Sunday, January 18, 2009

St. Paul's Annual Meeting: My remarks tonight

First, I want to thank you for calling me to be your rector, for inviting me into your community and into your homes. Thank you for welcoming Lori, and helping us in our transition in moving across the country. This is a big leap of faith for all of us. Thank you for allowing me be your priest. Thank you for teaching me how to be your rector, and for trying a few new things.

Thank you for your welcome this summer at Shrine Mont, for all of the gatherings and meals. I am especially grateful to David and Betsy Poist for their welcome, their unfailing support and their wise counsel. I am very grateful they are still in this faith community and we are all richer for their presence.

I am mindful there is still much I do not know, and many of you I have barely met. Please be patient with me. Please keep telling me your name, please keep teaching me about you.

I want to thank the very hard-working staff at St. Paul’s, without whom nothing much would happen here.

I’d like the staff to stand up. Please read my annual report; I have something to say about each of them there. We have a few paper copies available tonight but let me urge those of you can to read it on-line. I want thank Mildred Robinson for pulling together all of these reports, and they do provide a snap-shot of St. Paul’s in 2008. And let's thank Margaret Haupt for her hard work organizing tonight's dinner.

I do want to mention that we will be bidding farewell to Betsy Kennan this year, who will be retiring after 22 years as our parish secretary. We will announce a celebration for her soon.

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I want to talk to you tonight about the opportunities and challenges in the year ahead, and invite your conversation about this with me, with the Vestry and staff and with each other.

There is some unfinished business and a few tasks we need to work on together. I have asked Peter Dennison to head a task force to make recommendations on what we need to do to get the David Poist Garden built. You gave money to honor our rector emeritus by building a sacred garden outside these walls. We need to get it built.

I would invite your participation in this and other task forces we will develop as you are interested.

I am grateful to our outgoing Vestry for forming three task forces this year and making recommendations on Communications, diocesan relations and parish organization. We will move ahead with those recommendations, including asking the Vestry this coming year to take a hard look at the structure of committees and how they function. I have some ideas and I hope you do, too.

This year, we will begin planning our Centennial celebration for 2010, and I am very pleased to announce that the Presiding Bishop of the United States, Katharine Jefferts Schori, will join us for our celebration next January. I hope we can find tangible ways to make this celebration not just about ourselves but about our service in the community, the University of Virginia and in the world.

To that end, as I see it, there are three big overarching goals for us this coming year that will take us into the years beyond:

1- Becoming more intentional in how we welcome new people and help them find a meaningful spiritual home at St. Paul’s.

Our calling is to share the blessings that we have. We aren’t allowed to say this is ours, shut the doors, no one else gets to come in. All of us are temporary stewards of this church, and just as those who came before us built this sacred place, it ours to continue building and finding ways to welcome new generations and shepherd them as they find a home here.

To that end, I will be talking with the Newcomers Committee about some gentle ways to welcome new people. I also would ask you indulgence about a couple of things:

I would like you to wear your nametags. I’d like you to wear a nametag partly because it is a good way for all of us here now to get to know each other. But, also, I’d like you to wear your nametags as a gesture of welcome to new people.

I am very grateful to Virginia Ritchie, our outgoing senior warden, for organizing the nametag project. The Newcomers Team and the ushers are taking the name tag project to a new level by asking newcomers and visitors to put a gold star on their badge so that we will know who they are and welcome them.

We will be making a big effort this year to develop new small groups for adults, and I am very grateful to Associate Rector Janet Legro for adding this to her portfolio. I know that she would appreciate hearing your ideas for small groups and your organizing skills in getting them going.

There is something else we need to talk about in the coming year that is very much a part of how we welcome new people: these buildings.

In the year ahead we will devote significant resources to maintaining and repairing these aged structures, not because we need to create a monument, but because these are our tools of ministry, and how they look says a great deal about how we welcome new people and how we conduct our ministry. We will repair and paint the columns outside and do a good deal more.
I am very grateful to Louise Gallagher, our junior warden, for her leadership and hard work in not only maintaining the buildings this year but doing the hard research on what we need to do in the years ahead.

2- Becoming more outwardly focused as a beacon of Christ’s hope to the community and world beyond our church walls.

Our baptismal covenant is an agreement that we will “respect the dignity of every human being” and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”

We have no greater mission than that. It is the reason this church – any church – exists.

One of the major strengths of this parish that attracted us in coming here is that you take this covenant seriously through the outreach and social justice ministries of this parish. I am deeply impressed by all of the involvement by people in this parish in the community, and I hesitate to list all that you are involved in for fear of leaving something out. But let me highlight four projects we are doing that are models for how we as a parish can have a big impact in the world:

(1) PACEM, our homeless ministry whereby we open our doors to house homeless people for week (2) IMPACT, a confederation of faith communities in Charlottesville collaborating on working for change in our community (3) Our Green Team, looking at how we can as a local community have an impact on the global environmental crisis and (4) Our “prayers for peace” every Monday at noon. Prayers are powerful, and if you have the time, come by.

In the year ahead, I would like us to have a conversation on how we allocate our financial resources in the community. Our budget includes $55,000 for grants outside the parish, and I know there has been much debate before I got here on what percentage of our budget should be considered outreach. I will be asking the Vestry to form a task force to look at that issue, and I would invite your participation in the conversation.

I would like to suggest that a starting point for this conversation is to consider the proposition that our outreach allocation should be 100 percent of our resources. By that I mean everything we do should have an impact on the community and the world, everything we do should be outreach. This parish is an outreach project. People come here in all manner of life, some in joy, some in pain, some looking for something beyond themselves, and many in great need. And let me underline as well: part of our outreach is to the students, staff and faculty of the University of Virginia. And that brings me to…

3- Deepening and expanding our commitment of ministry to the people of the University of Virginia to enable them to be a beacon of Christ’s hope to the community and world.

This parish has unique and historic place in the world and it has to do with our location right across the street from Jefferson’s Rotunda. There is no other church in the world that can claim this corner, and that gives us a special responsibility to minister to the people who cross those grounds.

I would like us to think of our ministry to the University of Virginia as part of our outreach ministry. We do this ministry, I hope, not out of some institutional need to create more Episcopalians (thought there is nothing wrong with that), but out of a sense that we can have an impact on people who will go forth from this university and have a greater impact on the world far beyond Charlottesville. Our university commission in the year ahead will be looking at how we can deepen and strengthen our commitment to this unique outreach ministry. I am especially grateful to Ben Ray, David McIlhiney and Neal Halverson-Taylor for your devotion and leadership in this effort.

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Finally, I want to talk about the Episcopal Church and our place in it. As you know, the Episcopal Church is embroiled in a difficult, sometimes nasty, fight over our membership in the world-wide Anglican Communion, the ordination of women, the inclusion of gays and lesbians, the meaning of marriage, and the role of bishops. The fight has many arenas, many nuances and sometimes seems to be moving in frustrating slow motion. The battlegrounds are all around us – especially here in Virginia. It is tempting to avoid all this, to hunker down into parish life and hope it will all blow past us.

But I would like to suggest that we not hunker down. I believe this controversy is a blessing. I believe it is pushing us into a new awareness of what it means to be an Episcopalian and more broadly, what it means to be a Christian. Let me explain:

We are not merely members of a single congregation – we are not congregationalists. Rather, we declare through our very name – Episcopal, which means bishop – that we are part of a larger community of faithful people organized around a network of bishops, and that network extends beyond this diocese, beyond our nation, and around the globe.

This crisis in the church comes with the blessing that we may all learn how to do this more deeply and faithfully. We are called to share the blessing, and it starts right here with us. I am pleased to tell you that Bishop Peter Lee has invited our parish to be one of six parishes in the diocese to participate in a pilot project designed for dialogue and listening as part of the Windsor process to strengthen our bonds with the worldwide Anglican Communion. Let me underline that, we are one of six parishes in a diocese of 184 parishes to be invited to participate. I will say more about this project in the year ahead.

This parish is a shining part of the body of Christ, and we are called to live in the tension of unity through our diversity. We are not called to be all alike. We are called to pray together and figure out how to love each other, especially when that seems impossible.

That means remaining faithful to truly welcoming all people, especially those who have been historically left out like gay people, and also welcoming those who don’t agree and may never be there. It means welcoming people from other parts of the world, from every economic class and race and making our tent truly big. It means finding a way to live with each other with love and respect, especially when we don’t agree. That is the challenge we share with the larger church, and it starts here by our active commitment to love each other and all who come here.

How we care for each other really matters. How we talk to and about each other really matters. So let’s all be kind and caring, slow to anger, quick to forgive. Let us all learn to live together not in a false harmony but through and with our differences. God needs all of us, and needs all of us here.

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