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Our Application for the SWUUC Chalice Lighters Grant

It was just a few weeks ago that I received a call notifying me that our church had been awarded the Summer Chalice Lighters Grant for 2013 for the Southwest District. I was in the middle of a road trip to a rural office of one of my clients to see if I couldn’t straighten out their phone and internet issues.  It was hot, I’d gone back and forth between the local phone company and the property office at least a couple of times, and I was having a frustrating, unproductive, miserable day. My, how a phone call and good news can lift your spirits. Suddenly, it was a fantastic day. I called my wife Susan to tell her, I shot off an email to our board members, and then I simply sat in my car in the parking lot of a Love’s Country Store to savor the news. Our little church that had been stumbling along in blind faith and out of determined stubbornness during the last year was going to get some financial assistance from fellow Unitarian Universalist congregations. We were going to make it.

Before I go much farther, let me tell you a little bit about our church. In the mid-1990s, several free-thinking individuals began meeting in each other’s homes as a discussion group to talk about topics ranging from spirituality to politics to religion. Many churches start out The Early Dayslike this, and this one was no different. Being that a couple of members of the group were Unitarian Universalists, it was proposed and then accepted to formally apply to the UUA for recognition as a UU church, and in June 1996, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lawton, OK, was formed.

The church began to meet in part of the office building owned by one of the group members, and even after the business was sold, the UUCL was able to lease the space for an extremely reasonable price for years afterwards. Church members engaged in all sorts of activities, were active in district and national conferences and events of the UUA, had a growing RE and children’s program, and it seemed that the church was on solid footing for the foreseeable future. This was bolstered by the fact that one of the founding members, Dr. Sondra Bonnington, left over $120,000 to the church over her lifetime and after her death, and that legacy has sustained the church over many years.

Susan and I began attending UUCL in the spring of 2010. We had discovered that a former co-worker and local theater volunteer was a member of UUCL and that he was giving a talk that Sunday, so we went, and we never looked back. We really enjoyed the company of these open-minded people, we loved their philosophy and outlook on life, and we loved the fact that we could be part of a church without being required to recite words or creeds that we didn’t believe – you know, the very same things that all new UUs are happy to find when they stumble across Unitarian Universalism.

It wasn’t until a few months later and as we began to become familiar with the church that we began to realize that the heyday of the church had passed. Average attendance was down from 35-40 to 30-45, and sometimes even less. The children’s program was dwindling, and there were many Sundays – more often than not – when there were no children at all. The adult forum discussion group that met before services was still Charter Sundayokay, but it had the same people that had been meeting together for years. The average age of the church was well over 50, and that average continued to creep toward 60, year after year. The low rent on the building and the wonderful gift left to the church enabled UUCL to continue comfortably without worrying about finances, and even the bank account was growing a little because of the interest and investments in bonds, but that’s about the only thing that was growing. There had been attempts in years past to find a new home, to purchase a building with more space that could accommodate more people at a service, but those attempts fell through time and time again. It seemed that UUCL was to stay where it was, both physically and as a church.

I think it was one Sunday in mid-2011 that we had a particularly good speaker and we had more people than we expected.  We had to break out our old plastic chairs to accommodate the extra bodies, but we couldn’t use many of them since there simply was not enough room in our 30’ x 30’ sanctuary. This was exciting stuff, but it was also troubling, because while we were happy that we had a couple of new faces in the service, we were well aware that the crowding in such a small area made it unlikely that visitors would return. This sparked a new conversation about finding a new space, and what we might be able to do to grow a little bit.

We began looking for a new home, and we began developing a process that we could follow if we were to find something we liked well enough to bid on. Our theory was that if we found something we liked at a price we could afford, chances were that it would be right for someone else, so 701 B Avespeed of communication and having our proverbial ducks in a row might be a good idea. We created policies allowing ourselves to communicate electronically with each other for both discussion and voting on certain issues, we developed procedures to follow if we found something we might want to buy, we formed working relationships with a lender and a real estate agent, and we obtained authorization from the membership to make certain decisions on behalf of the church. We then made a couple of trial runs with properties that we were interested in, and although the deals were not completed for various reasons, the process of discovering what worked and what did not served to help us streamline our procedures for finding and then moving on a property.

In mid-2012, our landlord notified us – quite unexpectedly – that he would like us to be out of the building by the end of the year, and that in the meantime our rent was going up by 1/3. It wasn’t until later in the year that we found out he had agreed to sell his business, and that the new owners wanted to expand the business; they simply didn’t see the need to lease or purchase new space when there was already available space being occupied by a tenant with no contract or lease agreement paying much less than market rates. We took this as our cue to get moving – figuratively and literally.

In October 2012, one of our members had a conversation with someone that led us to the widow of a deceased attorney. She now owned the building left to her by her husband, and because of the unique construction of the building, she had been unable to sell it, despite its prime location in an area of downtown Lawton that is being revitalized by both the city and by private business. The original structure on the site was a 1920s era house, pier and beam construction, with a cement front porch. Because of city laws against building new structures in the area, a wealthy attorney bought the house and proceeded to construct a new single story office building around it, encasing the house within a brick structure and covering it with a metal roof. The rooms of the house were converted to offices, and the rest of the building surrounding the house on three sides included comfortable, modern offices, a conference room, a small break room, and two bathrooms.

House RemovalStill, as unique and interesting as this building was, the widow was unable to sell it. Then we came along. We were able to see that perhaps the entire house could be removed, and the empty space left behind could be turned into a sanctuary. The rest of the building was perfect for our small church. We consulted several different contractors, and all acknowledged the possibility, but only a couple expressed interest in the project. We drew up plans, discussed the possibilities with our membership, and finally we decided to move forward.

By that time, additional property taxes were looming over the owner of the building if she did not have it disposed of by December 31st, and so she was quite anxious to sell it, but she still needed a reasonable amount for the building. We were able to quickly reach an agreement that satisfied both her and our church, and without the need for a real estate broker, our respective attorneys drew up the necessary contracts while we worked out the financing with our lender. On December 28th, 2013, that building became the new home of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lawton.

Fast forward to June 23rd, 2013 and just a few days over seventeen years from the official date of incorporation for UUCL; we had our Dedication Day ceremony. The intervening time was not without struggle, discussion, anxiety, and turmoil, and the remodeling cost us a bit more than initially projected, but we did it. We finally had our own building with a newly remodeled space as our sanctuary. We had our church!

Sunday ServiceSince then – and actually ever since we moved into the new building, holding services in a small conference room in the back of the church until the sanctuary was finished – we have been figuring out how to move forward, how to make our church more dynamic, how to grow our church and make it more attractive to newcomers. This is not about numbers of people in the pews or growth for the sake of growth. For us, this is about ensuring the continuity of our church, because we have lost so many of our original members to life circumstances, illness, and death, and if we do not grow our numbers, we will shrink, and we will fade away. This was our situation just a couple of years ago, and we are determined to not face that situation again.  It looks as if we're turning things around.  In the past month, our attendance at services is now 50+, and each week we're seeing at least one or two new faces.  Just last week, we had two new couples, and we were shocked at how many children there were.

One of the major changes for our congregation in the last year has been the transition from having almost two hundred thousand dollars in the bank to having almost nothing. We have a new building that we bought at a fantastic price, and we’ve been told that the building as it is now and being in a prime location is probably worth almost twice what we’ve put into it. We are, however, “strapped”. We’re not broke - we bring in enough to meet our monthly expenses, but there is almost nothing left over for us to truly take advantage of our new situation, and so we decided to apply for the Chalice Lighters Grant. As one of our founding members said, we’ve been contributing to Chalice Lighters for almost two decades – maybe it’s time that we ask for some help.

In applying for the Chalice Lighters Grant, we reviewed the areas that we felt we needed to address in order for us to develop our church into a full, vital, and dynamic community and spiritual center. In addition to needing funds that will enable us to finish minor aspects and repairs of the new building, we are in the process of considering

  • UUCL Altarways to enliven our Sunday services, with particular attention to our music program and our media tools
  • a redevelopment and restructuring of our RE program from the ground up, focusing on implementing courses and activities that will be of interest to all ages and actively engage participants
  • beginning a radio and print media advertising campaign that will ensure that everyone who might find a home with us is aware of our existence
  • using funds to send members to workshops, training programs, and conventions so that we may benefit from the many resources available to our congregation in our region and to better involve ourselves at the regional and national levels

I’ll expand on each of these areas in a separate post, but I wanted to provide an overview of where we’ve been and what has led us to ask for the grant. You are most likely a Chalice Lighter in the Southwest District, responding to the call that was sent out in mid-September 2013. We are, I believe, planting yet another seed of liberal faith in the Southwest, and we need your assistance. I truly appreciate that you’ve taken the time to find out about us and how we plan to use our grant.  Stay Tuned!

In Peace,

Sean Forehand
UUCL President (2013)

 

 

 

 

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The Unitarian Universalist Church of Lawton is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.  We are a Welcoming Congregation dedicated to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning in life, and we welcome all regardless of belief, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.