Dear Friends of St. Paul’s,
In the month of October, as many of you are aware, we held a series of "cottage meetings" with members o St. Paul's. The meetings were held in homes, and were small, informal gatherings where we talked about the blessings of our church, the mission, the challenges and our giving for the coming year.
I am writing to report on what we heard at those meetings, and to thank our hosts, the discussion facilitators, and all those who participated. This was a tremendous opportunity for Lori and myself to learn about the opportunities and the challenges at St. Paul’s, and to hear your dreams about our future and the kind of community you believe God is calling us to be.
In all, there were 20 meetings with 211 people participating. I attended all of the meetings, and Lori was able to make all but three. The conversations were rich with observations about St. Paul’s and ideas for the future. I filled a notebook with what I heard.
Patterns emerged throughout the meetings. We heard how you feel close to God in nature and with your families; at our Sunday Eucharist and in the music; and at the Monday noon prayers for peace. Many people said they feel God’s presence in the silence before the start of worship and in the flowers near the Holy Table. And many said they feel blessed in seeing the children in our Sunday morning procession. “It just lifts me up,” said one participant, echoing many.
We heard how St. Paul’s is a supportive community filled with people who care for each other. One participant told us: “I came to Charlottesville at a time of great emotional pain. I picked out St. Paul’s, went to one service, and it all fell into place. This is where I could anchor myself.”
Said another participant: “When I go away and come back, I feel St. Paul’s is home. I never had that feeling in church before.” And said another: “St. Paul’s is a place where I feel safe questioning my faith and my actions.”
There were many who said a major value at St. Paul’s is the inclusion of all kinds of people, young and old, gay and straight, students, working people and retired people.
We also heard how St. Paul’s could do more to welcome new people, and especially to create a congregation that is more racially and economically diverse. “We need to be pushing the boundaries to bring people not like us,” said one participant. “We need to share our blessings.”
We heard many express the need for more opportunities for spiritual enrichment through small groups, like our new Shalom Group for young adults. People would like Bible studies, book circles and other groups, and have them meet at different times and on days other than on Sunday.
Many people applauded the new name tags as a way to build community. Said one participant: “There are lots of people in the church hurting and we don’t necessarily see each other,” said one participant. “The name tags help.”
We also heard the need for more pastoral care by lay people, and the dream of creating sacred spaces on our grounds for prayer and meditation that can center people to go back into the world to do the work they’ve been given to do. Some asked for a greater emphasis on personal salvation while others asked for a greater emphasis on community involvement.
Nearly every group mentioned that we should deepen our ministries with the University of Virginia – students, faculty and staff. There were many questions about our current programs with the university community, and it was clear to me that we need to do a better job of communicating to the wider congregation what we are already doing with the university community.
Nearly every discussion group also expressed the crucial importance to St. Paul’s of being engaged in the community through our outreach efforts for the poor, and with organizations like IMPACT and PACEM, two projects we are involved with for community action and homeless relief.
“We have quite a few missions at St. Paul’s. That’s what draws people to it. They see the need beyond these walls,” said one participant.
Some viewed both the ministry to the poor in our community and to the university as interrelated. Marsha Trimble, who I quote by permission, put it well when she said: “We need to be across the street and down the street.”
Others agreed, tying the two directions together by saying that we need to “speak truth to power and that means speaking truth to the Rotunda.”
Many brought up the condition of St. Paul’s buildings, and the need for paint outside and renovations inside. There were many expressions of concern that the exterior appearance is off-putting to new people and that meeting room and office space could be used better. The buildings, as many see them, are tools of ministry and a proclamation to the world around us of the vitality of our ministries and the inclusion of all people.
One participant summed it up well: “The essence of the best of the Episcopal Church is at St. Paul’s. We have a jewel and the wider church and world should know what we are doing.”
All I can say to that is “Amen.” These conversations yielded much to consider, and I will have more to say as I think through what we heard. For now, thanks to all who came to these meetings, and thanks to all who have turned in your pledge cards for 2009.
Blessings to all,