By James Olm, Church Council Chair guy, UCC Casper
Our small, yet very energetic and involved congregation has gone through some pretty incredible growth moments. We almost closed 7 years ago. As one council member once put it, “We’re in the toilet swirling down the drain.”
What were the circumstances that caused this ultimate low in our existence and what was it that brought us up out of the toilet to a point that we now could conceivably balance our budget for a first time? The answer is a lot of things, and I’ll just try to mention a few key areas that really did make significant change.
One: A self-realization of the Importance of our Church and Family
Seven years ago, our numbers were dwindling down to 25 members. We had had a part time, student interim pastor, but he had left. Our finances were a disaster. We were faced with no pastor, no money, and the Christmas season approaching. We decided to have members of our church, representatives of all ages – young and old – speak about their most memorable, personal Christmases ever. Each week, we were moved, at times in laughter, and many times in tears. We learned about our people and their stories, and we realized how important these people were to us, and to our church family. We couldn’t close this church! What would we do? Where would our people go? THIS CHURCH WAS TOO IMPORTANT TO ALL OF US TO CLOSE.
Making that realization as a community of faith was the spark that we needed – that no matter the circumstances, no matter the uphill battles, we must persevere and survive. We must take chances, by putting ourselves, our finances, and our faith on the line. And we did.
Two: Not Being Afraid to Be Who We Really Are
It was at that point that many things happened at once. We decided to put faith in ourselves, and creatively work out an arrangement with a bank in town to give us a large loan that we would use to supplement our income for three years, so that we could hire a full-time pastor. We did this by using our fully-paid-for parsonage as collateral to the loan – in essence, we guaranteed we would sell the house before we would re-nig on the loan. This was huge. There was great history and love for this house.
We were required to do a self-church-analysis through the Rocky Mountain Conference in order to search for a pastor. It was at this point that we made the biggest psychological self-adjustment. Here we were, a church who became open and affirming years before, but we were always maintaining our existence somewhat secretly. It was like we were afraid to be outwardly progressive in a community that was very conservative. We were apologizing for being progressive versus celebrating our uniqueness. This self-analysis process actually made us “come out of the closet” and be who we really were – a progressive, LGBT- supporting, faith – questioning congregation who are joining together to explore all questions and possibilities. Instead of hiding out in the community, we decided to “be a force out in the community.” This was a huge paradigm shift for us and it was incredibly freeing. We could finally be who we really are!
Three: Finding “A Hero.”
In our self-analysis booklet that was sent with our church package to all prospective pastors, we stated flatly that we were looking for “A hero.” We wanted someone who would be willing to take chances on our little church, and we in turn would do whatever we could to make it work. No turf issues, no ideological pressure issues. Open our world and we will work to open ourselves up to the world.
We found that hero in Reverend Dee Lundberg. She collaborated, she friended, she loved, and she preached what we all searched for and questioned. She became a tour de force in our community, and she has constantly kept us on course to what we were trying to achieve and what we could possibly consider achieving in the future. She is our hero, but she is also our friend, and part of our family. And yes, having a full-time pastor, and offering a realistic, good salary is paramount in getting a church to grow.
Four: Creating and Following Through on Visions and Goals
• Goal – we had to have a balanced budget. We had three years and our loan money would be out. By that time we had to be self-sustaining. At a Rocky Mountain Conference figure of $357 given to the church per year per new member, we realized that we must grow our church from 25 to 105 members in three years. Period.
• Vision – we as a church had to make our support known for the suppressed/oppressed. We must be the voice for people without voice. We couldn’t hide behind the walls of our church. We had to get out there and make a difference. We had to open our doors and become a safe-haven for those others in our community. Period.
Five: Change is Good
Our services are like no other that I have ever experienced. Dee speaks of openness, tolerance, and love. She allows questioning to happen. The church is truly a safe haven for finding out how this world of religion and faith can fit in one’s very specific world of baggage and upbringing. The congregation doesn’t judge each other’s personal faith journeys. We have people in our congregation who believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior and the Son of God, and we also have people who believe that Jesus Christ was strictly a prophet, a man. AND THAT IS OK. Why must we all have the answers and only one answer at that? What is important is that we all, as family, are on our own faith journeys trying to make our lives and others lives better.
Our services are free and open. Kids make noise and jump around – we embrace them as our children. People are free to comment during church. The music is filled with top 40, Beatles, John Mayer, ANYTHING that is pertinent in our lives and that, under our roof, can make an important difference in our lives and faith. People drink their coffee in church. People knit. Why not?
In conclusion, we now have entered our fourth year with our fearless leader Dee at the helm. Reaching our goal of being self-sustaining is ever so close. We think we can do it starting after our Stewardship Drive in October. Our membership numbers? 65.
The power and will of the people. The power and will of our faith. The power and will of our pastor. The power and will of God. It is all an amazing thing and one that simply makes one shake her/his head in awe. We truly do live in a marvelous, miraculous world. And we all have so much to do yet!