Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Thoughts on closing a large church for a month


A friend in Portland, Oregon sent this newspaper article to me last night, and it brought up all kinds of ideas and thoughts, particularly, what is the purpose of a church?
First Unitarian Church Will Close

by Nancy Haught, The Oregonian

Monday February 02, 2009, 10:20 PM

Many Americans are giving up something in this dire economy. But Sharon Dawson of Southeast Portland will go without something unusual: her church.

To save money, First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland has decided to close for the month of July. The Rev. Marilyn Sewell, senior pastor, said the 142-year-old church faces a projected $185,000 deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The closure, during a traditionally quiet month in the church calendar, will save a predicted $100,000 in staff pay and help the church avoid laying off employees. Employees also will take an additional two weeks of unpaid leave. Even so, the church will have to make additional cuts, said the Rev. Thomas Disrud, Sewell's associate.

Houses of worship across the country are closing or merging because of the economy, but furloughs are rare.

"The congregation needs to own the problems and understand the consequences," said Sewell, who announced the decision during services Jan. 25 and then sent a letter to the church's 1,500 members.

Normally, the church expects about 4 percent of pledges to go unpaid, she said, a number that's been consistent through the 17 years she's been pastor at First Unitarian. But this year, about 10 percent of pledges are unpaid, and about 250 families haven't pledged at all.

Dawson, who said she pledges, worries about employees losing a month's pay.

"I know that's difficult for anybody. Would it be better to lay off some people and let others keep their jobs?" she asked. "I don't really know what I would do."

The closure will mean no services, no adult or children's education, and no programming for the month. The only activities in the church or its neighboring Buchan Building will be those whose sponsors have rented the space, generating income, Sewell said.

Personnel costs are the largest expense in the church's annual budget of about $1.8 million, Disrud said. The church employs 35, but because some are part time, they total an equivalent of about 22.5 full-time jobs.

Disrud has heard from at least one longtime member who wrote that shutting the church in difficult times is the last thing the congregation should do.

"But the most common response I've received is that we're not happy, but this seems like a reasonable approach to it," he said. "A lot of places are cutting back."

Sewell was disappointed that the congregation was willing to accept the closure.

"I was hoping for more of a vigorous response from people who haven't pledged," she said. "But fear is a powerful force right now. People are thinking, 'Wait and see -- it may be even worse than we can imagine.'"

Dawson, who's been a member for four years and volunteers teaching Sunday school and doing other jobs, said it makes sense to share the burden rather than lay off employees. But she's still reeling from the announcement.

"This is a community that sustains me and, hopefully, I give something back," she said. "In July, there is going to be a big void in my life. I don't know what I'll do."

While I agree, at least from an economic standpoint, that closing the church for a month would be better than laying people off, I can’t help but be concerned about the effect it will have on people’s lives. First UnitarianChurch takes up an entire city block in the middle of downtown Portland. I believe they are a large force in that area, both for residents of the immediate area and for all those who drive or take the MAX trains to services, activities, classes, and whatever else they offer.
I’ve attended services there many times and was impressed. However, what do their 35 employees do? Are all of them really needed? I understand that such a large church needs more employees than a much smaller church which might have that many members, where the minister is the only paid employee. But, to be honest, I felt absolutely lost in First Unitarian Church surrounded by so many people, especially during coffee hours. But, maybe that’s me. It seems like the church has gotten entirely too big; perhaps it might be better if some of the members who commute so many miles could attend/become members of the more struggling smaller churches in the Portland area, churches that can barely afford a minister, let alone all the pages and pages of activities listed in First Church’s booklets. The church in Roseburg, Oregon used to close for three months each summer. However, they had a struggling membership at that time of about 54 members, a part-time minister, and no other employees. They were also located in a suburban area; no one really knew they were there. Even so, we still felt that sense of loss.
My biggest question is this: what is a church really for? What is its REAL purpose? Will that REAL purpose be served by the church closing for a month? Sure, the weather in Portland will be nice in July and people will be able to enjoy being outside. But, that sounds too much like the REAL purpose might be to give people a place out of the cold for an hour or so during the cold weather. Sure, that’s a small part, but not the main reason to exist. I believe that the main reasons are: to provide a community, a place to worship, a sacred space, a place to connect with other people, a place to be at peace for a short time, a place to find a way to face the coming week with perhaps courage instead of dread. To me, those reasons to exist and operate don’t require 35 employees.
This blog entry from Rev. Tim Jensen’s blog, “One Day Isle,” is what I really wanted to share.
When the church in Roseburg, Oregon needed to select a new consulting minister, I served as the head of the Search Committee that chose Tim for the position. So, I’ve been following his fight with lung cancer and appreciating the purposeful and thoughtful way he’s been dealing with that diagnosis. Yesterday he wrote an entry, “Thank God for Prescription Drug Benefits,” part of which I’ve pasted below. I wonder how the people he writes about would fare if their urban church would close their doors for a month?
Meanwhile, I feel more than a little uncomfortable basking in my own good fortune when I think about the situations of so many others within my little church "community." Like any urban church, we have people in the congregation every Sunday who are homeless, or maybe just one paycheck (or welfare check or disability check) away from being homeless, who also have serious other needs, some of them medical... And I/we (because I think most of the congregation feels the same way) want to help them as best we can -- and not just with a warm welcoming place on a Sunday morning where they can come in out of the weather and worship with us, then get a bite to eat and some hot coffee afterwards before heading back out into the winter; or even with the twenty or fifty or perhaps sometimes even a few hundred dollars I can come up with out of my discretionary fund in order to help out with a pressing bill or two, or to get them in to see a medical provider for some long-overdue treatment. Something both substantial and empowering, which leaves them in control of their own life but makes a small but significant difference in their own spiritual journey from where there are now to where God wants them to be.

Is that naive? Presumptive and patronizing? It's a little different situation from those folks who just go around from church to church hitting up the soft touches like me for a hand out. The policy now in those situations is simply to give them a $20 gift card to our local supermarket (which has already been designated to exclude alcohol and tobacco), and to have just enough red tape in place to discourage abuse -- ID if they have it, plus they have to sign for the card and perhaps even be photographed for our digital database (an extra step that was still under discussion when we decided on the rest). But I'm not in the office often enough these days to know whether this policy has even been implemented yet, much less evaluate whether it is working.

But these other folks are different. For all intents and purposes, they are members of the congregation just like the rest of us: they attended services regularly, sing the hymns and listen to the sermon, participate appropriately in the candlesharing, and sometimes even contribute to the collection. And that's part of what makes our Meetinghouse Sacred Space -- that fact that ANYONE can show up and for that hour at least put all of the differences of race and class, income, educational background, what-have-you in the background, and just BE together. Sure, it's an illusion and it doesn't last. But with a little gentle practice, maybe it will find a toehold OUTSIDE the Meetinghouse as well. And if we dare dream it, it might even usher in the Kingdom of Heaven....


The Eclectic Cleric said...

Thanks Chris for the fine compliment about my writing; I'm also watching with fascination to see how events out in Portland Oregon develop. The First Parish in Portland ME is about one/fifth the size of First Unitarian in Portland OR, and we also are facing a budget shortfall this year...although the cash flow seems to be good enough so far that we haven't started talking yet about furloughs or lay-offs. But that's eventually where the money has to come from, one way or another, because there really ISN'T that much money anywhere else. And frankly, from where i sit an across the board 4-6 week unpaid leave is probably a little more humane than permanent lay-offs, although it sounds like there still may need to be some of those as well. It's hard though, because it really is at that point a matter of balancing the budget on the backs of the staff, forcing them to make the deep sacrifices that the members of the congregation are unwilling to make themselves. Or maybe the congregation feels like they've already sacrifice as much as they can afford. 10% shrinkage and 250 non-pledging households (out of how many total members?) are pretty significant numbers. I suspect they're a sign of how bad this "downturn" really is.

In any event, there are still a lot more shoes to fall in this story between now and July 1st. We may still see a happy ending yet.


I loved this post about the purpose of a church, and it made me truly think. I am not a believer in organized religion, per se, but believe that organized religion (and a church as a place of formal worship) truly provide spiritual community for those who need it. In that respect, closing a church has emotional and spiritual implications far beyond what may be saved in money and jobs.

Chuck said...

If I were on the Church board I'd vote against closing the church for any reason.

I've served on another denomination's finance committee for many years and the shortfall they're projecting for a church of this size is well within reason, and since they have five months to recitify the situation the notice given by the local newspaper is not justified and is poor journalism at best.

The Church, regardless of the denomination is an extremely important component of our society, so yes, it's needed and necessary.

spiritualastronomer said...

Apparently there was a television report last night as well.