January 31, 2019
State of the Parish Address: Love, One Child of God at a Time
Sermon for January 27, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
A few years ago, I was blessed with a sabbatical to do research toward a book. The book was called Beating the Boundaries, and it told the story of several Episcopal congregations that were finding ways to be both “traditional” and “fresh” at the same time. Some did it through worship, some through fellowship, some through service. One even managed to use its facilities as connecting points with neighbors and community groups, creating new ways to welcome people in. Hmmm.
Anyway, the big take-away for me was something so obvious we don’t usually name it out loud. The thought comes from an innovator in Episcopal ministry who was serving in Santa Monica, California, at the time. As he talked about how his congregation was connecting in new ways, he said, “You know, people are the new program.” People are the new program. He was talking about the power of playing the long game when it comes to being church: building one connection after another among very different people who, empowered by their differences, come together to comprise the body of Christ in a given place. He was saying that it’s not institutions and programs that change the world. People change the world – one individual connection at a time.
Now, despite the importance of each individual member, I would also say that the whole body is just as important. I hear that in the reading this morning from First Corinthians – that each one of us needs the other members of the body in order to be more than we can be on our own. Though people change the world, they typically don’t do that just following their own agendas. The power comes when many individuals understand themselves as one, with a common agenda: the Body of Jesus Christ still alive and well and living in the world to reveal God’s way of love.
So, our work as a parish has to keep in mind both the micro and the macro – the journey of each individual, the strength of our parish family, and the well-being of the people around us whom God asks us to love and serve.
In 2018, we saw some real progress in loving and serving God, our neighbors, and one another. You’ll find this information in the annual report you’ll receive downstairs, but I want to share some snapshots of blessing with you now.
- At a time when many Episcopalians look around their pews and see 50 shades of gray, we are blessed with an increasing number of younger adults coming and getting involved. Because of the work of a great new leadership team, about 20 younger adults are gathering for happy hours and a monthly brunch; and two young-adult dinner groups are up and running.
- Participation in kids and youth ministry is increasing, and a group of parents are coming together for conversation and study on Sunday mornings.
- Our average attendance in 2018 was up by 6 percent. I don’t know how that sounds to you, but at a time when 52 percent of Episcopal congregations are losing attendance,1 a 6 percent increase sounds pretty good to me.
- Those red folders in the pews are working, though I understand they aren’t everyone’s favorite. Because of them, we’ve more than doubled the number of guests leaving contact information. Along with that, we’re doing a better job following up with guests, and we’ve strengthened the incorporation and Discovery process. As a result, 55 new households joined St. Andrew’s last year.
- Then there’s HJ’s Youth and Community Center, which has been such a blessing to us and the community. In just seven months of operation, HJ’s has brought in revenue of $38,000, and we project that to be $50,000 this year. Just as important as the dollars coming in – more important, actually – are the people coming in. HJ’s saw 189 unique events in 2018; and if you add up those that recur, the number of events in that space totaled 788 – from anniversary parties to medical lectures to worship and fellowship. Estimating an average of seven people per event (which is probably low), that means the doors at HJ’s opened to about 5,500 people in those seven months.
- At HJ’s, we’ve been working to create a new kind of worship and fellowship experience for ourselves and for our neighbors. The events have gone by different names but mostly under the heading of our Sunset Concert Series. People gather for music, food, some Scripture, and some prayer – which sounds like worship to me. And if you came to Beer, Brats, & Bluegrass, or the Backpack Blessing, or Octoberfest, or the St. Nicholas Party, you know that scores of people left those events with smiles on their faces.
- Finally, we see continuing progress in stewardship and generosity. Pledges are up, and those include 131 increases and 43 new pledges. Nine more parishioners have joined the Legacy Society, bringing the total to 81. And you marvelously generous people have given more than $850,000 over the past three Christmas seasons to help with special needs in the church.
All those numbers are good, and they help us see where we are, through a certain lens. But just as compelling are the stories of individual people. I want to tell you about three members of the Body of Christ in this place, just as examples of what can happen when we invest ourselves in each person who comes through our doors.
Many of you have come to know Susan Paynter over the past six months because she has jumped in here with both feet. A long-time Episcopalian, Susan moved to Kansas City and started coming to St. Andrew’s in August. She was part of the most recent Discovery class, and it seems to me that she’s tried out just about every gathering we’ve had this fall. She’s found special connection through Café 9:15 and Morning Prayer at HJ’s, through volunteering at the Kansas City Community Kitchen and the Free Store; and she loves the spirit of hospitality she’s found here. She says the life of this parish is like the yeast in Jesus’ parables, bringing about “growth that is palpable.” In this new year, she’ll be bringing that kind of insight to the work of our Hospitality Commission and Adult Formation Commission.
Many of you also have come to know Norman Todd. Norm grew up in a conservative Pentecostal tradition and then spent some years staying away from a conservative Pentecostal tradition. He came to us in 2016 and took time to be sure we really were as welcoming as we presented ourselves to be. He took part in the Discovery process and discerned he was called to be confirmed as an Episcopalian. He’s found special connection with St. Andrew’s through Café 9:15, the Friday noon service, Morning Prayer at HJ’s, Cursillo, and making palm crosses for Palm Sunday. Now he’s also a Eucharistic minister and – wait for it – has twice volunteered to serve as secretary of the Vestry. That alone nearly merits sainthood.
And many of you know Victoria Fiori, though you may know her better by her maiden name, Victoria Launder. Victoria grew up here, along with her brothers and sister – I still remember them as acolytes and vergers. Like her older sister, Betsey, and husband, Ben Haynes, Victoria and her fiancé, Jon, were married here – and they bucked the trend by actually getting involved in St. Andrew’s. In the past year, Victoria took a leadership role in helping to bring other younger adults together, resulting in the vibrant ministry I mentioned earlier. And now, Victoria is among the candidates you’ll be asked to elect to Vestry later this morning.
These stories are what it looks like when we do good work in newcomer incorporation, adult formation, community building, and valuing the gifts of all whom God brings here. And that doesn’t happen without the simply outstanding work being done by the members of our staff. You’ve known know the incredible and selfless work of people like Dr. Tom Vozzella, Mary Sanders, Cheryl Cementina, Nina Edwards, Lauren Richardson, Robert Tillman, Mtr. Anne, and Deacon Bruce. This year, we’ve brought on or promoted four people who’ve also been making an incredible difference: Colleen Simon energizing engagement ministries; Zach Beall making HJ’s a success; Jean Long growing ministry with kids, youth, families, and younger adults; and Fr. Jeff Stevenson helping to build pastoral care. It’s the best staff we’ve ever had in the years I’ve been here, and I give thanks for them every week.
So, now what? How do we keep our foot on the gas for 2019? You’ll see the priorities of the various commissions in the annual report, but I want to highlight a few ways we’ll keep building the Body of Christ here in the coming months.
We’ll keep looking for new ways to gather contact information for our guests, especially those coming through our doors at HJ’s. We want to find what “red folders 2.0” might look like across the street.
We’ll offer a new app for your smart phone, along with ChurchLife, to help you find ways to connect with each other. The new app is called Social Up, and we’ll demonstrate it at the annual meeting. The idea came from the results of the parish survey last year, where people said they wanted to join with others to talk about movies, or discuss books, or play bridge, or work on crafts, or watch football, or whatever. Basically, Social Up a way for people to self-organize for connections in the moment, rather than waiting for someone on staff to form an official churchy group to meet every need.
We’ll offer newcomers someone to walk alongside them as they make their way into the family. Just last week, we gathered nine St. Andrew’s members who are interested in serving as Connection Partners, offering a one-to-one point of contact – someone paired with a newcomer to invite her to parish parties, or check in at coffee hour, or figure out what activities might be most interesting.
We’ll keep increasing the connections we make with existing members of the church, especially those on the edge of involvement and who risk falling through the cracks. Fr. Jeff has been working hard to help us capture this information in our database and to strengthen ministries like Sweeney Care and Loaves & Fishes, which reach out to people needing a call or a meal.
Finally, we’ll also take intentional steps to build relationships with some of our neighbors whom we don’t know as well as we should. In Kansas City, race has been a dividing factor for decades. The roots of those divisions run deep, going back to the days when black people were enslaved in our community, and continuing through generations of residential and educational segregation. I believe it’s time we engaged with our neighbors of color, not with a mindset of “helping” but with a desire to begin learning the story of race from their perspective and to see how relationships might grow among us. We’ll do that beginning at our Vestry Retreat with the help of our diocesan Diversity and Reconciliation Commission (chaired by Cheryl Cementina, our adult formation coordinator). We’ll also take steps to deepen St. Andrew’s relationship with our city’s historically black Episcopal congregation, St. Augustine’s.
Now, in all that we’re doing this year, I guarantee you we will make mistakes along the way, both with long-time members and with new friends. As the Body of Christ, when we step off a curb and snap our ankle, we’ll bind it up and heal it. And when things don’t work, we’ll see those situations as experiments that teach us, rather than failures that shame us. But we’ll also take each other seriously enough, and be vulnerable enough, to tell the truth when things don’t work and let that honesty heal and guide us.
Through every individual connection we build, we’ll be strengthening the Body of Christ for the purpose the apostle Paul alludes to in the last line of our reading from First Corinthians this morning. After naming all kinds of gifts among the diverse members of Christ’s body, the reading ends with Paul saying, “But strive for the greater gifts, and I will show you a still more excellent way” (12:31). OK, Paul, what is that? Well, it’s the next chapter of his letter, one we often hear at weddings, where he talks about the greatest gift of all – the gift of love. “If I … do not have love,” he says, “I gain nothing” (13:3), no matter what gifts God has given me.
That’s what everything we do here is about. Our mission is to love God, love our neighbors, and love one another. Everything we do here must be about strengthening this body for that service. Regardless of who we are – male or female, white or brown, gay or straight, long-time member or newcomer, young or old, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor – regardless of who we are, we are called to come together as one body, under this big tent, to help bring love to the world – one child of God at a time.
- The Episcopal Church. Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts: 2017. Available at:https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/documents/2017_fast_facts.pdf. Accessed Jan. 26, 2019.