The pandemic of the last twenty months has taken its toll on us all – as individuals and as a society. With our inability to come together as a community, UUCE has not been immune to some of the effects of becoming a “virtual” church. As we begin the process of coming together once again, we face a number of decisions that will define who we are as a church for many years to come.
For many years, I’ve wanted to be the kind of person that writes in a journal. The idea of leaving something behind for my future generations to learn more about me is very appealing – and over the years I’ve started and stopped the process a number of times in a variety of formats – both hand-written and electronic. Unfortunately, I’ve never been disciplined enough to create a daily habit that got me past more than a few entries a year.
Nevertheless, a few weeks ago I was digging through some old files when I found a journal entry from late 2008. At the time, I had been at my job for six years and had survived both a merger and a company-wide reorganization – but on the date of this entry, whether I would continue in my role was unknown. The housing market had recently imploded, the Great Recession was beginning, and the company was being forced to cut staff. On the date of this journal entry, employees were being called to the head of HR’s office like cattle lining up for the slaughter no one knew what to expect.
As I waited to see if I would be the next to be culled, I sat at my desk and imagined how my life was about to change. In some ways, it was like Schrodinger’s Cat – while we waited to be called, I both had a job and I didn’t. Two realities stretched out in front of me – in one, I would be back at my desk the next day and in the other I would be figuring out what to do next. In my journal entry, I noted that the entire day was almost like an out-of-body experience; I was an outsider looking at these different possibilities without any real attachment to the outcome. And as the day wore on and I become more and more convinced that my department would be eliminated, I found a sort of peace with it. I wasn’t afraid of the future – instead this felt less like an ending and more like a crossroads and an opportunity to reimagine my life and shape it the way I wanted.
Crossroads at UUCE
At about the same time that I was facing my personal crossroads, UUCE was about to experience one of their own. For a few years, we had been experiencing the same growth that the rest of the UUA had been – membership had been slowly growing and we were beginning the mental, spiritual, and organizational transition from a small, “pastoral” church to a mid-sized church – even going so far as discussing adding a second service because the sanctuary had grown too crowded.
Those of you that have been with us for a while know what came next – our minister of 25 years retired. Suddenly, we had to learn what it meant to be defined not by the person at the nominal head of the church, but by who we were and what we stood for as a community. Over the next decade, we worked to define our reason for being, both within our walls and in the greater community, as we transitioned from interim minister to settled minister to contract minister – each ringing with them their own strengths, perspectives, challenges, and above all, change.
The Series of Changes
Change – that angel of mercy that makes sure you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life. The elements of the service were changed – we added Time for All Ages and silenced Shared Reflection, the organizational structure was changed, the front doors were painted blue for goodness sake. And while many of us adapted and accepted and celebrated the changes, others quietly slipped away – presumably to wait until things had settled down.
And every year when the Stewardship Drive wrapped up, we’d look through the list of people that we hadn’t seen in a while and we’d tell ourselves all the logical reasons why they weren’t here. This person moved away. This person passed away. This family has two high-school aged children that are involved in lots of extracurriculars. This person started a new job that keeps them busy on Sunday mornings. But no matter the reasons, our results mirrored those that the UUA and religious institutions across America were experiencing. We weren’t adding new members fast enough to keep up with the loss of long-term members.
But, we had faith. When we looked at the annual directory, the members that were still active were the dedicated core that showed up on Sunday mornings and served on the committees and helped make UUCE who we are. We had lost some of the fringe members – people that we saw three or four times a year – but the heart and soul remained. And then came COVID.
When we first closed our building twenty months ago, society as a whole paused while we figured out what would come next. School was canceled, shopping was limited, and our personal calendars were suddenly wiped clean with only the essential activities remaining. That first month was scary yet invigorating at the same time, as we collectively learned new ways of interacting while socially distanced – the drive-by birthday parties, online board games, and meeting on Zoom.
But like everything new, the uniqueness wore off and we saw our Sunday morning attendance slowly dropping from week to week. As the months continued to pass, society as a whole developed Zoom fatigue, as those that had the opportunity to work from home didn’t want to spend their free time in front of a computer any longer. And as we looked at the list of people we hadn’t seen online or in-person in months, we told ourselves that when we reopen the doors, they’ll be back.
In Person Again
And now here we are, back in our sanctuary together for only the second time since March of 2020 – looking ahead at the future that is full of uncertainty. So what comes next?
Earlier this year, I was honored to be chosen as a member of the Ministerial Search Committee – a group of members tasked with organizing the search for our next Settled Minister. Unfortunately, after a couple of meetings it became obvious that our congregation wouldn’t be able to support a full-time settled minister based on our current income levels, so the group was disbanded.
When that happened, I’ll admit I had some doubts about the future of our church – and much like when my job was hanging in the balance, I began imagining what life without UUCE might look like. At first, I thought of all the “positives” I might experience – our household income would get a nice boost without our monthly pledge commitment; I’d get to spend more time with my family without a calendar filled with team and committee meetings; my weekends would feel fuller without Sunday morning services.
But as I imagined my life without all of those things, I also started to notice the holes that would be in my life – without Sunday services, I would miss the weekly opportunity to focus on the spirituality in the world around me and I was afraid I would become too “secular”; without the committees and teams, I would miss the opportunity to serve and make a difference in others’ lives; Hannah and Norah would miss out on growing up in a community that values a variety of different thoughts and experiencing the bonds of friendship that a strong youth group can produce; but most of all, I’d miss all of you.
Over the last 15 years, the majority of my friendships have been born at UUCE – and my social calendar is mostly filled with activities involving friends from this church. And while many of those friendships would probably continue to exist outside the walls of UUCE, there are many people I would probably rarely, if ever, see again.
And that’s why I keep showing up on Sunday mornings and at all the meetings and events in between – because I know that those holes couldn’t be easily filled if UUCE was no longer in my life.
The Questions to Ask Ourselves
So I ask you: why are you here? How would your life be different if UUCE no longer existed?
Hopefully like me, when you think about UUCE, you find that it’s a valuable part of your life. Which leads me to the next question.
Many years ago, I was a frequent listener of NPR. There was Morning Edition on my way to work, All Things to Consider on the way home, and Car Talk, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and This American Life on Saturday mornings. But as my daily commute grew shorter and shorter and as I began using streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, I found that I no longer listened to NPR as I once did – and once I stopped listening, I also stopped supporting them. My contributions had been merely transactional – and without getting something out of the deal, I didn’t feel the need to continue giving.
Occasionally though, I still find myself in the car listening to WBEZ and when I do, I realize how grateful I am that they still exist – and also how lucky I am that others find enough value in their existence to financially support them when I stopped. It’s only because of their continuing generosity that I can take advantage of the radio shows that I still enjoy.
The Next Crossroads
Over the last few years, membership in our church has been declining and the pandemic has potentially added to that trend. For the first time in the history of our church, we are a lay-led congregation – something that is exciting and new and full of potential, but also a little bit scary and not something we would have expected twelve months ago.
With fewer members, we have fewer volunteers and a smaller budget than ten or fifteen years ago – and the continuing existence of UUCE as we “used to be” isn’t something that can be assumed or taken for granted. So I ask you, if UUCE is something you value, if it’s an important, integral part of who you are, what are you willing to do to ensure it remains?
I hope you’ll agree that as we slowly emerge from the separation and isolation of the last year and a half into this new, post-pandemic world, UUCE isn’t facing an ending – it’s merely at another crossroads, something that it’s been through many times in the past – whether it’s due to fire damage in our Villa Street building or the widening of Randall Road forcing the sale of our farmhouse building.
Past generations of members have come together in times of hardship to ensure that UUCE was here in April of 2007 when my family first visited – and by coming together now, we can ensure that we will be here for future generations looking for a spiritual community to call home.
The Choice to Show Up
This morning, each of us made a choice; we could have stayed in bed or had an extra cup of coffee on the couch – but instead we came together online and in person to share in our worship service. For each of us, UUCE still offers something we value – whether it’s a chance to experience the spiritual world without dogma or creeds, or a chance for our children to grow surrounded by love and respect for all people, or an opportunity to take action against injustice, or just the chance to connect with others that share our values.
Something in these walls and in this community called to each of us this morning – and we showed up. And for our church to continue to be a liberal voice in Elgin for many years to come, that’s what it’s going to take. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” The journey ahead of us won’t be easy, but by continuing to show up with all of our creativity, imagination, support, and care and love for one another, we’ll have what it takes to sustain and grow our community in the years to come.
Here we are, gathered together again, standing at a crossroads. As we look behind us, we may feel a sense of sadness and miss the way things “used to be.” But as we turn around and face our future unwritten, this is our chance for a new beginning and a reimagining of our future.
What comes next for UUCE? That’s for each of us here to decide and be a part of. We don’t know what the future will look like, but we know that no matter what, if we approach it together as a community, “the stars will shine, birds will fly over us, and church bells will chime.”
May it be so.