Letter from the Board President

January 28, 2018

Dear St. John’s Congregants,

Hello! My name is Matthew Peterson. You may know that last year I was the Vice President of the Board of Trustees at St. John’s, and that I am now the President. In the short time I’ve been serving on the Board, I have seen a lot happening at St. John’s.

We are an LGBT community, a community of different faiths, a community that has stood up for the lives of those convicted or imprisoned, a community that has spoken to the Clifton neighborhood with its banner in saying “Black Lives Matter”. We volunteer with Matthew:25 Ministries, walk with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Walk out of Darkness, donate food to the Churches Active in Northside, participate in collaborative networks like the AMOS Project, or the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center to address our critical immigration situation. We are proud to see Rev. Mitra deliver the benediction at the city’s MLK event. We volunteer to support the Interfaith Hospitality Network and continue to provide for our Partner Church in Nyarad Szentlazlo, Romania.

We’ve seen Music Director Jeff Stern leave and cheered when Michael Pekel arrived. We have expressed appreciation for Custodian Steve Roth and gratitude for new arrival Jeff Flanagan. We have bid farewell to Director of Religious Education Elizabeth Wilson and welcomed Adam Hall, our new Lifespan Religious Education Director. And we’ve watched as Adam Peterson develops his relationship with music at large and with our community’s music and worship. Alice Diebel is here as Intern Minister. A lot has happened in a short time.

With all of that going on, there is more! On behalf of the Board, I want to share some of the important things we’ve been addressing this year. Another way our congregation has changed is in the way St. John’s values staff. All salaries are under annual review by the Personnel Committee of the Board to account for staff seniority, regional cost of living, and norms in the respective staff areas of work. Our staff who work over 20 hours a week are offered 80% of the cost of health insurance for any UUA health insurance plan. We can be proud that we offer these terms to our staff, and we are proud to have them!

Speaking of money, one thing our board has discussed this year is what to do with the moderate cash reserves we’ve built up in recent years. Through our congregation’s instinct for thrift, we have found ourselves in a relatively flexible position, allowing us to plan long-term. We can make needed short-term repairs, as well as make the financially sound long-term planning that buys us as many years as possible of good working order of our facilities.

Short-term planning is easy. Sometimes a crisis calls for a quick solution. Long-term planning, on the other hand, has to cover a wide range of considerations. In regard to our building, that means thinking about building use by committees and groups, the equipment in the kitchen, heating and cooling, and locks on the doors. It can mean talking about repairing the windows in our beautiful South wall, or achieving wheelchair accessibility throughout the building. It can mean tearing down walls or simply repainting. These decisions are complicated because each piece is part of a larger puzzle.

To help see how these pieces might fit together, the Board of Trustees has recently called for quotes from companies that can perform Master Plans. A contractor would help us by examining our building, prioritizing projects, and even holding extensive dialogue among all groups in the congregation to ensure no perspective on building use is left out.

Once we have a completed Master Plan, it would help us spend our congregants’ pledges as knowledgably and confidently as we can. It would allow us to be ambitious. Our building is due for some of these larger considerations, and if we take the time and money to do it right, we can hopefully avoid the kind of crises that can more quickly drain our finances or force us to make decisions without holistic and long-term dialogue. Everyone, congregants, staff, committees, Board, and Minister all need to be part of these discussions.

Turning away from the physical structure of our congregation, the Board has also taken a look at St. John’s organizational structure. During recent meetings, our conversations kept returning to some critical questions: how many members should serve on our board, how is the council structure working for us, are we sometimes asking our volunteers to do too much, or are their responsibilities sometimes not clear? Is there any way to help us work together more cooperatively, with more trust and more gusto? Do we ask ourselves often enough to clarify our vision or how we plan to treat one another with more respect? Even how to treat ourselves as individuals with more respect? To catch some of the ideas we’ve been discussing, you can take a look at Serving With Grace by Erik Walker Wikstrom or Governance and Ministry by Dan Hotchkiss.

Finally, now that we’ve talked about the physical structure and our organization, I’d like to repeat something you may have heard discussed at this past Sunday’s service. While we don’t yet have a date set, the program Beloved Conversations will be a wonderful way for people in our congregation to share personal stories regarding race, as well as to hear others’ stories. I consider this to be justice work of the heart. It is a curriculum designed by the Fahs Collaborative. It is not a workshop, it is not a book, it is a long-term commitment, a small-group ministry. “As an instrument of faith formation, it offers participants a chance to rediscover the sacred and important presence of compassion, grace, risk-taking, vulnerability, and the healing joy when cross-racial relationships are reconciled,” (meadville.edu). Please talk to me or Rev. Mitra about participating.

Our building is, in some ways, just a building. At the same time, it is important that we commit to one another, to visitors, and to the next generation, so that they will cherish the place where the spirit is nourished, where our community renews its bonds, where we share meals, work on life’s questions, share our pain and joy, or unite to work to untangle the dilemmas of our wider world. We can make that commitment in part through taking care of 320 Resor Ave.

Many of us, some much more than others, have faced more than their fair share of hardship lately. How can we bear the pain that comes from life’s bolts of lightning? To take refuge from lightning is to join a community so we have others to pass the time with. And so that when the sun shines again, we have community to nurture our inspiration and energy and to share our successes with. Whether we’re singing “Lean on Me” or holding hands after the Sunday service, we are reminded we’re not alone. Through hearing others’ joys and sorrows, and feeling how they bring us tears, smiles, or sighs, we see how we are a larger family. And it is this family to which we choose to belong. We lose members every year, gather to remember them, and say goodbye. Yet new members come, babies are born, former members come back. And we will die, and another generation comes along. We may not always feel like our community is strong enough to move our world in the right direction, but in some ways, our community has been the world to us congregants. Feeling how large an influence this community is in our lives is what gives us the confidence and hope that our community can be a home to others too, that there is enough room for more people to experience the beloved community that is St. John’s.

We invite all congregants to engage with the Board in discussion about where we can go next, what St. John’s can accomplish for ourselves and the world around us. Watch for information about upcoming community conversations that will be scheduled to talk about longer-range planning and master plan development. Join the discussion! 

Blessings to you.

Matthew Peterson
President, Board of Trustees