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, June 03, 2012

St. Paul's 2012 Annual Report

The 2012 Annual Meeting and neighborhood party!
This year we did our annual meeting a little differently.  Rather than the normal boring line of reports, each of the ministry areas of the church set up displays in booths in the parish hall and staffed them in conjunction with our annual neighborhood party that we hold at the parish to celebrate the end of the program year.  As annual meetings go, it was pretty great!

This is my "Report of the Priest-in-Charge" that I delivered today during worship - along with a few pictures here and there that I took during the festivities.

 
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This year we’re having our so-called “annual meeting” a little differently than we have in previous years.  Rather than gathering after church to listen to reports of the various activities and organizations and entities within the parish on a given Sunday, this year we’ve decided to merge the “annual meeting” with our annual, end-of-the-program year neighborhood party.

Rather than a meeting in the more traditional sense, as it’s happened in the past, we’re looking on our meeting as a celebration - a chance to show off for the entire neighborhood and for ourselves about all of the wonderful work that we’ve been doing, and all the successes that we’ve shared together in the past year.

There won’t be any oral reports after church at this “meeting”.  Instead, several leaders from the church will be staffing tables in the parish hall to talk individually about their work.  Voting for our elected officers of the parish will be at one of the tables, too.  Meanwhile, there will be food, and singing and dancing, and activities for the kids outside and all over the church grounds.

Since there’s no time for people to sit and listen to reports (who really likes that part of the annual meeting, anyway?!) I’ve decided to give my annual “Report of the Priest-in-Charge” here - as a part of our worship today.

In reality, it really makes a lot of sense that we have our “annual meeting” in the context of a party - a celebration - because we have a LOT to celebrate.  St. Paul’s Church is doing very well - perhaps better than it’s been doing in a really long time.

In the past year, our average Sunday attendance has continued to steadily rise.  Sure, it’s not rising as fast as I would like (I can be a little bit impatient that way), but the averages continue to slowly go up.  And in an era of the American Christian landscape when church attendance is rapidly falling all across the country, it would be a sign of success if we were even holding steady.  Going up is a HUGE sign of success.

Additionally, for special events, our attendance continues to rise.  Our Shrove Tuesday pancake supper this year drew even more participants than the record we set last year.  Dozens of children participated in the burning of the palms for Ash Wednesday.  Our World Music Concert series continues to draw significant crowds and serves as a wonderful outreach to the wider community.  On Easter Sunday last year we had 147 people join us for worship.  This year, our Easter attendance was 223!

Even more significantly, our commitment to stewardship is growing by more than any of us probably could have dreamed to be possible.  By the end of 2011, giving far exceeded what had been pledged and budgeted.  Moreover, pledges in 2012 are more than TRIPLE what they were in 2011.  You have begun to answer the call to provide for the needs of this parish, and we are in a much more stable position now than we have been in a very long time.  Thank you.

But while all of these numbers are important - and while the statistics show us that the church is strong and growing in a time when that’s a hard thing to accomplish - the truth behind the numbers is far greater than the numbers themselves.  They show us not just that people are coming to worship and events, and not just that people are giving more to the church.  The real thing that these numbers show is an increased level of participation in and commitment to the church.  They show us that you care and that you recognize just how important St. Paul’s Church is - to yourselves, and to the community at large.

When Bishop Beckwith was with us a few weeks ago, he was struck by the reality that the neighborhood association put together a volunteer group to paint our fence.  The thing he kept saying to me was, “They wouldn’t have done it if the church wasn’t important to them.”  “They wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t feel some sense of ownership and pride in the church.”  “They wouldn’t have done it if you weren’t making a difference in their lives.”

It’s true.  St. Paul’s is making a difference.  The neighborhood thanked us by painting our fence, but just in case you didn’t hear it, let me say it to you now: thank you!  You are the reason St. Paul’s is thriving.  You are the reason we are growing.  Our church is strong, and relevant, and we have a lot to be thankful for.  Most of all, I am thankful for all of you and all that you’ve done to make that possible.

But the work isn’t done.  On Easter Day, with the church packed more than it’s been packed in many years, Althea said to me, “It should be like this every Sunday.”  And you know what?  She’s right.  There are more than 2,500 people that live right here on our block of Duncan Avenue.  There’s not a reason in the world that we shouldn’t be able to get that kind of attendance every week.  You’ve done good work, but you can do more.

dancing in front of the rectory!
When was the last time you invited a friend to church?  It’s important to have professional looking marketing, and a thorough and easy-to-use website.  It’s important to advertise with fliers and brochures.  But none of that will ever compare to the power of a personal invitation.  You can’t rely on me or the members of the church staff or even the elected leaders to do that.  We all have to do it.  If we all brought a friend to church next week, we’d have double the attendance!  Think what we could do in terms of increasing our outreach to the community at large if we had that many more hands helping!  I know it can be a little scary - asking someone to come to church.  But I promise - if you keep doing it, it will get easier.  Think of all of the benefits that you get from being a part of this warm and loving community.  Don’t you know someone who could benefit from this place?  Isn’t it worth sharing?

When was the last time you looked around and noticed that someone was missing who should have been here, and given them a call to check on them? to let them know that they were missed? to let them know that they are a part of this family?  It’s not about being nosy, or about prying into people’s personal lives.  No one wants you to do that.  But it is about recognizing that we’re all stronger when we’re all here for each other.  And not just recognizing that, but sharing it.  Imagine if you were having a rough week and decided not to come to church.  What if someone noticed and called to check on you?  Not to try to make you feel guilty, but to let you know that you were loved.  Wouldn’t that feel pretty good?  We’re not just a congregation - a group of people who gather.  We’re a community.  We care for each other.  That’s what the Christian life is really about.

When I first interviewed to be your priest, I told the members of the Vestry a story about Nick Saban’s football coaching style.  He was once asked in an interview how he took a team that almost no one thought had much potential and turned them into National Champions.  His response was simple, but wise.  He said that he taught the players to stop looking at the scoreboard.  Instead, he tried to instill in them the importance of doing the very best they could in every play of the game.  Rather than worrying about the statistics, they should worry about the play right in front of them.  If they did that, the scoreboard would take care of itself.

He was right.  It did.

And it has for us, too.  We’ve been working hard to do our very best at every play that’s been put before us.  We’re not perfect.  We drop the ball every now and then.  But we’re getting a lot better.  And the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  The scoreboard is starting to take care of itself.

In the First Lesson today, we hear the moving story of Isaiah agreeing to be called.  He had a vision of God being glorified by all the angels.  In the presence of such glory, he was moved to be a part of it also.  God said, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah responded, “Here am I; send me!”

In the past year, we’ve seen a glimpse of the glory of God here in this place.  At least I know I have.  I hope you have, too.  But the work is not finished.  The glory of God can still be shown farther and truer and deeper.

God is calling you to be a part of it.  I pray that we will all answer with the readiness of God’s servant Isaiah, and be willing to share glimpses of that glory with a world that is aching for it.  We have such profound gifts to share with the world.  Gifts that come only from God.  We need only agree to be called.

God is calling: Whom shall I send?  Whom shall I send?

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