movement in a smarter, more sustainable way.”

Some congregations are using humor to keep spirits up. At the lay-led Kittitas Valley UU Congregation in Ellensburg, Washington, worship leaders went back to the Depression for inspiration. “We found, along with all the misery, a lot of ironically upbeat strains in the culture,” said President Cynthia Murray. “Music like ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ and ‘We’re In the Money’ and comedians like Will Rogers and George Burns kept Americans laughing.” So we were drawn to humor as a way of coping with the shrinking economy.”

Using radio humorist Garrison Keillor’s poetry collection Good Poems for Hard Times, the congregation put together a service about difficult economic times, including an exhortation to self-reliance from Thomas Jefferson. “The service was one of the most enjoyable of the year, proving once again the power of laughter and the binding force of a shared need,” said Murray.

At the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, the Rev. Galen Guengerich urged parishioners to be on the lookout in their daily lives for people who need help. “Somewhere among the numbers you crunch, or the stories you write, or the lessons you teach, or the diseases you diagnose . . . there are real flesh-and-blood human beings who need to know they are not alone. You will bear witness to our fundamental belief as Unitarian Universalists that we all come from the same source and we all share the same destiny. We’re all in this together.”

Bates invites congregations to take a positive approach. “Times have been worse than they are now. If you expect things to be dreadful that’s what you’ll see. If you expect to find compassion and justice, you will find that.”


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