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)
If you’ve ever seen the Broadway musical or the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” you know the iconic opening number includes the refrain “Tradition!” The main character, Tevye, sings about the reason various societal roles exist in his village, from the matchmaker to the Rabbi. The refrain sets the tone for the rest of the show as the characters struggle with how to maintain their traditional values as the inevitable change swirls around them.
As I thought about my annual state-of-the-parish report — this refrain kept running through my head but with a slight twist. If we were to come up with one word to describe this year, and in particular the last few months, it would be “Transition!”
Just to review, starting in mid-October, our deacon left to take a job in New Hampshire; our assistant rector left to take her own church in Oregon; our organist left to take a position in Illinois; our youth minister left to pursue graduate studies, and the boiler died. “Transition!”
I have never experienced such transition in such a short period of time in a parish setting and yet, as tempting as it is, I will demonstrate heroic restraint and not refer to this whole situation as staff “deflation.” Usually such staff turnover would be the direct result of conflict but the good news in our situation is that all of it was for good reasons and so we sent Geof, Anne, Fred, and Ken off with our prayers and best wishes. The boiler, however, is another matter and I still have not forgiven it.
But amidst all of the change, I am truly excited about the opportunities that are ahead as we rebuild the staff to better reflect the priorities that came out of the Charting Our Course strategic planning process. So rather than spend a lot of time looking back, I thought I’d spend this time looking ahead to share my vision for what this reconstituted staff might look like. The Vestry and I have been discussing and strategizing how we can best meet the needs of the parish moving forward while embracing what we perceive to be God’s plan for St. John’s.
One thing that’s become clear to me is that having a very part-time youth minister is not a model that works in this community. Since youth ministry is above all relational, we need someone running the youth groups who is local, around, and available. The position description for the next curate has been written with youth ministry as a priority. This person will be a generalist, a priest for the entire congregation, but with an emphasis on youth ministry. Whatever other gifts this person may bring, a passion for youth is non-negotiable.
Because of this, the part-time youth minister position will be morphed into a part-time Church School Director. We rightly place a high priority on this program aimed to strengthen the spiritual lives of our youngest children, yet we’ve never had a staff position to be accountable for Church School, to work with, train, mentor, and inspire our volunteer teachers, and to bring new energy and creativity to the program. The Church School Leadership Team has done tremendous work and I like that model a lot — we just need someone to work with and support them in ministering to our children and their families.
The organist-choirmaster position is another terrific opportunity to bring in someone to work with the adult choir, reinvigorate the children’s choir, and offer a level of excellence in the Anglican musical tradition. I want the St. John’s music program to be the gem of the South Shore; a ministry of our parish that will appeal to a wide audience of people who value and appreciate excellent choral music. We have the singers, we have the instrument, now we need the right person to bring this program to new heights.
There are search committees in place to help me find the right people to fill these positions and I am committed to taking my time in building the ministry team here at St. John’s. We’re not going to hire anyone out of desperation — nothing good ever comes out of that. And, while I appreciate your prayers and patience in the meantime, I do not intend to do five services in 20 hours by myself next Christmas. 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.
I also want to take a moment to discuss the top priority of our strategic planning process: pastoral care. The feedback from the parish indicated we could be doing a better job in this area. Pastoral care is, in many ways, the heart of what we do as a parish community because it’s about relationships. I’ve enjoyed the process of getting to know many of you in deeper ways over the past year; I love to hear your stories and visit with you and find out what’s going on in your lives, and learn about your hopes and dreams and fears and passions. There’s a deep sense of joy and satisfaction in this for me personally and I hope you will reach out to me for whatever reason or even if there is no specific reason at all. I love serving as your rector primarily because I truly do love all of you.
While I encourage people to contact me anytime, I’ve also decided to keep a two hour block open every week for anyone who wants to drop in to chat. To keep it informal, I’m going to hold this at my “satellite office” — Redeye Roasters. Obviously if you have something of a more confidential nature to discuss, you can make an appointment to meet at church. But starting next month you can stop in on Fridays between 10:00 am to noon for “Redeye with the Rector.” If no one shows up, that’s okay since I’ll likely be finishing my sermon. But I do hope you’ll stop by sometime and we’ll just see how it goes.
As I’ve said often over the past year, pastoral care is about clergy/parishioner interaction, yes, but it’s also about all of us taking care of one another. I am particularly pleased with how this has played out with the newly formed Pastoral Response Team. You’ll find details about this in convener Kim Roell’s report but it’s all about communication and coordination of services for parishioners in any kind of need or adversity. In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul encourages us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Practically speaking, this is precisely what we’re doing — with prayer, meals, conversation, and communion. I am most proud of this community for embracing the Charting Our Course charge to be more intentional about caring for one another.
As far as one of the key markers of congregational vitality goes, our Average Sunday Attendance is down a bit this year. We still have over 200 people at worship on any given weekend but there’s always room for more — both numerically and spiritually. What this doesn’t measure is the passion for the gospel and the many initiatives taken by members of this community who see a need and take action.
Here’s a concrete example. Last month a couple of parents with younger children told me they wanted to put together a Sunday movie night. I thought it was a great idea especially because it was consistent with one of my mantras: “never let the clergy get in the way of ministry.” In other words, if you see an opportunity for creative ministry, go for it. Before I knew it, they had made an announcement that they’d be screening the Polar Express, encouraged kids to come in their PJs, and even arranged with the North Pole for Santa to make an appearance. The organizers were a little worried that only a few families would show up but in the end they had about 50 joyful children eating popcorn, drinking hot chocolate, and having a grand time. Which fit right into another one of my mantras of parish ministry: “kids having fun in church is a good thing.” I came in just as the kids were convinced that Santa Claus was really “Father Tim” — which threw them for a major loop.
This is the kind of story that will never find its way into an annual report — it can’t be measured by statistics — but it is precisely why we can come together to celebrate this community in all its joyfulness and holiness. Stories like this fill me with hope as I spend the next few months juggling various search committee and seeking to put together a ministry team that will help us move ever deeper into our communal relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
Tradition holds that in his old age St. John the Evangelist preached the exact same short sermon every week: “Brothers and sisters, love one another.” When members of his community asked why they couldn’t, at least occasionally, hear a different message, he replied, “When you have mastered this lesson, we can move on to another.”
We can never hear that message of love too often — of Jesus’ invitation to “love one another as I have loved you.” And I think St. John’s in Hingham is a pretty good place to do just that.
© Tim Schenck 2015