Growing Together: The Rector’s Annual Report

holy-trinity-and-cross
Episcopal Churches have at least one official annual meeting to hear ministry reports and elect new officers. The Rector usually gives a report and at Holy Trinity, Father Beddingfield provides a written report but also incorporates his annual report in the sermon of the day.

Hear the sermon that includes the report HERE.

January 2017: Our Context
A cardinal rule in preaching is never to “ignore the elephant in the room.”  That is to say, if something major has happened out in the world, in the community, or the church family, the wise preacher will address it.  She will listen and pray and try to help a parish understand where God is in such an event or occasion. This leads to a particular challenge for me today.

Since this is the day of our annual meeting and we like to understand our one worship service as being the first part of that meeting, I had planned to offer my annual report in the form of the sermon.  But this has been an unusual week. A new president has been inaugurated, and the fears for many of us have only increased.  There may be a few who are cautiously optimistic by new economic opportunities or the “hand grenade” approach to government, but most I have spoken with are increasingly anxious.  And then yesterday brought different emotion.  The Women’s March here and around the world brought new energy and community to a number from our parish as we sought to remind the new administration and congress about some of the values most important to women, and about human rights.   Wherever you may be in the political or cultural spectrum— chances are—this week has been challenging in some way.

And so, where is God in all of this?  And what might it possibly have to do with the annual meeting of this particular parish?

Well, I want to begin trying to answer that question by quoting a passage from a book I keep revisiting.  The book is called After Virtue, and it’s by a Scottish moral philosopher named Alistair MacIntyre.  Even though the book is pretty dense (for me, anyway), there’s a classic section near the end that, I think, helps us think about what God might be doing in these confusing times.  MacIntyre writes

…[F]or some time now we too have reached a turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.  (After Virtue, p. 286)

MacIntyre is, of course, referring to the idea that St. Benedict in the late 6th century, and his founding of Western monasticism really saved civilization, especially through the rough times of barbarians and marauders, extreme violence and warfare.  The monks preserved and taught agriculture, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, and metallurgy.  Perhaps more than anything, the Benedictine monks and nuns copied manuscripts and furthered the development of arts, literature, and music.

MacIntyre’s assessment of our time as a “New Dark Ages” is characterized by an arbitrary understanding of truth, the myth of the individual as the center of the universe, violence at home and abroad, and once again, talk of cutting programs in education and culture.  We’re waiting for a new Benedict, MacIntyre says, but it will be different from the last.  This “new Benedict,” God’s method of salvation, will have to do with “local forms of community within which civility and the intellection and moral life can be sustained.” And this brings us to the Church of the Holy Trinity, what we’ve been doing, what I think God is doing in our midst.

Yes, the world is changing around us.  Demographics work against a typical Episcopal Church, we are no different.  We have no idea what the new subway and continued gentrification will mean for Yorkville, and cultural patterns continue to lead people to understand themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (as though the two can really be separated—but that’s another sermon.)

And yet, we’ve been living, working, and praying as a Christian community rooted in this place for 118 years.  And especially in the last year, we’ve worked hard at building community, taking stock, growing in God, and saying our prayers while inviting others in. We are building a good foundation for the future, and will get through the New Dark Ages together, with faith rooted in Jesus Christ.

Building Community
Much of my first full year among you has been spent trying to get to know you, trying to figure out who is a part of the community and who’s around the edge.  Some of this can be learned through the parish database, and we’ve put new emphasis on keeping up to date with records and contacts and doing what restaurateur Danny Meyer calls “collecting and connecting the dots”—in order to strengthen relationships.

A part of this is communication.  We’ve used more signs, more postcards, and more postings on social media.  Beginning with the First Sunday in Lent of 2016, we began the weekly newsletter and insert, calling it News from 316.  That title is meant to name to address of the church as well as remind us of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Most weeks, I write something as a cover article—about our worship, about a saint’s day who is celebrated, or about a theological or pastoral issue.  We send it out by email every Thursday, and while I want to change that method of emailing, to help it get by more spam-protection software and be easier to open and read, I’m grateful to those of you who read it.  Between the News from 316 and our website, one can generally get a good sense of what’s going on.  We need to do more, and if you have some ideas or talents in social media and can volunteer, please let me know.

I’ve tried to build community through the programs offered by Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center: especially the Tuesday senior lunch and volunteering in the men’s shelter. I don’t get to the Saturday dinner as much as I’d like but try to encourage around the edges, as well. While I’m officially the chair of the both the Triangle Theatre and HTNC, I hope to continue to add energy, leadership, and vision, for these enormous mission arms of our parish.  Since the opening of St. Christopher’s House in 1897, mission has been the heart of this parish and continues to be through HTNC and our partners at Health Advocates for Older People and Search and Care.  Several hundred people are reached, served, and befriended by these programs each week.

Erwin and I love living at the rectory, and we have enjoyed the many receptions, meetings, fund raisers, and events we’ve hosted, and will continue to do that in the future.

Many in our community feel connected to this parish.  In the past, an annual MayFair has been a big part of this.  In 2017, I’m encouraging folks to really think about how we can use our energy and resources to show of our church, let people sample a bit of our personality, but do so within the means of our time, talent, and treasure.

Taking Stock
Much of my approach to the last year has involved a kind of “taking stock.”  I continue to learn the building and its needs and have spent a lot of time navigating lapsed inspections, expired certificates, and unaddressed violations with the City of New York.  We have caught up with some of these, but have more to do in 2017.  We continue to be hopeful about an arrangement with the new owner of the Rhinelander Building next door in which we will lose nothing but gain needed work on the rectory gutters, flashing, and pointing; and we are slowly looking at how to structure work of renovation, repair, and renewal in various parts of the building.

Some of “taking stock” includes our numbers.  Holy Trinity has not had a financial audit since 2010.  We began one last fall, and we will be completing that very soon.  In preparation for that, I’m also happy to say that we now have leases for every person or group who rents space in our building—but this is new, and some of the leases are outdated.  While the seven apartments we have provide a small but stead income, renting to church employees in the diocese (thereby effectively subsidizing the salaries of other churches’ clergy is not faithful stewardship for us in the long run.)

This year we began to develop a plan for addressing some of the issues around cleaning, repair, and maintenance, but then realized that our bookkeeping system needed more attention and cleanup than we had thought.  We parted ways with our part-time bookkeeper, and hired an excellent bookkeeping consultant who is getting things organized, bringing our various bookkeeping systems into alignment, and helping us to hire a basic, part-time bookkeeper who will be able to maintain records and run the business side of our ministries. Maria Wainwright, our bookkeeping consultant, will train the new person and then be “on call” should we ever need her to help with a question or a specific project.  I apologize to anyone who contributed in 2016 and did not always receive timely statements or answers to your financial questions.  Please know that this will not happen again.  I’m enormously encouraged by the new work being done on our systems, and confident we’ll be squared away before long.

I’m grateful to the Budget and Finance Committee, the Buildings and Grounds Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Vestry, and all our volunteers who give so generously of time and talent.  Even though we have some of the busiest people in the world in our parish, you commit and follow through, and it’s a joy to serve as your rector. Especially as we’ve gone through three bookeepers in the last year, Erlinda Brent has provided consistency and care in that area, as she has in so many others.  She continues to do the work of three or four people, and I’m grateful for all she does.

An enormous part of “taking stock” has only just begun, and that involves our making new friends in the neighborhood and city, exploring contacts, and really looking and praying about the use of our buildings.  Which spaces do we insist on using for our ministry and programs?  Which spaces might we share more fully?  And are there spaces we could lease or invite a new partner to develop?  In the coming year, I’ll be developing a small task force to look at some of these questions and so I welcome your prayers and ideas for our being more faithful stewards of all God has entrusted us.

Growing in God
Last summer, we offered a monthly Christian Education class, “Prayer & Pie,” and had 20 to 30 people each time. In the fall, Lindsay Mullinax and Dawn Persaud offered Christian Education for children each Sunday morning in the Cloister Chapel, and we also renewed regular Sunday morning Adult Christian Education.  This was made possible by shifting our later morning service to 11 AM, and I’m grateful for the parish’s flexibility in making the transition.  Our topics last year included a Bible Study of the Gospels, the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare (on St. Francis Sunday), a four-week course on What It Means to be an Episcopalian, a three-week discussion of the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and an Advent series on canticles.  I know Sunday morning is not the best time for some people to come for forty-five minutes and learn about the Christian faith, but since there is not magic time I’m aware of, this is the time we have.  I’m grateful to those who have made this a priority and joined us and look forward to continuing to offer a rich and varied range of options.

Last year also renewed the Holy Trinity tradition of seasonal Quiet Days, or mini-retreats.  In Lent, we offered one on praying with beads (rosaries and such) and in Advent, we teamed up with the Church of the Epiphany to offer a day on the medieval saint Hildegard of Bingen.

Saying our Prayers
Worship is at the heart of what we do and who we are at Holy Trinity.  Monday through Thursday of each week, we offer Morning Prayer and have built a small and faithful community.  In the fall, we also began offering Evening Prayer on Wednesdays, followed by a Eucharist with particular prayers for healing.  Again, we’ve developed a small but faithful community and look forward to growing that service this spring, as the light allows people to do more in the evenings.

I feel enormously blessed to work with Cleveland Kersh and Calvyn du Toit, our professional choir members, volunteers and volunteer musicians.  Our music program at 11 and 6 is one of the best-kept secrets in New York—but it’s a secret I hope to share more and more.  Worship is a joy at Holy Trinity and each of our services, in its own way, nurtures members and welcomes newcomers into what the Prayer Book calls “the beauty of holiness.”  Our worship is made possible by several small teams of people—ushers, altar guild members, lectors, and acolytes.  Enormous thanks goes to the heads of each of those groups and all the people who share their time with us.

Our Context and the Gospel
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Simon Peter and Andrew, and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  We, too are called to “fish for people.” We’re called to use whatever skills, abilities, or gifts we might have in order to help others know the love of God through Jesus Christ.  We may be called to teach for people, to cook for people, to build for people, or to listen for people.  We might be called to network, to raise money, to teach, or repair for others. Whatever it is we may do, in meeting Christ, we have the potential for our everyday doings to become ministry and mission.

There’s an old preacher’s story about the devil and his generals who try to mount a new battle on Christians.  They want to weaken and kill the Church.  And so, the generals all get together and the first one has an idea.  “What if we try to convince them that there really is no God?”  “No,” says the devil. “That will never work. Too many Christians already have a strong sense of God, we need to come up with something else.”  The next general stands up and says, “I have it.  Let’s convince them that there really is no difference between good and evil, between right and wrong.”  But the devil shakes his head again.  “No,” he says, “too many Christians already have a deeply ingrained sense of what’s right and wrong. We’ll have to think of something else.”  Finally, the third general steps forward. “Sir,” he says, “my idea is a little subtle, but I wonder if we might encourage them to continue believing in God, even encourage them to keep distinguishing between good and evil, but we simply suggest to them that there’s no hurry in any of this.  There’s no need to rush, no need to worry, no sense of urgency.”

We can look at the Church (as, perhaps with the recent presidential election in our country) and realize that apathy, indifference, and the belief that “someone will do it” take their toll.

There is an urgency to “fish for people,” to welcome and embrace—not because of the financial or volunteer demands of the parish (though we have both of those), but because people need Jesus Christ.  And we need each other in a new kind of Christian community in order to navigate the days ahead. Too many people are living in spiritual dark ages and don’t even realize it—they just keep searching in circles, going through people, jobs, experiences, alcohol or drugs… you name it.  They don’t have to worry about a physical, fiery hell in the afterlife—they’re already living in one.  We offer an alternative.  We offer community and home.  We offer the Body and Blood of Christ to sustain us in this life and to empower us for the next.

I thank you for all you do and all you are.  I thank you for helping to make 2016 such a bright year, and for the privilege and joy of serving as your rector.  May God bless us with light in the dark and the abiding, life-giving presence of Christ in this new year.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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