Members find the exchanges build community and save money.
In Pittsburgh, Pa., when working parents Rob and Lisa Schroth needed help creating decorations for a birthday party for their twin three-year-olds, several people spent an afternoon making life-sized paper princesses and a cardboard-and-carpet castle.
In Columbus, Ohio, Michael Greenman is giving Spanish lessons to a retired doctor, who is taking an advanced language course.
No money changed hands in any of these transactions. These people, all Unitarian Universalists, are part of different “time banks” in their communities. Instead of money, they earned “time credits” that they can use to receive services from others.
Time banks have been around since 1980 when lawyer-social justice activist Edgar Cahn, whose early history includes working on antipoverty and civil rights programs for the Kennedy administration, created “Time Dollar USA.” Timebanks.org lists around 80 of them and describes how they work.
At its most basic level, a time bank is a community system where a person who volunteers one hour of time helping someone gets an hour time credit that can be used to receive help from someone else.
Greenman, a member of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio, became interested in time banking two years ago. “I’ve been very unhappy with what’s happening in this country. I see us going in the wrong direction in almost all areas in relationship with the rest of the world. We have growing economic disparity and a dying middle class. If we’re going to escape this continued downtrend we need to do things differently.”
Greenman and several other First UU members are founding members of Care and Share Time Bank of Central Ohio, which was established last December. The church itself is a founding member, also.
“Time banks are an opportunity to build community,” he said. “It’s a natural tool for times when lots of people are unemployed. These people still have skills to offer and they’re in need of people to do things for them without money exchanging hands.”
Services that people have offered through the Care and Share Time Bank include gift wrapping, dog sitting, help with applying for federal benefits, being a personal shopper, and tutoring.
One hundred forty miles from Columbus, the UU Church of Kent, Ohio, is a member of the Kent Community Time Bank, which was organized a year ago by a friend of the church who drew in many UUs. “We’re hoping that our involvement will increase our visibility in the community,” said Spaude. Twenty-seven friends and members of the church have individual memberships. Spaude hopes to encourage more congregations to get involved with time banking. “The core principles of time banking sound a lot like our seven Unitarian Universalist principles.”
She said participants are encouraged to offer things they are passionate about. “We want them to share something about themselves. That’s how we get to know people. This is all about creating community, saving money, and sharing passions. The time bank can be a mechanism for social change.”
Other members of her congregation have also been active in the time bank, Spaude said. One couple taught someone how to roast coffee; another person, a driving instructor, took a church youth for a driving lesson; a hockey player gave a skating lesson; and another person has walked dogs for others.
Time banks are different from bartering, which involves two people doing things for each other. A time bank member who provides a service for someone might never get a service back from that person. But he’ll likely get one from someone else. Time bank hours are also generally all valued equally. An hour of a plumber’s time is valued the same as a massage therapist’s and a childcare provider’s. Exchanges are recorded by a time bank administrator or by individuals, using special time bank software.
A year ago, in the wake of the national financial meltdown, members of the UU Church of the North Hills, Pittsburgh, Pa., were looking for a way to support members and the larger community. A time bank seemed like a practical measure, but there wasn’t one in the area. So the church formed one, the Barn Raisers Time Bank.
Its members are mostly friends and members of the church, but it’s also open to the community. “Since we’ve started, members have helped each other with rides, childcare, home repairs, music lessons, and lots more,” said Bill Palowitch, who, along with his wife Kristilee, is a founding member.
Kristilee said she hopes that Barn Raisers, in addition to facilitating individual exchanges, can also bring people together to support community causes. “Working together on projects is wonderful,” she added. “It builds a great sense of community and camaraderie, it gives newcomers to the time bank a fun way to meet people and get involved, and helps to make the time bank more visible while at the same time helping others.”
The work party that she helped organize for the three-year-old twins’ birthday party was an initial example of that, she said. “Our time bank came together and spent an afternoon creating decorations for the party. We had a lot of fun and the little girls were thrilled.” Added the twins’ mom, Lisa Schroth, “I was just overwhelmed by what they were able to create. It was far more than I had hoped for. This is just a wonderful community.”
Bill Palowitch says there may be a particular challenge for time banks organized by UU congregations. “We’re in a relatively affluent neighborhood. Sometimes there’s not a whole lot that people actually need from other people. Our interactions thus far have been more in the nature of a friendly exchange of stuff than a helping hand.” He said he hopes the time bank can eventually reach out to neighborhoods closer to inner city areas.
Another challenge, said Greenman in Columbus, is that members can sometimes be hesitant to accept services from people they don’t know, if the time bank extends beyond their circle of friends. Greenman is working on a way around that. He’s inviting several other congregations and community groups to join his time bank and he’s encouraging them to begin by sharing mainly within their own groups. “Then, by holding periodic ‘meet-and-greet’ gatherings we hope to broaden the number of people we know.”
Spaude said time bank sharing will need to be reconciled with church safety issues. “We have committees—our Safety Committee and Religious Education—that are working to establish guidelines about who, from outside the church community, would be appropriate for childcare or to do repair work in the church. Those kinds of things will need to be settled before the time bank can be more involved in those areas.”
She said the time bank holds a monthly potluck plus a monthly informational meeting where members can meet each other and learn about the time bank. Members are invited to share their stories. “We encourage people to come so they can get a sense of the importance of community to the group.”
Not every effort to start a time bank is successful. One UU tried to start one in Florida recently. “There just wasn’t enough interest,” she said. “There were concerns it was going to be too complicated and staff-intensive, even though I argued otherwise. I’m still a great believer, though. I may try again.”
Timebanks.org offers answers to several frequently asked questions about time banks. For example: if someone requests a service that you offered and it’s not convenient for you, you are not obligated to perform that service. It’s okay to go into “debt,” having more services done for you than you have done for others. Each time bank sets its own limits as to how far in debt a member may go. Time banks can be begun by individuals, religious groups, and community groups.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.