Rector’s Report, Grace Episcopal Church Annual Meeting, November 19, 2017
The marvelous slide show we just saw, created by our own Peggy Frain, has shown images of all the things that we’ve done over the last year, our outreach projects large and small, our fellowship and worship, our open houses and opportunities to connect with the community. I would love to know how many people have come through our doors over the last year, were served by the Food Pantry, slept in the men’s shelter, enjoyed the beauty of our courtyard garden, attended a wedding, a service.
We are a relatively small congregation with amazing resources—a prime location on Madison’s Capitol Square, a building that is on the National Register of Historic Places, and with our recent renovations, more accessible and inviting than ever. We have financial resources that many congregations much larger than ours do not have. And we have our members, a group of incredibly talented and committed people who do everything from pick up trash to advocate the legislature for criminal justice reform.
It is appropriate, in this season of Thanksgiving, to take a moment and give thanks for those resources that make all of this possible, the people, the building and gardens, the financial gifts and stewardship of so many over the more than 175 years of our existence. We have much to celebrate. We should be proud, not only of what we have done this year, but proud of our impact on the wider community. For ultimately, that impact is also part of who we are, part of our mission—to share the love of Jesus Christ.
The video/slide show that we presented helps us to remember everything that we’ve accomplished over the last year. Wonderful events like the Annual Christmas Pageant, or our welcoming of people from throughout the city and much further at Open Doors Madison, the Halloween Open House or during the Women’s March on Washington. There’s the scarf tree project, the Little Free Library, our work with the Madison Jail Ministry, the Beacon. There’s our Food Pantry and Porchlight’s Drop-In Men’s Shelter.
We have an amazing staff who are growing into their roles and using their creativity, skills, and talent to expand those roles, help to build a stronger congregation and more effective outreach into the community. I’d especially like to thank our Parish Administrator, Christina, who is the sparkplug and catalyst for everything we do here, supporting all of our work, helping us to accomplish big ideas, and remove roadblocks that arise. Our Food Pantry Coordinator, Vikki Enright, in less than a year has put her own stamp on the pantry, especially by building connections in the neighborhood and wider community, and connecting with a donor network that includes downtown businesses. Peggy Frain, whose creativity is an inspiration—just think of that slide show we just saw, and Pat Werk, who is constantly coming up with new ideas, and her boundless energy and enthusiasm turns those ideas into reality. Many of them, if not most, are as much about connecting with the community as they have to do with her official position description as Christian Formation Director. And I would also especially like to thank Deacon Carol Smith, who in many ways is the heart and soul of Grace Church, quietly and compassionately offering pastoral care to those who need it, and jumping to help other staff and programs whenever asked.
All of this is outreach. Over the last year and a half, the Outreach Committee has been gathering information from our congregation, from the leaders of our various outreach programs, and from other stakeholders in the community about the effectiveness of our current programs and what new opportunities and unmet needs exist in our neighborhood. You will hear a bit more from them in a few minutes, but I anticipate that one of our main areas of focus in the coming year will have to do with discerning the next steps in this process.
The Toward a More Just Community task force has been inspirational in the ideas and excitement it has generated, the relationships its members have created with members of other communities of faith, across the racial divide, and especially the Madison Jail Ministry. Their current work as they seek ways to build relationships with legislators and staff at the State Capitol to build relationships across the deep divides in our state, racial, urban-rural, and political could ultimately be transformative, not just in our city and state, but nationally.
There are other equally transformative efforts underway at Grace. New interior signage will provide the final touches on our renovation and new exterior signage will not only offer improved way finding but will increase our street visibility. And something that we’ve let languish too long will be restored—Our bells, we have 23 of them have needed maintenance for many years. Many we can’t play at all because the electrical system that operates the bell-ringers is out of date and out of repair. Thanks to new member Peter Schultz-Burkel and a few others, we are working with a number of vendors as we seek to bring them back into working condition. New technology would allow us to program them to ring at the beginning and end of services and for special events like weddings and funerals. Bells not only announce our presence in the neighborhood but serve as a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of our lives and city. I see their silence and neglect over the last years as a symbol of our shyness, our unwillingness to proclaim boldly who we are and who Jesus Christ is.
Greg Rogers, who with his wife Jan, have led the effort to maintain and improve our gardens shared with me something that happened this week. He was stopped by someone who had come to Grace for an AA meeting. He thanked Greg for the beautiful gardens which meant so much to him. He went on to thank Greg for all that we do, saying, “When I needed food, I came to your pantry; when I needed somewhere to sleep, I used the shelter. Now, I come to AA meetings here. I might not be alive if it weren’t for you.”
We have done a great job of opening our building to the community, of using it to help people in need and to offer a space of beauty and spiritual respite in a busy city. In the coming months and years, we will continue to ask the questions that drove our renovation project: How can we make our buildings more accessible and inviting to the community? How can we use this asset to connect with our community? What new possibilities for connecting are coming to light? In so many ways, the things we’ve done this year—from the scarf trees to Open Doors, the Halloween Open House, the Little Free Library, even our lighting display, are all intended to connect with our downtown neighborhood, to help our neighbors see us in new light and new ways, to invite them to think of and experience Grace as a place of beauty and spiritual respite.
But now, I think we have to begin to explore another set of questions. I have emphasized the changing nature of Religion in America for almost as many years as I’ve been your Rector. The decline in the Episcopal Church, the decline in American Christianity has been precipitous over the last decade or so. A study that was released just this past week confirms these trends. The largest grouping in American religion is not Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, or mainline Protestant. The largest grouping is now the religiously-unaffiliated, those who claim no membership or adherence to any religious tradition. That’s remarkable in itself but it for me it raises other questions.
In my sermon this morning, I talked about taking risks, about a God who is by nature creative but who has created us to participate in that creativity by giving us space to imagine, explore, create for ourselves and for God. Grace Church is blessed with one of the best locations in the city; with a beautiful and historic building, lovely grounds, and skilled and committed congregation. But none of that will ensure our survival, let alone a faithful witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
We cannot expect that people will come to church simply because we open our doors. We cannot expect that we will maintain stable membership; that our members will be able to fund the programs that are important to us now. We can’t expect that “membership” will be a meaningful term in twenty or thirty years.
We have to take risks. We have to venture out into the future, asking what God is calling us to do and to be in the next era of our life as Grace Church. We need to ask if there are new ways that we might connect with our neighbors downtown, to build relationships and encourage people to follow their desire to connect with God. We need to take risks with the resources we have, to reimagine how they might be used most effectively in this vibrant city and in this changing religious landscape. We need to focus our attention on those outside our doors today, rich and poor, black and white, young and old.
I hope that in the coming year, you will join with me as we discern our way into this exciting and uncertain future. Let us explore how we might use all of our resources to take risks as we try to connect in new and creative ways with our neighbors in this city. As we do this work, may we continue to be grateful for all that God has given us and conscious of our task to be wise stewards of those gifts. May we also be courageous and creative in our thinking, and responsive to God’s call to be faithful witnesses to the love of Christ in an ever-changing world.