Old First Can’t Do All It Does Without Help From Its Friends

Old First Can’t Do All It Does Without Help From Its Friends

It was a good Annual Meeting. The worship Elsa created for us about affirming each other’s giftedness was well-received and helpful for where we are in our church life these days.

And the potluck afterwards– it was nice to be back eating together! – was quite a spread (can you have too much food at a church potluck?). 

Ok, we ended 2023 with a deficit, despite ending up with 107% of the budgeted pledged income.  But that’s what happens when we have a tight budget and bigger, unexpected repairs – in last year’s case, the HVAC system – than the annual cash flow can absorb. But an occasional deficit, as long as it’s not too big!, isn’t too bad, since it’s the rare year that we don’t end in the black. 

And the 2024 Stewardship Campaign left us with increased giving; in fact, Beth D. reported to me that she had received a positive response that very morning before she came to church that we have one more pledge. And someone handed me one a few weeks later. 

The Elders presented the congregation a balanced – albeit again tight (pray there’s no major repairs) – budget. All this in a period of programmatic and budgetary transition as we reconfigure the property and our church life for Old First House. I want people to better understand some of the dynamics of those shifts.  

But first a word of thanks to the Elders for their leadership. They have been discussing for the past couple of months how our Outreach program, now almost back to pre-COVID busyness, is hard to run without the part-time Outreach staffer. Beth W. as Outreach SLG leader, Devan and I end up trying to cover more than we can. 

It made sense to eliminate the Outreach Coordinator during the pandemic restrictions and during our consequent cutback of outreach ministries. But back going strong with our Outreach again, there is a lot of administrative background work needed for Outreach. We have a host of dedicated volunteers from Old First and elsewhere  who serve breakfast and dinners; provide clean clothing; introduce service camps to urban issues and Philadelphia; and help try to create community among all our diverse constituencies. We are so thankful for their work. And proud of ourselves that we are fielding all these volunteers. But all those volunteers and all those good works – there’s much that needs to be done for all those people to be able to serve. It’s the background, administrative work that usually lands on the Outreach SLG chair or church staff.   

In the tight 2024 draft budget, the Elders were concerned that our line item of $3,000 for some Outreach work was woefully insufficient for the additional staff support we needed. They explained their position to our Treasurer, who responded that unfortunately, he could really only find an additional $1,000 with our income constraints.  

Undeterred, the Elders started thinking about other ways to raise money for the staff position and the work that needs to be done. There are a number of different ways to increase income. Fundraising. Grant writing. Bake sales! 

Old First is not a large community relative to all that we try and accomplish, particularly in service and outreach. It’s almost miraculous when you think of all we get done.

But it’s important that we understand all the work that goes into our ministries and the work they accomplish. We manage to do so much, because we invite others from beyond our community in to serve alongside us and help out.  As Beth W. shared at the Annual Report, one of the time she’s heard God speak is God telling her to “ask for help.” “Asking for help” one could say, is actually one of Old First’s ministries, alongside and related to our helping ministries!  

Groups come bearing breakfasts and dinners, toiletries and clothes. Volunteers show up to help distribute clothes. People show us to sort, size and fold all the clothes we receive. Daily folks are always dropping off clothes, and we still run out. Service camps show up to share their labor. It’s no exaggeration, without resources from beyond our four walls, we couldn’t do half of what we do. 

This is also true financially. In the past, the shelter was a big locus of donations for our Outreach work. We never asked members directly to give, because we assume you already support Outreach in your regular church giving, And this congregation is generous already. But there were regular appeals beyond our four walls. We have had to be intentional about financial help as well as in-kind and volunteer help to do everything we think our neighbors deserve. Keith H. has taught us to think about our need to attract “OPM,” other people’s money. And those kinds of donations have been and will continue to be important in our having enough to do all we are able to do here at 4th and Race. 

Congregations and individuals and foundations and other grantmaking groups  way beyond our immediate community have regularly and faithfully contributed to our outreach work. It’s not quite this simple, or dollar for dollar, but one could say that the $25 to $35K that we have raised over the years annually as shelter donations used to make the Outreach staffer possible. 

Right now, we don’t have the shelter. We still get outside donations for our outreach work, but markedly lower totals (down by as much as ⅔).  Also, over time the donations have been declining as other congregations have fewer resources or even cease to exist. During the last years of the shelter, our donations were sort of propped up by large grants that the Stock Exchange Foundation made to us with Dan B’s help. The Stock Exchange Foundation is no longer making grants, so that money is not available to us any longer. 

At the same time, Old First is facing other budget squeezing. As we redevelop the property for Old First House, we lost income we have received from parking rentals and also, particularly since COVID, on space sharing rentals. People just haven’t been using the space as much. (Condos don’t have their annual meetings in our Social Hall; they do it on zoom!).

We foresaw these changes as we looked to the redevelopment of the property, and knew there’d be juggling in our budgets. One hope is that using the Sanctuary more often for outside groups, we will generate income that can replace some of our missing donations. It would also be helpful to bringing other sets of people into the space to increase our visibility and to let people know about Old First. 

Also, people have asked, will the residents in Old First House and ministries that might emerge begin to recapture donation dollars we used to get for the shelter? Perhaps, but we just don’t know yet; probably we cannot know until they arrive, and we get to know their situations and figure out if or how we might develop ministries with them. 

Faced with the shortfall of income for Outreach, the Elders discussed fundraising, grants possibilities and other potential additional income sources. All those are important, and we are going to need to follow up on all the possibilities.

But in the end, the Elders thought the need was too pressing, and those other sources were going to take time. They wanted to see if we could find the resources soon enough to get some extra staff help. They decided that coming to the congregation directly with a special request was the right tack.

Outreach is in some sense Old First’s specialty. These are our ministries, and now is a time for us to show our commitment and our support. The request was for folks to make special gifts above their regular giving or to commit to volunteering for Outreach. (There are a few volunteer opportunities that could cover some of what the Outreach staffer has traditionally done.) 

The response was immediate and impressive – with over $10,000 committed on the spot on Sunday and 18 new people raising their hands to volunteer with Outreach. (If you were not with us at the Annual Meeting or if you just want to make a donation, please indicate with a note in the collection plate or to our Financial Secretary, Grant Frame (gframe@sas.upenn.edu).  

It’s not a long term solution. We’re really going to need to find some more “OPM.” But the Elders’ leadership and the congregation’s generosity mean that we can start getting things in shape. And bring back some sort of p/t Outreach staffer.

And it was a reaffirmation by this congregation to the Outreach ministry we are known for and that makes us distinctive. As I often say, “a whole bunch of Old Firsters call this congregation their home church because of the outreach ministry it performs, even if they are not called personally to or cannot serve in outreach themselves.”

The Elders will keep working on the need. If you have any ideas about how we can gather more resources to help us in the crucial work we do, please don’t be shy – speak to an Elder or me. 

And as always thanks for your generosity. Old First needs others, outsiders, to do all that we do. And we have a lot of friends, generous friends. But we would not be Old First without all of you. 

See you in church, 

Michael