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.