2018 Patronal Feast (Rector’s Annual Address)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 28, 2018
(St. John the Evangelist)

“It’s not about the numbers.” You hear this a lot in church circles. It’s a way of remindingTim.Headshot.Edited people that there is more to church life than can be conveyed by statistics. That the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be quantified or reduced to a spread sheet. That the pastoral relationships between clergy and parishioners cannot be collected as data. That the inspiration that comes through soaring music and challenging sermons and engaging education programs cannot be relegated to a spiral-bound report. That spiritual growth cannot be measured.

And of course, it’s true. It’s not ultimately about the numbers; it never has been. But often the people who insist most vehemently that it’s “not about the numbers” are the same people serving congregations with dwindling numbers. Parishes stuck in survival mode. Congregations spending their energy on merely keeping the doors open, rather than boldly sharing Jesus’ message with passion and creativity. This is not meant to belittle anyone or any congregation — it’s tough out there. All over the country, pews are emptying. Here in Massachusetts, according to a recent survey, we’re living in a place tied with New Hampshire as the least religious state in the entire union. Which is shocking to me. But across the Commonwealth, church attendance is dropping and financial contributions are down. The church as an institution is changing in dramatic ways.

Now, I don’t believe this is entirely a bad thing. Without the social and cultural pressure to go to church, the people who are in the pews are more committed to following Jesus. And it certainly makes for a fruitful mission field as we seek to share the Good News of the Gospel with an increasingly secular society. We do have a compelling story to tell; one that offers hope and meaning to a world that so desperately craves it. But the evolving nature of our cultural context also highlights just how much of an outlier St. John’s has been in recent years.

By all the measurables, 2017 was a banner year at St. John’s. Attendance was at an all-time high, as was financial giving; registration for Sunday School and Confirmation Classes was off the charts, as was participation in Youth Group and our children’s choir. Our annual Holiday Boutique was more successful than it has ever been; our Not-So-Spooky Haunted House was wildly popular in this community and beyond; Outreach programs like Laundry Love took hold. We’ve never done more baptisms in a single calendar year and even our intimate Wednesday morning service is outgrowing the chapel.

Now, it may not be all about the numbers, but numbers do matter. They can point to an underlying vitality and presence of the Holy Spirit infusing what we do at St. John’s. Our Average Sunday Attendance was up 6% in 2017 and this fall alone, from Homecoming Sunday through December, attendance was up 11% over the same period last year. Pledging also increased by 12%.

To offer some broader context, in the last four years attendance has increased by 22%. In real numbers this means that on an average Sunday there are 45 more people in the pews than there were in 2014. That’s significant. And it’s why if you think coffee hour is more crowded or that there used to be more spaces in the parking lot, you’re not nuts. During this same time-frame, giving went up 31%. Which is astounding. And it’s why we’ve been able to hire additional staff, increase our outreach budget, and make needed repairs to our sacred space.

21762198_10213830343183520_2148731484658337247_nWhile we know it’s not ultimately about the numbers, these numbers do point to something extraordinary happening up here on this hill. Which is why I think rather than saying “It’s not about the numbers,” a better and truer statement would be “Numbers don’t tell the whole story.” There’s more to it of course, but numbers do matter.

And around here they highlight the fact that an increasing number of people are drawn to encounter God through St. John’s and they are being inspired to give generously to support the mission and ministry of this place. Rest assured that the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” never sees you as just a number. And neither do I. You are a beloved child of God and I hope you take great pride in being part of this particular, vibrant community of faith.

This is not to say that we’ve figured everything out or that we don’t have our challenges. We do. While our challenges tend to be “good problems,” like limited parking and overcrowded Sunday School rooms and packed pews and overstretched staff, they are still issues that demand attention.

This is precisely why we are entering into a parish discernment phase in the weeks and months ahead. The time is right to discern where God is calling us as a parish in light of our continued growth. We could just stumble forward and hope for the best. I mean, things are going well! But in order to do this intentionally and faithfully and strategically, we need to take a broader look at our ministries, staffing requirements, and explore the possibility of raising some money to make sure our facilities meet the requirements of our mission. I want us to harness this incredible growth and the amazing spirit that pervades this place. It is truly a special time at St. John’s and we have both an obligation and an opportunity to make the most of this moment in our history.

This time of discerning who we are and who we want to become must be a communal process because we are, all of us, St. John’s. St. John’s is not just a beautiful building but a community of faithful people. And so we will be asking lots of questions in our small group discernment sessions. Things like, how can we be more accessible and inviting? In what ways should we interact with the wider community? How does our physical plant support our mission? What are your dreams for the St. John’s of the future? We’ll hear more about this process from our consultant, Leslie Pendleton, at the Annual Meeting but this is simply an invitation to participate. We need your insights and input to make this the fruitful, productive, Spirit-driven process that I know it can be. And, frankly, it’s exciting! I am incredibly jazzed about seeing where this will lead us in the years ahead.

In the meantime, as many of you know, I will begin a four-month sabbatical five weeks from now. I’ll be doing some traveling and some writing and some coffee drinking and some writing about coffee drinking. It will be an opportunity for me to recharge and renew and reconnect. And I think the timing is right as we reflect on a full and fruitful year that is past, and look forward to an abundant future together. Four months won’t be long and while I will miss you all dearly, I have great confidence in our lay leadership — our Wardens and Vestry — and Father Noah to carry on in my absence.

You know, in times of uncertainty and confusion, faith is an anchor. It grounds us and provides hope. It offers perspective and meaning. It shines a light in darkness. St. John’s, as the physical manifestation of our faith, serves as a beacon to all who enter these doors. And St. John’s, as the communal embodiment of our faith, demonstrates the power of God’s love. At its best, this is a place of inspiration and beauty; a place of motivation and challenge; a place of relationship and joy. I am proud of the ministry we have done together over the past twelve months and I am grateful to everyone whose presence and participation helped to build up the body of Christ that was St. John’s in 2017.

In the end, it’s true that Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, not count them. If we continue to feed the children of God, to minister to all who enter our doors, the numbers will follow. We can and should be grateful that God has richly blessed this community. And in return, our calling is to continue to share the Good News of Jesus’ love with passion, integrity, and faithfulness.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside each and every one of you. To proclaim Jesus in Word and Sacrament as a fellow pilgrim on this journey of life and faith. Thank you for doing your part and may God bless us all in the year ahead. 

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018


2017 Patronal Feast (Rector’s Annual Address)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 29, 2017
(St. John the Evangelist)

One of the things I love about Annual Meeting Sunday is the opportunity to look back at the past year and reflect upon all the ministry that takes place here at St. John’s. It’s not always easy to find the time to do this amid our busy, deadline-driven communal life. It’s tough to revel in the successes and God-inspired moments that take place on a regular basis. And that’s to our detriment — whether in parish life or our personal lives. But the Annual Meeting forces us to press the pause button and take a long, hard look around. And, wow, there is some great stuff happening at St. John’s!

11147146_10206517117957460_4176512140477409887_nNow, statistics alone can’t tell the full story of a faith community, but they can shed some light on how things are trending. And I’m always seeking to understand what’s behind the numbers. It encourages me to wonder what it is, exactly, that has allowed us to not only grow numerically but to thrive spiritually over the past 12 months?

What is it that has seen our average weekend worship attendance rise by a whopping 20% from the year before? Sure, it helped that Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday which counts toward this figure but even without that, attendance is up 12%. And just to put this growth into context, nationally church attendance fell almost 4% during this period. In the Diocese of Massachusetts attendance decreased by nearly 6%. So we are bucking some pretty strong trends here on this hill in Hingham.

And what is it that allowed us to realize over an 8% increase in money pledged to support the work and ministry of St. John’s? Why is giving higher than it’s ever been in the long history of this parish?

Not surprisingly, I have some theories. And I want to name four reasons I believe things are thriving at St. John’s. It’s not that we can bottle this stuff and share it with the wider church but there are some transferable attributes if congregations truly do want to grow.

First, strong leadership. We have a Vestry that is dedicated to the mission of the church, passionate about their faith, supportive of clergy and staff, and willing to take some risks.

You know, this isn’t a for-profit religious corporation we’re running here. I’m not the CEO, the Vestry isn’t the board of directors, you aren’t the shareholders. We’re not gunning for a hostile takeover of neighboring congregations. We’re a community of faith that seeks to follow Jesus in word and action; a group of people that strives to inspire one another to live with compassion and boldly proclaim Jesus as our Lord; an inviting place that shares the peace of God with all who enter these doors. The Wardens and Vestry understand this and they are committed to continuing to grow in faith and service.

Second, keeping one foot firmly planted within the four walls of the church and one foot outside the church. Yes, holy space is important and this is a beautiful, inspiring place to gather and grow spiritually. We have a responsibility to maintain it to the best of our ability and available resources. But this must be balanced with looking outward, with doing outreach in the community, of being citizens of the world, of welcoming the stranger into our midst.

This isn’t a given in faith communities and we have had to forge a new way of doing church as we continue to live in an increasingly secular society. It used to be that the church didn’t have to reach beyond itself too much. Sure, there were good works to do and people in need to serve but people came to church because they always had. Of course many were deeply devoted to their faith, but many came partly out of habit and partly because it was simply the cultural norm. Plus, there was nothing else to do on a Sunday morning. Well, these days there is plenty to do from watching TV to surfing the web to playing youth sports to going out for coffee to heading to the mall. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just that it’s the reality.

Now I know this change hasn’t always been easy; that it’s meant a different model of ministry. But there’s a reason I spend time online and writing newspaper columns and sitting in coffee shops in addition to meeting the pastoral needs of parishioners and writing sermons and planning liturgy. The church — and I mean this both globally and here at St. John’s — must be in two places simultaneously. Out in the world and here in the sanctuary. This is the balance we seek to strike. We don’t always get it right — I don’t always get it right — but I think we succeed more often than we fail.

Speaking of failure, the third reason we’re growing is that we’re not afraid to fail. That doesn’t mean we plan on it or rush hastily into new ideas or programs but if you’re not willing to take risks in ministry, you can quickly become paralyzed. To me this was never so evident as it was when Dan Fickes came to me with his crazy idea about wanting to host a Halloween event for younger children.

Now, usually when this happens, I nod my head, say something like “Hmmm. Sounds…interesting,” and hope the person gets distracted and forgets about it. But I was intrigued when Dan started laying out his vision and soon enough, I was sucked into his All Hallows’ vortex and we had organized a small team to plot and plan ways to pull off a large-scale community event.

There were logistical issues with recruiting an army of volunteers, publicity, graphics, 14369914_1785888681655821_3722973629077628514_nHalloween-themed crafts, and food in the midst of a very full fall season at St. John’s. But we decided to take a chance on this idea and what emerged in our Not-So-Spooky Haunted House was pure magic. The church basement was transformed into an enchanting, interactive exhibit intended to delight and entertain before visitors were brought back up to the non-spirit world of Lower Weld Hall for donuts, cider, and crafts.

Over two weekends we had 1,800 people through, made some money to support the church, and were able to convey the message that at St. John’s, faith and fun are not mutually exclusive. And it all came about because we weren’t afraid to have something flop.

Finally, gifted staff. Every January I invite the parish staff over to the rectory for lunch. We do this after Christmas and call it an Epiphany party since, well, we’re busy in December. But what a joy to look around the room as we were opening our Yankee Swap gifts this year and see this amazing group of talented and dedicated people. We really are blessed right now and it’s important to take a step back and just recognize this. Our support staff regularly goes above and beyond and our program staff is making the spiritual magic happen on a daily basis. I am very proud of the ministry they are engaged in with all of you and it is a joy to call them colleagues.

Much of the fruit of our labor is highlighted in the full Annual Report. But I wanted to mention a few new initiatives that took place in the past 12 months. Projects we have undertaken to enhance our ministry both here on the hill and in the community.

In addition to the Haunted House, we redesigned our parish website, introduced an online giving option, held an adult education series on climate change that has morphed into the creation of a dynamic new Green Team at St. John’s, held another wildly successful Holiday Boutique, laid the groundwork for Laundry Love, an exciting new outreach initiative that kicked off last week, had more people than we’ve ever had at our Christmas services, started two weekly prayer groups, implemented healing prayers on the last Sunday of the month with the help of our beloved Sisters of St. Margaret, saw not only an increase in Sunday School numbers but also more regular attendance, added an online directory, grew the children’s choir, and started a Youth Group Steering Committee. Among other things.

But I’m most proud of what you can’t quantify, like spiritual connection and joy and the wonder of a small child learning that God loves her more than she could ever even imagine and the deep peace of a man slowly slipping out of this world supported by love and prayer and a rekindled passion for working for justice in Jesus’ name and a teenager’s making profound spiritual connections even when he’s not willing to admit it. This is why we do what we do around here. This is why we put so much effort into our respective callings — whether that’s to lay or ordained ministry. This is why I encourage you to be drawn ever deeper into the life of this parish. You will encounter Jesus, you will be transformed, you will be made new.

This is precisely what St. John the Evangelist set out to record when he wrote his gospel. He sought to testify to the Light of Christ that had entered the world so that others might hear and believe through his testimony. And here we are, 2,000 years later, as a faithful community seeking to follow Jesus.

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


2016 Patronal Feast (Rector’s Annual Adress)

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 12509625_10208293170037652_7598648998966109163_n
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.

photo 4-1And 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

2015 Patronal Feast (Annual Parish Address)

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.

425980_10152932448010909_2753728607219259727_nHere’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

2014 Patronal Feast (Annual Parish Address)

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.

DCF 1.0Perhaps 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

Patronal Festival — St. John the Evangelist

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 30, 2011 (St. John the Evangelist)

“Do you have anything to declare?” After a long international flight the last thing anyone wants to do before finally getting home is to encounter a long line at U.S. Customs. Bleary-eyed, you root around the bottom of your carry-on bag until you find your tattered passport. You hand it to the grumpy Customs Agent who doesn’t even have to pretend to be nice because he doesn’t work for any airline and has already qualified for a government pension. Then you fill out some forms that are about as easy to decipher as the Broward County butterfly ballot and prepare to answer the inevitable question: “Do you have anything to declare?”

At that point, resisting the temptation to declare that you are thoroughly annoyed, you must confess to having that bag of mangos or the carton of Turkish cigarettes or the two bottles of Italian merlot. All of which is a far cry from the mother of all declarations: the Declaration of Independence. But a lot better than having to declare for bankruptcy. 

The first letter of John offers several declarations. And as you listen to them it’s helpful to remember what a declaration really is. It’s not a casual or off-handed remark. To declare something is to make it formally known. It transcends mere announcements like the ones you hear over the airport loud speaker telling Bob Smith to meet his party at Baggage Claim D. Rather, a declaration is a statement of identity.

In this light, listen again to John’s words: “We declare to you,” he writes, “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

John’s declaration is teeming with passion and holds within it a burning desire to share this faith that has been both revealed and experienced. The faith that is declared is not something abstract but one that engages all the senses – it is heard and seen and touched. And if, as tradition has held, St. John wrote this letter as an old man, he did indeed speak from experience – the experience of having known Jesus both in bodily and resurrected form. Yet his passion to share the Good News of Jesus Christ has not faded one iota in the intervening years. If anything it has grown bolder and stronger with age.

As we celebrate our patronal feast this morning – the day set aside to honor our patron St. John the Evangelist – it is worth reflecting upon just how much we as a parish community also have to declare. When you dig a little bit, John’s declarations echo our own declarations. Because our public witness to the gospel of Christ in this small piece of God’s kingdom is a declaration. We thrust our cross deep into the soil and declare to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see what we have heard and what we have seen and what we have touched concerning the Word of Life that is Jesus Christ.

We do this in a variety of ways. Through our Sunday morning worship, through our website, through conversations formal and informal, through committee work and outreach to the wider community, through the sharing of our lives with one another – in joy and sorrow, grief and laughter, spiritual hunger and spiritual nourishment. All of which combines into a lived declaration of faith. Not a faith with easy answers or pat responses to life’s difficult questions but a living, breathing, life-giving declaration that Jesus came into the world so that we might have life and have it more abundantly in him who is the savior and redeemer of the world.

At this morning’s Annual Meeting we will spend some time reflecting upon the year that is past even as we set our sights toward the future. Over the past 12 months there have been many tangible signs of our continued declaration of faith here on the corner or Main and Water Street. Both attendance and financial support for St. John’s rose over 20% in the last year. And at a time when so many churches are struggling with numbers in both categories, this is a testament to the effectiveness of the particular ways in which we declare our faith. Something in our collective approach to sharing the gospel is resonating with the wider community.

But numbers only tell a piece of the story. There is a warmth and vitality that exists within these walls – you can’t help but feel it on a Sunday morning. This is a place where all are welcomed irrespective of religious background or situation in life. Let’s face it; from the outside looking in St. John’s doesn’t seem like the friendliest place. Our façade is intimidating – from the street it looks a bit like a well-fortified castle. Inside, people are pretty dressed up and the clergy and choir and acolytes parade around in fancy vestments. But we do all this to give glory not to ourselves but to God; to draw people into the majesty and mystery that is at the heart of the incarnate God.

And this all gets back to the unique ways in which we declare of our faith. And not just from the pulpit or the altar but from the pews as well. Which is an important distinction because I can declare from up here until I’m blue in the face but unless we all declare our faith out in the community by inviting people to come and see what is taking place up here on the hill, by not being afraid to live out our faith in the world – even when it’s uncomfortable – we won’t have much to declare.

So while we have much to be proud of as a vibrant community of faith here on the South Shore, there is still much work to be done – I’ll highlight some goals for the coming year during my report later this morning. We have more to do not because bigger is necessarily better or more programs automatically translate into a deeper relationship with God. But because we are continually called to make bold and holy declarations of the Christian faith. And as we do this with spiritual authenticity, I am confident that the blessings will be more than we could possibly ask for or imagine.

In this context, when the question is posed, “Do you have anything to declare?” We can all respond with a resounding “yes” and a hearty “amen.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

Patronal Festival — St. John the Evangelist

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 31, 2010 (St. John the Evangelist)

The Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist. That’s quite a mouthful. It’s tough to fit all that onto bulletins and signs and, as I discovered recently, business cards. It would be a lot easier if we just called ourselves St. John’s and left it at that. But unfortunately that wouldn’t convey the fullness of our identity. We were named not for St. John the Baptist or St. John Chrysostom or St. John of the Cross but for St. John the Evangelist. And this is important both to remember and to celebrate on this the day of our patronal feast.

Now, I’m not sure precisely how the founders of this parish came up with the name or whether it was controversial but I do know that in good Massachusetts fashion it was put to a vote. I looked this up in the parish history this week and here’s how it was tallied: St. John the Evangelist received 17 votes, St. Thomas six votes, and St. Margaret four votes. And thus the new parish in Hingham was dedicated to the author of the fourth gospel. 

People are often scared off by the word “Evangelist.” It’s a bit too close to the word “televangelist.” And worship around here would be quite different if we called ourselves the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Televangelist. I’d have to get some shiny suits and a bouffant. 

But the word “evangelist” simply means one who tells the good news. In this case the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So it’s nothing to be afraid of. And when John took up his pen and wrote what would become known as the gospel that bears his name he was telling the Good News. He was sharing the story of Jesus; the story of the Son of God; the story of our salvation. An evangelist is not a biographer; the role of the evangelist is to draw people into the story of faith. And with his gift for language and symbol John continues to do just that.

Without John we wouldn’t have that soaring opening, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We wouldn’t have such phrases as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or “I am the way and the truth and the life” or “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” We wouldn’t have the images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or the Bread of Life or the True Vine. In other words, our collective story of faith would be that much poorer without the Gospel according to St. John.

But this also gets at the main reason churches exist: to help its members to share and live into the story of the Gospel of Christ. John highlights this in the opening lines of his first letter which we heard this morning. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” We declare to you what we have seen and heard and touched. It’s about the shared story; we see it and hear it and touch it and we are transformed. When we engage it with all our senses we can’t help but be drawn ever deeper into the story itself.

And much of what we do as Christians is simply to share the story of our faith. We pass it down to the younger generations through Sunday School; we read and comment on it every Sunday morning; we sing it and proclaim it; and we share it with those who have not yet heard it. To be an evangelist, then, is to be a story teller; a teller of sacred story. The stories of Scripture become interwoven into the very fabric of our lives. Our stories become wrapped up in the stories of the gospel. In time, as we mature as Christians, the story of faith becomes our very own story. 

Which is why we need to hear them again and again and again. It’s not as if we don’t know the ending – I’m not giving anything away if I tell you that by the end of the gospel Jesus will die upon a cross and be raised up on the third day. You don’t need a spoiler alert before I tell you that at the end of the story of the Prodigal Son, the father will welcome back his lost son with open arms or that Jesus will indeed be able to feed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and two fish. The stories never get old because we hear them differently at different moments of our lives; our perspective changes even as the story itself does not. 

John the Evangelist challenges us with the question: How do you tell the good news in your own life? How do you tell the good news in word and deed? How are you an evangelist? Evangelism takes many forms. You don’t need to go knocking on doors in your neighborhood; you don’t need bad hair and a 900 number. It may simply be how you live out your life; how you treat people; how you share your resources with the less fortunate. But it must be intentional. There are no inadvertent evangelists; there are no accidental Christians.

Following this service we’re holding our Annual Meeting in Upper Weld Hall and I hope you’ll stay for it. It’s another way that we tell our collective story. We gather to look back on the year that is past even as we look forward to what God might have in store for us in the year ahead. It’s been an eventful year around here. To think that just one year ago the search process was in full swing, a deficit budget was presented, and while there was great hope there was also great uncertainty. Today there is a rector in place, a balanced budget will be presented, and there is great hope and anticipation about the future. 

And this is why it’s especially fitting to commemorate our patron this morning. Because as with St. John the Evangelist, everything gets back to the telling and sharing of our story. When we boldly tell the story through our worship and ministry we will grow both numerically and, more importantly, spiritually. Later this morning we’ll talk about some of the steps that will take us there. But it all begins and ends with the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

There’s a well-known protestant hymn called “I love to tell the story.” I won’t sing it because, frankly, I really can’t stand it. But if we all embrace that; if we all start telling the story of Jesus and St. John’s with passion and clarity; if we all start living out the story of faith in our lives with intentionality; there’s no telling what God has in store for us. But I do know this: it will be infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010