Each year Episcopal parishes hold an Annual Meeting. This typically involves various financial and ministry reports, vestry elections, and the like. What follows below is the report I made to St. Paul’s on January 22nd, 2017 – which is a combination of big picture vision and nitty gritty detail.
This past week, as I have spent time pondering and preparing my remarks for the annual parish meeting, it occurred to me that I was having an increasingly difficult time distinguishing between what should be worked in to my homily (on this our patronal feast day), and what needed to be said at the parish meeting. So, I have decided to do something slightly different this year. Today the sermon is the rector’s report, and the rector’s report is the sermon. This means (possibly) two things: this may be slightly longer than my usual sermon, but somewhere short of the Baptists. However, even if this is a little longer than usual, it will also shorten the parish meeting which follows – so perhaps the two will even out. Deal?
So, let me start with The First Thing – the most important thing – I have to say to you. Three years ago at the annual parish meeting, in my first address as your still relatively new rector, I told you that the most important thing I could say to you was “I love you; thank you for loving us.”
Still, to this day, there is nothing of greater importance than to say intentionally and without reserve: I love you still; thank you for still loving us. The love and grace you extend to me and my family does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. It is clear to me that were I not able to be attentive and engaged with Elizabeth and my children, I would have absolutely no business being your pastor. So thank you for your kindness to my family.
On many, if not most, Sundays as I look out into the congregation, and together we lift our hearts to the Lord, I remember what a privilege and joy it is to serve as your priest. When you all come to the altar rail with hands outstretched I can sense that great love. When we visit together at work, or at home, or in the hospital I feel that great love. When we laugh or argue or ponder or pray together – in all these things and more I am grateful for the love God has shown us in one another. Always, we begin and end with love.
The second thing I would like to share with you is a metaphor that has been on my mind of late. You see, over the Christmas holidays Elizabeth and I did something with our yard that we had never done before. We planted trees. One was a lime tree, a gift to one another on our wedding anniversary last year. It had been confined to a large pot on our porch for the better part of a year (that is until Pablo – our klutz of a dog – knocked the whole thing over and broke the pot). The second tree we planted was a satsuma orange, a recent Christmas gift that we hope keeps on giving. The third was a small white peach tree given to us as a sapling by some dear friends.
After the holes were dug, the trees transplanted, and the fertilizer spread I wiped the dirt off my hands and looked at our little arboretum. I had never planted trees in my own yard before, and as we watered them I imagined their roots reaching out for a deeper hold on God’s good earth.
Well, not more than a week or two after we had transplanted these trees, San Antonio experienced our annual day or two of winter weather, and everything froze. Despite having blanketed our poor little trees, we noticed some withered leaves at the top of the lime tree. We’re not yet sure yet, but we hold on to the hope that a little pruning might yet produce new growth.
Out of the pot and into the ground. Deeply woven roots. Pruning brittle branches to make room for new growth. These metaphors have been on my mind as I think and pray and collaborate with other leaders here in this parish.
The Apostle Paul, I am convinced, knew what it was like to be a transplant. He was torn out of the safe certainties of his little imagination and planted into the very community he had been persecuting. Even as he lost his sight, he gained a greater vision of God’s love for all people that forever changed how he looked at the world. Following his dramatic conversion he was slowly nurtured into the deeply woven roots of the Christian community; not all at once, but little by little. A community where righteousness is granted not by calculating correctness, but by forgiveness, acceptance, and above all – grace.
As I consider Paul, the patron of this parish, I can’t help but wonder where this metaphor meets the road. What might it mean for us to put down deep roots and prune for new growth?
So, let me get practical here. I want to share with you some seeds that have grown into trees. They have been nurtured long enough in their pots and are now ready to be transplanted into fertile ground.
In a classic study called Sizing up a Congregation, the Alban Institute describes certain categories of churches and their corresponding characteristics. The Family Church (as they define it) has an active membership of roughly 0-50 (although I’m not quite sure why they consider ZERO a church), the Pastoral Church is 50-150, the Program Church 150-350, and the Corporation Church 350-500+.
Now guess where that puts us as a parish. A few years ago (from 2012-2014) we would have been categorized as a decent size Pastoral church. However, for the past two years, our Average Sunday attendance (a statistic roughly equivalent to active membership) has been north of 150. That means that “little St. Paul’s” is actually in the category of a Program sized parish.
It is a tricky transition, that of a pastoral to program sized parish. It’s not unlike un-potting and transplanting a tree into the ground. The crunch is that we still sometimes think of ourselves as a small church, when in reality we have outgrown the pot and need to be put into the ground. Consider for a moment, the many ministries of this “little” church:
St. Paul’s Episcopal Montessori School
The Choir and Choral Scholars
The Acolytes, Lay Eucharistic Ministers, Lectors, and Ushers
The Altar and Flower Guilds
The Amigos fellowship
Our Lord’s Table food pantry
The Book Club, Spiritual Growth, Rosary, and Meditation Groups
Christian Formation ministries for both adults and children
The Wednesday Bible study
The Newcomer and New Member ministry
…not to mention all the groups that are going to fuss at me for being left of this list…I’m sorry but there’s a lot going on here!
The Alban Institute has the following recommendations for a parish of our size:
“In an effective program church,” they write, “the whole congregation affirms a clear statement of the purpose of the parish. Annual goals and all activities throughout the year reflect the purpose statement. The entire leadership assumes accountability for supporting the purpose as a guideline. The program church will suffer if its purpose is not intentionally articulated and reviewed publicly. This purpose statement serves also as a conservator of time and energy. If a proposed activity, or existing program, does not conform with the purpose, then there is good reason to give no further staffing and money in that direction. Using a purpose statement well is like pruning a plant for its maximum growth potential.” (Sizing Up A Congregation, p.19)
If you have never seen, or if you simply are not familiar with St. Paul’s Vision & Values you can find them on the back of the guest cards in the pew rack in front of you.
Of course, we all know that along with new growth often come growing pains. I want to share with you just a few practical ways we are seeking to address these challenges.
First, it is important to understand that the transition from pastoral to program requires a shift in systemic thinking. One way I like to think of it is a transformation from Cowboys to Collaborators. In this type of system ministries and programs cannot be sustained by one cowboy, or one cowgirl alone. No matter how talented, devoted, and determined that person might be, the Lone Ranger all too often ends up burned out. Like the shift from the solitary Saul to the collaborator Paul, communities like ours must seek collaboration and shared leadership.
One such ministry that has grown exponentially over the past few years are our Children’s Ministries. Susan Keyes, Kelly Bender, Elizabeth Landry, and Ann Thayer have all worked together to make sure the nursery, Godly Play, and Children’s Chapel are welcoming, nourishing places of Christian formation for our younger members. There is currently a great need for more volunteers to make Children’s Chapel possible for our growing congregation of children.
Second, to further address the administrative and organizational needs of the parish, we will soon be making a shift in how we organize our support staff. For several months now the wardens and I (supported by the finance committee and vestry) have been talking to our current secretary, Carla Solis, about changing her role to that of Parish Administrator. To do this, in addition to an increase in compensation and hours, we have been looking for ways to shift certain time consuming tasks elsewhere so that she can take on more administrative responsibilities. For example, a devoted group of volunteers meets every Friday morning to help fold the Order of Service and stuff the bulletins – a task that used to take the parish secretary alone much longer. (Coincidentally, this group calls themselves the “Older Folders,” though I prefer to think of them as the Holy Folders). Just recently we have benefited from adding a (very part time) worship assistant to create and edit the Order of Service to free up time for both the secretary and organist.
To enable better communication and collaboration between the several groups that make our common worship possible each week, I have asked David White to serve as a Worship Coordinator. This person will be responsible for working with the rector to convene a quarterly meeting of representatives from the Ushers, Acolytes, Lay Eucharistic Ministers, Lectors, Altar and Flower Guilds, and choir. We need new volunteers for each of these ministries, and will be offering training in the coming months for those who are interested.
To further the visionary work begun two years ago, the vestry and other ministry leaders will again be working with Ministry Architects this upcoming March. This is a time when the leadership of the parish reexamines goals and benchmarks and ask the tough questions about whether and how our ministries align with our Vision & Values.
These are just a few examples of steps taken in the right direction to sustain the ministries God has called us to undertake. I could offer many more examples, but I hope you are beginning to get the drift. In short, it takes us all to be the church.
In the midst of all this talk about growth, strategy, goals, administration, and collaboration it is vital to remember that the church is never an end unto itself. The end goal is not simply to grow the church. The end will always be love – God’s love – reflected in our love and care for one another.
The reason this matters is because there is someone out there who needs a place like St. Paul’s. Perhaps you need a place like St. Paul’s, I know I do. Somewhere there is a young person who is afraid they’ll never be welcome in church because of their sexual orientation. There is an elderly person who is alone and in need of human connection. There is a young girl, such as the many who marched yesterday, who need to see that a woman’s place is at the altar. There are families of all shapes and sizes who want their kids to see other families of all shapes and sizes. San Antonio needs a place like St. Paul’s, and St. Paul’s needs you to do it.
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
Rector’s Report – January 22, 2017
St. Paul’s – San Antonio