State of the Parish Address 2018
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“Almighty and everliving God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP 817)
Last November, on her show On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Jesuit priest Fr. Greg Boyle. Fr. Boyle works with gang members in the Los Angeles projects. In the middle of the interview, he told a story that had happened early in his Los Angeles ministry. Here’s what he said:
“I can remember walking in the projects late at night, long ago, and there was this kid, Mario, sitting by himself, 16 years old, just sitting on his little stoop in front of the crummy old projects. So I see him, and I greet him: ‘Hey, how you doing?’ And I sit down next to him, and he goes, ‘It’s funny that you should show up right now.’ And I say, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I was just sitting here praying, and I said, “God, show me a sign that you’re as great as I think you are.” And then you showed up.’”
Funny how a 16-year-old gang-banger from Los Angeles could perfectly express what it means to be God’s disciple, what it means to follow Christ. When I heard the story, I actually paused the podcast, and I thought, “You know, if I had to sum up what I would wish for St. John of the Cross, and for the members of her congregation, that’s what I would say. I would wish that people—people who walk in our doors and those who don’t, or who don’t all that often or who don’t walk in for the reasons that we might wish—would say, “Well, I was just sitting here praying, and I said, ‘God, show me a sign that you’re as great as I think you are.’ And then this parish, or a member of this parish, showed up.”
That’s it. That’s my vision. My ministry here, and our ministry together, will most likely never be widely talked about. I’ll never be interviewed by Krista Tippett; they’ll never make a movie of the ministry we do here—even if I have picked out who would play me in that movie. Our ministry is not half as sexy as the ministry that Fr. Boyle does. But we’re all working for the same things. We’re all working to show a world that so desperately needs it the greatness of God and of God’s love for us.
I’ve done this a little backwards, I realize. Usually, I present the numbers and talk about where we’ve been and how we’ve done in the past year, and then I present the vision. Today, I’ve presented the vision first. And it’s not even a very specific vision. But I did so because as I present to you the numbers—those quantifiable measures of how we’re doing—I want us to hold them in tension with that vision. What do the numbers have to say about how well we’re living that vision, or how do they help us work toward that vision, and how do they fall short of really measuring how well we show up, of how well we show people the greatness of God and of God’s love?
So. Here are the major numbers. And here’s what I think they mean and don’t mean.
Our membership is stable. It’s been stable since I came here in late 2014. Every year, we get a few people, and we lose a few people, to death or to relocation or to other circumstances. Here’s what I think is good about that. Church membership has been dropping across denominations for decades. The Wednesday night group and I were just talking about this: there was a time when everyone went to church on Sunday mornings. That isn’t the case anymore. Now, church is one option in a buffet of Sunday-morning offerings. Take that, and add to it the number of people who have been hurt by their churches, and there’s less of a reason for people to go to church, much less to join a church. So the fact that our membership has remained stable just might indicate that there are people who walk into this place, who walk into our midst, and see something of God, and choose to stay. That’s good news.
Our Average Sunday Attendance, however, is on the rise. This is my fourth State of the Parish Address. In 2014 and 2015, our ASA was 38. In 2016, it went up to 41. Last year, it went up again, to 44. Let me tell you what I find exciting about this number. As someone pointed out to me recently, the lower our Sunday attendance, the emptier and deader our church feels. The higher our Sunday attendance, the fuller and livelier it feels. A few extra people in church really does make a difference! It’s hard to see and know a great God in a church that feels empty and dead. So yes, it really does matter whether or not you show up here on Sunday morning. It matters in terms of your own relationship with God, sure. But it also matters because your presence here is a sign of God’s greatness for all those around you and for all those who walk in our doors. The more we show up, the closer we get to the vision, the closer we get to true discipleship.
The budget numbers are where things get really exciting. I don’t want to steal Terry Scott’s thunder, and you will get more detailed information in the business portion of the meeting, but the really outstanding news that you need to know is that you are faithful stewards of this parish. Not only did we end 2017 with our general operating fund over $17,000 in the black, but then our pledge income increased by nearly 24% between 2017 and 2018. Our General Operating Budget is 20% higher this year than it was last year. And since 2014? Well, since 2014, our pledge numbers have gone up 127%.
If that didn’t just take your breath away . . . Well, it takes mine away.
So first, let me say thank you. Thank you for your outstanding stewardship of this parish. Thank you for trusting me and the Vestry to be good stewards of the resources that you place in our hands.
But here’s what makes those stewardship and budget numbers really exciting.
Parishes that are cash-poor tend to be anxious and inward-looking. They’re so worried about how to keep the lights on, the doors open, and the priest paid that they cannot focus on mission, on making God visible out in the world. They don’t have the money to devote to programs that build disciples, or to outreach that allows them to show up to be Jesus for a world that so desperately needs him. A lack of money, in other words, is a distraction. A well-funded parish, on the other hand, doesn’t carry the same anxieties. Its people can develop and participate in programs that form disciples, and they can go out into the world, living witnesses to the Jesus movement, to God’s love for us.
So, there’s lots in the numbers over which we may rejoice, and lots of reasons for rejoicing. These numbers facilitate the vision that I gave you at the beginning: that we might be a sign to one another and to others outside of our parish of the greatness of God and of God’s love for us. And that is good news indeed.
Now, here’s why I don’t think the numbers are as important as we think they are.
God is even greater than the numbers.
In today’s gospel, we hear the story of Jesus calling four men. Four. When Jesus began his active ministry, his first act wasn’t to go out and build a mega-church. He went out and called people, one by one. His apostles numbered only twelve. His band of steady and faithful followers was never huge.
And that is consistent with what the Old Testament has to say about the numbers. Check this out from the Book of Deuteronomy, and hear the words that God spoke to his people then through his prophet Moses:
“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery . . . Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-9)
That’s why the numbers don’t matter nearly as much as we think they do. Because the Lord our God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.
And we’re about to start celebrating 175 years in Bristol. That’s chump change. God is faithful and maintains covenant loyalty not just for 175 years, but to a thousand generations.
Nonetheless, that 175 years is a part of my vision for how we might be a sign of God’s greatness out in the world.
Because it doesn’t get that much older in this part of the nation than 175.
The Midwest didn’t start opening up to white settlers until the early 1800s. Bristol was platted in 1835, making it one of the oldest towns in Elkhart County. And this parish dates back to 1843. Now we should never, ever, ignore the rich history and culture of the indigenous peoples who lived here before white settlers ever showed up. But if you’re measuring the history of white settlement and of Christianity, 175 years old is about as old as it gets in northern Indiana.
And God has been faithful to us, to this parish and to this community, all that time. And God promises to remain faithful to a thousand generations.
In other words, when we celebrate 175 years, and when we do so in a way that is publicly visible, we act as a sign of the greatness of God, of God’s love for and faithfulness to us. This church showed up 175 years ago. And we continue to show up. And thus, people will know that God shows up too—always has, and always will.
175 years ago, the founders of this parish began building what today is just a portion of this building—just the sanctuary from the side aisles on in. Since then, our building has expanded—just as God’s love for us is spacious and expansive. And the roof that shelters us, that protects us, has expanded as well. God’s sheltering love, the wings that hide us and hold us, is spacious and expansive beyond our imagining.
And this year we will tear that roof off. And we will put it back on—stronger and better, better able to protect us from the wind and the rain, from the storms that surround us.
In the midst of all that, in the midst of the scaffolding and the lifts, the workers and the mess, let’s not forget that while the shelter of roofs eventually fail and need to be replaced, God’s sheltering love never fails. We may trust in God at all times.
But more than that, even, I would argue that as we replace this roof, we are called to be figurative roof-builders ourselves. We are called to be a visible sign for all those who sit on their little stoops praying for God to show them a sign that he is great. We are called to be a sign for all those who sit on their little stoops too tired or jaded or hurt to pray at all. To be a sign that God is great. That God is their fortress, their refuge, their shelter. That God will protect them from the storm. That God will hide them under the shadow of his wings.
We can invite more people into the shelter of this place, of course, but we can also extend the safety and the freedom that we know here to others. We can cover their little stoops and free them from the discomfort of the wind and the rain, and from the terrors of the storm.
So, what is the state of this parish?
This is the state of this parish: The Lord your God is God. God is faithful, even to a thousand generations. God hides us under the shadow of his wings. God loves us with a love that is spacious and expansive. And God is greater than the numbers. Even when the numbers are going in the right direction, God is greater than the numbers. That is the state of this parish.
So this year, let’s go and meet people sitting on their little stoops, desperately needing a sign that God is indeed great. And let’s show them that God is—that God is great and faithful and sheltering and loving and spacious and expansive. Let’s show them that God is God.