A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 26, 2014
(St. John the Evangelist)
Well, the honeymoon’s over. I’m in my fifth year as your rector and so it’s about time. You’ve realized I can’t be all things to all people and I’ve been reminded that parishes are fully human institutions. You’ve discovered first hand my strengths and weaknesses and I’ve discovered the gifts and limitations of the parish.
But that’s okay because what is a honeymoon anyway but a relationship lacking in depth? A superficial relationship full of excitement and promise, but short on reality. If the honeymoon is a time when a priest and parish get to know one another, life after the honeymoon is a time when we learn how to live together. Which means, as in a marriage, learning to handle the inevitable ups and downs with honesty, patience, understanding, encouragement, and forgiveness.
Now don’t get me wrong; the honeymoon was wonderful and this building has been a stunning “honeymoon suite.” We’ve done quite well together during this period; the church grew, financial giving went up, and there was lots of energy coursing through the parish. But for a variety of reasons, attendance is down a bit; pledging is down a bit; and while we’re still thriving by most measures and comparatively speaking we’re doing exceedingly well, I’m used to standing up on the Sunday of the Annual Meeting and talking about percentage increases across the board. And I can’t do that this year.
You should know that this blip isn’t unusual — all the studies point to years four and five of a rector’s tenure as the most challenging for both priest and congregation and my personal experience bares this out. But this is also, ultimately, very good news. Because once a rector and congregation push past this mark, they typically enter into an incredibly fruitful period of ministry together; a time when we have worked through the difficult part and now trust and love one another more deeply.
I still believe the Charting Our Course strategic planning process came at a good time. Any earlier and it wouldn’t have authentically reflected people’s thoughts on life at St. John’s; any later and we would have missed an opportunity to get us headed in the right direction. The timing was right to take a long, hard, objective look at our parish — its ministries, governance, leadership, and overall mission.
In a faith community, this type of process naturally stirs up great passion and emotion and the feedback piece of Charting Our Course showed that people care deeply about this parish. I am so very grateful to everyone who participated in this project and for the over 800 individual comments recorded and diligently categorized by our hardworking committee.
In general, the parish is highly satisfied with the experience at St. John’s especially regarding preaching, liturgy, and the strong sense of community. Yet there are several key areas that need improvement and demand attention.
The data indicates that a good portion of the congregation feels their pastoral needs are not being met. That’s not acceptable to me as pastoral care is at the heart of what we do as a community of faith. I’m proud of our pastoral team — a tremendous amount of pastoral work gets done behind the scenes by the clergy, though it’s not something that will show up in a report. In teasing this issue out with the Vestry, with the wardens, and with the Charting Our Course committee, I’ve come to understand that there is a great hunger for a more personal connection with me as the rector.
What I can’t change is my personality and who I am. Some feel that I am emotionally distant and I’m aware that I can come across as not caring but I assure you that’s not the case. I care deeply and passionately about the mission of St. John’s and the people who drive that mission and those fed by that mission. I love what I do, I love doing it here in Hingham, and I look forward to continuing to do so in the years ahead.
What I can change is my approach to certain situations and the allocation of my own time and spiritual energy. While there are large numbers of “fixed” pieces in any given week, there is some flexibility in switching priorities around that I can spend on building deeper relationships. But I need your help. Relationship is a two-way street and so if you’re not feeling connected, please reach out to me. In turn I will be more intentional about reaching out to you and together we can create a culture of communication that better reflects the spirit of Christ in this community.
The other major piece of feedback was about our youth program. Parishioners are not satisfied with it and named it the number one priority for the church to address. Since then, after a year-long search, we have hired a new Youth Minister. I’m excited about Ken’s ministry among us and I’ll be taking an active role in helping set up structures of adult support and input to insure more people are invested in this program. There is no reason, with committed parents and the support of the entire community, that youth ministry can’t thrive at St. John’s.
You’ll hear more about the plan during the Annual Meeting itself but those were two areas I wanted to specifically address. Overall, I believe St. John’s is in an enviable position right now with the opportunity to bring even more connection and meaning to people’s lives through our faith in Jesus Christ. In a word, we have been richly blessed. I’m hopeful for the future and excited to see how this process continues to evolve and unfold as together we discern where God is calling us as a parish in the years ahead.
Perhaps it was the whole language of Charting Our Course but I’ve been thinking about sailing recently. My father was an avid sailor so I spent some time on boats growing up and while the image of the tiller makes the most sense when reflecting on charting a course, I’ve been thinking more about the keel. The keel is that heavy weight on the bottom of a sail boat that prevents it from capsizing. The breeze may blow a sailboat back and forth — the wind can be your friend when a stiff breeze keeps you humming along at a good clip. And it can also be a challenge when a storm blows in and the water gets choppy. Through it all the submerged keel quietly does its job of keeping the boat afloat.
Here at St. John’s the keel is not the church or the vestry or the rector — relying on any of these for protection amid the inevitable storms that swirl in parish life will only lead to shipwreck. Our keel is Jesus Christ. And so as we focus on the priorities and direction of this parish, we do well to remember that it is all for the glory of God in Christ. All the best laid strategic plans in the world won’t help if we aren’t cognizant of the keel. In the gospel appointed for today’s celebration of John the Evangelist, Jesus says very simply, “Follow me.” That is precisely and ultimately what we are all called to do as individual Christians and as a Christian community.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I am honored and humbled to serve as your rector. And while I will certainly mourn for aspects of it, I’m glad the honeymoon is over. May God bless us all in the year ahead.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014