Every year when we gather for the Annual Meeting I use this event as a marker of our journey together. This year, for the ninth time, I stand before you as your rector. As we mark this ninth occasion, I am aware of how fortunate we are to have been together this long. As I perused the pictures and tenures of our former rectors, I was amazed to realize that as of November 1, I have held the second longest tenure as rector at St. Luke’s. This is not only an accomplishment on the congregational level; it is also an accomplishment on the national level as well. Statistics now indicate the average pastorate for mainline protestant churches is between five and seven years. Every time I attend diocesan clergy functions I am made painfully aware of this statistic. As I look around, fewer and fewer of my fellow clergy with whom I arrived are still in the diocese and none are still serving in their original assignments. From the National Church’s standpoint, our relationship, our work together these nine years, is a success story and one we as a community should be proud of.
A second area of success lies in the fact that we are still able to exist. Last May, I attended a Building for Tomorrow conference. While there, the keynote speaker shared another surprising statistic: three Episcopal congregations close every month in the United States. A second statistic he shared is that the average Sunday attendance for most Episcopal congregations is below seventy-five people on a Sunday morning. With these statistics in mind, we can no longer be considered a “small” congregation, but an “above average” congregation who in comparison to the norm has access to an abundance of human and financial resources that can be focused on bringing about the Realm of God.
I believe that during 2011, we made great strides in assuring that St. Luke’s continues to beat the ongoing dire statistics of the national church. We have done this by paying attention to defining who we are. In 2010 the vestry spent a great deal of its time defining what it means to be a vital, growing, Christ-centered community bringing all people to God’s healing embrace. In 2011 our vestry, led by our Wardens and executive team, began guiding the rest of us towards living into our mission. Every other month, Jeryl Wright shared his management expertise with the heads of our ministry teams and guided them through the process of how to share and articulate our mission statement with members of each team. And then, in turn, each team was asked to articulate their own mission statement and explain how their work fit into the mission of the greater congregation. Ministry over function seemed to be the guiding concept for the process, and as your rector it was exciting for me to see the enthusiasm each team developed as they began to understand their mission in ministry above and beyond their function as in-depth theological reflection took place.
I know for some this process felt “too corporate”; it seemed to fly in the face of our long-held assumption that as a “small” congregation we didn’t need that much structure. As we are finding, we can be informal and structured as well.
In the early chapters of John’s Gospel, the disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus and, he asks them what they are seeking. Those seeking healing are often asked a similar question. Jesus asks these questions for two reasons: one, to clarify and not assume what the other is seeking and two, to be assured that they are seeking what he is there to provide. In defining who we are, we are able to articulate our mission as a congregation, and then from there discern the ministries God is calling us to do. Our articulation of mission has helped all of us to gather on the same page, it has made it easier for me to be your rector, your vestry and your ministry team leaders to be the spiritual leaders you have called them to be on your behalf.
Also, when we are clear about our mission, change becomes less threatening. As an institution of the twenty-first century, St. Luke’s has had to respond to a great deal of change. The Camillus, New York we took root in in 1956 is not the same community it is today. We are no longer supported by the industrial base we once were. During my tenure we have seen the demise of the remnant companies that were the economic foundation of the area. This week as I drove from the rectory to the church, I realized how different the landscape is from when I moved here eight and a half years ago. Camillus Commons now booms with commerce. Where houses once stood, small plazas now house store fronts. All are indications of how drastically Camillus has changed over the past years. With change, survival becomes dependent on being able to adapt. As we have learned, the church once built for the children of our founders now must become an open center of Anglican welcome, radical hospitality and inclusiveness.
This is at the core of our mission, to bring all people to God’s healing embrace. And while fulfilling that part of our mission may mean change on the surface, we can rest assured the core of our mission will not change. In the Book of Acts, St. Paul demonstrates this very reality when he speak to the people gathered at Mars Hill. There he adapts the language of the Gospel to the symbols of the Areopagus as he incorporates their worship of the Unknown God with Jesus.
In 2010 and 11, through the leadership of our young people, we have learned that our way of worship does not necessarily contain the voice and language the youth of today can hear. Every month our youth have demonstrated what speaks to them. I applaud their efforts, their efforts in pushing us outside of our comfort zone in terms of music and worship, and their desire to incorporate technology into our worship experience. Their efforts have begun to answer one of the questions I asked when I first arrived in Camillus — what is the organic sound of St. Luke’s, Camillus in terms of music and worship?
I am a firm believer that if liturgy is the work of the people, the worship of any congregation must incorporate the voices of all who belong; young and old alike. I am also keenly aware of the fact that all of the music found in the 1982 hymnal was once as contemporary and radical in its day as the music our youth are introducing today. A challenge for 2012 is how we go a step further and integrate the music and worship of our youth with the music and worship we are accustomed to.
Also, in 2011 our outreach accepted the challenge and has begun to develop a partnership in ministry with Echo Meals on Wheels. This is no small feat; our developing partnership is a new way for us to understand outreach as we attempt to find one organization on which to focus the majority of our outreach energies. This partnership will eventually become the signature outreach effort of St. Luke’s. This developing partnership is a recommitment with an old friend. Echo Meals on Wheels was developed in the late sixties by the consortium of churches in Camillus. For years many of our members have been active participants at Meals on Wheels in all facets of its ministry. Recently we have added to that involvement the produce from the Seeds of Faith Garden. There is a myriad of ways all ages can be involved with Meals on Wheels and I look forward to the many creative endeavors we can become involved with in years to come.
Finally, as I review 2011,I would be remiss if I did not include the work of our finance committee this year. In the spring I began speaking with finance about planning for the future and to begin putting in place plans that will sustain the ministry of this congregation for decades to come. I introduced a financial vision that would keep St. Luke’s able to maintain its ministry well into the future. The plan calls to endow the building by raising $1,000,000, the interest of which would cover all the costs of maintaining our buildings and grounds. To use pledged income to cover the costs of program and personnel. And to use fundraising efforts to support all outreach endeavors.
We are nowhere close to that reality, but the committee has taken the first steps towards our financial goal. This year’s stewardship campaign proved to all of us that we have an abundance of resources from which to draw. And we have a congregation of very generous people . . . if we get the word out. To that end, we have concluded one of the most successful stewardship campaigns in years. Through each and everyone here today, our stewardship efforts have yielded an 11% increase over the 2010 program year. A huge success and sign of our commitment to the ministry of St. Luke’s in a year most congregations have continued to flat line in their stewardship commitment. This spring the finance committee is planning to re-invigorate the Heritage Fund as we take the first steps towards building an endowment. And, under the leadership of Milt Stevenson, a fundraising committee has been formed and is in the beginning stages of planning several fundraising events this year with a goal of $5000 to be raised. All of these efforts continue to move St. Luke’s forward towards long term financial stability.
As we look into 2012, there are a handful of goals we need to accomplish together.
It has become urgent that St. Luke’s once again pay attention to how we safeguard our children from sexual predators while in our care. To this end, I have already asked Alison Conley, with the help of Vladmiro Hart-Zavoli, to research safe church policies and develop policy for the vestry to review at their March meeting. I have also arranged to hold a district-wide safe church training on the evening of March 6. All vestry members not recently trained as well as all adults who have direct ministry with youth will be part of the training. It is also my hope that by June of this year we will have written policy published on our website and made available to all families and individuals who call St. Luke’s their spiritual home.
A second goal is to reinvigorate our Sunday school. We are blessed with wonderful, enthusiastic teachers and a solid curriculum, but we continue to lack consistent attendance. I have asked Debbie Dilg to look into this issue and begin figuring out ways to encourage attendance. Christian formation and education is the key to the ongoing success of this congregation. Not only are our children part of our present but they are an integral part of our future. If we do not begin forming them at an early age, they will be formed by something else when they are older.
Today there is a great amount of misinformation available to our youth. Our media often portrays Christianity in its worst possible light, as biblical understanding is handed out in sound bytes that more often than not lack context. If our young are to be formed by the loving, inclusive God that we celebrate each week, their Christian formation must be consistently provided for both at home and through this congregation. The challenge is how we can do this with only 45 minutes on a given Sunday.
My final goal for 2012 is for us to heed the theme of this liturgical year and to imagine not what is, but what is possible. Recently I attended a clergy conference on Science and Religion, and I was again hit by the word “imagine.” Dr. Sugg, our presenter, stated that “all of creation is the result of the imagination of God coming into being,” and he concluded, ” without imagination nothing is possible.” So I challenge all of you as we continue our journey together, now that we understand our mission, to begin imagining where that mission can take us as we continue to be a vital, growing, Christ-centered community, bringing all people to God’s healing embrace.