Thursday, January 15, 2009

Annual Report delivered January 11, 2009

In a little over a week, we will inaugurate a new president.  His campaign slogan was “Change,” and especially in the hard financial times we’ve experienced for the past year or so, many have been clamoring for change.

I have little doubt that things will change, let’s hope for the better.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

Change is also a theme for St. James’ as we enter into 2009.  Again, we hope it will be change for the better.  

There’s no way to get around the fact that 2008 was a hard year for St. James’, and 2009 doesn’t look to be any easier.  Our finances have been in a prolonged state of crisis, with reduced giving and increased costs.  Our Vestry -- a superb group this year -- ran headlong into burnout and frustration with the neverending nature of simply keeping our buildings functioning and paying our bills.  Even Christmas was difficult with horrible weather, injuries, sick supply clergy -- and of course, my absence which at the least complicated matters.  More on that later.

It’s probably best to toss out the worst of things right now, then look for rays of sun -- for there are many.  But looking out our financial situation, we see what can only be described as a crisis.  Diana Magel has served the capacity of treasurer with such dedication and skill that we can’t begin to appreciate her significance.  She has updated our financial system, taken on much of the work we once paid others to do and ferreted out countless holes in our accounting.  She has done all this in an atmosphere of shrinking revenue and increasing liabilities.  I applaud her.

Even with the best at the helm, however, our picture is bleak.  Pledges came in at roughly $17,000 lower than last year -- and we did not have a balanced budget last year.  Our endowment has lost much of its value so that we can’t take out nearly as much from it as we have in the past.  To do so would be to spend down the endowment very quickly -- and then be completely dependent on pledges alone.  

If we were dependent only on pledging, we would have to shut our doors.  If our giving does not increase, we will have to spend down the endowment and then shut our doors.  That’s why this year, we are asking all parishioners to reconsider their giving.  Liz and I made a nearly 10% increase in our pledge this year, so perhaps it’s not impossible for you as well.  

Does it matter if we close?  Yes.  Will the world notice?  People will find other churches, I’ll find another job, but yes, the world will notice because our unique voice which has a bigger impact than our size might indicate -- a voice that touches so many aspects of the local community -- would be silenced.

Things are hard at a leadership level, too.  While our Vestry members have worked hard and ably, we have had a difficult time finding replacements for those who are rotating off.  I was gratified last Sunday that a couple of people did approach me to offer themselves.  Unfortunately, one hasn’t been at St. James’ long enough to be eligible -- though he will be next year!  

The point is that we as a congregation are not seeing the work of the Vestry as important enough to inconvenience ourselves for.  It means another night out each month.  It means dealing with budgets and main-tenance issues and employee issues.  But it also gives each and every one of us the chance to affect the work of the church.  It gives anyone who ever wanted to steer the direction of the church a chance to do just that.  If you’ve ever wanted a say in the decisions made here, you do so by joining the Vestry.

This year, as you may have noticed, we changed the ballot to allow you to personally address the issues I’ve just mentioned.  It is one of the changes we are committed to making so that St. James’ will continue to serve Christ in the community of Hyde Park for years to come.

Elizabath O’Connor wrote in her book, The New Community:  “The church that educates for a new society will live out in its structures what it proclaims. The very structures themselves educate. When our acts mirror our words, they give to our words a transforming power.”

We are seeking to live out in our structures what we proclaim: a community of hope and love that seeks out Christ in each person and serves each with joy and love.  A Community dedicated to knowing Christ in our own hearts and minds.

One change the executive committee of the Vestry has made -- the executive committee consists of the wardens, the treasurer, the clerk and the rector -- is to eliminate Vestry committee assignments.  We found one of the frustrations for Vestry members was to be assigned to a committee whether or not that committee was actively functioning.  Each month we asked for reports when in fact there was nothing to report. 

Furthermore, some members found themselves carrying the weight of work that was too much for one person.  Now, for functions that cannot be eliminated, the entire Vestry will act as a committee of the whole.  We believe this is living out our message in our structure -- eliminating that which exists simply because it was always there before, and seeking out that which enhances our community.

Now, if you are thoroughly depressed, DON’T BE!  On the other hand, if you feel a bit guilty because maybe you haven’t taken the work of Christ at St. James’ as seriously as you might, well, a little instructive guilt can be healthy as long as it doesn’t slip into shame.  Just think of it as your chance to take a more active part in the Kingdom of God.

More importantly, Be aware that even in these hard times, Christ is doing a good work here, and more change is coming that is cause for hope.

The pageant we will see later on is cause for hope.  It has children, teens and adults working together for the strengthening of the Body of Christ.

Sunday School, Communion Class, Vacation Bible School, Inquirers Classes were all and continue to be powerful ministries St. James’ executes with skill and dedication.  Each has touched the lives of many this year.  Rejoice in their work.

Towel Camp saw 13 of our members serve in a hands on way this summer.  They raised funds through dinners, car washes and selling the venerable Towels.  Nearly as many plan on attending this year, and already the youth have set up plans for fundraisers.  

Again, change is our theme, and the Towels we sell will take on an entirely new theme depending on the season.  Look for Valentie Towels before long.  The first fundraising event, by the way, is a Spaghetti Supper on Friday, February 6.  Mark your calendars.

Speaking of Fridays, another new thing this winter looks to blossom over the course of 2009.  “Fridays With God” is a chance to take part in occasional and -- hopefully -- fun classes about various aspects of Christian life.  Plans for 2009 include a series on the songs of the church seasons, a series on parables, another titled “Know Your Heresies” and my personal favorite, “The Church According to the Vicar of Dibly.”  These won’t take place every Friday, but often enough that you can count on them.

We did other new things in 2008.  For the first time in decades, we had a Progressive Dinner.  A lot of work for the organizers, it was also a delightfully fun evening.  If the organizers do it again this year, I hope everyone will buy their tickets and attend.  Thanks go to a lot of people but especially John Golden for spearheading the event.

We had our second Fall Festival as well this year.  Considering the state of the economy, I was very pleased with the traffic we received.  Thanks go to Deb Catalano and Doug Belding for making a tremendous undertaking flow.

Before we look ahead a bit, I wanted to say thank you to a few more people.  First, our wardens Cliff Wells and Doug Belding have put in more hours this year than I think anyone here knows.  I was beginning to think I should go to the post office and get them change of address labels because every time I walked in the parish house either one or both of them was here checking on the furnace or the pipes or the computer or the alarms or the budget.  Between them and Diana working on the finances, the building was rarely empty.

I also want to thank Dean Caswell for heading up food on so many occasions this year - including today’s meal.  It is often a thankless job that takes hours of preparation and clean up.  The same goes for the many parishioners who participate in the life of the church in endless ways:  Acolytes, Altar Guild, Choir, Churchyard Committee, Lay Readers and Lectors, Office volunteers, Outreach Committee, Reading Adventures, Sunday School teachers, Ushers -- You name it.  When I said there was a leadership shortage, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of you getting involved.  It’s just that there are holes in important areas.

One hole we have recently filled -- sort of -- is our secretary position.  Amy was gone for nearly three months on maternity leave and although she has now returned, it is for two days a week only.  She is here on Thursdays and Fridays.  Diane Webb has volunteered to be in the office on Wednesdays whenever possible, and a varied group of volunteers is answering the phones on Tuesdays.  It’s not a perfect system, but we are giving it a try.  In two months we will review how it is working and decide whether or not to continue that way or try something new.

One innovation we’ve developed to fill another hole has been the E-News.  We have had a difficult time finding an editor for the Epistle, so in its absence each week either on Tuesday or Wednesday, I send out a short summary of what’s happening in the coming week via e-mail.  It’s not perfect, but for the most part people have responded very enthusiastically to E-News.  Even if we get an Epistle editor, I think it’ll be good to continue the weekly e-mail.

This brings me to my personal activities over the past year.  We had a wonderful Easter that I was delighted to share with my birthday.  Thank you for making it a joyful day.  This summer I was elected Dean of our local clericus, which only means that I attend a monthly meeting with Bishop Sisk then report back to the clergy between Hyde Park and Red Hook. 

Finally, of course, our trip to Illinois to spend Christmas with my parents.  Thank you again for that -- I know the timing is never good.  Not only is Christmas a bad time to be away in the first place, but with the state of church finances, it was a bad Christmas  not to have the rector at Christmas Eve services (where a large amount of our budget is made up).

But it meant a lot to me, and it let me share my love of God with many of the people who raised me in my Christian faith.  The trip also reminded me of how much St. James’ means to me.  As good as it was to go home for a visit, this is my spiritual home now.  This is where I pray and worship and what happens here matters to me.  It is my prayer and my hope that what happens to St. James’ matters to you as much.  Thank you.