I want to begin this address by recalling a story that some of you may have heard before. The details differ on time and location, but the over message remains the same.
William Ashley “Billy” Sunday was a baseball player turned evangelist in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At one point in his ministry, he walked into an Episcopal congregation in New York shortly before the worship service was to begin. Unfamiliar with the style of worship that characterizes Episcopalianism, Sunday picked up the 1898 Book of Common Prayer in front of him and began to leaf through its pages. What started as a casual romp through its pages quickly turned into much more. He was struck, enraptured even, by its language, its poetry, and its tradition. After losing himself in the words that frame the worship of the Episcopal Church, Billy Sunday is said to have said, “the Episcopal Church is a sleeping giant. God help the rest of Protestantism if it should ever wake up.”
What I get from this story is that there is something powerful at our fingertips, that there is still a place for the deeply spiritual life in an increasingly secular world. There is still a place for a people made new in Baptism, nourished in the Eucharist, formed in the spirituality of the Prayer Book, and inspired by the Spirit. Yes, Saint Paul’s, there is still a place in our neighborhood, our city, and our world for us to be exactly who God has called us to be, with our unique gifts and experiences.
I have now been with you all are your Rector for a little over 10 months. During these past 10 months, I have sought to be intentional about a few things:
- Relationships: our connection to one another is the currency that keeps this place going. A Church is nothing without lively, active, mutually-respectful, honest, and compassionate relationships.
- Listening: I have listened to many of you one-on-one, in small groups, in meetings, after worship. or on Facebook or text messaging. The goal of this listening was simply to be present with you. It was also helpful to better understand who Saint Paul’s is, who Saint Paul’s wants to be, and where Saint Paul’s wants to go. If the Rector Search Process was the online dating profile and the first date, then the last several months have been the additional dates to discern how we are going to walk together.
The goal of the last year was to set the stage for the next several years of our time together. It is clear that we have challenges, like many other churches do. We also have lots of opportunities for innovation and Gospel-thinking to serve the mission of God in our context. This is both a very anxious and very exciting time to be the Church.
At a glance, our parish is faring OK, particularly if you measure us against the typical congregation in a mainline denomination. Whereas, most Episcopal Churches in Minnesota experienced a 3.3% decline in Average Sunday Attendance as late as 2016 (our most recent numbers), our attendance has actually gone up by 8% over last year alone. This news of increase in tempered by a slight decline in actual membership from 242 to 236 (this includes the loss of three families, two who moved out of state, and one who has transferred their membership to another local Episcopal parish). Overall, membership here has been largely stagnant over the past several years, hovering between 236 currently and 255 two years ago at the beginning of the Rector transition process. It is not uncommon for transition in leadership to coincide with a decline in membership.
Average Sunday Attendance and Membership are only to metrics by which we measure a congregation’s vitality (and in my opinion, probably two of the worst). What makes a church is more than the number of people who have their names officially on the rolls or the number of people who attend worship. A more helpful metric would measure impact. The closest we come to this with our current system is measuring our sacramental activity – baptisms, eucharists, confirmations & receptions, etc. This year we baptized two infants: Rowan Antonius Fanous and Henry Michael Amundson. We also had one wedding: Errik and Whitney-Lehr Koening. We haven’t had any confirmations or receptions for two reasons. First, Confirmation and Reception is a function of the bishop and must be coordinated with his office. Second, we are in the process of revamping our newcomer engagement process (something you will hear about later) as well as our ministry with youth. One thing I’d also like to measure this year is our outreach impact – how many people are we serving? Who are they and what are their stories? How might we deepen those relationships?
What all this data and growing edges point to is twofold. First, our growth has largely been passive. We have waited for people to find us. We have great curb appeal, both online and in person; however, this model assumes that people are going to drive by looking for us or that they will do a sufficient Google search to find us. While this model might have worked in years past, what we are seeing is that these models for church growth no longer work, which brings me to my second point. Not only has our growth been passive, but it has relied too heavily on outdated models that place the onus on others to join us, rather than compelling us to go outside to build something new with those around us. In her 2006 book entitled Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, the current Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism, Reconciliation and Stewardship of Creation, asks a question that I think reflects the wishes of our congregation. “Is it even possible to transform mainline churches into the multicultural, multigenerational, inclusive body of Christ so many of us yearn to become? That’s where radical welcomes comes in. Radical welcome is the spiritual practice of embracing and being changed by the gifts, presence, voices, and power of the The Other: the people systemically cast out of or marginalized within the church, a denomination or society… Regardless of your demographic profile, you still have a margin, a disempowered Other who is in your midst or just outside your door.” The question that Stephanie brings to our attention is: who is our margin? Asked differently: where is our opportunity for growth? Who is the Gospel calling us to reach? What gifts do we have to aid in that Apostolic work?
As grace would have it, God has blessed Saint Paul’s with a wealth of gifts if we chose to see them as gifts, that is, blessings that are meant to be stewarded and shared, not mothballed and hoarded. First, we have a graciously welcoming community. As your new rector, I can attest to this firsthand. I have also had several conversations with some of our newest members who share a similar sentiment. Saint Paul’s has a way of welcoming those who come into our doors, whether they are potential new members trying us out on a Sunday morning, or people experiencing homelessness or food insecurity looking for a bit of assistance, or runners stopping in mid-run to refill their water bottles. This gift can be tweaked further so that we aren’t passively waiting for people to come to us, but we are going out eagerly seeking to build a new world with those around us. We can also learn more of what it means to be hospitable and welcoming to one another.
Second, we have inspiring liturgy. With the help of our choir, other ministers in the liturgy, our altar guild, and others, we have a wonderful experience in our collective worship of God. This is important to a church, because it is our worship that makes us a church. The point of our coming together is to adore our Creator. Everything else is a side-effect of our close-encounter of the God-kind. The question is: if our worship is a gift and if our story and experience of God matter, how do we draw others into that experience? Also, how do we deepen our own experience and commitment of Christ?
Third, we have a motivated congregation. Over the past year, I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen members of this congregation step up to meet challenges presented to us. Whether it was welcoming our neighbors during the 7th Ward City Council Candidates Forum, setting up for the Pentecost Party in May, working to resolve problems with our heating and cooling system, passing out flyers to invite people to our Books for Africa Drive or Advent offerings, or showing up on a Saturday to pull weeds and lay sod, Saint Paul’s people show up. The question is: how do we focus that energy so that none of it is wasted and how do we draw others into our shared work?
Fourth, we have a connection to tradition. In addition to our liturgical tradition, we have a wonderful parish tradition that we see in our archives curated by Rose Nightingale as well as all over our physical building stewarded by the Buildings and Grounds Commission and our Vestry. This tradition matters both to us and to those around us only inasmuch as it serves as a vehicle to convey a story of sacred meaning.
There is a story told of a priest who was teaching a new acolyte about the liturgy. She pulls out the dazzling silver chalice covered with jewels and engravings of Jesus, Saint Mary, and Saint Paul. She then pulls out a simple, glass cruet filled with consecrated wine. She asked the young acolyte, “which of these is more valuable?”
The young acolyte picked up the chalice. It glinted in the soft sunlight streaming through the sacristy window. He was enamored by it. “The chalice, of course,” he replied.
“Okay. You are correct. But which one is more important?” she asked.
The young acolyte looked confused.
“The chalice’s only purpose is to hold the wine,” the priest said. “It might be more valuable, but the wine is far more important.”
Our tradition is the chalice, it is beautiful and lovely. Our collective story of Jesus Christ is the wine, it is more imporant. The question becomes: how do we ensure that what is most valuable doesn’t obscure what is most important. Moreover, how do we invite others not only to share in that story, but inviting them to continue writing that story with us.
Finally, we have ample facility space. Kelly Belanger, our sexton, can correct me if I am wrong, but we have 53,000 square feet of facility space here. At present, we use precious little of it for ourselves and haven’t offered it to our neighbors to the extent I believe possible. For me, the question is: how do we orient our space outward and see our care for this space as a curation of the gift that is primarily in service of others?
Those are some of the gifts I believe we have as a parish. As I said earlier, those gifts are not ours to mothball and hoard like precious china only to be taken out and used for special occasions. The church is meant to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, to share our gifts lavishly with others around us as a witness to the limitless graciousness of God.
While that is true, we also have some challenges that can prevent us from sharing with others to the extent that we might want do. First, we need to address financial and missional sustainability. As you have seen in our budget, we have work to do not only to balance the budget, but to diversify our sources of revenue to support the mission of God in our context. How do we ensure that there is an Episcopal presence here for future generations to find? Second, we have challenges reaching out to children and youth. Some of this has to do with factors beyond our control – Sunday sports leagues and other competing interests. Some of this also has to do with overreliance on disintegrating models of Christian faith formation. How do we reach out to our younger members to ensure that they are being actively formed in the faith that we say matters? Third, our building. One side of this building is over 100 years old. The other is 60 years old. How do we ensure that we are both faithfully stewarding our facility resources while also leveraging them to support our contemporary ministry context? Fourth, our neighborhood context presents us with a great opportunity for innovation. The hundreds of people who run and bike past us in the warmer months, the families who visit the park, the children at Kenwood School, these are all our neighbors. How do we serve them? Finally, we need to address efficiency. One of the things that can go wrong in a growing church is that the growth is stifled by well-intentioned but cumbersome structures. How do we build a model of leadership that anticipates growth, increases transparency and visibility, and supports collaboration?
As I said towards the beginning, last year was a year of surveying the lay of the land. I wanted to get a good sense of who Saint Paul’s actually is before helping us discern a way to address all of these opportunities for innovation. 2018 will be a year of building. I am several assumptions:
- We will grow both numerically, spiritually, and missionally. You will hear more about this through this year.
- We will change. The Church all around us is experiencing a time of great change. Some are calling this a new Great Awakening. We are being asked to do church differently, to share ministry, empower new ministers, and to hear different voices – and this is something I believe we can
As such, 2018 will be a year of building the infrastructure to support that growth. Churches don’t grow by accident. The churches that are growing in our contemporary context are churches that have decided to grow and have created a culture that supports that growth. Let me tell you how I want to create that culture here.
In the next 100 days, I want our Vestry to work on three major initiatives to address some of our opportunities for innovation. First, I will be submitting a Building Use Policy and Fee-Schedule for the consideration of our Finance and Buildings and Grounds Commissions for ultimate ratification by our Vestry. This document will both outline how we are going to steward our property, reframe its use to support others as well as ourselves, and provide the legal and fiscal framework to support community partnerships. At present, we have nothing to give to people when people come to us asking to use space. I want to get in front of that. I also want this information shared online so that people looking for space to support community functions and initiatives can find this information readily available. I also want to rebrand the house from the “Beim Memorial Parish House” to the “Beim Neighborhood House.” This slight change in wording can have major impact with our neighbors. It signals that the doors of our church are wide open.
Second, we are shifting some of our Vestry resources to make room for a newly constituted Evangelism Commission. The task of the Evangelism Commission will be to provide some support to our current communications team headed up by Angie Paulson, but also to draw us deeper into our own story and deeper into relationship with our neighbors. The Evangelism Commission will help us see ourselves – each one of us – as evangelists in our own contexts and to provide each of us with the resources necessary to share our parish story with others. Churches grow most through the organic network of our real relationships. Each of us knows people in search of community and belonging. The Evangelism Commission will help give us the tools to share our faith with others. If this work sounds interesting to you, speak to me after the meeting and we can talk about connecting you to this ministry.
Thirdly, we are shifting our Commission structure to quarterly meetings that we are calling Commission Saturdays. Before I get into the details of Commission Saturdays, I want to frame the “why.” The whole point of this is to make sure that we are respecting people’s time and gifts. We aren’t asking for more time; rather, we are asking to be more efficient with the time people offer in service to God’s mission. The goal of the “Commission Saturdays” structure is to increase collaboration across commissions, across commissions with the Vestry, and with the clergy; increase involvement by emphasizing efficiency; increase transparency by inviting more people into news-sharing and decision-making; and increase focus.
Commission Saturdays will be held on 3rd Saturdays of May (19), August (18), November (17), February 2019 (16), and ongoing. The morning begins with morning prayer or some other type of group devotion. After that, at 9:00 am, we will go into round one of commission meetings (Finance, Outreach, Faith Formation). At 10:30 am, we will move into second round of commission meetings (Evangelism, Buildings and Grounds, Parish Life). At noon, we will move to lunch, group reporting, Rector’s Report, and group formation. At 1:00 pm, the Vestry will meet and take up any proposals or recommendations that come out of commission meetings. This is all a proposal, and I am clear that it will be challenging to move to this structure, but my hope is that we will give this a try this year, make necessary changes, and continue to support the mission of God in our context.
Other plans that I have for our parish in 2018 are a new visual brand to freshen our engagement with our surrounding community, more opportunities for intergenerational faith formation to respond to shifting nature of Christian faith formation, collaboration with Downtown Congregations Ending Homelessness to support collaboration and partnership between ourselves and our surrounding faith communities as well as deeper engagement and advocacy with our neighbors experiencing homelessness, refining our web/online presence via electronic means of communication, investing in our worship of God by initiating some painting and other aesthetic projects in our nave, and the establishment of an intentional newcomer incorporation process.
This is an ambitious set of goals and priorities. It can seem daunting and you might be asking “how” we are going to do all of this. The short answer is: with God’s help. As I mentioned in the sermon earlier today, the church is being asked to give an account of the faith that has been given to us. Engaging in God’s mission is doing just that. The magnitude of the mission should scare us because ultimately, we must rely more on God than ourselves. We can do this with God’s help. We can lay the foundation for growth. We can boldly pursue the mission in front of us and solidify the future of this parish for the next generation of people searching for community and connection to God.
 https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/19539 (accessed: January 24, 2018)
 Stephanie Spellers. Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation (New York: Church Publishing, 2006), p. 6.