These words from God spoken to Jeremiah were words of comfort and hope to the Israelites in exile in Babylon. I’ve always loved this passage and when the going has been rough in my life’s journey, this promise is one to which I return. This passage was our focus and promise at yesterday's parish retreat as we came together to begin our conversations on how God is working at Grace Church and where we are being called to serve the Lord.
I believe it is also the promise of hope and a future for Grace Church. I have only been with you a very short time: two months as your supply clergy and just over three months as your priest-in-charge. In this time, we have seen signs of hope and a future. When I arrived at Grace, our average Sunday attendance was around 18; since Christmas, that average Sunday attendance figure has increased to 25-27. When I arrived at Grace, there was no opportunity for Bible study; today we have a group who meets every Tuesday to encounter the word of God in a fresh way. When I arrived, Sunday morning was the only service offered; now in addition to Sundays, we have a mid-week contemplative healing service which averages eight people each week and brings in people who cannot otherwise worship because of work or family commitments. When I arrived, we only had two youth; today, we have seven and the number continues to grow (admittedly Stuart and I contributed two of them!). When I arrived, we had to shuffle schedules between a regular supply organist and our own Janet Roberts to make sure we had music on Sunday mornings; today I am pleased to announce that we have a new organist starting on a trial basis beginning on Maundy Thursday. God is surely blessing us as we, in the words of 1st Peter, become “living stones built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.”
This year is certainly one of transition. In my first year here with you, I am committed to the following goals:
- Deepen the spiritual practices at Grace: It has been my experience that when congregations get clear on their need for regular, disciplined spiritual practices and commit to them, they become healthy and vital. There is a rich tradition of sacramentally centered spirituality here at Grace – from regular celebration of the Eucharist, to healing services, to regular offerings of sacramental reconciliation, to study of the Bible and other spiritual writings.
- Get to know the members of Grace: I want to know you as individuals and as part of the Grace family. To that end, I’m trying to find ways we can spend time together in fellowship – and not always here within the walls of the church. Through shared meals, conversation, and times of recreation (especially as the weather is warming up), I hope to get to know you as you also get to know me.
- Focus on radical hospitality: The Church is a unique entity in that it exists not only for those who are here on Sunday mornings, but is also exists as much (if not more) for those who are not here on Sunday mornings. Sadly, many congregations view their existence through the lens of how they can survive and newcomers often are seen as new resources to be tapped rather than honored guests of Christ who need our hospitality. When someone comes into Grace, there is a reason … and often there is a wound. The wound may be a longing for something more than what the world can give. It may be something deep: depression, death, anxiety, physical or mental illness, dislocation, loneliness. Every person who comes here comes seeking Christ. Our Benedictine monastic tradition tells us to welcome all guests as if they were Christ – for indeed, they are. Grace is already a warm, friendly place – but how can we do even more for our Lord’s sake?
- Raise up lay leadership: There is a reason our catechism reads, “Who are the ministers of the Church? The ministers of the Church are laity, bishops, priests, and deacons.” The laity is mentioned first for a reason – you are the largest order of ministry. In fact, there are places you can take Christ where I, wearing a collar, cannot. So, what is your passion? Where do you encounter the living God in ways which can bring life and light to others? How can I help you live into your baptismal covenant?
- Improve communications: I have been working to find ways to keep our members informed on what is happening at Grace. Many of you are receiving our weekly emails and pastoral updates. While I know not all of you have email, I do know we lack the staff and money to attempt anything beyond this medium of communication at this time. Given the slow delivery of mail due to the reorganization of the Postal Service, most local churches are abandoning their newsletters in favor of email communications. What I have seen, is how those of you with email make a point to call those who do not have email and share the news with them. This is a healthy sign of how Grace’s members care for each other and I appreciate how you show the love of Christ in this way.
- Increase our commitment to total stewardship: “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? for all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.” (1 Chronicles 29:14) This familiar passage which we hear in our worship reminds us that all that we are and all that we have is merely on loan from God from whom all things come. Stewardship is often relegated to the “sermon on the amount” each fall; however, it is more than this. Stewardship is how we manage all aspects of our lives: from the food we eat, to the clothing we wear, to the cars we drive. How do we best live in harmony with the earth and each other? This is a stewardship question.
But make no mistake – stewardship is also about money! It is about how we make decisions and prioritize what is of ultimate worth. Jesus’ teachings focused more on wealth and how we relate to it than any other single topic. It takes money to support the mission and ministry at Grace. It takes $1,736 per week or $248 per day of income to cover our current expenses and as you will see in our budget later, we have a significant shortfall.
Stuart and I are personally committed to the minimum Biblical standard of a 10% tithe as a starting point for our financial giving. We committed to tithing when I was ordained and called to The Gathering and I credit The Rev. Gene Bolin with challenging us to step up to this level of financial commitment. He had preached and practiced the tithe prior to his departure and I could not in a clear conscience preach what I did not practice. In one year, Stuart and I took the leap and moved from a 4% level of financial support to 10%. It was not without a bit of anxiety; however, this new commitment made us much more conscious of how we made choices about money and where we had been wasteful. When we ended that first year, we found we had actually given 12% of our income away to the church and other charitable causes.
Stuart and I are commitment to the tithe and Grace receives the lion’s share. I do not say to boast, for the only thing in which I can boast is in Christ and him crucified. I merely say this to be clear that when I speak of stewardship and the tithe, I am not expecting of you that which I do not expect from myself and my family. And so, I encourage each of you to prayerfully consider how you support the ministries here at Grace, not only with your time and talent, but also with your treasure by committing to a plan of proportionate giving.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” We have a bright future here at Grace. The Spirit is moving among us, filling us, and using us to embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May we continue forward in faith, in hope, but most of all, in Christ’s love.