Monday, February 21, 2011

A Rector's Annual Report

Nearing the point of twenty-five years as Rector, I find that looking ahead draws me to see several key questions we need to raise, consider with openness to the wisdom of God, and answer.

We have a remarkable staff, talented, open-hearted, adventurous, and committed to the mission of St. John’s that brings them face to face with an ever-changing procession of people belonging to the parish, to our wider communities, and from beyond. Each person in that daily procession through our various portals (glass doors, red doors, e-mail, telephone, snail-mail) carries a need, a gift, a hope, an opportunity.

Key questions for staff and for all parish leaders is, How do we discern our part in response to people’s hopes-requests-offerings so that our response strengthens their faith, their practice, and their ministry? How do we avoid the disservice of over-performing that causes people to depend too much on us, not enough on God and themselves and the supportive community? And how do we avoid the opposite risk of under-serving the people God gives us, the people to whom we’re not yet listening, the people of whom we aren’t aware, the people to whom we don’t know how to respond?

That cluster of questions leads to another. Who are the “we” who respond? Twenty-five years ago, St. John’s still had an organized (though ageing) pastoral care team and a “prayer chain.” Though the Women of St. John’s (at one time a source of volunteer service) had disbanded, the parish culture and economy still yielded enough volunteerism to quickly rally for a funeral reception or to provide meals when a family needed them.

If volunteerism used to be given in cup-fulls or baskets-full, it sometimes seems that it’s by spoonfuls that it’s available now. Let’s avoid a spirit of complaint about this. We’re blessed by parish leaders serving in youth ministry, bringing communion as lay eucharistic visitors, leading evening prayer or leading Bingo at Sweet Brook Care Center, sitting on the Vestry and various committees, singing in choirs, overseeing parish life as wardens, and taking important initiatives in the congregation and in our wider communities. But how do we build our capacity for response to the needs and hopes and opportunities that people bring to us?

And how shall we build that capacity among all our generations, in particular young adults? That question tips this discussion towards information technology. In 2010, we made real strides, utilizing Constant Contact to develop e-mail communication, starting a process for envisioning IT needs in our future, and launching a handsome new Website, a big step forward and outward—though, in a glass-half-full-half-empty way, we’re bumping into limitations that we’ll need to address in a future overhaul, right about the time our children tell us we must replace those ancient pictures of them from 2009! A key question is how to keep moving the parish into social networking. Age is giving me wisdom to know that our younger parish leaders are the teachers we need to show us virtual portals to throw open.

In the face of all that’s new, in2010 we re-discovered the appeal of two age-old church activities—eating and singing—which, when combined in our Singing Suppers, have filled the upper room monthly on Friday evenings, mixing all our generations while building our appreciation for music old and new, music as our elders like it (out of the Hymnal) and music as our kids like it in Worship Outside the Box. A key question: How shall we support and develop this model (and others) for deepening parish community through what might be called ultimately informal “liturgy?”

I’ve saved for next-to-last the subject of our buildings. We saw great progress in 2010—or should I say that we’re all eager to see the results of that progress, and soon?—with the completion of extensive structural repair in the lower room and the near-completion of its renovation, along with re-situated and renovated adjacent bathrooms, and, just to their north, a room which we’ll use temporarily as a robing room until, in time, it may become part of a new church kitchen.

Think of that! The question, of course, is how do we get there? And by how circuitous a route, as we weigh the relative priority of major maintenance projects that seem to cut in line, like deteriorating front steps. Our key questions will be when and how to put our shoulders to the wheel of raising funds to continue our campaign to bring these buildings into the 21st-century.

The text on the cover of these reports urges us, “…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” (I Peter 2:5) Building a community is why we’re here. A final key question we have to answer is how do we understand and build membership in St. John’s Parish? We recognize membership by participation: people join us by their choices, and we respond to them in what might be called a dance of inclusion. While that model respects the integrity of the seeker, doesn’t it make us sound passive? We’re fortunate that people keep appearing, but rather than waiting for the dance to begin in the sanctuary when newcomers find their way in, let’s picture the dance beginning out in the wider community when one of us invites a friend or neighbor to come with us to a service, a concert, or a Singing Supper.

However it is that a person steps into the dance of this congregation, we understand that vital signs matter more than formal credentials. But how do we honor Anglican tradition that values the sacramental act of being formally confirmed or received into membership in this branch of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? In an age fascinated by spiritual wings, how do we give witness to the value of religious roots? In an age when denominational identity is felt to be less important than vital signs, how do we present the case for being confirmed or received at the hands of the Bishop?

He comes for that purpose on Sunday, May 22nd. His visitations are not frequent, about once every other year. Might it encourage you in your faith and practice and ministry to confirm your faith, be formally welcomed into the Episcopal Church, renew your baptismal vows in his presence? If that feels like a key question for you to answer, I’d like to know it.

I am grateful to and for so many people, what they do, and who they are, within this congregation. I’ve alluded to them, in this report, but not by name—there are just too many to attempt that. I’ll make one exception. In each of the years I’ve prepared a report like this, I’ve expressed my gratitude to Diana, my wife, and I’m not about to stop. The words of a great psalm tell me why. She restoreth my soul. She maketh me to slow down and enjoy those green pastures. She is with me to comfort me, and causes my cup to run over. I am very fortunate.

In this report, I’ve named key questions that I believe we must answer. Did you hear one that draws you to help us consider it? I’d like to know. Will you tell me, or any of our Vestry members, if there is one of these key questions for which you’ve got energy, care, and calling? As I see it, these questions point us to our work in these next several years.

1. How do leaders respond to people, to truly strengthen them?

2. Across our generations, but especially with young adults, how do we build our capacity to respond and lead?

3. How do we keep moving St. John’s into effective social networking?

4. How do we support and develop models of building community?

5. When and how do we resume our campaign to renew our buildings?

6. How do we vitalize membership?