© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved, 9-25-11


With the message series theme this month of “An Old Fashioned Revival”, my hope has been to stimulate reflection on renewal and growth.  What individual purposes do we each have in life?  How do we revive and practice non-violence in speech and actions in our national political and religious discussions?  Last, week, we thought about finding purpose for churches in general.  Today, I want to look at the Gathering – to take an inward look at where the church is headed.  As we move into a crucial time – when budgets, pledge campaigns and plans for next year are undertaken, let us think about this place and its future.

As Pastor here, I am privileged to know many Gathering stories.  There are two members here who recently began a close friendship based on mutual support and encouragement.  They regularly meet, have travelled together and formed the kind of beautiful relationship as friends that makes me smile in deep appreciation for how this place brought them together.

Another member here drove home after hearing one Sunday message, and tears came to this persons eyes.  Measuring up to what was asked in the message seemed impossible – life is too hard and full of difficulties.  Nevertheless, this member got home, got out pen and paper and wrote down all the ways to fulfill the message ideas.  This member e-mailed me the list and continues to report how life is better and changed.

Another member told me about meeting a young child at an Inter-Faith Hospitality night whom that member had connected with several months prior at a Project Connect lunch we cooked and served.  This child was particularly taken with the member.  In only an hour, the child had formed an attachment.  Parting ways after lunch was difficult.  When the child saw this member again many months later, and remembered that person, a huge smile came across the child’s face, the relationship was renewed and efforts were made to stay connected.  The Gathering does not just serve homeless youth, it touches their lives.

Just before last Christmas, another member told me their reluctance to attend Christmas Eve service.  Christmas was not filled with good memories.  It hurts too much and this member is reminded of alcoholic parents and Christmas promises never fulfilled.  But this member attended the service anyway, heard the message on seeing the holiday through the eyes of a servant, saw the video with images of serving – accompanied to Dick Buccholz’s version of “Little Drummer Boy”, and this member began crying.  Christmas was not about personal hurt but something higher and more beautiful.

I have seen countless times when faces brighten in here at the sight of a Gathering friend not seen in a while; I have heard of numerous acts of kindness and service for fellow members, seen hundreds of selfless acts of community outreach – members working in manual labor at the Freestore, hugging young people at Anthony House, playing with children at Inter-Faith Hospitality, quietly paying for gifts, food and clothing for homeless teens.

When I said in my message last week that the ultimate sign of a highly effective church is that it impacts, for good, the lives of people, how can anyone not see a beautifully effective church in the Gathering?  This is not me or any of you individually that does such work.  It is us.  It is this congregation.  It is the Gathering.

Two years ago, as many of you recall, this congregation was hit with the news of Steve’s departure.  There seemed to be lots of dark clouds on the horizon.  How would this church survive?  Some said that the church had lived a good life but now it was time to simply fade away.  Others said they would leave if there was a long interim period.  Through one of those semi-miraculous confluence of situations, I had a desire to be fulfilled and of use in a role I love – that of being a Pastor.  And the Gathering had a need for a Pastor and was willing to take a risk with me.

Two years later, most would agree the Gathering avoided those dark and stormy clouds on the horizon.  No longer do members talk of leaving or of shutting down the church.  Finances remain precarious but there is no immediate danger.  There is new energy and vitality.  And please, do not take these words today as self-praise.  I have played a role in this regard but NO more so than the members here – than this collective body of caring and generous people.

As good as it seems in the current stability, compared with two years ago, what has been achieved is nice for a while but the church cannot remain as it is now.  Effective churches are not complacent, they take risks with new ideas and new ways to impact lives.  I want to encourage this congregation to purposefully take on such challenges – to bring ALL members into active involvement, to expand what is done and to never rest in a status quo.  In doing so, new stories of change, learning and serving – like some I just told – will be shared for years to come.

The Gathering purpose, therefore, is to offer a progressive spiritual message, by word and deed, that changes lives for the good of both members and those in the community.  To evolve and grow as a congregation – to refuse to rest on past successes – the Gathering must, and I repeat must, continue to grow in size and in depth.

To be very specific with you for a few moments, we are still a church in the beginning stages of life.  We have not reached maturity in being able to sustain this place without significant efforts and sacrifices by members and the Pastor.  The goal must be to reach a financial point where this congregation can fully support itself in ways that are consistent with other established churches.

For the long term viability and survival of the Gathering, it needs sufficient funds to pay for:

1) an annual contribution of 10% of total giving into the church reserve fund.  This is saving for an emergency – the loss of income from a major donor or to fund a future project.

2) an annual contribution of 10% into the outreach account to fund partner community organizations like Anthony House.  Such funds might come, as they will this year, from fund raising efforts like tonight’s benefit concert.

3) the lease of a larger space that includes designated off street parking,

4) provision to the Pastor – me or whomever serves in this role in the future – wages and benefits that are competitive with what is offered at other established churches.  Because of my love and commitment to the Gathering, I am willing for a time to accept below market wages because I know that is all this congregation can currently afford.  But, for the long term health here – not for my benefit – the Gathering must reach a point where it can offer its Pastor competitive salary and benefits.  Movement toward this goal is important to us and to me.

To achieve these four goals and thus survive for the long term, I repeat and emphasize my earlier statement – this congregation must grow in size and in depth.  To fund all of these goals, hopefully within five years, the church needs to double current pledging families – going from 25 pledging families to 50.  In overall numbers for the congregation, that would take the Gathering to between 75 and 100 active members.

I wish that increasing our member numbers were easy – that we could go out and tell people how great this congregation is as a spiritual community and the next Sunday there would be standing room only and overflowing offering baskets!  But that is not likely to happen.  This congregation will have to work at this goal, to make strategic plans, to have every member take seriously the value of the church and its need to grow.

I believe the Gathering offers a good product as a spiritual community.  It is not divided into factions or groups of angry members.  It celebrates all people, beliefs and ways of life.  We encourage and offer opportunities to develop deep friendships.  Outreach and community service are important here.  Our particular niche is to serve homeless youth and the Gathering continues to expand work in that area. Thought provoking, life challenging and musically excellent Sunday services are offered.  For the congregation, a question must be, “why is the Gathering not growing faster?”

We should not be so smug as to say that the Gathering is a perfect fit for everybody. It is not.  But it offers a spiritually inclusive and progressive community attractive to many.  I believe there are three factors holding back Gathering growth…

1) Our location in Over-the-Rhine is a mental stumbling block for some.  Sadly, many people in Cincinnati perceive the church location as dangerous.  Whatever underlies that perception, many folks who know nothing about Over-the-Rhine are afraid of this location.  We should NOT move or change because of this mindset, but it is one to acknowledge as limiting growth.

2) The size of this room – our worship space – is a stumbling block to growth.  This space can seat a maximum of 60 people comfortably.  On the average good Sunday, we approach or exceed the magic number that churches use to measure space needs.  Any church must have at least 20% of its seats available for newcomers – and those seats should be near the entrance and easily accessible.  If we put ourselves in the shoes of a visitor, he or she wants to quietly check out a church, sit in the back, and take time to evaluate the experience.  Visitors want to slip into seats quickly, easily and anonymously.

If we are 80% full, and that means attendance of 45 to 50 people which is often realized, the Gathering is at maximum capacity.  As a result, space here is limiting growth because of a lack of open and easily accessible seats for visitors.

3) The final factor holding back growth is the most significant one.  The Gathering has no easily accessible off street parking.  Finding nearby parking spots is very difficult.  For those who cannot walk long distances, that is a very big factor.  For those who harbor fears, this is a big factor.  In snow or bad weather, walking a long distance is an added factor.  Some members have returned home when a reasonable parking spot was not available.  If a member has done this, how many visitors have also – people our congregation may never meet?  The lack of parking is a huge issue – the biggest one I believe.  The use of nearby parking lots has been explored and none are open to us.

What are solutions to these three factors limiting growth?  I cannot dictate answers.  The congregation must decide those since the Gathering is led as a democracy.  Members are the leaders.

In my opinion the Gathering will not grow to a congregation size capable of financially achieving the goals I outlined earlier unless it finds a new space.  I say this with sadness as this space has been very good.  This location says a lot about congregation values.  If it should move, the Gathering will not change its character as an urban church serving the needs of an inner city community.  The Gathering should, I believe, only consider new space in an urban setting within a few miles of here.

The space needs teams has investigated several options.  It has concluded the church is not in a position to purchase a building.  Most buildings the church could afford are in poor repair and would require major investment.  Combining forces with another church, the team has found, is not a viable option either.  Other churches contacted have politely rejected us sharing their space.  The remaining option – renting or leasing a larger space with ample parking – is the team’s recommendation.  The search for such a space has not yet been undertaken aggressively.

Stuart Blersch and I recently met with two local Pastors who told of terrible things in their wealthy churches – factions, fighting, bitterness, selfishness, and greed.  Stuart and I remarked how unlike the Gathering is to that, even though it is a relatively poor church.

This is a special, special place.  There is real and palpable love here.  People walk their talk.  There is little pretense.  Folks are caring, giving and devoted.  The church operates cooperatively and in peace without leaders and committees.

I am so blessed to work here.  I am thankful for the opportunity and privilege.  It is because of my love for its members and for what the Gathering is – its history, its values and its purpose – that I want to see it survive and thrive long after all of us are gone.

The Gathering needs to grow.  That is a plain and simple fact.  It cannot rely forever on the significant sacrifice of individual members and its Pastor.  It must stand on its own collective strength.  I ask each of you – I ask all of those who hear this message or who read it online – to join together, to get involved in specifically offering solutions to this need to grow.  With each suggestion, the Gathering then needs volunteers who will put them into practice.  Every member needs to be involved in this work.  If impacting your life for the better, if changing the lives of other members for the better, if having a spiritual oasis of deep friendship and community, if serving the needs of homeless youth – if all of these are important to you and are things you wish to continue, the Gathering needs your help.

I ask for your thoughts and ideas now, and perhaps in a future separate congregation meeting.  I ask for action and bold, new solutions.  Growth in our personal lives and in that of this church is not an option – it is a necessity for survival.

I wish you all much peace and even more joy.