Faithful Choices: The Rector’s Annual Report

Easter 2017 procession

The following was the Rector’s Annual Report for 2017, given in the context of the sermon on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 28, 2018.  The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 18:15-20Psalm 1111 Corinthians 8:1-13, and Mark 1:21-28

Listen to the Rector’s report HERE.

This is the day of our annual parish meeting and we like to understand our one worship service as being the first part of that parish meeting.  Accordingly, it’s my practice to offer my Annual Report for the previous year at this point, as the sermon, and try to draw some connections between the scripture readings we have just heard and reflections on another year in faith and mission at Holy Trinity.

The first reading today is about choosing God above all others.  God says, “A prophet is coming. Listen to him.” God knows there will be all kinds of people claiming to speak on behalf of God, and so God encourages the faithful to listen closely, watch, and pay attention. In our current political and social climate, we’ve learned to watch and pray differently and more carefully, and we’ve done this together.

The second reading, The Letter to the Corinthians, can sound a little strange to us at first—about offering food to false idols and such—but in some ways, Paul is talking about the problems that occur when anything becomes an idol, a rival for God. He’s cautioning about anything or person that gets in the way of God.  Paul says, “Be careful what you choose to put your energy in, your time in, and your faith in.”  In addition, he says, “Make your own choices with faith, but don’t expect everyone else to make the same choices you do,” and in fact, be respectful of the differences.

In the Gospel, the people around Capernaum are faced with choices of their own.  They witness Jesus teaching with authority, teaching and preaching and living with a kind of integrity they’re not used to seeing.  Someone with a false spirit, an unclean spirit, confronts Jesus.  This unclean, unhinged person sees Jesus clearly as being from God, and Jesus heals him of whatever is causing him to act so strangely.  People see this and while they’re amazed, they aren’t sure exactly what it means for them (or for their world) to believe in Jesus, to accept the things he’s saying and doing, and to try to live the life of love he keeps talking about.

As I’ve reflected on the previous year, I’m struck by how much our year has been marked by the choices we have made.  Hindsight can make us second guess choices (i.e., with questions such as “Should we have tried that particular program?  Should we have done more in this area or that? Should we have spent money on those things?).  But that is the nature of choices.

A big choice for us is that we’ve chosen to be together in community.  As a means of keeping our community together and letting others know about us, we’ve continued our weekly newsletter, News from 316, which becomes much of the insert for the Sunday worship leaflet.  Thanks to Alexandra Harrington Barker, we were able to transition to a new format for emailing the newsletter which means that when people sign up for it, they receive it.  And it also means that we can include photographs and links to other web sites and sources of information.

Also, in an effort to help others see our community and what binds us together, we’ve finally moved to a new website, again with great help from Alexandra.  The new site works well on mobile devices, so when someone walks by the church and looks us up on their smartphone, the richness of our community can be seen in a matter of seconds. The new website also tries to use direct and clear language about our church, so that newcomers and inquirers might find answers and be attracted to us.

In thinking about how to present ourselves to the neighborhood, the city, and the world, we’ve made specific choices, and these inform the way we articulate our mission.  We try to show photographs that involve people, and especially the diversity of people one encounters at Holy Trinity.  And we’ve tried to present our approach to faith as one in which we are all struggling and learning, growing and searching—no one of us has all the answers, and so we try to invite others to our parish with excitement and pride, but also with humility.

With Pat Voehl’s help and the help of others, we’ve begun to spruce up our signs and printed materials and will continue to do all we can to invite and inform. We’ll continue to try to be creative in getting the word out (and getting more people in.)

In the scriptures today, there’s a common theme of people being invited to choose between God and other gods, between reality and pretense.  We’ve done a lot of work in 2017 to confront our own realities and address problems that have not been addressed so directly in the past.  Later, at the Annual Meeting, you’ll hear more about our efforts to get our financial house in order—but this is hard and slow work.  We began by working with Maria Wainwright, a bookkeeping specialist who has worked with a number of churches in the past and is consulting with our diocese.  Maria got a lot of things in shape and brought us to a point of health where we could look for a new part-time bookkeeper to maintain the flow of information.  We gained some momentum with a new bookkeeper, but at end of the year, found a need to make another change and go with the resources of a bookkeeping firm, MBS Accounting Services.  With the new firm, we’ll pay more per hour, but will require less hours, because of their professionalism and the new level of order in our systems.

Last year, I pointed out in this address that The Church of the Holy Trinity had not had a full financial audit since 2010.  Gus Christensen got us started with an auditing firm, and our new treasurer, Christine du Toit, has helped get to the point where we now have completed audits for 2015, 2016 and the auditors are already working on our 2017 numbers.  This is HUGE, but it also brings up some mistakes in reporting that have led to inaccurate estimates around our Diocesan Apportionment expectation.  We plan to approach the Adjustment Board of the Diocese in 2018 and be able to pay our fair share, but also to pay the appropriate percentage—around 15% of our Normal Operating Income.

In confronting reality, again, this year, we have spent money, time, and energy on St. Christopher’s Mission House.  We have made progress in areas of building violations, with new elevator inspections, new emergency lighting, and other requirements, but there is much more to do.  We filed with the Department of Buildings for Certificates of Public Assembly (something the Fire Department cites us for not having), but the DOB wants more work and is requiring a Certificate of Occupancy, first.  We continue to talk with others, ask our government leaders and politicians for help, and will do what we can, moving forward.

Thanks to some volunteers and our sextons, we had two clean-up days this summer in which we emptied the third-floor gymnasium. The first container was 5 tons of garbage and the second container was between 5 and 6 tons.  But this simply cleans the room out.  It doesn’t bring it up to code, fix the plumbing, repair the leaky and crumbling plaster, or get it ready for use—by us or by someone else.  But this is another huge area of potential mission—one in which we will need to have income (at least enough to keep the building open) but want the use to be in keeping with our parish mission.  In 2017, we had informal discussions with a number of potential consultants and friends, and in 2018, we will do more to determine how we can best partner with existing tenants and others in order to use St. Christopher’s House more to its intended purposes of mission and to the glory of God.

If you’ve followed our newsletters, you’ll know that some of my time and energy this year, along with much help from Franny Eberhart and others, has been spent in meetings with our new next door neighbor, with attorneys, and with the various boards and committees in the city.  The Rhinelander Building at 350 East 88th Street, has been purchased by Mr. Arun Alagappan and his company Advantage Testing, Inc.

Because the Rhinelander Building is zoned for non-profit use, Advantage Testing has asked The Church of the Holy Trinity’s cooperation in obtaining a special permit that will allow Advantage’s for-profit tutoring business and foundation to operate next door. Advantage has applied for the special permit under Section 74-711 of the NYC Zoning Resolution, which allows the Rectory’s lot to be merged with the lot at 350 East 88th Street for zoning purposes only. Because our church buildings (316 East 88th) and rectory (332 East 88th) are zoned as separate lots, the rectory is the only building that can benefit from this opportunity for preservation work. The project has gained the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Committee of Community Board 8, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, the NYC City Planning Commission, the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, and unanimous approval by the NY City Planning Commission.  Our City Council Member Ben Kallos has called the matter before a subcommittee of the City Council, and we met with Council Member Kallos last week to talk about some of the details.  Things continue to look encouraging, and there will be additional meetings in the next few weeks that should decide the matter.

Today’s scriptures talk about choosing God above all else, and just as I have to do this with the way I spend the time in each day, as a parish, we choose to take time out of worrying about buildings, and budgets, and the work of the world, in order to spend time on the work of God, the “opus Dei.”

Worship is at the heart of what we do and who we are at Holy Trinity.  Monday through Thursday of each week, we have continued to offer Morning Prayer and have built a small and faithful community.  The same goes for Evening Prayer on Wednesdays, followed by a Eucharist with particular prayers for healing.  Last Lent, we had fifteen parishioners attend a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery up the Hudson River, and we’ll be offering a retreat at Holy Cross again in March. Summer Adult Christian Formation, as well as Sunday morning formation have been well-attended.

I’m enormously blessed to work with Cleveland Kersh and Calvyn du Toit, our choir, volunteers and volunteer musicians.  Our music program at 11 and 6 is one of the joys of my work and life here, and still is one of the best-kept secrets in New York.  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.  This year, we’ve had the added blessing of a volunteer deacon, the Rev. Geoffrey Smith.  On most of the Sundays that Geof is here, he stands at the sidewalk and greets people before services.  A handful of visitors have come into church and worshipped with us because Geof first greeting them on the walk.

Choices… they’re in today’s scriptures and they’re in our lives.  If I had a million dollars added to the church budget, I’d hire at least three people.  One would be a building manager, so I could worry less about permits and violations and repairs and more about the care of souls.  Second, would be a person to work with young adults. (Notice every Sunday we have a number of young visitors. Some come regularly, but some visit and don’t return.  Wouldn’t it be great to have someone to notice them, be in touch, and begin to develop community around these young adults?)  And the third person I would hire would work with children’s and family ministry.  Currently, we have neither parents who have time and energy for this ministry, nor adults who might not have children of their own who have the drive and the energy to make create programs, generate excitement, and sustain community among those interested.

If I had a second million, I’d repair plaster, preserve the organ, get the bells in the bell tower working, and have the church open 9 to 5 weekdays.  With a third million, we’d do a proper ramp, a handicap-accessible bathroom, greener lighting.

You can see I have hopes and a vision for what we can do.  We can’t do it yet. But I’m praying for all these things—for volunteers, for newcomers whose own vision might match some of what I’ve just talked about, and I pray for God’s Spirit to move as she wills.

The question of whether to choose GOD in Christ above all other gods is a real one for each of us.  It asks us to put God first in our time, with our money, with our energy, with our loves.  We need every person to be invested in some aspect of our ministry.  Do you feel called to help Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center?  Great, we’ll sign you up.  Would you be up for helping around the altar as an acolyte, or reader, or intercessor, or altar guild person?  Great!  We’ll sign you up.  Can you help lead prayers on weekdays, can you pray for others on Sunday mornings, can you lead a book discussion, or teach a class, or invite someone from your building, or your family, or your work?  Great!  We need all the help we can get.

In the financial part of our Annual Meeting, you’ll hear about a financial deficit in our budget.  This is not the end of the world, but it’s also not sustainable for the long run.  We need a few more members to help grow ministries and multiply what we do.  We need a few more dollars to get things safe and attractive around here, not to mention accessible.  And we need creative partnerships with our neighbors, tenants, organizations, and civic bodies.  We have so much love and so much faith in this place—the rest will come in God’s own good time.

It has been my great honor and privilege to be your rector in 2017.  There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t meet the Risen Christ in this place, in you, and like those who met Jesus in Capernaum, I’m amazed and ask myself, “What is this, this new way God is moving among us?!”

May God bless us to make faithful choices in 2018, that we might have the faith of Paul with the Corinthians, that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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