State of the Parish Address

Delivered on Sunday, January 29, 2012
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Evanston, Illinois
Annual Meeting

           The author of the Acts of the Apostles writes:

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  While staying with them, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father  ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
“So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:1-9)
The Spirit of God did indeed come upon those early apostles and they received the power of God to be Christ’s witnesses.  This took place 50 days after the resurrection, a day we celebrate as the Feast of Pentecost.  But, my sisters and brothers of St. Mark’s, I stand here to remind each of us that the same Spirit rests upon each of us and gives us power to be Christ’s witnesses in our world today.  In baptism each of us was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. 
This past year, we have spent much of our time getting to know one another, coming to understand who we are in relation one to another and, we have begun to explore who we are called to be as a holy people of God.  This fall, we launched a strategic visioning team – a group called together to discern our place in God’s journey.  Members of that team are Hector Cortes, Joanna Greene, Seth Himrod, Mickey Loewenstein, John Lucadamo, Lisa Montgomery, Judi Mueller, Lynette Murphy, and myself.  We began meeting in early October and have come together six times since then. 
Our work to this point has been to answer a seemingly simple question: Who are we?  What gifts do we have? What do we value most? What are our hopes?  The work of the Rector Search Committee was extremely helpful as a starting point.  In the Parish Profile which that committee compiled after conducting surveys and holding many conversations with you says that “St. Mark’s is an intentionally inclusive, racially diverse, well-educated, intelligent, socially progressive congregation.” It goes on to say that St. Mark’s “is a congregation that cares about those within the parish and supports each other through acts of kindness and genuine concern in times of crisis and personal need.”  St. Markans “are proud of the church’s long history and of the role it has played in the diocese and in the immediate community and are respectful of upholding the traditions and legacy of the church.”  Your survey assessment indicated that St. Mark’s “is adaptable, comfortable in making frequent adjustments to the way things are done when there is a compelling reason to do so.”  These are gifts God has given you as a community.  And they are gifts that called me to be with you on your spiritual journey. 
We are a blessed community.
We are blessed by our commitment to young persons as evidenced by the number of families with young children who are part of our community – 17 participants in this year’s Christmas pageant! 
We are blessed by our commitment to caring for one another as evidenced by the phone calls, personal notes, and visits that take place among you particularly in times of crisis. 
And we are blessed by our diversity.  Russian, Swedish, Spanish and English are just some of the first languages of those who worship here. Our members are straight and gay, married and single, widowed, divorced. Our members have adopted children, have biological children, have children from prior marriages, have no children.  Our members have been born and raised in Evanston, in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Guiana, Sweden and even – can you believe it - New Jersey. Our members live in Chicago, Evanston, Skokie, Oak Park, Wilmette, Glenview, Glencoe, Winnetka, and yes, in far off, Green Valley, Arizona. We are blessed by our diversity.
Kennon Callahan, a church consultant best-known for his work in congregational growth and development, writes,
“Claim your strengths, gifts, and competencies. . . . with wonder and joy, humility and gratitude. Your strengths are gifts of God. . . . God has been moving, stirring, living, working in your life, in your congregation, encouraging, helping and giving.”[1]
Callahan goes on to say that when “we look for the strengths we wish we had, we miss the strengths we really have.”[2]  How many times have you caught yourself saying, “remember when . . .” or “wouldn’t it be nice if we could just go back to . . .”?  If we see these comments as part of a process of grieving, of letting go, we can be understanding and supportive of one another; it is a matter of caring and compassion.  But when we hear these comments and  do not recognize them as comments of grief and instead hear them as the quick ticket to success in the future, we deceive ourselves and risk missing the gifts that are being given to us in the here and the now.  St. Mark’s, let us claim our strengths! 
Discerning and claiming our gifts for ministry is only the beginning.  Jesus said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We have received this power – this gift - here at St. Mark’s – our Jerusalem - our multi-generational, compassionate, caring, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial Jerusalem  - and we are being called out to “Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The next step of the visioning team’s process will involve looking at our neighbors: the Judeans (people who are similar to us but who may not know us), the Samaritans (people of difference in our community who perhaps make us a bit uncomfortable), and to the ends of the earth (this might be the newly formed Republic of South Sudan, it might be Southeast Mexico, or it might be neighbors just down the road in Evanston, Rogers Park, or Chicago). 
As we move through the beginning months of 2012, our strategic visioning team will continue its assessment of St. Mark’s strengths; our strategic visioning team will study our neighbors; and then our strategic visioning team will prepare a plan for the future – a plan that is rooted in the gifts God has given us as a community.  A plan that responsibly reflects who we are and our understanding of who our neighbors are; a plan that encourages and motivates us to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  This plan will be presented to the vestry and will be rolled out to the whole congregation later this year. 
What can you do to support the work of the strategic visioning team?  In the first place, I invite and encourage you to share your ideas with members of the visioning team.  Be an active part of the creative process.
In the second place, continue to nurture and embrace the gifts we are already using – our commitment to and our celebration of St. Mark’s children, one another, and the diversity that is a hallmark of our church community.
Third, continue to support St. Mark’s financially.  In a short while, you will receive the Treasurer’s Report and a presentation of the 2012 budget.  You will see at the end of the Budget presentation a balance of $0- an apparently balanced budget.  But I want to be very transparent and make it clear that we have balanced this year’s budget on the back of endowment income and monies from the Paddock-Wait legacies.  Without these monies, we are showing a budget shortfall of more than $35,000.  I would have preferred to put this in the budget as a separate income line called “Faith” because I have faith that with God’s help St. Mark’s can and will rise to the occasion of this great financial need. 
Participating in the process, continuing to minister and care for one another, supporting the financial needs of the church, and finally – and most importantly –implementing the strategic plan.  Joel Barker famously said:
“Vision without action is merely a dream.
Action without vision just passes the time.
Vision with action can change the world.”[3] 

By this time next year, it is my prayer that everyone in this parish will be an active participant in the implementation of St. Mark’s strategic plan.  At a minimum, that everyone will know and be able to articulate St. Mark’s mission statement to anyone who asks.  That mission statement will be reflective of our communal identity.  Our collective response to the question, “Who is St. Mark’s” – a response that will serve as a common call to spur us on!  Because, my brothers and sisters in Christ, St. Mark’s can change the world through our witness to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

[1] Kennon Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, p. 39
[2] Ibid., p. 41.
[3] Joel Barker, The Star Thrower Story accessed online on January 26, 2012.