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Not Too Close to Call

February 7, 2011

It’s so nice to be able to sit and write a post about what an affirming, focused and productive annual meeting we just had at Franklin Federated Church. If I could say anything negative, it was just that more people could have been there! This is not an annual meeting like churches had twenty years ago, when annual meetings got such a bad rap. This was very different. People cheered the successes of the year. We came into the meeting missing some Deacons (in terms of numbers on the board) and without someone confirmed for Moderator, and folks stepped up for both ministries. The spirit in the room was just great.

We voted for salary increases for all staff, reminding them (and me) of how much we appreciate what they have done this year on our behalf. For my part, the increase was significant enough to be humbling. And the vote to accept the budget was unanimous with no abstentions. Does that mean NO ONE thought the increases might have been excessive? Not necessarily. This is New England. We know how to keep silent when we’re worried that we might be the only ones speaking up. But it felt genuine and pervasive: yes, the world is in challenging financial times. Yes, the future is not secured 100%; but on the other hand, yes, our church is growing, and we raised thousands more this year than we thought we would.

I’m not foolish enough to think that our financial health is an indicator of our worth as a church. There are many wealthy churches with little or no spirit to show for all their largess. There are churches spending down bloated endowments, without vision for where they are headed. But at Franklin Federated, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in a spirit of warmth and welcome has become a passion. We are rallying around our church and we’ll find news ways to minister to our community in the coming years.

One vote, though, was NOT unanimous, and that was the vote around the United Church of Christ dues. This is important to note, because it highlights some of the interesting and unique ways that FFC is federated. When you join our church, you join either the First Congregational (United Church of Christ) or the First Baptist (American Baptist Churches, USA) Churches of Franklin. For some folks the differences matter not a whit. For others, they have a historic connection to one denomination or the other, and it makes sense for them to join that one. Either way, you are still a member of the Franklin Federated Church.

You would barely ever notice the difference, except that on the first Sunday of February, each church has an individual annual meeting, and then the two come together for lunch and a joint meeting. It might sound redundant to an outsider, but it really is fun, and it allows to draw from the strengths and traditions of both groups.

The other major difference is in dues. The United Church of Christ still has a fairly robust structure, especially in our local association (Central) and in the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC (MACUCC). To maintain that structure and the services that it offers, churches are levied a “per adult member” fee. This year, it’s around $18. With 200-plus members in the UCC part of our church, that means roughly $4o00. We’ve casually and quietly asked folks to contribute to offset their dues directly, but we typically get back only about $1000.

So this year, someone put to vote that the Federated Church make up the difference “if all our financial obligations have been met and there is still money to do so.” The vote was close, but not too close: 12 to 14 in favor of having the church make up the difference.

Any time a vote is that close, it’s important to think it through, and I take the opposition to the idea seriously; no, the Baptists technically shouldn’t have the Federated Church money used to pay those dues…but yes, they do benefit from the denomination, such as when a new minister is called, when we need resources, even (God forbid) in dispute resolution within congregations. And on the other side of things, it looks even more outrageous, because our dues on the ABC side are about $50, and the local denomination still does what it can for churches (though they’ve been severely downsized through the years–maybe they should be asking for what the UCC is asking)!

But we put it to a vote, and it carried. Per our by-laws, other than a decision to fire the minister (eek) a majority vote of members gathered as the church at the annual meeting is all the quorum we need. In light of all that, two things come to my mind as pastor:

FIRST: I don’t ever intend for us to pay that from the funds of the Franklin Federated Church. If we’re making up anything, it should be to the tune of less than $300 or so, as in just to cover for those folks who forgot or for whom $18 per adult in their household is money they don’t have to spend. Rather than have the church pay out $3000, I’d like to see us reach out more intentionally to our UCC membership, to remind them of the dues, and to make it clear that the denomination still gets much of its support from local churches. We need to be clearer about this when new members join the church, and we need to remind our steady members of the commitment.

SECOND, we’ve got to do more to raise the profile of the UCC in our local church. We have lots of folks going to various meetings and events and trainings, but most of that happens outside of Franklin Federated. We need to bring staff in more, and spend more time praying for the work and witness of the denomination. I think we should probably start using our Ministry Moments before we take our offerings to highlight different aspects of both our denominations, and how are contributions help them achieve important outreach. Then when it’s time to ask for our UCC/FCC members to pay those dues, they see the value and can contribute with a glad heart.

There were good arguments on both sides to vote yes or no on this one. I’m also grateful that we are blessed with a church that can speak about things civilly, air out differences, and then abide by whatever vote we take. It’s so rare to see a real democracy in action, and we did it this Sunday!

Congratulations again to all the new Team members, with warm thanks to so many folks who have served so faithfully for many years. You are all Franklin Federated, and you are all beloved.

Prayer:

God, thank you so much for Franklin Federated Church. Thank you for bringing these two paths together into one, and for helping us to walk it with charity and grace. Grant us strength and courage for the coming year, that we might continue to spread the Good News of Your Son to Franklin and beyond. Amen.

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