Archive for February, 2009

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.”

Nancy Haught; nancyhaught@news.oregonian.com

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,” http://onedayisle.blogspot.com 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….


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My time here in Southern California is coming to an end. Next Sunday I’ll begin my drive back to Oklahoma and my new life in a house instead of the small motorhome. To say I’m excited to be going back would be an understatement. However, to say I don’t have mixed feelings about it would be an even bigger understatement. Half the time my stomach quivers when I think of what I’m doing: moving to an area where I have only a few friends, no relatives, and almost no idea of what I’m going to discover about myself.

Most people start from scratch at about age 18 or so, renting their first apartment or house, finding furniture at a thrift store or cadging from friends or family. They begin their first job, making little money. I’ve been there, done that, a LONG time ago. Between then and now, I’ve lived in and owned quite a few houses, some of them quite large. I’ve bought furniture, some of it excellent quality and fairly expensive. I’ve lived with two husbands (not at the same time) and raised a family. And, I’ve also sold and given away almost everything and moved into this motorhome.

Life on the road has been almost always fun–at least an adventure–for the past two years. But now it’s time to settle down again. It’s that little voice inside telling me it’s time for a change. And I’ve learned to pay attention to that little voice as it’s usually always right.

But, during the past few weeks I’ve found myself close to tears many times when I think about what I’m doing, where I’m going, how many people I’ll be leaving behind here. I know I’m doing the right thing for me at this particular time. I’m moving to a place where the cost of living is much, much lower than Southern California, where I just cannot afford to live any longer. I have a wonderful long-time friend whom I’ll miss more than he can possibly ever imagine. I don’t know when we’ll see each other again or what situation we’ll both be in if/when we do get together. And that makes me very, very sad. Yet, I need to do this.

I’m leaving my mother behind here in her own home where she’s lived for many, many years. That is also going to be hard. Yet, I need to do this. I’m leaving behind several other friends whom I will also miss. And yet I need to do this.

For what it’s worth, I can only hope that things will work out well for everyone. I feel good about the move. And yet the tears continue to flow, as I’m sure they’ll do for quite a while.

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Geocaching Fun

I went geocaching for the first time several months ago, with a friend I met in Kansas. She showed me the rudiments of using her GPS unit and trusted me to be her navigator while she drove to various caches. It was a lot of fun; we got to explore several places I never would have experienced just driving around.

A friend gave me a GPS unit as a late Christmas present last month and I finally figured out, through reading the directions and by trial and error, how to make it work. I learned to enter waypoints and coordinates, and how to navigate using those waypoints. Wow! This is like magic.

I found the geocaching website, Geocaching: The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site and began searching for caches in the area. So many of them so close. It made me wish I had my pickup with me or that my friend with the 4WD vehicle could take time off in the middle of the week. However, I’m up here at the Desert Tower, overlooking the freeway, surrounded by rocks, rocks, and more rocks. The cache sites appear to all be right off the freeway in those rocks. But, there’s no way I’m going to risk walking on the side of the freeway, especially with tight curves going downhill and no shoulders. So, most of those caches will have to wait.

However, I have found three nearby, the latest one this morning. The first was very, very close to the Tower and quite easy to find. The second one I found across the road, hidden under a huge boulder. That one required some rock scrambling but it, too was fairly easy to find. The third one stumped me, though. I double-checked that I’d entered the coordinates correctly and everything seemed to be in order. But there was just no way I could find the cache. So, I gave up on that one, until this morning.

Yesterday we spent time out in the desert with the 4WD vehicle, searching for three caches and finding two of them.

We drove out to the location of the first one but couldn’t find anything. Since we found people target shooting nearby and lots of destroyed junk from that shooting, we figured that the cache had been destroyed. So, we gave up on that one and drove out to the location of the other two caches.

One of those required quite a long hike. Since we had four little dogs with us with their short little legs, there was no way they’d have been able to walk the 3/4 mile to the cache. So, my friend took three of them back to the car, leaving one of them with me. He assumed I’d wait there until he could find a way to drive the car down into that area of desert. I waited–and waited–and finally just started walking towards the cache site, carrying the little dog under my arm. Since I could see the car perfectly, I just assumed my friend could also see me. Wrong.

Anyway, that little Pekinese started getting kind of heavy. I kept switching arms, even put him down to walk. However, he didn’t last very long doing that. We finally reached the coordinates and found the cache easily under a small bush. I wrote my screen name in the small logbook, chose a small trinket from the cache, and replaced it with one of my own. We then started walking back. I could still see the car.

By that time I was getting kind of thirsty; it wasn’t really hot yesterday, but the day was pretty warm and I had water in the car. And, that little dog was getting REALLY heavy; my arm started to feel like rubber. The dog and I finally made it back and found that my friend hadn’t been able to see us at all. We both agreed that next time we’d also take cell phones. I drank a bottle of water and we were ready to find the next cache.

It was very easy to find–up in a tree. I let my friend search for that one. We hiked back on an old railroad track, finding quite a few old, rusty railroad spikes along the way that had somehow been dislodged. So, yesterday was successful. The GPS unit worked beautifully and I had become more familiar with what it could do.

This morning I got up early and walked back to the site I had searched before. This time I looked around more carefully and finally found what I’d been searching for. There it was, the tiny little pill bottle covered with camouflage-colored tape to keep the magnet from falling off. I won’t give away the location or what was inside. However, I gave myself a couple of high-fives on the way back.

Now to find more.

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