The UUCF Budget Dilemma - Years in the Making

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax (Va.) is facing a budget shortfall. The board of directors has decided to address the issue by cutting several staff members, including the Rev. Christin Green, the Assistant Minister for Congregational Life.

This essay by longtime UUCF member James Hood reflects his personal views. It may be circulated freely to anyone interested in the issue.

When my wife Joan Lisante and I joined UUCF back in the 1980s, we never dreamed that we would grow up to become “pledging units,” (“households” is what they’re more politely called) but here we are, so we decided to take a look at the Jan. 10 Zoom meeting regarding the staff cutbacks.

When we signed the membership book, UUCF (then called FUC) was a somewhat fractious, even unruly congregation of about 600 souls but growing fast and enjoying its status as an intellectually vigorous and truth-seeking group. It was proudly non-doctrinal and lay-led, consisting of one or maybe two ministers, a music director and a handful of administrative staff, relying largely on volunteers for most other tasks.

The inmates led the institution, in other words. There was even a policy that church members could not be employees, thus avoiding potential conflicts of interest. But for a variety of reasons, we have been afflicted since then by creeping professionalism and by a growing class of “professional” administrators sandwiched in between the members and the ministers. This has in turn led to a growing number of committees – even a committee of committees. 

Coffee time

When we joined up, we were asked in no uncertain terms to “volunteer” to run the Sunday morning coffee service and did so for a few years. I later built UUCF’s first website, set up its email program, networked the office computers and maintained the software and machines, at virtually no cost to the congregation, with help from Mark Waser. There was some grousing from the staff that they didn’t have the latest and greatest computers, but the setup was adequate, reliable and very affordable. 

Besides stringing CAT-5 cable on weekends, we went on to teach Religious Education (RE) classes and served on the RE committee. I was the lay minister for RE for a few years. My goal was to inflate our numbers by counting the children in our programs, which took us perilously close to 1,000 members. 

Soon we were referring to ourselves as a “big” church – big by UU standards anyway. This may  be what set off the drive to “professionalize” our administration while paradoxically adding church members to the payroll. Presumably, these people would have worked as volunteers if we asked them to. No? Well then, maybe they shouldn’t be on the payroll. 

Has this organizational bloat resulted in improved performance? Apparently not, given the sorry condition of the congregation's finances and its dwindling membership. I would argue that it has also taken quite a bit of passion out of UUCF’s life. If we want our pledging units to be fully active in the life of the congregation, they should participate in doing the heavy lifting that keeps the place running.

Money’s not free

This is especially true when it comes to getting those pledging units operating at peak efficiency. I was shocked when, a few years ago, it was announced that the annual pledge drive wasn’t being held and that, instead, everyone’s pledge would be carried over to the next year, with a slight increment to meet rising costs. (I may not have the details quite right but it was something like that).

Contrast that to earlier years, when lay leaders would literally visit congregants in their homes, chatting them up, getting to know them, finding out what they liked and didn’t like and, finally, asking them to increase their pledge. I did it. It worked. Obviously, the pandemic required a hiatus but other methods are available, including phone calls, emails and Zoom meetings. 

The elimination of the in-person fund drive happened about the time we had a medical emergency in our family. My wife’s mother had fallen ill and needed 24-hour nursing care, leaving us to pony up several thousand dollars per month for several years – not an easy thing for a retired elderly couple to do. Our existing UUCF pledge was a few thousand dollars and I spoke with a UUCF employee who said she would make a note of our need for a moratorium. 

However, we continued to receive automated notices concerning our failure to meet our pledge. I had a few similar conversations with staff people I didn’t know and who didn’t know me and finally just gave up and continued sending whatever we could spare. Our relation with UUCF came to resemble what one might have with a collection agency.

We’re now in a position to increase our pledge again but don’t plan to, our passion for UUCF (and apparently vice versa) having gone cold.

Professional communicators

In a similar vein, communications from the church have grown “professional” – meaning that they appear to be generated via templates where one need only plug in the relevant facts, not bothering to add any personal notes. Founding members of the congregation have died with little more than a four-line email notice, and with no input from the ministers or lay leaders. 

And speaking of communications, I noticed in the job-reduction announcement that the webmaster was among the casualties. Out of habit, I sent Rev. Dave an email saying I would be glad to fill in if the church needed help keeping the site alive. I received a very official response from the UUCF communications director informing me that my application would be considered in due course, basically. I promptly wrote back withdrawing it. 

I don’t mind saying that, beside building UUCF’s IT system, I have designed and built an impressive number of high-end websites as part of communications programs addressing governmental, social and public health issues. I was slightly perturbed by the off-the-cuff reply to my email and also irked that Rev. Dave apparently thought so little of it that he simply passed it ott to someone else, not taking the trouble to drop me a one-line reply saying, “Thanks Jim. Much appreciated. Will keep you posted.”

I wasn’t surprised though. Rev. Dave has never responded to any of the four or five emails I have sent him since meeting him at a dinner for high-end donors. I don’t remember what any of these emails were about but I don’t really think they were so frivolous that they didn’t deserve even a canned response.

The ministers

This brings me to perhaps the saddest and most perplexing part of this affair. During the Zoom meeting, a board member referred to the ministers as the church’s “managers” in discussing the surprising decision to terminate Rev. Christin Green and keep Rev. Dave. They’re not managers, they are the true professionals – just as doctors, lawyers, accountants and so forth are the professionals in their firms, not the lowly managers who keep the gears greased so the professionals can minister to the needs of their clients or congregants.

Rev. Dave was quite clear in his explanation that, since he is the “called minister” chosen by the congregation, only the congregation – not the board – can remove him or modify the terms of his engagement. I thought his next statement would be that he was asking the congregation to allow him to reduce his compensation by a significant amount with a challenge to the congregation to match that amount in new pledges over the next few months, thus keeping Rev. Green serving our congregation. 

Or maybe, I thought, he will simply resign in solidarity with his respected colleague. As we know, neither of those things happened, sadly. 

All in all, it was a depressing spectacle. The board sounded like they were in training to take over the Office of Personnel Management, Rev. Dave sounded defensive and Rev. Green was not heard from. The congregation, which had not been consulted in advance, ranged from disappointed to angry.

It reminded me of the newspapers that, confronted with falling ad revenue, cut their reporting staff so they can buy new delivery trucks. It was, if you ask me, an inappropriate response to a situation that should not have been allowed to develop.