Funding Sermon

THE VIAGRA METHOD OF CHURCH FUNDING
OR
YOU CAN BE GOOD FOR NOTHING, BUT …

A Sermon by Rev. Robert M. Eddy
Delivered 3/17/02 in Valparaiso, FL a
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
of the Emerald Coast

READING: Acts 4:32 – 5:11

..the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.

S E R M O N

There seems to be the one universal ritual in UU churches. Some call it the begging sermon. A couple years ago we happened to be in the Sarasota on the Sunday that the Rev. Don Baudreault delivered his. It was titled “Jack Benny’s Spiritual Dilemma – And Ours.” For those of you who may be too young to have seen him on T.V. Jack Benny was a classic Comedian who’s major characteristic was his reluctance to part unnecessarily with a single penny that he had acquired.

Here’s how Don started out his sermon.” You know the story about Jack Benny and the thief, don’t you? Jack is accosted by this mugger who asks, “[What will it be] your money or your life?” A long silence ensues and the the thief becomes impatient for an answer: Speak up, your money or your life? Again silence, so he says “This is your last chance, “Your money or your life?”o which Jack Benny finally replies, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!

“Ten years ago , while serving as interim minister in Boulder Colorado, I titled my annual begging sermon, “You can’t be good for nothing.” You’ll notice from the title this morning that I’ve changed my mind.

It’s not that I’ve discovered that Florida residents are more worthless than Colorado residents – or that this congregation in particular is more prone to worthlessness than the Boulder congregation. It’s just that if I’ve come to a different, a better, understanding. I have to admit that a religious community can exist without any money being contributed by its members. You can be good for nothing, but … ! But what?

For you, members of the UU Fellowship of the Emerald Coast to be “good for nothing” you would have to completely reverse course, sell your property, tell your newly elected search committee to cease and desist, fire the R.E. director, pay off your debt and start meeting in one another’s homes as you – or your predecessors did for many years in the 1950’s and 60’s. You can BE and be good, for nothing if you will do these things.

I don’t think that’s what you have in mind. but if you did all that, yes, you could be good for nothing. Many Quakers meet in homes and minister to one another and to the broader community without what their founders called “steeple houses” and “hireling clergy.”

But this is not a Quaker Meeting. This is a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a building, paid staff and many financial obligations. Still, there are UU Congregations that function more like Friends meetings than UUFEC does today. Most of them are called Fellowships.

The first Unitarian Fellowship was established in Boulder Colorado in 1948. It was the first of eventually hundreds of lay led congregations. Wherever ten people who considered themselves Unitarians could be gathered together in on place they could apply for a charter from the American Unitarian Association. 1 This congregation was founded as a Fellowship in 1948 It has changed a great deal since then. For one thing, you’ve stopped being able to be “good for nothing.”

I don’t have to tell you, if this Church is to continue moving toward the dream you projected last year in your long range plan, it will cost you something. If you are going to thrive it will cost you a lot. So, I’ll spend he rest of my time this morning talking about you might fund that dream.

I’m going to suggest 8 possible scenarios: 8 possible ways you can raise the funds necessary to finance your dream. I call them the Commune Method, The Bake Sale Method, The Entrepreneurial Method, .the Mystic Society method, The Holiness method, The Mafia Method, the Forbes Method and finally the Viagra Method.

Let’s look first at what might be called THE COMMUNE METHOD of church Financing. While our theological family tree is diverse, our institutional family tree goes back to that first Christian congregation in Jerusalem. Institutionally, if not ideologically, you are descendants of the people who knew Jesus personally. When they decided how to meet their common financial needs they used the principle, “From Each According to his (or her) ability, to each according to his (or her) need.” You heard the story of that method earlier this morning. They asked people to pledge and they had a rather drastic way of enforcing payment of pledges. Oh how I would love to be in the position of Peter in that story. Actually, I think it was wishful thinking even then! If you had pledged all your possessions and all your income to the Church and authorized me and to distribute it as I saw fit what would I do?

But that’s a moot question isn’t it, because we’re not a Commune “holding everything in common.” and I’m not the “Vicar of Christ” who can strike you dead if you prevaricate. But I can dream, can’t I. Of course, I would never do as Peter did and strike a member dead for lying about how much she or he actually given…though it might be worth a try . I’m thinking, I’m thinking.

No, not really ….

History has taught us the dangers of the “Commune Church” with the charismatic minister in absolute control. Remember Jim Jones and and the mass suicides in Guiana, Remember David Koresh. But of course those are extreme examples. In any case, the “commune” method of fund raising seldom lasts more than the life of the leader – or until he absconds with the funds.

It wasn’t many decades after Jesus death before the Commune method of funding a church was abandoned. Some 19th Century Unitarians and Universalists did try to go back to that method – as did other radical Christian sects, who were trying to resurrect “original” Christianity.” In any case, it’s hardly a realistic proposal. I suspect that everyone in this room believes “what’s mine is mine and only what you choose to contribute belongs to the Church. So, what might you choose to contribute = if not all that you own, what portion?

Let’s look at a second possible method of Fund Raising: The Bake Sale Method. Now I’m not referring just to bake sales but to all methods by which people convert their labor into cash which is then contributed to the church. Traditionally it was the Women’s Alliance or some similar group that organized these “fund raising events.” Service Auctions are a method used in many UU churches today. And that is an excellent way for it means that money that would have gone outside the church now goes to the church and members are donating services to other members. Service auctions enhance community but there are some really counterproductive schemes that churches use that fall in this “bake sale” category. For example, the UU Church of Indianapolis, where I was interim minister for a year, had contracted with the local stadium to provide food service on nights when the Indianapolis Colts -basketball team were playing. This used up the time of some of the most dedicated members – they would come to church on Sunday mornings exhausted. I managed to talk them out of that effort.

There’s another danger in relying too heavily on the “bake sale” method. It’s too easy, when your pledges are insufficient to support the program you wanted, the board would simply up the “fund raisers” line to fill gap. That’s fudging. It means that the most dedicated members of the congregation have to give more of their time so others would give – indirectly- more of their money. It’s appreciated – please don’t think it’s not – but is this an appropriate way to fund the core financial needs of your Church? I think not. While it enhances community for those who participate – until they drop from exhaustion that is – it excludes a majority of the members who cannot arrange their schedules to give the time necessary. I have recommended to your board that they earmark all moneys from fund raising events for special, rather than t essential, programs, that, while desirable it is not yet possible. Let’s always remember that time is the only truly irreplaceable commodity. You all live busy lives; especially the people called, “retired.” Bake Sales are not the best swap of time for support of the budget of the Fellowship.

Let’s look at a third method of fund raising The Entrepreneurial METHOD. You could hire a minister who would put on a great show every Sunday. Charge $20.00 at the door. Rock Concerts get far more. In fact some of the things I see on television that purport to be Religious Services look suspiciously like a Rock concert to me although most look like reruns of the Grand Old Opry or the Lawrence Welk Show. These congregations seem to exist to produce television specials and the people flock to them. Why not? When your UU minister performs a service for members he could charge a flat fee for those services. $150 for a wedding, $75 for rehearsals. You could operate your building as a wedding chapel – there’s big money there if you hire a “marriage consultant”. People spend thousands of dollars for flowers and tuxedos. You could set up a wholly owned subsidiary and skim off the profits. There’s big money there! Maybe we could build a crematorium – better yet, build one but dump the bodies in the bayou. And how about my idea for a high toned coffee house. You could call it “The Culture Vulture.” Or what about renting the facilities to a Play School or a Child Care Center. Thousands of churches balance their budgets this way. You could buy some property on the gulf and run it as an R.V. park for UU Snowbirds from the north – great profit there.

There are thousands of ways we could become a “money making institution.” But of course, then you would cease being who you are. You would become simply another institution that exists to perpetuate its own existence. I don’t think the entrepreneurial METHOD is the way you want to fund your dream.

Let’s look at another proposed method of financing your dream. You might call it the “Mystic Society” method. I was tempted to call it the “Playboy Club” method but that seemed too suggestive. Having seen the Mobile Mardi Gras parade I’m impressed by what a relatively small group of people can produce with a fixed membership fee. It’s not hard to see which groups have the higher fees.

If we used this method we’d simply divide up the costs by the number of members and assess everyone that amount. If we were to do that with the goal budget that would amount to $810 per member. I reject that method too on the grounds that a fixed, “Membership fee” is destructive of diversity in community. If we divided all our costs by the number of members and levied that amount on all we would exclude many of our member. Under this proposal shared cost membership plan you would exclude persons whose work does not receive much financial compensation – beginning teachers or child care workers, or public school aides or graduate students living on small stipends or women and men serving in the Military. We should not forget that there is a growing class of the educated poor whose religious needs Unitarian Universalist congregations are uniquely qualified to meet. Some are no doubt here this morning. Are we to exclude them because they cannot pay their “share” of the costs of running the church?

I suppose we could get around that by having several classes of membership – like the Public Radio and Television stations. The cheapest class would get a plain black mug and a place at the back of the coffee line, the right to ask one question a year of the minister, one generic wedding per lifetime and one canned memorial service. The most expensive membership would get you a cup the size of a beer stein, a place at to the head of the coffee line, ten minutes during every Sunday Service to rebut the minister, unlimited weddings with all the trimmings and a proper UU wake with your name in neon lights on the front of the pulpit. Others would get something in between according to the size of their contribution.

Obviously that method would not contribute to community either. However, I must admit that m any of the early Unitarian Churches in New England practiced just such a system. The “fat cats” were called, “Pew Holders”. They literally owned the best seats in the house – rather like the box holders at baseball stadiums today. And contrary to present day practices the pews nearest the pulpit were the more expensive ones. I suppose we could institute such a system and charge more for the seats near the rear. Maybe even set them up behind tables so that the privileged could nibble and knosh during the service. But no, that’s not the way you want to finance your dream either, is it.

Let’s look at another possibility. This might be called the Consumer METHOD. It treats members as a consumers club and says, “What’s your church worth to you?” I must admit I have used this method in the past. I suggested that you rank the various categories in your personal budget and then ask where does your contribution to your UU congregation fall? Do you spend more on entertainment than you do on your church we might ask. Do you spend more on medical insurance? Do you spend more on travel? The trouble with this method is that as a method of funding your dream is that it promotes a frame of mind that asks “what do I get for my money” rather than “How can I best invest my money to achieve my values”. “How can I best invest my money to achieve my values” That’s the question I want you to ask yourself.

A UU church is not just a place to meet perceived needs today. It is an institution that exists in the community to promote values – unpopular values – difficult values. I think the most important role of a UU church is not to meet the needs of its current members but simply to be there when – as seems inevitable – some majority decides it’s o.k. to oppress or even destroy a minority. Unitarian and Universalist churches from the beginning have been willing to defend the right of private conscience – even when a majority of members might not agree with the despised minority. I know that when I was one of the few who was working for the Quakers, in opposition to the military industrial complex, I could count on getting a hearing in a UU church – even when most of the members of that congregation may have been working for that same military industrial complex. It’s why I became a UU minister.

We must not pander to the consumer mentality -either in ourselves or others – we must not judge our churches by “what’s in it for me.” We need to realize that even though this minister or this program at this particular time doesn’t do anything for me I must remain a loyal opposition within the congregation so that the institution can continue to be here for those who do need it now and those who will need it in the future. And that loyalty applies not just to participation, but to financial support as well. Voting against a program or a minister democratically selected by withholding one’s financial support is, I believe, a fundamental violation of our covenantal way of being religious. You are not consumers of “UUism” you are the creators of “UUism”.

Let’s look at a sixth method of funding the dream. I call it “The Mafia Method”. This is the method used in most of the Fundamentalist Churches. They say, “Pay now or pay after – in the hereafter – that is.” Like the Mafia they “make an offer you can’t refuse.”

Now obviously I can’t say, as do Fundamentalists, “give until it hurts or you’ll hurt – forever.” or “Pay 10% now or you’ll pay 100% later.” For people who believe in hell that works,but Unitarians as well as Universalists abandoned hell long ago.

Nor can I say, as do some of the Fundamentalist,”God meant you to be rich. Give to our church and blessings will fall on you from the heavens. Give us dollars and God will repay you a thousand fold. Invest in your church; it has a better return than the NASDAQ and it’s absolutely, positively secure!”

That’s a lie and to proclaim it would violate our UU commitment to truth and rejection of falsehoods – as we understand them. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between truth and falsehood but I do know this – the people who get the most out of this religious community are those who have given the most – of themselves. It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of commitment. Which is why in most UU Churches our main method of funding our dreams is to ask people to give a percentage of their gross income. There are two ways to do this. The first I call:

THE FORBES OR FLAT TAX METHOD

This, of course, is the Biblical method. Fundamentalist Christians regularly give 10% of their income to their church. Some give much more. If you’re a biblical literalist, there’s no question. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” So say their preachers.

Sometimes I wish I could quote verses from some authoritative scripture to persuade you to give 10% or even some lesser percentage of your income to your church. But we UU’s believe that no ancient writing is authoritative. Each one of you must decide for your self what is an appropriate contribution. I can not command you to give any particular percentage I do however urge you to give some percentage of your income and eventually, through a bequest, some percentage of your accumulated wealth to your congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast.

But there’s the rub. What is an appropriate percentage? Lets look at the possibilities. We have about 100 potential contributing members at this point. If every member gave 1% of his or her gross income, the Fellowship could hire a full time minister and pay exactly what the average member earns. Of course you couldn’t pay for anything else at the 1% level. You’d have to give up your building. I suppose he could preach from a boat on the bayou while y’all stood on the shore. Jesus used that method. What if every household gave 2%? Then you’d have an amount equal to the minister’s salary available for other programs. If everyone gave 3% you’d have double the minister’s salary to play around with. That would be an adequate amount to run this church. And if everybody gave 10% – well you could have billboards all over town the way the Fundamentalist churches do, or more productively we could sponsor “Sound and Spirit” or some similar program on the Public Radio Station.

The Forbes method seems to me a better system than The Commune Method, The Bake Sale Method, the Mystic Society method, The Holiness method or The Mafia Method or but it’s not the best system because there are many members who cannot give 3% of their income income.

Which brings us to the final, my preferred method of funding your dream, The Viagra Method.

A couple weeks ago you received in the beautiful pamphlet the Canvas Committee produced, a “suggested Giving Guide. You noted, no doubt that it suggests that those who have a higher gross Income give a higher percentage to the church. This is the most practical and the fairest way to fund your dream. Why is that? Because it shares the burden. For a college student to give 1% might be a great sacrifice. For a brain surgeon – 1% would hardly be missed.

There’s another reason the more affluent among us can give more with less pain. I asked our resident Tax authority to check my memory on the tax code. I was wrong. 33% of adjusted gross income is not the limit a person a person can give to his or her church in one year. It’s 50%. For other non profit institutions that are not churches the limit is only 20%. Who do you think got that law passed? Anyone here able to give 50% of his or her 1999 adjusted gross income to this church? Don’t be bashful. It may bring you down into a lower tax bracket! We’ll rename the building for you – well, I’d recommend that the congregation do so. No? Ah well then we’ll just have to settle for less than 50%.

The fact of the matter is that our tax laws have created “an establishment of religion” contrary to the proscription in the bill of rights. This law that allows such huge gifts to churches enables the richest and most reactionary of the religious right to fund their causes with the government absorbing up to 50% because the contribution is deducted from taxable income. Billions of dollars flow into the so called “right to life” movement under this provision – to mention only one cause. Those of us on the “religious left” have been absolutely stupid in failing to exploit this provision of the law. Granted, it is grossly unfair, but until it is changed those of us who have the means need to take advantage of it. So, if you are in one of the higher tax brackets consider giving an even larger percentage of your income than is suggested in the “fair share” table in the brochure. Even those who are in the lower brackets might consider giving a larger percentage than is requested. But there are some for whom even 1% would be too great a burden. There may even be those who should be receiving financial help from the church rather than the other way around.

I’ve often said that “money is for UU’s what Sex is for Baptists”. We can’t do without it but we sure don’t want to talk about it in church!” But money is not evil. Money is a means that enables us to collectively do many of the things we want to do. Things that are impossible in a barter economy. Yet, even if we had no money at all, we would still be rich if we gave to one another the things that money can not buy. If I had to ask you to choose between giving money and giving love and respect and encouragement and acceptance and understanding – all of which allow you to be good for nothing – I would say, forget the money. But that is not a choice you need to make. You can have all that and the things money can buy as well.

I said earlier that I cannot promise you “bliss” if you contribute a larger percent of your discretionary income than what your finance committee thinks is a fair share. However, I can promise you a sense of potency if you give more than “your fair share”. Or if that sounds too male chauvinist, I can promise you a sense of fecundity. Whatever the word it represents a sense of creativity; the ability to be a mover and shaker not a sitter and taker.

A recent emissary from the UUA offended me mightily a while back by bad mouthing Fellowships but he said one thing that struck me as true. He said that those of us over 65, those who remember the depression. tend to experience potency as the ability to survive deprivation. We store up riches to outlast the worst economic disaster. It’s understandable. For many peoples around the world, for many young people here on the Emerald Coast, giving things away, not saving them that is experienced as potency/fecundity. We see this as irresponsibility or imprudent.

I suspect the folks who were throwing the baubles and moon pies on Mardi Gras a while back, had far more fun than those who received them. Watching the almost Ferengi joy of acquisition in the Mobile crowds last year it was hard for me to imagine any greater joy until I looked on the faces of those throwing the baubles beads and moon pies.

When Gerry and I were in Bangkok several years ago, we were amazed to see fresh flowers every day at all the thousands of shrines throughout the city. The native peoples of Thailand “waste” much of their time preparing offerings to the various gods and goddesses they honor. The people of Bali spend a good proportion of their time preparing elaborate offerings which are burned on huge funeral pyres. Are these people sick? No, I think they have discovered – or remembered-something that we may have forgotten. Giving is an expression not only of love but of power. The native Americans of the Northwest expressed this – and still do – in their pot latch. Wealth for them was measured not so much by what they had, as what they had given away.

Thus, my suggestion is not that any one of you give 2% or 3% or 10% or even 50% of your gross income. I do not suggest that you give what you think the church is worth to you or what you think is the actual cost of the program is divided by the number of households.

My suggestion is that that you give as large a percentage of your income as is necessary to enable you to experience the power of giving. For some one here that may be as much as 90%. For most it will be far less; far far less. Only you can decide.

If every member of this congregation does that – gives until it feels great- you will have not only enough to meet the very modest goal budget that will be presented this afternoon. You will have the delightful problem of deciding what to do with all the excess.

  • My suggestion is not that you give until you feel no guilt.
  • My suggestion is not that you give your fair share.
  • My suggestion is that you give until you feel so powerful that it’s almost sinful.