First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
"The Power of Commitment"
Rev. Samuel A. TrumboreApril 7, 2002

SERMON

Thank you for coming this morning to hear about the power of commitment.I expect a few stayed away because they didn't want to hear my yearly canvass sermon.Perhaps they mistakenly believedthe annual dinner skit satisfies their need for inspirational giving.As much as I enjoy the annual dinner skit, especially since Bob Franklin lets me be in it rather than just lampooned by it, our members and friends need a larger framework in which to understand pledging.This will indeed be a canvass sermon but its message is much larger than the canvass itself.The commitment we express in our pledge is just one aspect of what I'll be discussing this morning.

Having served as the Finance Chair for the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California, and serving as a minister, I've seen a number of pledge drives.Our canvass committee runs one of the best I've seen, taking their responsibility very seriously.Every year though, I hear angst and fear expressed about canvassing and being canvassed.People don't seem to like asking for pledges from others nor do they like making them.

I think this is partly because they are only looking at the negative side of the canvass visit.Asking someone to increase their giving to the congregation is inherently uncomfortable.What the canvasser is really asking the canvassee is to increase their commitment to our congregation.The canvasser is asking the canvassee to reorder their monetary priorities.This means experiencing how attached we may feel to our income and wealth or lack of wealth.This means feeling the discomfort of being asked to part with something we want to hold onto.Few if any of us think they have too much money and don't know what to do with it.

What the new canvasser doesn't see during the canvass visit is the positive result for the canvassee of an agonized increase in financial commitment that comes over time.Experienced canvassers who've participated in our canvass for a number of years have seen that result and it energizes them.For some on our Canvass Committee, it becomes its own ministry of generosity.

This morning I'd like to explore with you the power and transformation that can happen through making a pledge which is really making a commitment.Commitment is the currency of communal existence.To begin to better understand that power we need to recognize the two dimensions of commitment.

The first dimension is a promise.Any commitment is a promise of relationship.A commitment to a job is a promise to internalize the vision and goals of the employer or the customer as personal visions and goals.A commitment to a contract is a promise to abide by its language.A promise is a willingness to limit one's freedom in pursuit of mutual ends.

The second dimension extends the promise over time.I will not just promise to honor my commitment today.I will continue to follow through on my commitment.I will do what I say I will do.As long as I am employed, I will maintain my loyalty to my employer.I will continue to abide by the language of the contract for the term of the contract.I will limit my freedom not just once or twice but for an extended period of time.

Commitment is tremendously important in any kind of social life.To make a promise and follow through means to defer gratification.Paying my pledge will limit what Philomena and I do with our money.The promise of marriage I made to Philomena means I will not share my bed with another.The level of commitment required to raise a child often startles the parents of a newborn baby.Parenting is a huge commitment that extends for the rest of one's life.

The commitments we make shape our identity.A good way to get to know someone is to ask what her or his commitments are.Are you in a committed partnership?Do you have children?Are you a member of a religious organization?A civic organization?What do you do for a living?Are you a Democrat or Republican?How about the Greens or the Working Family party?What sports teams do you follow?What are you investing in?What are you planning for the future?All these questions reveal people's commitments.

Let's pause here for a quick thought experiment.Think about the people in your life who would be non-committal in answering these questions.Then think about the people in your life who have made many promises that they sustain over time.You don't need to answer this question out loud but to yourself.Who would you rather spend time with?My answer is always the people who are willing to make commitments.Not just a few but lots of them.These are the kinds of people who are members of our congregation.These are the public-spirited people who work selflessly to build the infrastructure of our community.They vote.They care.

After all, what is this congregation but a web of commitments we make to each other.No one is compelled to be a member of our congregation or to give money to support it.There is no threat of hell fire and damnation to drive us in these doors.We have something like sixty two committees that form our infrastructure.A tremendous amount of energy is expended to keep this place going.How can it grow in service to its membership and the community?Only through an increase in the number of promises people are willing to make and follow through on.

There is more than a little mystery in trying to understand what gets people to make commitments.We ministers are always trying to find clues to help those on the commitment fence get over it and toward increasing their promises.We look around us at other organizations to see who is successful at this task hoping perhaps to find an idea or technique we can borrow.

I've always been fascinated by the Christian conversion experience.A conversion experience can take someone who is drifting through life making few commitments and turn them into a dynamo of public-spirited energy.I remember a born again pot head I used to work with at NorthStar Computers.His conversion to Christianity and the vigor with which he tried to bring me and others to his faith always impressed me.By nature, he was a pretty laid back fellow, more of what one might expect from a beach bum rather than an evangelist.Being born again seemed to transform his personality.

We Unitarian Universalists don't really have an equivalent experience.The closest we have is the spontaneous experience people sometimes have when they walk through our doors and immediately feel at home.It is as if they have been Unitarian Universalists without knowing it.When people join, there is no testimonial, no evidence of election, no proof of conversion required.All that is required is simply a decision, and a base level of commitment to the community.

It wasn't until I attended a week long training for ARISE with the Gamaliel Foundation, the organizing institute ARISE works with, that I started figuring out why conversion experiences work. All week we were challenged to confront our willingness to be leaders and encouraged to reflect on what held us back.We were challenged to look at our commitments and our willingness to make them and keep them.What became very clear during the training was the tremendous power released by making commitments and acting on them.I realized in essence the conversion experience is an emotionally charged commitment. There may or may not be some electric jolt one gets from God or Jesus or both.Whether or not there is any divine intervention in our consciousness, there is tremendous power released by making strong personal commitments.

Suddenly I realized what was missing from many Unitarian Universalist congregations.Too often we ask very little in the way of commitment as part of membership.About the only time many congregationsask for anything from all their members is at pledge time.Rather than seeing the canvass as a time of institutional renewal, too often people just hold their nose and suffer through the experience.They miss this wonderful opportunity to renew and deepen their commitment to their congregation.

This is one of the explanations for the renewal and enthusiasm found in congregations after constructing a new building.Rather than exhausted and drained, congregations that expand often have a spurt of growth in membership.And pledging often increases significantly after a building campaign.

The canvass is a great time to reflect on our values and how we are living them out.Our checkbook is an excellent record of how we live our values.Looking it over, much can be learned.I know as I do my taxes each year about this time, I'm amazed at the different places my money disappears.We use Quicken and categorize all our transactions.Sometimes I'm a little ashamed that too much money can be found in some categories and not enough in others.Little amounts spent each month mushroom into large sums.It also helps me see that adding a little to my pledge from each paycheck allows me to make a substantial pledge each year.

This can also be a good time to reflect on where the most meaning has come from during the past year.If you're like me, you'll be shocked at how much you spend on dinners out and entertainment.The pursuit of pleasure can eat up a lot of money and time.Yet how much satisfaction has that really brought you?For me the best part about a dinner out isn't the elegance of the dining establishment or the excellence of the wine selected but rather the warmth of the companionship.

The greatest satisfaction I've received in the past year has come from the successes our congregation has had on some of its initiatives.ARISE continues to strengthen as an organization and is attracting new members and energy.Our public meeting in November was definitely a highlight for the year.That success has set in motion a number of other initiatives and projects.In ARISE's leadership, I'm working with a group of dedicated people who are willing to make significant commitments for the common good.

These expanding public relationships are a wonderful source of satisfaction.Participating in public life and action is highly rewarding.ARISE opens up the public arena to those in our congregation who wouldn't normally have the courage to venture into it.ARISE creates paths for people to public power and shows them how to have a public voice and how to begin to make a positive difference.

Right now, we are developing what is called a "core team" in our congregation.A core team is a regular FUUSAn committee that will be our congregation's connection with ARISE, its task forces and governance.It will also be charged to work in our neighborhood helping with the problems right on our doorstep.Please let me know if this is a commitment that you'd like to make today as we are in the formation stage of this committee.

The relationships we develop in our congregation in committees, joint projects and social events are also public relationships.As we work together for the common good of this religious community we also build a web of relationships that can be very satisfying.This happens through our Social Responsibility Projects of which ARISE is a part.Building our Habitat for Humanity house, working with our Transylvanian Partner Church, helping with the Food Pantry, reaching out to the Gay and Lesbian community through our Welcoming Committee and assisting refugee families resettle, all these are ways we serve the community while at the same time building our community with each other.And there are many opportunities for public relationships within our congregation.Ushering, hosting the coffee hour, greeting people and welcoming guests, teaching in an RE class, serving on the RE council or the Board and the ever popular Social Events Committee, all these are also ways to serve others and serve ourselves.

These opportunities for service and meaning are what I hope you will discuss with your canvasser as well as what you can offer for a pledge.We have giving guidelines that the leadership of our congregation proposes and follows that your canvasser can explain to you.Philomena and I follow these guidelines and are giving at the level of 4% of our pre-tax income.For us that multiplies out to a pledge that is almost $4000.That level of giving makes us top pledgers.I know there are others who could join us at that level who make far more than we do.

That level of financial commitment has changed how I feel about this congregation.I feel much less like an employee and more like a member.Philomena's and my money is going to the salaries of the other staff members.Our money is going to support our Social Responsibilities budget that contributes to ARISE.Our money is helping to run our RE program for our son Andy.I own this place along with the rest of you.

From my personal experience I know this to be true.Increasing your commitment increases the meaning and value you will get from our congregation.This may sound like a leap of faith for some and perhaps it is.All I ask is for you to take your canvasser's challenge to stretch to meet our giving guidelines as an experiment and see if indeed it changes how you feel about this congregation.As with any leap into the unknown, I can't promise a soft landing.I can promise you won't find what you are looking for in life without making commitments.

And this is a great place to make them.

Copyright © 2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore .All rights reserved.