January 27, 2013
It is hard to believe, for the tenth time I stand before you as your rector to give what some have humorously dubbed “the state of the saints address.” A decade of journeying together is a long time and a major milestone for all of us. As I look back over the past decade, I realize we have weathered some of the most difficult times the Church has ever seen.
By the time I arrived in 2003, General Convention had just approved the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay person to ascend to the episcopacy, and one could literally hear the Church ripping apart. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in their second year, and we, as a country, lived in constant fear of terrorism. And since my arrival, we have seen the ongoing polarization of both religion and politics. All of these events together have formed a perfect storm that has made the last ten years the most difficult of times for the mainline churches. Most congregations have seen their average Sunday attendance decline 15-20% or more. Our average attendance has dropped less than 10% since my arrival and by the grace of God and your stewardship efforts, we continue to be self-sustaining. I believe our statistics are a testimony to our willingness to remain focused on mission and not fall into what many refer to as the downward spiral of maintenance.
Church growth people describe maintenance congregations as those who are more concerned with numbers than ministry, fear change and loss, and are often closed to newcomers and fresh ideas. Mission oriented congregations emphasize ministry in the world, are open and inclusive to newcomers while maintaining a clear sense of institutional boundaries. Mission oriented congregations look to the future with a sense of hope and possibility.
As I stand before you this morning, I feel more hope for this congregation than I have since my arrival. Not only have we eradicated major debt over the past years, your vestry, wardens and I have worked together to clarify what it means to be a vibrant, growing, Christ-centered community, bringing all people to God’s healing embrace.
Many congregations spend months and years discussing and doing all sorts of mental gymnastics around mission. Many other congregations develop wonderful mission statements that are simply hung on the message board. . never to be thought about again. Here, we have taken the next and most vital step, we have worked our way towards living into our mission.
I believe the most significant achievement the vestry has made this year is the development and implementation of our Safe Church Policy. It is a task the national church and diocese have been asking us to do for years, and I feel it sets in place the cornerstone of what we can and should expect of each other as the Church, the Body of Christ.
When St. Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, he was deliberate in using the concept of “body” as the metaphor for the Church. In the passage we heard this morning, St. Paul clearly sets the ground rules for how the Church is to function. When St. Paul writes, “As it is, there are many members, yet one body; the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “ I have no need of you.” He recognized that the community is greater than the sum of its parts.
As one who enjoys his daily work out, I am acutely aware of what St. Paul is saying. Most mornings I end my time in the gym with thirty minutes of rowing. Rowing, like most sports, requires coordination and the use of every muscle in the body. The legs push back while the arms and back pull an oar through the water. The hands control the level of the blade as it is lifted out of the water, made parallel and then the arms, legs and abdominal muscles pull the body and handle forward in order to set the blade into position for the next stroke. In order for a scull to move smoothly and efficiently through the water, all parts of the body must work together. . . perfectly timed. . .and in perfect sync.
Every morning I am able to use a rowing machine, I feel blessed. Often times, while I am enjoying my workout, there is another gentleman for whom working out does not come so easily. Sadly, he is plagued with some form of Parkinson’s disease. Fluid motion for him is a thing of the past. His body will no longer focus on a single action. Day after day, I have watched him struggle through his routine as his arms and legs are no longer willing to work together in one coordinated effort. This means each exercise, each repetition, takes two, three and maybe even four times longer than it would for most of us.
We, as the Body of Christ, need to work as one if we are to continue moving forward in mission and ministry, and if St. Luke’s is to continue growing. One of the key phrases Milt Stevenson has used in meetings and within the congregation is we need to continue working towards “alignment.” This means that every component of our ministry, whether it is the youth, worship, or outreach must work together as an integrated whole. In the same way, Christy, Cathy and I work together each week with the lay readers, choir and ushers to make sure our liturgies are as smooth and as well executed as possible.
When any component or group sees itself as more important or separate from the rest, we as a congregation will fail as a whole. This past year, I have watched our ministry teams become more aligned with each other. I saw this first hand thanks to the Ministry Fair sponsored by the Finance Committee. Every ministry and committee participated; all had a role in the effort. And because of this, the event was hugely successful and demonstrated what we can do when we all choose to work together. Another successful endeavor was the Help-a-Thon in early October. Many of our older neighbors were helped with gardening, home repairs and window washing because of the organizational efforts of the Outreach Committee, and the willingness of many of you to share your talents with those who needed just a little extra help.
If we are all working together, what direction are we going? Or a better question might be, what are we becoming? As our mission statement says, we are becoming a vital, growing, Christ-centered community, bringing all people to God’s healing embrace. And we are becoming this through our Outreach, our hospitality and our worship. In this month’s newsletter, I mentioned we are becoming a more inclusive community. While this does not mean we are called to be all things to all people, it does mean that all are welcomed to our table and all are welcomed to become part of our community. For many we will be the spiritual community they are seeking and for others we won’t be right. This is okay, as the Episcopal Church, our style of worship, etc. is not everyone’s cup of spiritual tea. But all who encounter St. Luke’s, no matter who or what, will experience the unconditional love of God while they are with us.
As we strive to bring all people to God’s healing embrace, the questions I will be asking this year are: is our Sunday morning worship truly user friendly. Do we as a community see being welcoming to all who enter our doors part of each of our ministries? Are our various ministries able to incorporate new people and new ideas into their work? And finally, I will begin asking how we can integrate prayer and theological reflection in all that we do? As St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians 13, if we have not love/God we are but a clanging gong.” How do we bring the love of God we experience on Sunday through prayer and reflection into what we do as a congregation Monday – Saturday? As we discover the answers to these questions, I believe we will continue moving forward in our journey towards more fully becoming the Christ-centered community that God is calling us to be.