January 27, 2013
Annual Parish Meeting Sunday
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Today we hold our Parish Meeting, as we do every year. But this year is different. The Vestry you elect today will have the primary responsibility for carrying this parish through significant transitions in the next few years. And our finances and ministries that are reported on today are necessarily in a draft form - you’ll need to be flexible about them as new circumstances might call for different responses.
So some things are going to be different. And as you look ahead to changes and uncertainty, you might be asking yourself “What can I count on? Will what I value so much about this faith community remain?” Perhaps you fear what a priest friend of mine likes to say cynically, in order to bring his colleagues back down to earth when they’re riding high in a congregation that’s currently a howling success: “Remember; every parish is potentially one Rector away from oblivion.”
That’s not true here. And the reason I say that is that there is a secure and healthy foundation that endures beyond any one Rector. On this Annual Meeting Sunday, let me reflect back to you a few elements of this foundation.
It may surprise you to know that when I arrived in 1983, this parish had much the same personality that it does today. It was diverse, open-minded, creative, informal, and vibrant. I didn’t create it. That’s why I was interested in coming here, and that’s why they called me. We were sympatico. The character of a parish can be remarkably enduring, and in our case, St. Michael’s personality will outlive both me and all of you.
The style of worship in this parish has endured as well. My predecessor, Peter Moore, was one of the leading liturgists of his day. He brought this congregation intelligently and sensitively through the sometimes contentious years of liturgical reform in the 1970’s. He taught this parish to love worship that could be both reverent and fresh, familiar and experimental.
Then there are habits of ministry that we have developed together in these 30 years. At this point, they are so much an enduring part of this community’s foundation, that it would take a crowbar to wrench them out of you.
You generate many more opportunities for spiritual formation than most parishes do. Later, at Annual Meeting, we’ll hear about a new emphasis for spirituality in 2013 that you’re calling The Year of Pilgrimage. I didn’t come up with this - you did. But more importantly, you always maintain a palpable atmosphere of devotion, self-reflection, and prayer - before and throughout worship, in meetings and other gatherings. You create and maintain this by your spiritual authenticity.
You also continually generate new ways of serving and partnering with the poor and the disadvantaged in the wider community. Later at our meeting you’ll be hearing about a new initiative that is rising out of our year-long process we’ve called Who is My Neighbor? It will be entirely lay-led.
And we have gotten to the point where our most essential ministries are skillfully maintained by dozens of experienced and lay leaders, whether you look at pastoral care, spiritual discernment, children and youth, or communication and administration. These habits of professionalism and sensitivity have become ingrained in the community, and are not going anywhere.
But even more deeply, there is something that endures that is much more important than our personality, than our habits of worship and ministry. It is the very nature of what we are about as a faith community. It is what St. Paul wrote about in our second lesson today.
I want you to know that these are not just words. They are real, here, in this place. I don’t just believe, as a theological principle, what Paul was writing about. I experience it every day.
Paul says that the church is like the human body. Our body is wondrously made with hundreds - trillions, if you count neurons and cells - of interconnected parts: fingers, hairs, ligaments, organs, bones, ears. Paul says that every single part of the human body is necessary, and has an important function. And yet all of these diverse parts, all of these functions, are held together and coordinated in their activity by one mind, one soul.
So it is, Paul says, with the church. We are the physical body of Jesus Christ on earth. And this body is made up of many parts. Every single one of us, as individual members of the one body, is essential to the working of the whole. As Paul reminds us, none of us can say to the other “I have no need of you,” any more than the eye can say this to the hand.
For where would we be without mystics and contemplatives? What would the church be like without accountants? I wouldn’t want to be in a church that didn’t include the occasional homeless person that walks in off the street. We would fall apart without administrators. And what would it be like if there were no artists, no musicians? We even need difficult and disturbed people; they become our teachers as we learn patience, acceptance, and unconditional love.
Paul goes on with the metaphor, saying that all these diverse members share the one Spirit. We’re all animated by one spiritual force that is within everything and everyone. It’s not as if we’re all connected to God separately, sort of like individual threads that go from our heart to a common point in the sky. It is more like the interconnected parts of a human body that are all harmoniously coordinated by one mind, one soul, all at the same time. And have no doubt, this mind, this Spirit, will guide and provide for you through the months and years ahead. It always has and it always will.
These are not just words. This vision of our faith community as an amazingly diverse body whose members are animated by the one Spirit - it is real, and those of you who are involved in anything here know it. This unity within our diversity, this human variety and divine empowerment - this is precisely what gives us strength, enduring strength.
Finally, I want to say something about our gospel today. In it, Jesus goes into his own congregation, the synagogue in Nazareth. He opens the scripture and reads to them. They are nice verses from the Bible, and everyone smiles approvingly.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
They nodded their heads, comfortable at the sound of these familiar, pious words. And then Jesus said something that shocked them all. Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, too, St. Michael and All Angels. Today, we bring good news to the poor in the North Valley of Albuquerque. Today, we proclaim release to the captives and freedom to those who have been oppressed by homophobia, fundamentalism, isolation, or the stale emptiness of secularism. Today, we bring sight to those who have been spiritually blind, opening their eyes to God’s love and the riches that come with faith. Today, the scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing.
This is what endures. Christ is here, embodied in you. You are his hands and feet and heart and mind. He is infinitely varied in the diversity of his members, and all of you are needed. The Spirit is your common breath, your heartbeat. The Spirit is your shared wisdom and intelligence, your inspiration and creativity, your love and your soul. And all of this works together for the glory of God and the benefit of God’s people.
These are the things you can count on, and they will endure long beyond both me and you in this place.
So long live Christ, whom you embody!
Long live the Spirit, who animates your common life!
And long live St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church!
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Albuquerque New Mexico
Sunday January 30, 2011 Annual Meeting
Text: Matthew 5: 1-12 The Beatitudes
Title: Blessed to be a blessing.
Our Gospel reading today is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a packed collection of teaching that Matthew glued together in his gospel. The faith traditions call this portion of scripture the “little gospel” because they believe it contains the core of the biblical message. This core teaching has much to do with our identity as followers of Jesus and as members of St. Michael’s on this annual meeting Sunday.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed, Blessed, Blessed what does this odd word mean. The truth is that the Greek word makarioi, the first word of all the beatitudes is hard to translate. The Latin word “beatus” means blessed but it doesn’t really capture the meaning very well. It means something more like: Happy are the poor in the Spirit, or Wonderful News for the poor in spirit, or Lucky are the poor in spirit, or congratulations to the poor in spirit.
The beatitudes describe in word pictures the kind of people who are in-tune with the kingdom of God, they tell us of the characteristics you will find in the midst of a community that not only calls itself Christian but has chosen to live that way of life.
Why are the poor in spirit blessed? Because rich or poor they know their own deep need of God in all things.
Why are those who mourn promised comfort? Because in this beatitude Jesus assures the mourners and seekers after justice that God is not asleep. The devastations wrought by human avarice and thirst for power will be remedied.
Happy are the Meek? Probably one of the most misunderstood words in the Bible: meek is not a synonym for week it simple means power under control, or even more provocatively appropriate anger. The meek are the ones best suited to inherit the earth for they have respect for their own power to damage and destroy such a beautiful creation and appropriate anger for toward those who use power without reflection and discipline for their own selfish gains.
The Beatitudes are rich fields for reflection and one sermon is not enough to plumb their depths.
Being Poor in spirit, mourning for justice, practicing meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, cultivating purity in heart, pursuing peace, being willing to take heat for being a friend of Jesus: these are the God-graced characteristics of those who have thrown in their lot with Jesus. These are not things we gut and grind out they are ways of life that arise out of our love for God and in the sure knowledge that this is how the kingdom of God takes actual shape in our midst.
In the Sermon on the Mount we learn that those who have found their lives in the midst of this blessedness are salt of the earth. They preserve life and like salt in our food bring out the true flavor and delicious taste that is sometimes hidden just in front of us. We Christians are meant to preserve and flavor the world.
A current television ad for an entertainment package shows scenes of a darkened city full of chaos and mayhem. People are being assaulted, police cars are fire-bombed, banks are being robbed, women run screaming and danger surrounds everyone. The scene changes to a plush apartment in which a masked and caped superhero sits on the couch eating snacks and watching movies. His emergency phone is ringing of the hook for help but he does not bother to answer it so enthralled is he with all of his movie and programming options. The commercial advertising the entertainment package cuts in with the words, “You’re going to be busy, super busy.”
I admit it is a good commercial but a dark one. The commercial reminded me of a teacher I once had who painted a visual picture of what the world might be like if there were no people of faith in the world. He spoke of the preserving and savory influences of people of faith and life-giving values that were so essential to a world with any hope for mercy, justice, peace, forgiveness, healing, caring for the most vulnerable. He asked what if Christians hadn’t started hospitals, orphanages and advocated for child labor laws, worked to end slavery, cared or abandoned children, established the Red Cross, began compassion international, started habitat for humanity and so much more? What if there were no food pantries or no days schools?
It really is a sobering thought. Sometimes we are so busy, super busy recounting the ways that religion and faith has made the world an awful place, how religious convictions unconnected to love and compassion have brutalized entire groups of people and cultures and led to atrocities on scales we’d rather not remember. And I don’t intend to minimize or discount the truth and sadness of this history.
However, at the same time, I want to propose that the beatitudes exist in our defining story to call us into our own best selves as followers of Jesus. They intend to woo us into a life caught up in the ways of God so that we do indeed preserve and flavor the world in delicious ways. The world doesn’t just need more Christians, it needs better Christians, deeper Christians.
For me this is why it is important to live in and support a faith community like St. Michael’s. I am inspired, stirred by the Spirit in this place and through each of you, when I experience how you as parents care for and nurture your children, how aging spouses take care of one another, how partners care for each other and help them grow spiritually, how friends support each other through joyful and difficult times. Participating in worship on Sunday morning is not an optional activity for many who have discovered that their life-energy is fed and renewed and focused in a God-ward direction in this place. What a gift it is to have the wisdom of generations in our midst of those who have been walking in faith or many years. What an incredible privilege it is to have other adults caring for and mentoring my children and yours.
When I look around this parish and consider all that has taken place this last year I am grateful for the preserving influence of this community and the flavor that it brings to the city of Albuquerque and to this Diocese. I think we need to remember that St. Michael’s is a strategic parish in the Diocese of the Rio Grande. This past year we elected a new bishop Michael Vono, who is, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air. Bisho. Vono has opening praised the vitality and vision of St. Michael’s calling us a model parish. Here we might want to puff out our chest and strut around a bit. But, I say that not to brag but rather to remind us that we have a responsibility as St. Michael’s to do our best to maintain and nurture the vitality and health so many have come to depend upon in their own spiritual journeys. We are a unique witness to a radically welcoming form Christianity and we are called to share it with others around us, but we cannot continue to do that without adequate resources and we need your help.
In difficult financial times this congregation continues to move forward in faith. Some may say that we just held our own this past year, but we have done much better than that. In fearful times we have built a much needed New Ministry Complex with offices and classrooms and space for ministry and believe me we are using this space in many new ways. It is no small task but as a whole community with God’s grace and a great deal of generosity we will pay off our mortgage on the new building as we expand our ministries and grow into a larger influence in our neighborhood and city, but we need your help to accomplish this and you will here more at our annual meeting which follows.
This past year we lovingly sent Fr. Brian off on a well-deserved sabbatical to be refreshed and stimulated. And this coming June we will welcome him back, myself especially, with fresh ideas and new energy for ministry in this place.
This past year we gave up bad coffee for Lent and we never looked back. I had to laugh as the other day I was trying to explain to my 8 year old son about groups that went door to door evangelizing. He was puzzled by it and said, “I don’t get it you don’t have to do that, you just make really good coffee and the people just come in.” Ah, a child after my own heart, java powered mission.
Quietly a group of very dedicated and patient people have been ReImagining St. Michael’s and I am simply amazed at the initiatives that these leaders have chosen to invest themselves in: ministry to and with our Seniors, pastoral care for the GLBT community in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, Language Learning and Community building in our neighborhood through a new Spanish and English language initiative called Voces, all of which you will be hearing more about at our annual meeting. When I see the fruit of the ReImagine process over the past 12 months I am blessed, super blessed by our parish and the leadership that has and continues to emerge. St. Michael’s is blessed. And the truth is that we are blessed to be a blessing to others.
St. Michael’s represents a different kind of Christianity for many in our city that is much needed. It is not the hard-edged, brittle, judgmental Christianity that so many of us have escaped or are recovering from. It is a Christianity that has a deep reservoir of grace at its center. One that believes that God continues to reveal a faithful way that draws ever larger circles to include one another.
I’m reminded of the words of a rhyme:
They drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, something to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.
Progressive Christianity means a lot of things to those who call St. Michael’s home. It means that you don’t have to check your brain at the door of the church. It means that the questions are as important as the answers. It means that you can belong while you are figuring out what it means to believe. It means that all who present themselves at our door are to be welcomed in the name of Christ. It means that we will not rest as a church until our GLBT brothers and sisters have the same rights and protections that all human beings should enjoy. It means that in the face of continued violence around the world and in our own country against GLBT people we will stand with our church and our new bishop in striving for justice and peace among all people and respect for the dignity of every human being. We will work together prophetically to see that there are rites approved for blessing same sex unions and that the process to ordination is indeed open to openly gay members of our faith.
It means we believe that the life-changing way and teaching of Jesus is a lively word for us today, a word we believe our world needs now more than ever. A word of hope instead of despair, a word of forgiveness instead of hate, a word of building community rather than taking sides, a word that compels us to protect and serve the most vulnerable in our midst, a lively word that gives us the motivation and energy to be Christ-like in a world that has nearly forgotten what it means to be civil and respectful let alone loving and compassionate.
St. Michael’s is a gift in so many ways for so many people. We are a gift to families who desire that their children to grow up around the diversity and joy of a place like this. We are a gift to parents who want their children to have the spiritual grounding and faithful story of God’s ways deeply planted in their heart so that they know a more excellent way to live than the cutthroat competition and rampant consumerism that surrounds us on every side.
We are a gift to every working person who comes into this place on a Sunday morning to discover anew the source of their life energy that they depend on each and every day. Our open and nurturing Eucharistic table, the heart stirring words of our liturgy and preaching, the powerful music and healing silence are all part of nurturing the life energy within each of us in the power of God’s Spirit so that we can do our best to do good work in the world, to be loving and patience and attentive parents, to be sensitive and sacrificing lovers, to be supportive and pastoral friends.
What do we want the city of Albuquerque to say about us in the years to come? That we had impeccable taste, took care of ourselves and knew how to use our dessert forks? Or that as faith community we really loved and that it is obvious in the way we have reached out to our neighborhood and our city as the compassionate people God has called us to be?
Blessed are you, not when you play it safe and pretend you are sacrificing when it really is all quite easy for you. Blessed are you St. Michael’s when you have a different kind of Christianity to offer the world, your neighbors, your co-workers, and your family. A Christianity that keeps loving, keeps giving, keeps forgiving, keeps praying, keeps risking, keeps seeking God’s face, keeps drawing the circle bigger, keeps enlarging your heart, so that the kingdom does indeed draw near, in our very midst.
St. Michael’s is blessed to be a blessing in this neighborhood and in this city and in this very place. Blessed, Happy, Lucky, Congratulations, Wonderful News, St. Michael’s when we continue to grow into the compassionate, influential, and risk-taking church that God is calling us to be. I ask of you three things this year: Give generously of yourself to the life and ministry of this place. Your life-energy is needed to make St. Michael’s what it is called to be so get involved in some way. Give generously of your finances so that St. Michael’s can continue to be a salty place: preserving and flavoring the Christian life of this city. We do not yet have the resources we need to operate for the coming year and we truly do need your help. And finally, remember to pray for the ministry and life of this parish as it will tune your heart and open you to God’s Spirit at work here in this place. You’re going to be busy St. Michael’s, blessedly busy, for there is much loving and forgiving and working for justice and caring for the vulnerable and supporting one another to do. Blessed are you St. Michael’s. Blessed to be a blessing.
Annual Parish Meeting
January 31, 2010
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Once a year every Episcopal congregation gathers for its annual parish meeting, as we do today. We receive ministry and budget reports, and we elect new lay leadership. We celebrate what we’ve accomplished, acknowledge our challenges, and look to the year ahead.
At our meeting today you will receive a 30-page report booklet, filled with lots of information about the amazing variety of ministries that you do. I recommend that someone from each household take one home: please take the time to read it later, so that as a member, you become educated about what’s going on here. I guarantee, there will be some surprises for you.
We’re also going to hear about the building of our wonderful and desperately-needed new spaces for ministry that will begin this week –at last! – the construction timeline, and how it will affect us. I’ll tell you a little about the sabbatical I’m taking, starting November of this year, and how my wondering about what to do during that time has led me into some unexpected and exciting possibilities for me and for you.
And finally, we will talk about something I preached about two weeks ago: a parish discernment process we’re calling ReImagine St. Michael’s. ReImagine St. Michael’s will be led by a large and diverse core team, who, over a period of 18 months, will involve every member in a series of small groups, one-on-one conversations, and large meetings. We will be praying and asking ourselves about our history, our passions, what kind of community God is calling us to become, and how we are to be in relationship to the people of our neighborhood and city.
I think we are at a crossroad. I’ve been here for almost 3 decades, and I can tell when we’ve arrived at one. You and I are standing on the edge of a new phase of our history that is yet to be revealed. I believe that we are about to blossom, mature, and live into our potential as a light to the world. It is an exciting time for us.
As we stand at this crossroad, it might be a good time to pause and reflect upon what we are really doing here, and why we are doing it. For our purpose motivates and shapes everything we do.
Last Sunday we heard the section of Luke’s gospel that immediately precedes what we heard today. In his hometown synagogue, Jesus had been reading the passage from Isaiah that proclaimed the ancient, divine promise of good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Jesus then looked up and had the audacity to state, after a dramatic pause, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” No wonder they tried to throw him off a cliff!
As I said in my sermon last Sunday at the 5pm service, this year I had a completely new way of seeing this passage. I have usually thought that Jesus meant that through his teaching and healing, he was fulfilling these promises for a few, and that someday, either in heaven or in the second coming, they would be fulfilled for the rest of us.
But perhaps Jesus was saying something far more radical, something that reaches across the ages, right to us in this parish: that wherever his followers live in his Spirit, all the hopes of scripture are fulfilled, in that time and place. Wherever people devote themselves to Christ, poor people receive good news, people who are bound or captive are set free, and those who are spiritually blind finally see. Wherever Jesus’ spirit is truly present, these things happen, and the kingdom of God has come among us, in all its glory. It isn’t limited to Galilee of 2,000 years ago, or to the far-off pie in the sky. The kingdom of God is fully here and now, whenever we, together with God, bring it forth.
I think of the kingdom of God as an alternate reality, an alternative to the more common human consciousness and way of life. In this alternate reality, we know that God is always immediately accessible. We know that we are brothers and sisters, all equal children of God, no lowly, no exalted. We are all parts of one mystical Body, living and breathing the one Spirit. Kindness and forgiveness are the norm, and our actions create justice and freedom. Imbedded in every difficulty is the seed of new life, of resurrection. We therefore go through this world with gratitude, love, trust, and wonder.
This is the kingdom of God; it is an alternate reality from the world around us, as a kind of society within society, and it is supposed to be what we manifest in church.
Now the church is not perfect. It does not live in this alternative reality all the time. But at least we consider it our shared ideal. It is at least the direction we aim for, after we’ve fallen down and dusted ourselves off. And so in this parish, we do our best to live out what Isaiah envisioned and what Jesus manifested.
Because we know that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, we try to treat those on the bottom of the social ladder with the respect and dignity they deserve as children of God, and we don’t give the social elites any special deference. We try to help those who are disadvantaged with concrete assistance. Those who are captive to addiction or bound by guilt or fear are offered ways to move into freedom, forgiveness, and release. Those who are oppressed by unhealthy situations at home or work reclaim their dignity and self-respect, because they are treated that way here. You and I are offered spiritual practices that help us move through our particular blindness, so that we might better see things as God sees them. When we find ourselves in conflict with one another, we try to practice understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation. We treat our hard-working employees with justice, paying them well and giving them good benefits.
All of this is to say that the church is meant to be a manifestation of the kingdom of God. It is a place where we learn to live into the promises of scripture. Here, however imperfectly, we experience the alternative reality that Jesus brought. And this alternative reality is, as St. Paul said in the second lesson, in one of the clearest and most moving passages of all scripture, marked by three things: faith, hope, and love.
Here, you and I learn faith – not just blindly believing 3 impossible things before breakfast every day, - but faith as trust, trust that God is always with us, always moving within to bring good things out of every circumstance.
Here, you and I learn hope – not just a Pollyanna view that everything will always go well for us because we’re special in God’s eyes – but hope that the promise of resurrection is real, that we are not walking down a blind alley, that God brings us new life as we risk walking towards it.
Here, you and I learn love – not just the sentiment – but how to be respectful and kind to everyone, whether they deserve it or not, how to assume the best in others, how to be patient with each others’ weaknesses.
Our community is a school of faith, hope, and love where we learn, through the scriptures and the prayers, and above all, through our shared experience, how to live into the alternate reality we call the kingdom of God.
This then enables us to make the same radical claim that Jesus made, in the midst of his own community of followers: “Today, here and now, the scriptures have been fulfilled in our hearing. The kingdom of God has come near.”
As we celebrate our life together in our annual parish meeting, remember this. We worship and we organize and we volunteer our time and give our money so that all the promises of scriptures might be fulfilled in our hearing. And just maybe, if we learn it here, we will live it out there, and we will participate in God’s redemption of the world.
January 25, 2009
The 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
In all 3 of our readings today, people sense that change is in the air, that God is doing something new, and they ask others to respond to this new reality. They call us, too, to wake up, to read the signs of the times, and then to change our ways and live more fully in the Spirit. Listen to what our readings say.
From the Hebrew Scriptures, the city of Ninevah was warned that in only 40 days, they would be overthrown; they heeded the warning, repented and lived. St. Paul said the appointed time has grown short. So live as if you are unattached to possessions, unattached to both mourning and rejoicing, even to your own family. And Jesus, as he moved out from baptism into ministry: The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. So repent and believe. There is an immediacy to these words, an urgent call to wake up and change.
Last week in his inaugural speech, our new president urged all of us to be a part of a national transformation. One of the commentators said that it was a “bracing” speech, as if he were grabbing the whole country by its shoulders and saying “Wake up! It’s time to change our ways!” On this day of our Annual Parish Meeting, I want to do the same.
For we are at a tipping point, and we are starting to alter how we do church together. There is a movement of the Spirit among us, and it is catching on. It has been a long time coming, and much needed. Dozens of people have laid the foundation, and now things are beginning to shift.
A year ago, your Vestry spent the better part of their annual retreat talking about parish “culture change.” They began by exploring how we have been functioning for years: as a very interesting collection of independent individuals and activities.
Spirituality had been seen as a personal thing; we came here from our different lives to be inspired, and then we went back into them, renewed. There has always been plenty of space and support for people to find their own way into the life of the Spirit. The strength in this has been personal authenticity - each person going deeply within and finding their own unique connection to God. This doesn’t happen in too many churches.
Ministries were individualized, too. They popped up wherever someone had the passion and vision to do something; it would grow and last as long as it had energy and kept attracting others. The strength in this has been a creative spirit, a freedom do just about anything here, if you want to. This, too, is unusual.
But there was also a sense of disconnection from one another. New members might feel as if they couldn’t find a way “in” to the community, and they would drift away. Some need more guidance for spiritual growth than we offer. Ministries that were central and important to all of us would sometimes falter because we hadn’t built any depth of mature, committed leadership for it. Different groups of parishioners who did their own ministry often had blinders on, unaware of how they were part of an integrated whole. There was no clear set of ministries that we could point to and say “This is what we do as a parish.” Sure, most of us have some friends here, but is there really a sense of “us”? One sensed that if something happened to me and a few others, everyone might scatter.
This was the reality that the Vestry and clergy began facing into last year at their retreat, and our understanding of it was clarified when we did two different surveys among the members last spring. The objective data confirmed what the Vestry had already sensed.
And so we began a process of parish culture change, working towards a new vision of where we believe God is calling us. We realized that the appointed time had come, that God’s kingdom had come near to us in a new way, that it was time to wake up and change, to open our eyes and perceive where God was leading us.
This is what we envision: a community whose members look to one another and the programs they create for inspiration and support; where ministries have real “bench depth” of experienced leadership; where the gifts of every person, including new members, are recognized and utilized, and are missed if they are not here; where each activity is integrated into a cohesive whole; and where all of us are able to articulate our common mission.
In other words, we envision ourselves not just as an interesting collection of spiritual individuals, but what St. Paul described as the Body of Christ: a fully integrated, healthy, strong community, united by the Spirit. Why does this matter? Why should you care?
Because over a long period of time, we cannot survive if we stay the way we are. And because God has given us far more potential as a community than we have as yet lived into. We’ve been limiting ourselves, and it’s time to wake up and become even more than we have been.
The culture change we envision is already well underway, and in the last year several initiatives have pushed us along. They will carry us through in 2009, and beyond. I want you to understand what is happening, so that you can talk about it with one another, join in the movement, and help us not only survive for the long haul, but live into our God-given potential.
First, our new building project has brought dozens of people together who have been carefully examining our whole parish life – our physical plant, our values, our demographics, our finances, our history and our hopes for the future. We have been harmonized and strengthened as a result. This year, as we go forward with construction and expansion of our ministries, we will continue this unifying work of listening, clarifying, and planning. This process will help us be intentional about who we are and what we do.
Second, a new Discernment Guild is just starting up, with 20 people who will learn how to identify and put to use the abundant gifts that our members possess. They will eventually offer workshops on discerning spiritual gifts for ministry, interview all new members about their passions, help call people into leadership, and meet with those who want to know where God is leading them next in their lives. Over time, this will knit us together at a deep and intimate level, as we listen carefully to the stirrings of the Spirit within our hearts. But more importantly, we will then give these stirrings a direction within the community, for the benefit of all.
Third, our Vestry, clergy, and lay staff will begin to work together in a new way. They’ll be paired up to look after a general area of ministry, making sure they have the resources they need; helping them plan and manage their funds well; supporting them in being consistent and spiritually healthy; and integrating them into the overall structure and goals of our parish. Instead of growing and perishing randomly like weeds, our ministries will have focus, support, and staying power.
Finally, our Fundraising Committee is morphing into a new function. They will now become a permanent Development Committee, finally institutionalizing the year-round work of education and fundraising for our Operating, Endowment, and Capital funds, including planned giving. They will help us build a secure financial future.
It would be a mistake to say that all of this is just a matter of improving our administration. Because having a well-greased parish machine is not really the point.
And neither are we losing our spiritual soul by becoming like some corporation. We will always be St. Michael’s; we will always provide plenty of in-depth opportunities for spiritual growth.
What we are adding to the qualities we’ve always had is a stronger group identity and mission, where spirituality and service are not only individual but also shared, where we experience ourselves as a vital part of an interconnected spiritual organism – the Body of Christ.
This is no small thing. Because in these fragmented and challenging times, we need to be a part of a real community, a kind of village. We need a sense of extended family, of belonging. And we need this village to be healthy, stable, and functioning well, so that it will not only be here for us and for our children, but so that we will be even more effective as a force for good in this city and state. The world needs us as much as we need one another.
The appointed time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Change is in the air, nationally and right here at St. Michael and All Angels. The Spirit is doing something new, and we are waking up and responding to this new reality. We are turning, changing our ways, and living into the promise that God sets before us. I’m ready to move with the Spirit in the year before us. I hope that you are, too.