Historical Visions -- Sunday, October 17, 1999

On the Occasion of Paint Branch UU Church's 45th Anniversary

Overview of Paint Branch UU Church History (Barbara Wells)

To tell the life story of a 45 year old person would be challenging. To tell the history of a 45 year old congregation is even more so. Such a history could be told from so many different perspectives, so many different strands of memory, that it can be told over and over again and still not be the same. But we tell the story nonetheless because such stories remind us that we are a part of something larger than ourselves. The story reminds us that this church began before most of us ever set foot in the door and will hopefully outlast even our youngest child.

For Jaco and me to tell you your history is a rather daunting project. We are new to this congregation, and we have had to learn its history through reading and hearing about the events of the past 45 years. We are still outsiders to this history though we are fast joining into its stream. But today, we are choosing to look at your history through our new eyes, and perhaps help you see yourselves as we see you at this moment in time.

Our primary focus this morning, in the sermon which is to follow, is on the past 15 years and the dreams and visions which emerged for you during that time. But in order for that to make sense, we felt it was critical to take a few moments and reflect on the earlier history of Paint Branch, the history that began on this day in 1954 when the first worship service was held by the Unitarian Center of College Park at the University of Maryland campus.

Most of this hardy band of pioneers had emerged from All Souls Church in Washington, DC which was then led by an extraordinary minister by the name of A. Powell Davies. Dr. Davies had a vision of spreading the good news of Unitarianism to the DC suburbs, and in the course of a few short years, most of the churches on the inside of the beltway were founded, Paint Branch among them.

As Jaco and I look at your history, we see three important themes: Religious Education, Social Action, and Ministry. Let me begin with Religious Education.

As a church founded in the midst of the baby boom, children were everywhere, even during those first few years. The "School of Religion" served 79 children during its first year and at its height in 1967 reached 307 young people. Excellent religious education leaders were chosen during those years, including current members Marge Owens, Lillian Lee and Marj Donn. Even the facility reflected this commitment to young people as the Religious Education wing was built first, in 1965, not to be followed by this adult meeting house until a full 25 years later. Children were important, and though there were a few lean years in the 1970's when church school enrollment began to drop, that eventually turned around and our religious education program continues to this day, under the able leadership of current DRE Abby Crowley, a strong and vital presence in the community.

Paint Branch also had a deep and abiding commitment to social justice. Its first minister, the Rev. David Osborn, was known for his compelling sermons on issues of the times (this was the 1960's!), but it was not just the minister who felt called to do good work in the world. For example, our own Marge Owens and Ottilie Van Allen were active in the Legislative Committee of Unitarian Universalists of Maryland which took on the Maryland legislature on many important issues. The PB Fellowship for Social Service worked with All Souls in DC to provide food, clothing and shelter for the needy and the PB Fellowship for Social Action worked to promote, among other things, fair housing and the development of the Maryland Human Rights Commission.

And, not surprisingly, the church developed a relationship with the UU Service Committee, participated in the many marches on Washington during the turbulent 60's, and started the Women's Center, which for many years provided much needed support for women in the community. Some of the names that appear in this part of our history that will sound familiar to you are Betty and the late Gordon Allen, Ruth Bond, and Ken and Lillian Lee.

And last but not least, Paint Branch has been a congregation which has honored and supported its professional ministers. From the beginning the congregation learned to appreciate good preaching by listening to A. Powell Davies' sermons through a telephone wire. When calling their first minister in 1957, they chose the young David Osborn, who with his wife Janet became an important force not only here at Paint Branch but also in the entire DC community. David was followed by the quieter but no less significant Rick Kelley, who, along with his wife Mary Ann, led the congregation both during the lean times of the 1970's but also through the new growth of the 1980's.

Virginia Knowles, now retired and a member of this church, led Paint Branch ably as an interim after Rick's 20 year tenure and she was followed by Rod Thompson, who with his wife Mary brought a kind and graceful presence to this community, marked by the change brought about by the move into this lovely meeting house. Last year the venerable John Burciaga led you through change once again to the place we now stand-with Jaco and me as your new settled co-ministers, with 45 years of history behind us and an unknown but exciting future ahead of us in the 21st century.

Where does this past lead us? That will be the grist for our sermon which is to follow.

 

Historical Visions

- a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove -
- Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church - Oct. 17, 1999 -

 

Fifteen years ago, this congregation was involved in a process that led to the creation of a 26-page

"Report from the Long Range Planning Committee,"

which landed in April of 1985. A decade later, in the fall of 1995, after another elaborate process of discussion and input, called "Decisions for Growth," the congregation agreed upon a set of

"Approved Congregational Goals."

Each of these dramatic statements contained a healthy dose of objectives, strategies, steps, even tactics-all pointing toward implementation of the common goals, arrived at so painstakingly.

This morning, without the time to adequately present these documents in their fullness, we hope to briefly portray some important aspects that have emerged for us in our study of them these last few months. While I provide a narrative Barbara will be the Voice of History. Everything you hear from her in this portion of the sermon will be quotes from either of the two reports [indented italics].

One word they do not seem to contain is VISION, yet there is a vision of Paint Branch UU Church that is embodied in their message. Our humble ambition today is to remind you of these historical visions and locate ourselves on board the vessel that will carry us all in their direction.

"What should PB be in five years from now? How large a congregation should we be? Will we need a new building? Can we improve the one we are in? What program changes should be made to support our congregation? Do we need more staff? Should we stay just as we are? These are significant questions…"

Significant then, in 1985, and still. They ask about the shared vision for PB. But shared vision is not always easily accomplished in human community, perhaps especially among UUs. It tends to be best achieved when there is a shared process. Both these reports reflect a lot of good old process that certainly involved some of you here today.

Please stand or wave your hand if you had any connection at all with either the 1985 Long Range Planning Report or the Decisions for Growth Goals in 1995…

Now let me, as a representative of the newer generation of Paint Branchers, thank those of you who were here then for your care and commitment to the ongoing nurture of this important liberal religious church community. It is essential for any group that is alive and vital to periodically renew its sense of purpose by intentionally building the next steps toward a positive and invigorating future.

But it's not easy, and the results are not always fulfilling or do not always automatically unfold the way one might hope. This is a basic truism of all efforts that strive forward with any measure of ambition.

So we who are newer among you honor your fortitude and competence in gaining what ground was gained, especially the creation of this Meeting House, and we declare ourselves allies with you in sailing the next leg of the journey on this noble vessel.

But as Barbara and I have investigated these two envisioning efforts of the past 15 years, with an eye toward discerning what the next leg of the journey might involve, we don't really feel the need to reinvent what already exists. Thus, our focus today is on reminding you of what has already emerged as a coherent vision of yours, as we look at your historical statements from some new angles, hopefully revitalizing them. Wise navigators of the past have pointed this ship in what looks to us like a very worthwhile, if challenging direction, one that we affirm.

So let's see what some of the specific pieces of those two reports suggested, starting with the 1985 Long Range Plan, which described three fundamental

"options [embodying] three different philosophies: no growth, moderate growth and
high growth."

With good rationale, the report recommended the middle option: moderate growth,

"setting a target of approximately 350 [members] by the year 1990. This would represent a congregation larger than we have ever been, and if we continued to grow some in the years after 1990, leveling off at, say, 425… The Committee feels this is a challenging but achievable goal."

(For reference sake, the current membership is around 270, which is also about what it was in 1985.) The report then makes two substantial assumptions. A:

"In order to accommodate a congregation of this size, we would either have to modify our existing building [point to the RE Building], or build another building."

And B:

"Under this option it will be necessary for us to concentrate on expanding membership as rapidly as possible."

As may be obvious, the unfolding of the years thereafter led to the construction of this magnificent building, but not to any increase in total membership. One suspects that the good energy and strong commitment required to enact the vision of a new facility were so large as to eclipse the congregation's ability to attend to other, less concrete visions, such as membership growth.

But the strategies were there, in this Report. The deeper vision was there, imagining a church community with greater activity and organization, to support and inspire a significant net growth curve.

Along with the seeds of the building project, the Report also specified 7 strategies to

"improve the financial condition of PBUC sufficiently to maintain the growth projected…"

and our light research suggests that good progress was made on all of them! However, the Long Range Planning Committee was realistic about what will ultimately sustain growth:

"Although we discussed the issues related to growth and finances first, the Committee recognizes the importance of the PBUC program… The extent [to which] we can develop interesting and varied programs will greatly determine whether or not we achieve our goals."

(Remember this insight, because it returns a decade later in the next planning process.) A number of cogent strategies toward building a stronger program were announced, and some got good attention, in the five categories of

"Membership/Publicity, Adult Programs, Children's Programs, Social Action [and] Organizational/Leadership."

The format of this Report was to be very specific about "tactics" that would advance the various objectives and strategies. Most of the suggestions were designed to take hold in one of the subsequent two years. Page after page shows a particular

"Interest Area"

and its scheduled implementation for

"Year 1984-85,"

followed by another section for the same area, only with a next wave of suggestions for

"Year 1985-86."

There was an implicit assumption that if these tactics were employed as scheduled, the years after that would unfold accordingly, and indeed, many productive pieces of our current design can be traced to these roots.

However, there were three very large suggestions made that were each targeted to start up beyond the two years-out time frame, and thus there was virtually no implementation strategies identified. These three items share a common approach and were quite visionary, not to mention expensive. (So it's not hard to see how they were easily obscured by the demands of building a new Meeting House.) Let me line them up for you.

First: After noting the kinds and numbers of additional adult activity offerings that would sustain a strong program, the report recommends

"Hiring in 1986-87… a part-time Adult Programs Director to develop many of the above programs, as well as working closely with those church members who are part of [them]… It might [also] be advisable to create an "Adult Programs Council" to coordinate the many activities, and to act as a support group for the work of the Adult Programs Director [whose] starting [part-time] salary package would be probably in the neighborhood of $8,000 annually."

Second: The report affirmed the strength of the children's Religious Education curriculum and suggested some program beyond the Sunday School. This meant

"an emphasis on creating activities which would reinforce parent-child closeness through church activity. Programs designed for whole families, a parent education series, the development of groups of families supportive of each other, and… activities for single-parent families, were all proposed… [as well as RE] taught in part through involvement in socially responsible activities."

Many of these projects were, in fact, designed into the time frame of the following two years. But the Committee was again realistic about the ability of volunteers to fully enable all this visionary activity.

"A five year plan was generated which incorporated the above ideas and added the goal of a full-time [Religious Education] Director by 1990… [T]his position would be justified by the expansion of membership resulting from greater publicity and from the above program additions."

Third: In the beginning of the section on Organizational/Leadership, the Report acknowledged that

"the Board of Trustees spends too much time on daily operations of the church. [Its] function is to make policy, make decisions concerning finance, solve major problems and [make] decisions concerning the health and direction of the church."

After assessing the failure of a previous attempt to address this issue through the organizing of a Church Council, the Report determined a new approach:

"To solve this problem [the Board spending too much time on daily operations], [we] recommend that an Executive Director position be established… to coordinate the activities of the committees, strengthen the weak ones and generally handle the details of committee work… The Executive Director would be a volunteer at first, with the objective of a full-time paid staff member by 1990."

Doesn't that sound good?! As does an Adult Programs Director and a full-time RE Director! My point in reminding you of these visions is that 15 years ago, the church was feeling the pinch on volunteer time, as were many other churches all over America. And it hasn't gotten any easier since then, either. Many congregations, especially growing ones, are seeking to make precious volunteer time ever more effective by broadening staff support.

It was logical for this Report to suggest adding staff time to accommodate the new realities of church life, and some important gains have been made, like the additions of a Sunday Service Manager and a Handyman. But specific "strategies" and "tactics" toward growing these three particular positions-especially the Adult Programs Director-were harder to implement, especially in the shadow of a major building campaign, which successfully brought this beautiful space into being.

Now, having that notorious virtue of hindsight, one wonders, though, if the Long Range Planners weren't on to something that could indeed have altered the course of events to follow. If the congregation-you-had had the even greater audacity to not only build this building but also add a bunch more program staff at the same time, do you think that there would have been net growth in membership between then and now? I sure do.

But let's be real, folks. This was a very ambitious Plan, all told, full of inspiring and worthwhile but demanding visions. You should not feel the slightest bit of dishonor in not reaching all the goals outlined herein. Visions take time to come to life. And it's always easier to tackle the concrete ones, such as buildings and finances, first. Program and leadership visions are often stashed behind the physical and financial ones. What I'd call "institutional fortitude" is always required to go after deeper visions.

I also got to thinking about the history of ambition here. Looking way back I see how, in one four year stretch leading up to 1960, you called your first minister, built a parsonage and held a capital campaign to buy this land. That's a tough model to reenact! So maybe because your first generation of lay leaders were successful in those multiple ambitions, that experience might then have led you, as a system, to think you could still cover a bunch of projects simultaneously, this many years later. Perhaps.

But let's stay in the near present, and jump a decade from that Long Range Report of the mid-80s into the mid-90s and take a few glances at the most recent generation's planning report. This statement resulted from a series of input gathering sessions that were collectively designed as the "Decisions for Growth" process. We've gotten the distinct impression that this process was even more involving and inclusive that the one 10 years earlier.

At a meeting almost exactly four years ago, the congregation approved four goals, and highlighted four others that just didn't quite make the top quartet. And what do you know, they all basically reflect aspects of the earlier Long Range Planning Report! Primary in this 1995 report, once again, is the issue of growth. The first goal is:

"Increase membership by a net of at least 20 members a year."

Hmmm. The particular steps suggested to fulfill this goal echo many of the same suggestions made 10 years earlier.

"Provide enhanced programming… Increase publicity… assist the fullest integration of new and old members into the life of the congregation…"

This restated goal was, in effect, a testimonial to the lack of net growth during the previous decade and that better programming was still a very real need. Recall the insight from the earlier Report, that attaining growth goals depended upon providing an effective program.

Meanwhile, the second top vote getter was very responsibly pragmatic:

"Within three years, reduce the fraction of the budget devoted to debt service to 25% or less."

This was successfully accomplished by a small capital campaign, and along with it came some other good ideas, like establishing the new Endowment Fund. You met this goal head on and triumphed. This is a generous and financially responsible congregation.

The third goal is a tricky one but you've also been active in addressing it:

"Within two years, change governance, staffing, and administration to become more responsive to our needs as a mid-sized church."

The earlier 1985 Report did not have that language, but pointed in the same direction, toward a higher functioning, more effective institution. This still begs a larger question, however: How many of you know what "our needs" ARE "as a mid-sized church"? What does being "mid-size" mean? Your Structure Streamlining group is a strong resource here, and this may still take some further examination and education, but it is a good goal to go after. As is the fourth one:

"Within two years, develop more bridges between the RE community (children, youth, parents and teachers) and the broader church community."

This clearly reflects a similar desire from 10 years earlier, adding the helpful catch word, "bridges," which is a good image, especially when a church has a physical arrangement that separates the RE wing from the worship space, which is still a relatively new arrangement for you. It's all too easy to let that divide become a chasm. A church community must be intentional, creative and forthright about building bridges among the generations. It doesn't just happen. And it takes leadership.

The Decisions for Growth report says it this way:

"Provide opportunities for youth, children and adults to interact as one church."

But it does not say who is supposed to provide these opportunities. Both reports stress the importance of this aspect of a church community, but only the 1985 statement suggests a leadership solution: a full-time RE Director (by 1990, no less). Such an expansion of professional RE leadership would, indeed, go a long way toward helping enact this vision of what we call a "pan-generational community," spanning all the ages. (Currently the DRE works 24 hours a week and has an 8 hour assistant.)

This issue is a good example of how we might apply to church life the age-old question of "Which-came-first-the chicken-or-the-egg?" and it will provide me with my final point in looking over all this juicy material. For instance, should the church fund an expansion of professional RE leadership only when growth in numbers has occurred and "justifies" it? Or should staff expansion be funded in order to create growth in the program? One is reactive staffing (a very reasonable approach), and the other pro-active, or what has been called "staffing for growth."

Both of these planning reports combine elements of being reactive and pro-active. That is, they necessarily respond to problems that exist and they try to anticipate beyond immediate dilemmas and point toward benign structures that will sustain the vision over time.

When any of us react to something, we tend to see what it is we're reacting to. It's often there in front of us, jumping up and down and saying things like, "Hey! Fix me now!" So a reactive leadership posture is appropriate. For instance, the next highest priority in the Decisions for Growth list was to

"develop and implement a sustainable plan for maintenance and expansion of our facilities."

This is definitely an appropriate reaction to the lack of a maintenance plan for this demanding physical plant. There are water leaks still jumping up and down in front of us. We're trying to react effectively. This is very important, not to mention prudent, and deserves its own prioritization.

But inspirational visions, such as, say,

"net membership growth,"

OR
"the fullest integration of new and old members into the life of the congregation,"

OR
"youth, children and adults [interacting] as one church,"

OR
"an Adult Programs Council to coordinate the many activities,"

-these are not existing, concrete items that you can feast your eyes on and affirm or address. No, you have to imagine what such things might look like and then pave the way for them, pro-actively. This is a whole different shape of challenge, calling forth different kinds of leadership and planning than purely reactive modes. A strong church will feature both styles of leadership.

But a reality of human nature is that if you don't know what you're missing, you're less likely to prioritize it. Do you know what you're missing here? What are your visions for PBUUC in the 21st century?

I invite you into a moment of silence now, before Barbara wraps this up. Perhaps you might bring into focus in your inner vision an image or two of what might be ahead for this free church alongside the Paint Branch…

 

Closing Reflections (adapted in delivery to accommodate fleeting time)

So what do we see, as we look into our shared future?

The 45 years you have spent here together show a deep and abiding commitment to our UU principles and heritage. We believe that Paint Branch's vision will continue to be one of offering the saving message of Unitarian Universalism to people in our community who long for a church which values the liberal religious journey.

But the way in which together we live out our saving message will likely change, just as it did from era to era in your 45 years of life together. That's normal. And if we want to continue to grow and sustain ourselves as a strong and vital presence in the community, we suggest that it will likely reflect the past from which you've sprung.

So let me return to where I started with the three themes which emerged from the last 45 years at Paint Branch: the themes of Religious Education, Social Action and Ministry.

We believe that the vision which has emerged from your past is pointing Paint Branch toward the ideal of becoming a truly pan-generational community. What this means is that while we hope your commitment to your religious education program for children will remain steadfast, we imagine that together we might build bridges between the ages in new and different ways.

Can we begin to work at developing even more multi-age activities which bring young people into contact with their magnificent elders? Can we encourage our young people to get even more involved in making the world a better place, and work alongside them? And can we find ways to support a spiritual education for all ages?

There are many ways you are already living out this vision, and the upcoming Youth Walk for the Homeless is just one good example. We like to think that in the next few years this church will become even more committed to religious education and to building a spiritual community across and for all the generations.

We also believe that Paint Branch will continue to be a force for good in the world far into the future. You do so much already - particularly in the area of human rights. Imagine if that spirit blossoms even more in the future and we find ourselves at the forefront of important justice issues such as welfare and healthcare reform, outreach to troubled youth, and abolishing the death penalty? Already we see the commitment here in such programs as Warm Nights and your Sexual Minority Youth program.

As you look into the future, can you see a church where every member and friend finds a way to give back to the community through their service and their resources? We're not far from that vision, and we are excited to walk on that path with you.

And finally, we believe that Paint Branch will continue to be a place where ministry is supported and honored. While we hope our professional ministry among you will be valuable, we want to challenge you to see beyond our co-ministry to a ministry truly shared among all the members of this beloved community. Clearly, your past shows us how deeply you believe in the gifts the laity have to bring the church. You have done so much together to create a living, growing community which still stands as a blessing here today.

Now the future awaits. Can we invite you to continue to give your gifts by offering them in ministry to this church we all serve? We see ministry in so much you already do. In the love showered on a sick member, in the care taken to create a beautiful setting for our worship together, even in the day to day business conducted by your church officers-this is ministry. Can we imagine that the next 45 years will offer even more people a chance to bring their different kinds of ministry to this place? We can, and hope you can, too.

Clearly, you have expressed through your plans over the past 15 years a desire to spread the good news of our liberal faith to even more people than we currently serve. To do so won't come without some cost; change is always challenging. But if we grow as an active, pan-generational community, grow in our commitment to social justice and service, and grow in our shared ministry, then it is likely we will grow in numbers, particularly if we support that growth through staffing, program, and organization.

We stand ready to walk with you on the path you have been forging for the past 45 years. We look forward to seeing where it takes us. We hope you're excited, too.

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