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Mar 18, 2020

March 2020 Board Report Responding to COVID-19

I have been asked by a couple of people to make Board report for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston public and share it on my blog. I have included a modified version of it below. I have substituted staff positions for names and redacted confidential information. Hopefully, other ministers and congregations will find it helpful in thinking how they might address the current crisis.

March 17, 2020

Dear Board and Staff:

These are strange and extraordinary times. The most important things we can do during them are to take appropriate safety precautions, take care of ourselves and all the members of our community, avoid panicking, connect with each other virtually, and think strategically.

The Board will be meeting virtually on Wednesday. The staff is planning, for the time being, to continue to work from the Museum District campus so that we can create a high-quality online worship experience for the congregation. We are also working on developing a plan to deliver online worship services in the event that it becomes necessary for us to shelter in place. [Music Director] has a home music studio and [A/V Tech] is able to produce the service on his laptop. Starting on March 17th, the ministers will be taking cameras to and from work so that we have appropriate equipment to record sermons at home if we need to.

This letter essentially serves as a substitute for my monthly Board report. It outlines my current thinking and the steps I believe the church should be taking to best serve our community and weather this difficult time. There are ten things I believe we should either assume or be planning for:

1. At least six months of online church.

We need to do all we can to help flatten the curve. The state of Texas is urging for the closure of schools for the rest of the school year. Many colleges and universities have switched to online classes through the end of the school year. The best epidemiological modeling I have seen seems to indicate that the peak of the pandemic should hit in about July--this was hinted at in the President’s most recent statement. If that is true, then we probably will not able to reopen either of the campuses for Sunday services until September.

We are planning four sets of online programs:

1. An online Sunday service, delivered via YouTube and made available on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. We have opted against streaming services because we believe that [A/V Tech] can produce a higher quality YouTube program than a livestreamed service. [Senior Minister] will be primarily responsible for this program.

2. An online Sunday gathering place, curated by [Director of Religious Education]. The online gathering place will be an opportunity for members of the congregation to connect virtually. It will include an intergenerational opportunity for check-in, reflection, and song. It will most likely take place over Zoom. It may require the recruitment of some number of volunteer facilitators. [Director of Religious Education] will be ultimately responsible for this program.

3. A midweek video message from the senior minister, delivered via YouTube and made available on Wednesdays. These videos will be short conversations between me and an expert or community leader who can help the congregation better understand how to deal with the crisis. The first video will go live on March 25th and feature Dr. Kim Waller, the epidemiologist and member of the congregation who had originally planned to offer us a forum on March 22nd. [Senior Minister] will be primarily responsible for this program.

4. A midweek online space for religious education families curated by [Director of Religious Education]. She will be using Zoom to facilitate and may ultimately decide to recruit volunteers in order to host multiple groups at the same time. [Director of Religious Education] will be ultimately responsible for this program.

2. Significant financial hardship for the church.

Many economists now believe that the economy is in recession. The speed at which the virus that causes COVID-19 has spread suggests that this will be no ordinary recession. I served the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. During that recession, we experienced an 18-month lag in financial impact on the church. I believe that the financial impact of this recession will be much more rapid. To give just two examples, we will likely lose all of rental income for the remainder of the fiscal year and for part of the 2020-2021 fiscal year and see a dip in our weekly offering income.

I will submit a modified budget for the rest of the fiscal year tomorrow morning based on our revenue and expenses through March 17, 2020. I am also submitting a budget for the 2020-2021 that takes the current financial crisis into account in projections. [redacted]

I believe that we should attempt to keep everyone who works for First Church employed through the duration of the crisis. The modified budget I am submitting includes the following provisions:

-- a freeze on all program spending effective immediately;
-- the continuation of pay for hourly employees per their regularly scheduled hours;
-- the deferral of all non-critical maintenance on either campus that cannot be completed by [Sexton].

The budget I am submitting for the fiscal year 2020-2021 will:

-- anticipate significant drops in pledge, offering, and rental income;
-- freeze all staff salaries at current levels;
-- cut programs at both campuses;
-- use the Reserve Fund to maintain staff levels for growth.

3. The possibility that some members of the congregation will get sick or even die. The assumption that many of them will experience financial hardship.

[Assistant Minister] has been tasked with developing a plan to connect with the most vulnerable members of the congregation on a regular basis. This plan will include how we might safely organize food delivery for them in the event they need it and hold online memorial services if necessary. It will also include plans for distribute aid, if requested, for members in need.

4. The possibility that the staff will be confined to their houses.

We need to prepare for the possibility that the staff will have to work from home. In the event that occurs, [Business Administrator] and [Bookkeeper] have been tasked with figuring out how to run our financial operations remotely. We are also preparing to create online services remotely and make sure that the building will be safe in the event that no one is able to get to into it. [Business Administrator] and [Senior Minister] will be taking ultimate responsibility for developing this plan.

5. The possibility that some members of the staff will get sick.

In the event that staff members become incapacitated, I am designating the following chains of succession:

Senior Minister:
1. [Senior Minister]
2. [Assistant Minister]
3. [Minister Emeritus]

Assistant/Campus Minister
1. [Assistant Minister]
2. [Campus Program Staff Person]
3. [Senior Minister]

Business Administrator:
1. [Business Administrator]
2. [Bookkeeper]
3. [Minister Emeritus]

Director of Religious Education:
1. [Director of Religious Education]
2. [Religious Education Assistant]
3. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]

Membership and Communications Coordinator:
1. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]
2. [Administrative Assistant]
3. [Assistant Minister]

A/V Technician:
1. [A/V Technician]
2. [Contractor]
3. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]

Music Director:
1. [Music Director]
2. [Accompanist]
3. [Volunteer Musician]

Facilities (Museum District)
1. [Sexton]
2. Volunteer Designated by the Board
3. Volunteer Designated by the Board

Facilities (Thoreau)
1. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team
2. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team
3. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team

6. We should use this as an opportunity to build our online presence.

The global health emergency means that people will be more online than ever before during this time of crisis. We will be doing everything we can to expand the congregation’s social media and online footprint. [Membership and Communications Coordinator] has been tasked with simplifying the front page of our web page so that it only includes the following:

-- embedded video content of the most recent online services and midweek message;
-- links to archived video content;
-- donation tab;
-- information about joining the congregation;
-- information and links to online programming;
-- links to social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram);
-- a subscription button for our newsletter;
-- links to recent news;
-- a links to the current website, which will be archived until such time as we return to physical services.

As starting metrics, I note the following:

Newsletter -- [aaa] subscribers
Church Twitter -- [bbb] followers
1st 24 hour views of an online church service -- [ccc] views ; [ddd] likes
YouTube -- [eee] subscribers
Facebook (MD) -- [fff] Likes

And, I’m setting the following goals for September:

Newsletter -- [aaa*1.33] subscribers
Church Twitter -- [bbb*1.33] followers
1st 24-hour views of an online church service -- [ccc*1.33] views
YouTube -- [ccc*2] subscribers
Facebook (MD) -- [fff*1.33] Likes

[Membership and Communications Coordinator] has also been tasked with developing an online path to membership. Before the pandemic hit we had [ggg] people planning to join during the month of March. Our goal is that by September all [ggg] of these people will have joined.

7. We should be prepared to move immediately to two services at both campuses when we resume services.

We should be prepared to do this for two reasons:

a) We will want to encourage social distancing for some period of time after the pandemic dies down;
b) We should anticipate pent up demand for physical community once it is safe to gather again.

[Assistant Minister] has been tasked with developing the plans for two services at both campuses.

8. As difficult as it seems, we need to think strategically about the long-term growth of the congregation.

[Redacted]

9. We should, for the immediate future, act as if there is no federal or state government.

The United States government and the state of Texas have shown a frighteningly absences of leadership during this global health emergency. We cannot rely upon them for leadership. Instead, we will be looking to the following authorities and individuals for guidance on how to respond to the crisis:

a) The City of Houston and Harris County. Both Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo have been frank about the city and county’s lack of preparedness to deal with the health crisis. They have urged urgent action and reasonable counsel. We will follow their recommendations as to how religious communities should be responding to the crisis.

b) The governors of New York and Ohio. Both have shown significant foresight and appear to be ahead of the curve on how to contain the virus.

c) The Unitarian Universalist Association. President Susan Frederick-Gray has proven herself again and again to have a level head in a crisis and to demonstrate compassionate and thoughtful leadership--requesting that churches close last Sunday. Her decision to discourage over 100,000 people from attending worship almost certainly saved lives.

d) The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. The response of the CDC has been a national embarrassment. The current President gutted their funding, a move which undoubtedly slowed their response to the pandemic and did much to create the current crisis. However, the CDC now seems to be getting its footing and offering useful advice. The WHO has offered useful advice throughout the pandemic.

e) [names of members of the congregation who are health professionals, redacted]

10. We should prepare for the possibility that the current President will use the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate power.

The current President has shown himself, again and again, to have autocratic and anti-democratic politics. Both global and national history has repeatedly shown that such individuals rarely let a crisis go to waste. They often use crises to implement policies or pursue agendas that they would never be able to put in place during normal times. The national crisis of September 11th was used by the then resident of the White House to: effectively destroy the post-World War II global (or at least European and United States) human rights regimes; launch an unnecessary war of choice that destabilized an entire region of the world and cost millions of lives; and sideline or silence domestic dissent and social movements.

In sum, at such a moment of crisis, we are called to remember the prophetic function of our religious community even while we focus on the all-important tasks of pastoral care and stewardship before us. In light of this, [Assistant Minister] and I will continue to maintain a free pulpit. We will continue to work with our partner organizations to, as best we can, dismantle white supremacy, address the climate crisis, foster democracy, and build the beloved community.

love,

the Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen

CommentsCategories Ministry Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston COVID-19 YouTube Recession Social Media Sylvester Turner Houston Lina Hidalgo New York Ohio Texas Susan Frederick-Gray Unitarian Universalist Association Center for Disease Control World Health Organization Kim Waller Donald Trump 9/11

Aug 16, 2019

I Got The Knowledge (Leaving London)

Our trip home was relatively simple compared with our trip to London from Sers. It only involved two modes of transit: airplanes and automobiles. We decided not to take the Heathrow Express. The cost of buying four tickets was roughly the same as the cost of hiring a black car to Heathrow. So, we took a black car, complete with London cabbie, from the flat to the airport and then caught our flight to New York. In New York, after we cleared customs, we had to transfer between JFK and LaGuardia. In order to save money I bought tickets from Houston to New York and then from New York to Europe rather than connecting flights through the airlines (I saved over $1,000 this way). We took a New York taxi and then flew home to Houston. Once there we hired a car service via an app and made it home around midnight. We were greeted by a happy cat (or at least loudly purring cat who couldn’t keep off of us if I refrain from anthropomorphizing him).

My blog posts about London are:

London Restaurants
Markéta Luskačová
Many Happy Future Shocks to You
The Last Bottle in the Country
The Cat Owned the Flat
Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London

Since this is my last post on London, I want to close by praising London cabbies. In London, taxi driving is highly regulated. It is a solid middle income job and getting a job as a taxi driver requires passing a special test, called The Knowledge, and waiting for a few years for an opening (in order to get a job driving from one of the airports you have to be able to speak at least two languages as well). The Knowledge is nothing more than understanding how to navigate through London’s notoriously mazing streets. Cabbies pride themselves in having The Knowledge. And its benefits, even in the age of GPS, sometimes show themselves. On our way to the airport the GPS wanted us to go the wrong way down a one-way street--the street had been converted into being one way for the day. The driver ignored the GPS recommendation and got us to the airport 15 minutes before the GPS on my phone said we supposed to get there, all the while obeying the speed limit. It was an impressive, if minor, victory of man over machine. I am sure that at some point in the near future apps like Waze will outperform The Knowlege. But that moment has not yet come. When I commented on our arrival time to the airport the driver, as if on cue, told me, “It’s ‘cause I got The Knowledge, sir.”

CommentsCategories Food News Tags London Sers Heathrow Travel New York JFK LaGuardia Taxi Drivers The Knowlege Markéta Luskačová Scotch Dayton El Paso Gilroy Southhaven Gun Violence

May 8, 2017

Available for Preaching Engagements

I am currently accepting invitations to preach at congregations for the 2017-2018 program year in the Boston metro area. I am also available to preach in summer 2017 (including June) in the Boston, New York and Detroit metro areas (August only) and Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

I generally provide worship services on the following topics: religious practice and daily life; democracy as a religious practice; the liberal religious call to prison abolition; racial justice or challenging white supremacy; Unitarian Christianity; solidarity with undocumented migrants; the theology of friendship; decolonizing Unitarian Universalism; reparations for slavery; Unitarian Universalist liberation theology; and the metaphoric nature of liberal theology. I will be developing a number of new sermon topics in the coming months and can prepare sermons on a multitude of other topics by special arrangement. I am comfortable leading worship for humanist, liberal Christian, and Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Since this is an advertisement, let me sum up my qualifications as a preacher. I have been preaching since 2000 and have led worship services for over 100 congregations throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. These congregations have ranged from the very small (less than 20 members) to the very large (more than 1,000 members) and include, most recently, Memorial Church of Harvard University. Prior to beginning my doctoral studies at Harvard, I served as the parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland for five years. During my time there the congregation’s membership increased by over 50% and the Sunday morning attendance more than doubled. I have won three awards for my sermons and several have received regional or national media coverage. My curriculum vitae includes more details.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Sermon Tags Boston New York Detroit Maine New Hampshire Vermont Preaching Engagements

Apr 26, 2016

Available for Preaching Engagements

I am currently accepting invitations to preach at congregations for June in the Boston and New York metro areas.* I am also accepting invitations for the 2016-2017 program year. Starting in September I will be available to preach in the Boston, New York, and Washington, DC metro areas. I will be traveling to New York and DC a few times over the next several months for research and would happily add some preaching engagements to my agenda.

I am generally available to provide worship services on the following topics: democracy as a religious practice, the case for reparations for slavery, racial justice, the theology of friendship, and challenges facing Unitarian Universalism. I can prepare sermons on a multitude of other topics by special arrangement.

Since this is a bit of an advertisement, let me sum up my qualifications as a preacher. I have been preaching since 2000 and have led worship services in over 100 congregations throughout the United States and Canada. I served for the parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland for five years. During my time there the congregation’s membership increased by over 50% and the Sunday morning attendance more than doubled. I have won three awards for my sermons.

*I am only available for June 12 in the New York metro area.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags Preaching New York Boston Washington, DC

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