A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 31, 2016
(St. John the Evangelist)
What a difference a year makes! Last year at this time we were in the midst of a great transition at St. John’s; a tidal wave of transition. We were juggling search committees — for a new organist, a new curate, and a new church school director. We were raising money for a new boiler. We were shoveling snow. Again. And, while I’m not sure it always showed on the outside, staff and volunteers alike were scrambling to keep things running relatively smoothly during what was an unusual period in the life of the congregation.
Now, the transition was all due to “natural causes” — a deacon, curate, organist, and
youth minister all happened to leave within the same few months and all for good reasons. It was unusual, to be sure, but it also afforded us a great opportunity to reevaluate our staffing needs in light of the priorities we outlined through the Charting Our Course strategic planning process.
Through the congregational feedback process, at both the vestry level and for me personally, we heard what was important to all of you and we acted on it: youth ministry, adult education, pastoral care, music — all of the priorities we identified have been addressed either programmatically or through staffing. And while I have my own opinions about how things are going these days, I most value what so many of you have told me: that the parish has never felt so active and vibrant, that there is a spirit at St. John’s that feels both holy and energizing; that the worship and music are transcendent; that we’ve assembled an inspired team of staff members to help us carry out our mission; that the presence of God has infused this community in very tangible ways.
All of which is testimony to the fact that we have emerged from a period of great transition and, if we’re honest with ourselves, a fair amount of uncertainty, stronger, more faithful, and better positioned to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ on the South Shore. Yes, I feel a sense of relief at having made it through a trying year and also a great deal of satisfaction as I look around this place and soak in all the good things that are happening.
Last year, during my Annual Address, I encouraged you to “Get a good look at the back of the bulletin — because, God willing, the staff listing will be a lot different in the months ahead.” Oh, and it is. If the previous year was all about “goodbyes,” this year we did a lot of welcoming. We welcomed Buffy Gray as our organist-choirmaster, we welcomed Noah Van Niel as our curate, we welcomed Alexis MacElhiney as our church school director. And I have to say, I much prefer the welcoming. Especially when it comes to welcoming such extraordinarily gifted and committed people to St. John’s.
One of the things I love about having Father Noah around here — besides getting to hang out with Vincent on a regular basis — is the fresh perspective he brings. Yes, to the parish and to our collective spiritual life — but also in the ways he invites me to think about situations and experiences that I may have taken for granted. In one of our weekly mentoring sessions, he asked me, “How do you approach the Annual Meeting?” And my first answer was fairly flip — “stressfully.” I mean, there are reports to collect and collate and proofread and there’s a lot of work that goes into the whole process and there’s always the deep rooted, if irrational, fear that something will arise to divide the congregation.
But then as we talked more about it, I started focusing on the things I love about the Annual Meeting. So much of life in ministry is deadline driven — sermons, bulletins, newsletters, planning for the next liturgical season — in other words just trying to make it through the week. And it occurred to me that what I really appreciate about the Annual Meeting isn’t so much the meeting itself but the preparation involved. Because in order to prepare for it, you must take a step back, you must go to the mountaintop to see the bigger picture, to get up into the balcony and reflect upon the whole operation — in order to get an authentic grasp on how things are going; to see what opportunities await and what challenges might arise.
And so taking the time to head up to the mountaintop, whatever the impetus, is important. And it’s a pretty nice view these days. Here are some things that I’ve observed.
- We have an incredible group of parishioners at St. John’s. People who are passionate about their faith — not just in the abstract — but who are living it out in their daily lives. People who care deeply for one another. People who are eager to engage with and deepen their faith. People who want to make a difference in the world.
- We have a truly amazing staff. People who view their work in the church as a calling. People who take the initiative and are willing to try new ideas and take new approaches to ministry. People who are willing to work within the guidelines of our broader mission while not being afraid to fail. People who enjoy doing ministry with one another and with all of you.
- We have been drawing many new individuals and families to St. John’s over the past several months. This is, of course, a sign of vitality and growth but also a reminder that, in Jesus Christ, we are offering something that people so deeply desire.
- We are blessed with many generous parishioners who take their financial stewardship seriously. People who give from their hearts because they believe in the mission of St. John’s and recognize that we can only do what we do here because of one another.
- We have a beautiful church. I mean, the landscaping project out front — wow. It was funded by several parishioners who saw a need and decided to do something about it, so it wasn’t funded out of our operating budget. Not everyone can see a need and address it on that scale but we can all see things that need doing and, rather than complaining, just take care of it (with proper committee approval, of course). And so I continue to be inspired not just by the greater curb appeal itself but by the process by which it came about.
So how do we keep this moving forward? How do we insure that this moment of satisfaction doesn’t morph into complacency and spiritual lethargy? Well, that’s easy, really. We focus on those two simple words Jesus speaks to Peter, as recorded by John the Evangelist: “Follow me.” Because when we take seriously Jesus’ call to discipleship, there’s no time to pat ourselves on the back.
And so, embedded within these observations are four goals that I have discerned for the year ahead. Goals that, with some prayer and hard work, are utterly attainable.
- We must continue to do exactly what Jesus invites us to do; to “follow” him. Deeper discipleship is an abiding goal of every individual Christian and Christian community. And so, going deeper through devotion and embracing opportunities to be formed more profoundly in Christ, remains our first priority.
- Related to this, we can’t let this parish become a “staff run” church. Yes, we have some incredibly talented and committed folks here. But their jobs aren’t to do everything for us but rather to enable us to grow in faith. They are here to support and lead but also to nurture and raise up. They are partners with us in ministry not doers of ministry for us.
- It’s fabulous that we have more people coming to St. John’s. Attendance is up, participation in programs is up, giving is at an all-time high. But we must all be attentive to newcomer incorporation. We can’t let new members of the parish navigate the wilderness on their own and hope they find their niche here. We all must be better at engaging and inviting and connecting new members to ministries at St. John’s. That’s not someone else’s job, that’s your job.
- This is an expensive place to run. The buildings — the church, the parish hall, the rectory, and the curate’s residence aren’t getting any younger. And being fully staffed, the personnel costs, including benefits, continue to rise. While we had a balanced budget last year, we are presenting a slight deficit budget in 2016. I’m confident we will make up the difference but with rising costs, we need to face reality about our financial future. We need to grow the endowment and encourage those who can give more but are not, for whatever reason, to increase their annual financial commitment to St. John’s if things are to remain financially sustainable in the long run.
“Follow me.” There’s a holy urgency to this command. “Drop everything and follow me.” Not after we’ve finished doing the dishes or figured out how to balance the budget or put the baby down for a nap. But right now, in this very moment. Following Jesus is precisely what has brought us to this point. And following Jesus is what will allow us to thrive in the days, months, and years ahead.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside of you. To proclaim Jesus in Word and Sacrament as fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. And to share the peace of God that truly does surpass all understanding.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck