My Dear Ones,
Happy New Year!
Although I know better, I find myself wondering if 2023 finally will be the year that returns the world back to the good old days before the COVID-19 Pandemic. Are we there yet, Mom? Many of us were hopeful for 2022.
And…if we looked at only public life, it seemed as if we Americans had indeed conquered COVID: no more mask mandates except at hospitals and MVUUF. Even the airports were mask-free. Most of the country was vaccinated and care-free. Except those who were not.
Like the 350-500 people who are still dying from COVID every day (yes, the number right now is at about 350). Even more surprising, the majority of those folx were vaccinated. Does this mean the vaccines aren’t working? No, certainly not. In January 2022, we averaged over 2000 COVID deaths per day. The vaccines are reducing our death rates dramatically; however, vaccinated folx are still dying from COVID, especially if they are over 65 years old. The vaccines are working AND COVID-19 is still a very dangerous, deadly illness.
So yes, unfortunately, we’re still masking at MVUUF, even though the rest of the US is not. We are masking because masking is one of the best protections from COVID (when done correctly: securely covering mouth and nose with surgical-quality mask or better). Our Board has approved several updates to our COVID-19 Policy in an effort to protect us from the three most dangerous issues our community faces: COVID-19, despair, and disconnection.
We can gather in-person to worship, connect, learn, and love one another in masks. We can gather online and over the phone to do all these things as well. Wherever and however we gather, Spirit and Love accompany us. This is one of my core Unitarian Universalist beliefs.
If you would like to see MVUUF’s most up to date COVID-19 policy, you can find it here on our (new) website: https://mvuuf.org/covid-policy/. To check our current CDC Community Risk Level, go to COVID Act Now’s Dayton Metro Area page: https://www.covidactnow.org/us/metro/dayton-kettering_oh/?s=44683214.
So how was 2022?
While 2022 didn’t eliminate COVID or magically bring back the old days of yore, 2022 was a good year for MVUUF in many important ways.
First of all, in our May Volunteer Appreciation Service, we honored 111 congregants who volunteered at least once during the 2021-2022 program year (up from 95 in the 2020-2021 year). These are folx who ushered, greeted visitors, helped maintain our building and grounds, served in elected positions, sang in the choir, led our small group ministries, taught our children and youth, served on committees big and small, participated in our social justice actions, organized potlucks, and so much more. Thank you for continuing to make MVUUF a priority in your life!
Our small group ministry continues to thrive, connecting our congregants to one another and helping them deepen their internal lives. This Fall, we introduced a new small group ministry resource called Touchstones. Touchstones provides many ways to dive into the month’s theme. Congregants can take as much or as little time as they like with it, fitting the wide range of personalities and lifestyles at MVUUF. We have close to 50 congregants participating in our small groups, including a young adult group, women’s group, and four general groups. I’m incredibly grateful to Diane Colvin for continuing to help us organize this important ministry and leading the women’s group. I’d also like to thank our other small group leaders: Gail Cyan, Barb Weber, Alice Diebel, and Catherine Queener (CQ).
I am thrilled to share that we restarted weekly Children and Youth Religious Education (CYRE) programming and re-opened our nursery in September. We’ve done this with the help of three new CYRE staff members: Lizz Halfpap (nursery), Holly Harvey (Prek-5th grade), and Jacob Nolin (middle and high school youth group). A big thank-you to Maury Wyckoff, our Personnel Chair, and Somaya Bernard, our Director of Religious Education, for all their hard work helping us hire and train these great folx. Most exciting is that we’re seeing old families slowly return and new families begin. Another BIG feat is that two of our congregants finished the extensive OWL sexuality education program training and are now qualified to teach our middle and high schoolers. We are starting to plan for a program launch in Fall 2023. Thank you, LM Davis and Rachel Roberts!
This Fall, we threw a Newcomer Dinner for our newer members and friends (those who started attending right before or during the COVID Pandemic). The Board and Program Council put out a delicious spread under the guidance of our most beloved hostess, Bea Walther. It was a huge success and I hope we start doing it annually. We also welcomed nine new members to the Fellowship: Margaret Austin, Brenda Gaines, Tate Grossmann, Mariah Gudino, Carol Muller (technically January 6), Chloe Musgrove, Jacob Nolin, James Tarkany, and Leslie Woodward. Please do your best to make them feel at home here! For perspective, we welcomed 11 new members in 2019, 11 in 2020, and seven in 2021. As I say over and over again, it matters that we’re here—Dayton needs us.
With this in mind, we launched a substantial outreach program to find new ways to engage the broader Dayton community, going out to them and inviting them to us. My three collaborators in this work have been Jeff Bohrer (MVUUF Ambassadors Lead), Catherine Queener (Peace Heroes Lead), and Sara Davis (Director of Music). I truly cannot thank them enough for making my MVUUF dreams come true! Building on MVUUF’s social justice outreach at Dayton Pride, we had MVUUF Ambassador tables at Ohio Families Unite Against Police Brutality – Ohio Block Party Dayton (April), Dayton Pagan Coalition – Beltaine Psychic Faire (April), Miami Valley Immigration Coalition (MVIC) General Gathering (May), Dayton Pride (June), Beavercreek Pride (June), Centerville Americana Festival (July), Dayton Black Pride (July), St. Anne’s Porchfest (August), Kettering Home for the Holidays (September), and Dayton Pagan Pride (October). In September, we invited the larger community to MVUUF for a traditional Irish music concert with the Friel Sisters and our annual Miami Valley Peace Heroes Trail Celebration. In December, we cohosted the Dayton screening of the documentary Mission: Joy – Finding Happiness in Troubled Times with refreshments and an interfaith discussion afterwards (in cooperation with the Interfaith Forum of Greater Dayton and Gar Drolma Tibetan Buddhist Center). I also offered an animal blessing with Rabbi Judy Chessin at SICSA’s annual event at their new adoption center.
Last but not least, our new website went live December 28. We plan to add sections for our Miami Valley Peace Heroes Trail, labyrinth, wetlands, building rentals, podcasts, worship service videos, Forum newsletter, volunteer form, and a minister blog. This has been a labor of love for me and a labor of patience and confidence in our mission for our web designer, Adam McGough (who has done the entire 3-year project for free). In addition to Adam, I hope you will help me thank Jay Snively, Mary Ellen Beardmore, and Jeff Bohrer for all their help along the way.
Wow, 2022 was quite a year! Maybe we don’t need to go back to the days of yore? Maybe the present and future hold more exciting and fulfilling opportunities for us afterall.
Uncertainty and Sustainability
Yet, even with this good news, we know that all is not rosy. Like so many other houses of worship across the United States, MVUUF is experiencing a very real shortage of people-power and pledge income, while our operating costs continue to rise.
Religion has changed. For the first time in US history, more Americans identify as non-religious than religious. A number of our congregants have not returned to MVUUF since the pandemic, in-person or online. Some may never come back. The COVID Pandemic accelerated a decline in religion that was already well underway.
When Miami Valley Unitarian Fellowship and First Unitarian Church of Dayton voted to merge in 1998, we had 250 members combined. Now, even with the addition of new members each year, we are between 130 and 145 members. With this loss in membership, we face a significant shortage of both lay leaders and financial resources.
For the third time since I arrived at MVUUF (in 2018), the congregation is voting on an endowment withdrawal because we do not have sufficient pledge income to pay for our daily operations. This is not sustainable in the short-term or the long-term. We all know this. We also know our deficits are too large to be fixed with a few small cuts (they are approximately one-third of our budget).
The Board has created a Long-term Sustainability Task Force to help the congregation create a plan to make MVUUF financially sustainable. This Task Force is chaired by Rachel Roberts and now is fully staffed (hooray!). Additional members are the following: Ian Hogan (Board Treasurer), Rich Yarborough, LM Davis, and Kris Steel. Please look out for opportunities in the months ahead to participate in their cottage meetings and town halls. They can’t do this important work by themselves! (If you would like to reach them, you can email Copy Email Address .)
In my December Forum column, I shared a blessing for my sabbatical (January 1, 2023 – April 30, 2023). I share it with you again (repetition can offer us comfort). May it be a touchstone for you during this time of uncertainty:
Be patient with Rev. Ruth (our sabbatical minister) and one another. Allow the sadness and anticipation transform you. Be patient with the Board and the Long-term Sustainability Task Force as they lead you through this season of discernment. Allow the sadness and anticipation to transform us into something stronger and more beautiful than what we are leaving behind.
I know that, no matter what the fellowship decides to do, MVUUF will continue to matter to the Dayton community. You will find a way to come through this because that is who you are as a community. You are strong. You can do hard things. Especially when you work together. Remember, this middle space will not undo you—it will make you.
I pray for your health, growth, and flourishing. You are always in my heart.
With much gratitude and love,
Rev. Kellie Kelly
On sabbatical from January 1, 2023 through April 30, 2023