The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, February 20, 2011

St. Paul's Annual Meeting - the report from the Priest-in-Charge


Report of the Priest-in-Charge


In the political sphere executives typically give a “State of the government” report of some variety, and in many ways, that’s exactly what this is: a kind of “State of the parish” report.

For a few weeks now, in my sermons, I’ve been giving you some previews of what I have to say today, but in brief, I can report from nearly six months as your priest, that the state of our parish is good. We have a deeply loving community, incredible resources available to us in our physical plant, a measure of financial security passed down to us through the generations who have gone before, beautiful enthusiasm and joy for Christian community, enviable diversity, and solid potential for growth.

Our gifts are nearly immeasurable and we have so much to be thankful for.

Not the least of which is our people. Each one of you is an important member of this community, and we are all richer because you choose to be here. In particular, I’d like to take a moment to thank a few of you specifically.

First and foremost, we all should join in thanking Althea Maynard. For many years now, Althea has served this community with a level of dedication and love that most of you probably can’t imagine. She is in the office for hours on end each week volunteering her time and expertise, she is always available to the parish clergy and to each of you, she has represented the parish at larger church gatherings, and she has led our church through some difficult years on the vestry and finally as warden. Thank you, Althea. You are a blessing to me and to this whole parish. We will miss your leadership and we look forward to seeing the new ways that God is calling you to be a part of this community.

Also, though she’s not here today, we would be remiss if we failed to thank Carol LaBate. As you know, Carol has been the Junior Warden, but for about the past year has been holding that position in spite of the fact that she has been quite ill. Now, Carol is rotating out of her leadership position as she and her husband have moved out of the area. Her presence in this community will be deeply missed, but we wish her well in her recovery and in her new home.

I’d like to ask all of the members of the Vestry in the past year to please stand. These people have faithfully served as your leaders. Being a member of the vestry - in any parish, but particularly in a small parish such as ours - is more than just showing up at a monthly meeting. These people have given their hearts and their souls to this church and its ministry. On a personal note, I’d like to thank them for calling me to be your priest. I know that they interviewed three fine candidates, any one of whom would have come here and loved you deeply - how could they not? And I am humbled and honored that they chose me to come and lead you for a season.

And now I invite the members of the choir to stand. Each Sunday they play an integral role in leading us in worship - helping us all to find our way both through the liturgy and to a deeper relationship with Christ. Thank you for your service.

In every parish, the heart of the community lies in its worship. And our weekly expressions of worship would be impossible without the faithful band of servants who do the “dirty work” behind the scenes before and after services to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and that everything that needs to be in order is. Would the members of the Altar Guild please stand? Thank you for all of your work this year.

It’s often a joke among clergy that Altar Guilds can be some of the most difficult organizations to work with in a parish. I must say, with a note of personal gratitude, that this Altar Guild is clearly the exception. You have been a joy to work with. You are both reliable and flexible. I give thanks for your service!

But as you all know, worship each week is a major undertaking. It takes a lot of people to keep this place running smoothly, and to make it a welcome haven for both regular worshipers and guests. Each Sunday an army of others march through these doors to do the work that God has called them to do - chalice bearers, torch bearers, gospel bearers, crucifers, lectors, intercessors, ushers, and now, even a verger! - each playing a role in making worship more meaningful, not just for themselves, but for all of us who have gathered. If you’ve served in any of those capacities in the past year, please stand.

And while most of us are gathered in the church to sing and to pray and to break into the gospel, there are others setting up to host our coffee hour gatherings and teaching the children in church school. If you’ve served in that capacity this year, please stand. Hospitality and Christian Education are two of the most important jobs of the church. We are all grateful for your service.

You probably noticed during this little exercise of gratitude that nearly everyone in this room stood up. Some people stood up more than once. And that’s how it should be. A church is not its buildings or its endowment or its income and expense statement. As we all sang as children, “the church is the people.” When we have visitors in this parish, it is the people that stand out - even more than our worship or our music or our beautiful buildings, but each of you. It’s the love that you clearly feel for one another and openly share. That’s where our greatest potential lies.

But all of this is not to say that we’re not without our challenges. Like most of us in our personal lives, the biggest challenge for us as a community is financial. Though these buildings are beautiful, they are difficult and expensive to maintain. And all of our costs as a parish - everything from paper clips to priests - keeps going up. In the past year, you all made the bold decision to hire a less than full-time priest for the first time in recent memory. It was a bold step out in faith on both of our parts. You trusted that God would provide you with the priest you need right now and I trusted that together, with God’s help, we would do the work necessary to improve our financial position in the next few years.

We’re just a few months into the process, and the work has begun, but we still have a long way to go.

Our income each year is less than a third of our annual expenses. As a result, we rely too much on our endowment to keep us solvent. I know, when people hear that we have an endowment, they often take that to mean that there is less of a need to give to the church, but that simply isn’t true. We are withdrawing from our endowment at the maximum level that we can without thoroughly depleting it, just in order to stay afloat. As a result, unexpected expenses that we encounter have the potential to be financially devastating.

But even beyond the financial realities of the parish, we are all spiritually weaker for failing to take our full share of responsibility for being good stewards of this corner of God’s beautiful creation with which we’ve been entrusted.

It’s not enough to make a token gift to the parish. It’s not enough for the church, and it’s not enough for you. In the gospel we are constantly being told the kinds of initially counterintuitive truths like we were told this morning by Jesus. ‘You have heard that, but I tell you this…’ Well, everything in the world tells us to look out only for ourselves. Our consumerist culture is constantly preaching to us that we need the next latest thing. But the truth is, it is in giving that we receive.

We have been steeped in a culture of scarcity, but we worship a God of abundance. It’s hard, but we have to learn to trust that abundance. When we do, we will all be richer for it, and it will make us an even truer breath of fresh air than we already are to this aching community in which we serve.

The good news is, our income from grants and contributions for the use of our space is poised to rise in the next year, but that’s not enough. Those income sources help us, but it’s only through congregational giving that we’ll really have a chance at surviving.

And we all need to redouble ourselves in our commitments to being here and being a part of this church. Not just from time to time, but every Sunday, and more times between Sundays.

We’re having some wonderful programs right now - with the emerging music programs, and our renewed efforts at making our spaces available to outside groups. All of that will have an effect on helping this church to grow. In fact, it’s already starting to have an effect. But the single best thing we can do to help this church grow, is for each of us to be Ambassador’s of St. Paul’s. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. Tell your co-workers. You are a part of a beautiful community! And everyone is welcome here. Find the people in your life who have a skewed view of what church is. Find the people who think church is hurtful. Find the people who think church is boring. Find the people who think church is irrelevant. We all run into them every day. Invite them to church. Tell them why you come and help them to see why they should.

Programs are great, but there’s no program that will ever be as effective as a personal invitation.

I can help some. I’ve done a lot of work in these past few months to try to make us appear as welcoming as we really are - through the work on the website and the brochure and our order of worship, and helping to get new, engaging programs established, to even simple things like beginning the process of getting our parish offices more organized and efficient. But I can’t do it alone. I need you. The church needs you.

None of us can do it alone. That’s why we have community. Jesus did a lot of work building community, because he knew the calling that he was issuing was far too big for just a charismatic leader or two. We all have to have a bit of the Christ in us. And when we work together, our bits of Christ join together as God alive in the world.

It can seem scary, because it’s such a big job. But we’ve got each other. And together, we are blessed more than we can say.

Thank you for being a part of it. And thank you for allowing me to lead you for a time.

Our church is strong, but it can be stronger. The state of our parish is good, but together, and with God’s help, it will be great!

Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I am so proud of you I could just burst. Bravo!