If I Had a Million Dollars

If I Had a Million Dollars
Rev. Douglas Taylor

The story is told of a millionaire, back when a million dollars was a lot of money, who was on his deathbed. He gathered his family around him and told them to bring him all his money and heap it around him on the bed. They tried to argue with him but he waved them off saying, “I know they say ‘you can’t take it with you’ but I don’t believe that. I’m going to take it with me.” Later that day he died and when he arrived at the pearly gates he excitedly waved his money around for everyone to see. “They said I couldn’t do it, but I did it!” St. Peter came over with a sad expression on his face. “Sir,” he said, “you don’t understand. Up here that money is worthless. The only thing that counts up here is receipts.” It matters little how much you have, it’s what you do with what you’ve got!

A few years back two of my cousin’s children in junior high had an interesting school assignment. They had to imagine they had a million dollars and they had to account for how they would spend it. One of the rules was that we needed to spend all of it. So they were looking through magazines and clipping advertisements for cars, houses, clothes, cruises, and all manner of expensive items. I don’t remember all the details of how they choose to spend their imagined money. In leading up to this morning’s topic, I asked my two oldest children, out of curiosity, what they would do if either of them suddenly had a million dollars. After paying off the house and the car, and buying a new big harp, they figured they would give a least half of it away to help other people have places to live. And then put the rest in savings toward collage.

If you suddenly had a million dollars, you would probably use it first to pay off debts and make necessary improvements, for example you might be driving a real junker and could suddenly be able to trade it in for a new, more reliable, economic and environmentally friendly car (and pay for it outright!) What next? Maybe a long postponed vacation or special trip. Then again you might take early retirement or go back to school depending on where you are in your life. Perhaps you would spread it around, offering to help your kids, sort of an early inheritance. I understand gifts of less than $10,000 are non-taxable. Maybe you would invest the money and try to make more!

I know my family would be doing a number of these suggestions and many more as well. I would also be so happy to finally be able to properly support the local public radio and public television stations, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Red Cross, and all those organizations that send me free mailing labels and ask for my money. Oh, and my church. You knew I was going to say that eventually. We ministers are so predictable that way.

Churches are so valuable for people. Congregations are havens for individuals seeking support in a difficult world. They are important to the society at large in that they provide a place for people that is not home and is not work. They are an alternative to bars and coffee shops for folks. I think the first time I heard this idea articulated this way in Robert Putnam’s book “bowling Alone.”

In his book from four years back, Putnam critiques American society and the degradation of what he terms “social capital.” He makes it clear that this degradation is taking place, this decline in social and civic participation. He also looks at several reasons why it is happening.

One of the possible excuses for this decline in societal participation and association is money. I sat down last week and read the section of his book where he considers the possibility of blaming it all on money. What Putnam finds is this: “financial anxiety is associated not merely with less frequent movie-going – perhaps the natural consequence of a thinner wallet – but also with less time spent with friends, less card playing, less home entertainment, less frequent attendance at church, less volunteering, and less interest in politics.” Interestingly, he does not say that low income is associated with this long list of disassociation; he does not say an outright lack of money makes you antisocial. He says financial anxiety is the culprit. Now, to be sure, a person with a low income will tend to have financial anxiety, but I know many middle income people who have considerable financial anxiety as well.

A survey Putnam refers to compares 74% of people in 1975 who agreed to the statement, “Our family income is high enough to satisfy nearly all our important desires;” to the 61% of people in 1999 who agreed with that statement. Despite a remarkable increase in financial well-being and societal prosperity over the twenty-five years between, there is a significant decrease in people’s sense of financial satisfaction. How about you? Would agree with the statement that your family income is high enough to satisfy nearly all your important desires? Do you have considerable worries about your family or personal financial situation?

And according to the findings, people with money worries tend )among other things) to stay away from church. Did you know that a significant number of Jesus’ parables concern the use of material possessions. For someone who is promoted as having been all about salvation and eternal life, Jesus spent an inordinate amount of time feeding people and helping them sort out their financial priorities. Many of those parables and sayings are variations on the theme: don’t let a love for money get in the way of a love for God.’ Another category of money sayings deal with what many refer to as God’s preferential option for the poor. One of Jesus’ best aphorism that mixes these two sentiments is this: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34 and Matt 6:21) It is interesting don’t you think, that he did not say, ‘if your heart is in the right place, you will use your treasure in good and holy ways.’ No, he said, ‘follow the money and you will learn what really matters to a person!’

So, what would we do as a congregation if we suddenly had a million dollars? Where do we put our money and what does that say about what really matters to us as a community? “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If we really had a million dollars suddenly given to us we would probably put it into our endowment or perhaps into a capital reserve fund in anticipation of making major capital improvements to this building. But what if we had the same assignment my cousin’s children had whereby we were required to spend it all and show our receipts? Where would the money go?

Currently our annual budget is a little under a quarter of a million dollars, two hundred forty one thousand eight hundred and thirteen dollars to be exact. If we had more money what would we do? Well, I don’t have an official list to look at and tell you the answer to that question. Typically I would. Typically when we get to this point in a pledge drive campaign here at UUCB, there has been a proposed budget prepared and numbers have been crunched and the pledge drive committee lets us all know what we are shooting for and by how much we would each need to raise our pledges to meet that goal.

This year, we’re turning that around. This year instead of asking you to meet the proposed budget increases, we are asking each of you to consider this question: How much are you called to give? Instead of focusing on what the church needs to receive, we ask you to consider what you need to give for your own spiritual development. Next week when the Rev. Dick Gilbert is in our pulpit you will hear all about that message. This week I want to tell you what effect our generosity could have on our plans.

I offer three areas were we could use more money in our budget, three ideas about what we could be doing with our money if we are find ourselves with a significant increase over this current year. One possibility is that we will move the parking lot rent off budget onto a separate maintenance reserve fund of some sort. (Parking lot rent, what is he talking about? I am sure many of you know what I am talking about, but some surely do not.) About two years ago we renegotiated a lucrative rental contract with our next door neighbor, Lourdes hospital, for their use of our large back parking lot. By lucrative I mean we have been receiving between 15 and 20 thousand dollars a year from them for the use of our lot. Now compared with a six-digit budget, 20 thousand is not that much (it accounts for 8% of this year’s income). If we do move it off budget, which I understand to be a fiscally sound idea that I hope we find ourselves debating later this spring, there will be a commensurate gap on the income side of our budget for us to fill. Of course we can continue to use that money toward operating costs, but there is no guarantee that money will continue to be available to us in the future. If we can, I would like to see us saving that rental income toward bigger projects such as renovations and improvements to our facility.

Idea # 2: two thirds of our budgeted expenses are for personnel. This is standard for many congregations, the main expense is for staff. Even if we hold our own on the income side of our budget from this year to the next, we’ll fall behind simply because of the increases in cost of living, such as insurance premiums. There will not need to be too much financial attention to personnel any time soon so long as we keep our steady cost of living increases in line with reality. This is the second idea for where we could put our money.

Now, this third idea is where I think the fun really begins. As a program-size church, we have some amazing programs going on that we can enhance with a little intentional funding. We have piles of ideas waiting to burst forth with the right amount of energy and financial boost. Take our music program for example. Quality music is one of the reasons people come here. Aside from paying our music director and our organist decent money, there is not much budgeted here: a little bit for guest musicians and for the purchase of new choir music, but not much. If we discover at the end of this stewardship campaign that we can anticipate more for the coming year than we have this current year, music is one program area I will advocate we put some of that money.

Now, the quality of what we have going on around here is not always tied to money. In fact, one of the best programs we have going right now has taken absolutely no money from our budget. Small Group Ministry is a wonderful example of the kind of program we can offer here. People meet in facilitated groups of six to twelve a couple of times a month to talk about issues of intimacy and ultimacy. We are making plans to make this wonderful program even more wonderful for even more people. Now, if we had a little money to help this effort out, perhaps we could help some of the facilitators attend a weekend workshop on Small Group Ministry in Rochester later this month.

Other programs that we offer such as the forum series and other classes through the Adult Religious Education committee have little to no cost tied in with them. We occasionally pay for a speaker for a lecture or for the workbooks to use with a class. Imagine, though, what we could do if we put a little money toward advertising these programs to the general community, or if we could help pay the way for more of our members to attend workshops and seminars such as EAGLES so more of us would know how to create opportunities for these amazing programs.
(And more could be said about Children’s Religious Education, Social Responsibility, and Worship as areas where we could put more money to very good use!)

Now, do we NEED you to raise your pledge and go to the next level? Well, that depends on what is meant here by “we” and “you” because as far as I can tell the only people in the room right now is “us.” This is our money we are talking about and it is our plans. If we want to do more here as a congregation, for ourselves and future members, we can start now by generously supporting our congregation. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Next Sunday we are each going to be asked to fill out an “estimate of giving” card at the end of the worship service. We will have an opportunity to reflect on the sermon Richard Gilbert will be delivering, to consider the question “what am I called to give?” Ponder what percentage of your family income you currently are giving and then what percentage you want to be giving. Then at the end of the service, fill out a card and bring it forward before going out to share in a celebration brunch in the next room.

If you are one who lives within very tight financial lines and may want to give more but cannot, I hope you will hear this pitch as a gentle invitation to financially support the congregation in whatever way you can. If you are one who has more flexibility with your finances, I hope you hear this pitch as a bold invitation to financially support the congregation in whatever way you can!

When I die and show up in front of the pearly gates with my hands full of receipts, I want them to show that I lived a modest and valuable life and that I spent my money accordingly. I want my receipts to show a broad variety. I want them to show that I helped my parents and my children when they needed it, that I helped people in need whom I’ve never meet, that I gave regularly to the civil causes and organizations that support justice and further human dignity. And I want my receipts to show that I have generously supported Unitarian Universalism, a religious institution that stands for justice; that recognizes the inherent dignity of each individual balanced within the startling interdependence of all life. Let my receipts show that I support my church and all it stands for in the world. How will it be for you? What will your receipts show?

In a world without end,
May it be so.