Board of Directors Message

From the President of the Board

Dear Beloved Community,

As we sweep away the leaves and pick up branches dropped by Hurricane Nicholas, we are thankful to have been spared more severe weather. We hold our neighbors in Louisiana in compassion, knowing they have experienced an unprecedented streak of named storm landings in the past 18 months. While in some ways the return to school has brought a welcome sense of routine, the many unpredictable variables affecting that routine seem to disrupt it weekly, if not daily. We are constantly recalibrating.  

Uncertainty is unsettling. After the prolonged uncertainty of the pandemic, it might seem that we should somehow adjust to living with it.  We do adjust in some ways, but our brains are designed to seek patterns, sort, and categorize. When circumstances keep disrupting the organization systems our brains have established, it’s unsettling, and our desire for consistency and predictability increases. Recently, I found myself identifying with the child whose parent reported they were crying because “We had tacos for dinner, and it wasn’t Tuesday.” 

In 2019, when we decided together to enter a period of Developmental Ministry, we had no idea we would be undertaking that challenge through a time when we were not able to meet together in person. The work ahead of us was going to require enough on its own. Doing it in the midst of a pandemic? Well, as Mark Vogel is fond of telling the choir, “I hope you brought your flexibility with you.” 

The past several months have been particularly challenging to our sense of equilibrium at First Church. In addition to the moving target of reopening, shortly followed by the virus resurgence, and the surprise bathroom gutting, we have been navigating the unexpected ending of our multi-site ministry. Many of you have expressed concern about the process and understandable frustration about the lack of forthcoming information about negotiations. While we are still not able to disclose particulars about those negotiations, we have arrived at a point in the process at which we feel it is both timely and appropriate to provide a substantive update to the congregation. The following is a summary of the events leading up to the current moment. We will be scheduling time for conversation about these matters in the upcoming days and weeks. 

The End of Multi-Site Ministry

We have long needed to address questions regarding multi-site ministry. Answering them was one of the five Developmental Ministry Goals we identified in 2019. At our August 2020 meeting, the Board adopted new Principles of Governance, and at the September 2020 meeting, we established a Multi-Site Committee. This Committee was charged with guiding the congregation through what was expected to be a multi-year process of exploring the history of multi-site ministry, the differences in how each campus experienced it, strengths and weaknesses, etc. The goal was to answer the question “What is our vision for multi-site?” One of several possible outcomes of that work was that some Thoreau Campus members would decide to form a new, independent congregation. Unfortunately, the Multi-Site Committee never had the opportunity to do its work. 

In December of 2020, the Board acted to disband the Campus Advisory Team (CAT) at the Thoreau Campus because it was not functioning in a role consistent with the new governance principles; some of its activities were the work of ministry, and others were the work of governance. Under the new Principles of Governance, ministry is conducted by teams that report to staff, and committees appointed by the Board do the work of governance. There was ongoing confusion and conflict regarding the CAT’s role in decisions about and authorization of expenditures, coordination of events, and interactions with staff.  

Two of the CAT members had been on the Board during the two years these principles were being written and thus were familiar with the new organizational governance structure. In addition, the two sitting Board members from the Thoreau Campus helped to identify the committees and teams whose work the members of the CAT were already involved in and appoint them accordingly, to ensure a continuity of leadership in those areas.  Nonetheless, the CAT decided the change was unacceptable. When the Board was not willing to reinstate the CAT, several members formed the Thoreau Exploratory Group and began the process which led to their decision to leave First Church and form an independent congregation.

Negotiating a Separation

The ministers, Board, and staff of First Church all expressed genuine support for the newly forming congregation and our sincere wishes for their success. There was no disagreement regarding their desire to become independent, and the entire process of facilitating the organizational separation included no dissent nor conflict. The only point of disagreement was regarding the distribution of assets. 

When the original Thoreau congregation joined First Church, they brought significant restricted funds which could only be spent on “purchasing, constructing, or improving a place of worship for the Thoreau Campus of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston”[1] and were held in trust as the Thoreau Capital Projects Fund. When the two churches officially merged in March of 2013, it was agreed that if all or any portion of that money had not been spent on such a project by June 30, 2033, “then any remaining funds shall be made available to any congregation recognized by the UUA to help establish a Unitarian Universalist home in Fort Bend County.”[2] When First UU bought the Clayhead Road property in 2016, the entirety of the Thoreau Capital Projects Fund was released and expended. In accordance with the original Directive, the trustees then disbanded and “no longer have any authority over the money.”[3]

At the onset of negotiations, First Church agreed all contents of the Clayhead Road building, including AV equipment and a grand piano, would be given to the newly forming congregation. The only assets in question were the actual real estate holdings.  The members of the newly forming congregation (which includes half of the members of the original Thoreau Congregation in addition to approximately 20 members who joined First Church while we were operating at the Thoreau Richmond campus) designated a negotiating team to work with First Church towards a settlement agreement, which both parties hoped to reach by June 30, 2021. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. When it became clear that mediation was necessary, both parties agreed Reverend Dan King, Minister Emeritus of First UU, would be an acceptable mediator (Rev. King practiced law before entering the ministry).

Throughout the time negotiations were taking place, the members of the newly forming congregation were also going through the processes of becoming both a legally-recognized church and one recognized by the UUA. Neither of these processes involve the ministers, Board, nor First Church staff. However, the Board is bound both by our relationship with the UUA, and by the original 2013 merger agreement when considering the possible disposition of the Clayhead Road property: First Church simply cannot give any part of it to any entity that is not recognized by the UUA.

As I mentioned in last month’s newsletter, the process for a new congregation to become recognized by the UUA is usually undertaken by a group that forms over time, rather than one that decides to separate from another established UU church, so some of the steps for the newly forming Thoreau congregation are different. Either way, it is a process and processes take time. At this point, there is no way to know how long the process will take. What we do know is First Church cannot enter into an agreement regarding the separation of assets until we know that the new congregation is going to become recognized by the UUA. This means that negotiations are now on hold indefinitely.

Financial Implications for First Church

Since July 1, 2021, First Church has continued to incur monthly expenses (≈ $2.5K) for maintaining the Clayhead Road property. This covers the bare minimum like electricity and security systems, without which the building would immediately deteriorate. If these costs are not mitigated, First Church is on schedule to end the fiscal year with a $115K deficit, which is simply not acceptable.  It would be a dereliction of our fiduciary responsibility to First Church for the Board to perpetually continue accruing such financial liabilities. We simply cannot afford it.

So, we are faced with a difficult situation for which there is no simple nor easy solution: while we sincerely hope the new Thoreau congregation is successful in completing the process of becoming recognized by the UUA, the timing of when that happens is beyond our control.  We can neither do anything to facilitate the process nor allow the financial state of the church to deteriorate while we await its conclusion.

After a great deal of thought and consideration of all options, the Board passed a resolution at its September 15th meeting establishing a period of abatement ending on December 31, 2021. Until then, no action will be taken regarding the Clayhead Road property, and First Church will continue to incur the associated monthly expenses. However, at that time, if there has been no indication from the UUA that the new congregation will be recommended for recognition by the UUA, First Church will have to assume negotiations remain stalled, and the period of abatement will end. Subsequently, the Board must begin seeking options for disposition of the Clayhead Road property. If that time arrives, the Board will consult with the congregation and begin the decision-making process.

The Question of Dual Membership

Emotions have run high at times during the negotiations, in part because we are in the midst of an unprecedented period of disruption and unrest in both our society and the world.  In our search for solace and reassurance, we naturally desire a return to gathering with our spiritual communities in the places we hold dear.  For those members of the newly forming congregation, the expectation was that negotiations would conclude by June 30, and they would shortly thereafter be able to resume meeting at the Clayhead Road campus.  When it became clear the processes involved in gaining UUA recognition would take far longer than expected, they were understandably deeply disappointed. Regrettably, some members acted in frustration in ways that are inconsistent with our behavioral covenants.

Throughout the process of separation, several First Church members from the Thoreau Richmond Campus have maintained membership at First Church. Some of those members have been or are now directly involved in negotiations about the Clayhead Road property. It is not uncommon for UU’s to have multiple congregational memberships – there are several members of First Church who are also members at Emerson, for example. However, when two congregations are in negotiations, any member who is involved in advocating for one has a conflict of interest if they maintain membership in the other. It is simply not possible to fulfill the membership duties and obligations owed to both congregations when someone is actively involved in mediation on behalf of one against the other. In such cases, it is the recommendation of the UUA that individuals choose one congregation and resign membership in the other. 

Although the UUA’s staff has presented this point to those leaders of the newly forming congregation involved in negotiations, and they have been asked to resign membership at First Church, they have chosen not to do so to date.  The Board has considered the possible implications of their continued membership and has sought the counsel of a variety of individuals from within the larger UU and legal communities. All agree it is unwise to continue negotiating with members of our own congregation against ourselves. Therefore, the Board passed a resolution at the September 15th meeting which gives notice that any members of the newly forming congregation who have been or continue to be involved in negotiations and do not voluntarily resign their membership with First Church by September 30, 2021, will be removed from First Church membership on October 1, 2021.

What now?

At present, there is nothing that any member of the congregation, Board, ministers, or staff can do to facilitate or expedite a return to negotiations. This has been made very clear by UUA staff. For many of us who have developed friendships with members at the Thoreau Richmond campus, this situation is distressing. Our friends are hurting, and we want to help.  Being told there is nothing we can do feels awful.

The truth is there is plenty we can do, and we already know how to do it.  While we may not be able to change the situation, we can provide the kind of supporting presence that we always do when loved ones are hurting.  We can call and check in, send encouraging messages, or just sit with them in compassion. Never underestimate how meaningful a simple “I’m thinking about you” can be to someone who is going through a hard time. We all go through hard times. What makes them bearable is knowing we are not going through them alone.

As we continue through this time of uncertainty together, I am reminded of the words from a song in our Singing the Journey hymnal: May we be filled with loving kindness. May we be well. May we be peaceful and at ease. May we be whole.

In Community,

Ruth Hoffman-Lach
President of the Board of Directors
First Unitarian    

[1] Directive for the Thoreau Capital Projects Fund. Approved February 21, 2013, by the Henry David Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation Board of Trustees.

[2] Letter of Intent for the Proposed Merger of Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Bend County with First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Executed March 31, 2013.

[3] Directive for the Thoreau Capital Projects Fund.