The people don’t like Jesus’ sermon, so they lead him to the edge of a cliff? The reading today sits a little close for comfort for preachers, especially for a preacher who is about to give in his sermon a “state of the church” address. I take comfort that there aren’t many cliffs nearby. I hope the news I have to share is hopeful enough that you won’t want to run me off in any case.
Luke’s version of the story is the most violent of the Gospels’ tellings of Jesus visiting the village where he grew up. In Matthew and Mark Jesus is simply frustrated by the people’s unbelief. He says the famous words, “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown.”
Many of you know that I grew up in The Episcopal Church in Denver. My mother is a priest. My grandmother was a senior officer in the Diocese of Colorado’s Episcopal Church Women. I can report that Jesus’ words can still ring true, though I might update them a bit. “A priest is not without honor except in his mama’s, or worse yet, his grandmama’s church.” When I visit Colorado, no matter where I have served, I will always be “Deb Angell’s son, and Bette Lanning’s grandson.” It’s just true. In many ways I am grateful.
But I also have to tell you, I am glad that Holy Communion is not my mother’s, and not my grandmother’s church. Of course I am joking, and in some ways I mean my words literally. But, as I meditate on the state of our parish, I also mean my words figuratively. For us to live into God’s call for Holy Communion, we have to have skin in the game. This can’t be our mamma’s church. This has to be OUR church.
In my written report to the annual meeting I used the word “potential” to describe our life together. That word, “potential,” caught my ear more than any other as I met with your search committee and vestry. The way you described your life together, and your hunger to be of service to your neighborhood, city, and world, inspired me to say yes to this call.
You may have read stories about the death of the church. A lot of lament is going on, both inside and outside our denomination, as congregations are struggling to survive. Many are closing. That is not the story at Holy Communion. We are growing. This year we have seen close to a 10% increase in Sunday Attendance. Our average age has been going down. A lot of that growth, I believe, is because we have our eye on something bigger than us. We have a hunger to serve.
The increase in attendance is matched by a showing of generosity. Our pledges this year exceeded last year by $55,000. That is a 45% growth in pledge income in one year. Even more astoundingly 40% of the new dollars pledged came from people under the age of 35 (that doesn’t happen very often in Episcopal Churches). Beyond the total dollars pledged, we met a crucial goal. We went from 45% of households making a pledge to our Annual campaign to almost 70% of households. We increased participation by 25%. Thank you, every one of you, for your generosity.
None of this growth would be possible without the staff and volunteer leadership who minister so effectively in this Church. We have potential because we have so many people who have already made this congregation THEIR church, and I want to say thank you. From the altar guild who often go unthanked because they are unseen, to the newly formed flower committee which has made such beautiful arrangements since this Fall to our sexton Jerome and our Building Contractor Darryl, many work hard to prepare our space for worship each week. During worship we are spoiled at Holy Communion. We have one of the finest music programs in the region, under the capable direction of Mary Chapman and Mary Carol Schlueter. We also have committed ushers, acolytes, readers, and altar servers. I would be lost without the organizational skills of our parish administrator Angela Breeher.
I am thankful for all of our Sunday School teachers, our Sunday School Superintendent Amanda Diemer, and our youth leaders Scott Ragland and Mary Bass. I’m also excited that Markie Jo Crismon has joined our staff as a part time youth coordinator and communications assistant.
I also need to take a moment to give thanks for the leadership of some people who are no longer present in our community. The Rev. Brooke Myers and Pastor Rebecca who led this place so capably as clergy staff for many years. Leslie Scoopmire was a great companion in Holy Week last year, helping me figure out where light switches were in time to flip them on during the Easter Vigil. Our wider church is lucky she is pursuing ordination. I also continue to give thanks to God that in my first months here I was accompanied by our late priest Associate The Rev. Emery Washington. Emery would often come sit in my office in my first few months, and tell me war stories from his times as a rector. I continue to miss Emery, but I am thankful for our time together. I am also grateful to Alice for her continuing friendship.
Finally, I need to say a word of thanks to your vestry. We are so lucky to have such a capable, dedicated, and thoughtful group of people leading this parish. I am grateful for the encouragement of your senior warden Scott Ferguson, and the energy of your junior warden Mark Willingham. Two of our vestry members are “retiring” this year, their terms are up. Sondra Ellis you have been a steady counselor, and a font of knowledge. I will miss your knowing smile in meetings. Finally, I need to thank Jean Parker. When I interviewed with the vestry, I asked them if I came to Holy Communion, if they would have my back. No one has had my back as much as Jean Parker: from helpful email reminders, to words of encouragement. I know Jean that you are excited to have Vestry evenings free, but I am not happy your term is over. I am, however, thankful to you for your leadership.
The state of our church is getting stronger. And we’re not finished. I still believe the word “potential” best describes this moment in our life. If you are new to Holy Communion, stick around. I think it is going to be a wild ride. Things are just gearing up. I intentionally did not launch any big campaigns the moment I got here. It takes trust, it takes a relationship, for us to do the kind of ministry I believe we are dreaming about together.
Your vestry this summer initiated a “Mission and Vision” process. As much as this is about organizational priorities, it is also about relationship. To arrive at our three shared values: Welcome, Diversity, and Community, we worked on building and deepening relationships. Vestry members took parishioners and visitors out to coffee, or met after church. We invited groups to gather in our homes, the youth group even had a Mission and Vision gathering over in Jackson park. We talked about what brought us to Holy Communion, what keeps us here, and what we hope our neighbors know about our church in five years. From all of those conversations, we distilled the three values: Welcome, Diversity, and Community.
When I described this work in my report, I repeated the word “process” an embarrassing number of times. Have you ever read something you’ve written and say, “wow, did I write that?” I wrote the word “process” five times in two paragraphs. Well, I repeat myself when I think something is important. This work of Mission and Vision is a process. And a process takes time. Today we will continue that process (I promise that’s the last time.)
At the end of our Annual Meeting today, we will spend a little less than an hour in small groups. Vestry members will lead conversations about each of our values. We’ll explain all of the details when it is time. The important thing for now is to know that we are hoping again to hear about your dreams for this place, your big dreams, your “big hairy audacious goals” as they call them. No idea is too big. No idea is unwelcome.
There will be vestry note-takers in the sessions. We also will be collecting any of the Questionnaires that you are willing to turn in today in person, or over the next weeks in the mail or online. Put your name on the ideas, if you will. Because we are as interested in the relationships as the product. We want to know the people behind the ideas. We won’t be able to realize every big dream, but we want all the dreamers to be involved. We are going to build teams around each value. We are looking to sign you up today to be part of the Welcome team, the Diversity team, and the Community team (that value will probably need two teams, one for Community INSIDE our church, and one focused on Outreach to the Community OUTSIDE our church.) Those teams will be forming over the next months.
For us to live into the dreams we dream today, we need to take a note from Jesus this morning. Holy Communion can’t just be your mamma’s church. It can’t be just your grandmama’s church. Holy Communion has to be your church. (Even if your mama or your grandmama still go here). This has to be your church, and we need you to be a prophet. If we are going to live into our potential, we have to take responsibility for the work of building up this community. We have to listen to what God is calling US to do. Holy Communion does not live in the past tense. Holy Communion is a church in the present and the future.
I believe God has big dreams for us, and in order to discern what they are, we need to listen deeply to one another’s dreams. We need to pray together, and we need to act together. Over the coming years we will continue to grow as a church that Welcomes ALL, that has the hard conversations and values Diversity. We will build the Community up inside these walls by serving the Community beyond these walls.
I am grateful and excited to be your rector as we write the next chapter in the history of Holy Communion. This isn’t my mama’s church. What do you say, will it be your Church?