Next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday, and my thoughts are turning towards where we are as a congregation. We haven’t done our 2012 budget visioning work yet. And offering income has been tracking at slightly less than last year’s pace. Not surprising given how the economy is now shrinking personal discretionary spending by means of inflation over and against largely static or declining income. Looking at the bottom line of the financials is one way to chart the vitality of a congregation. And if I looked at that metric by itself, then my outlook would be rather bleak.
But November is also the month during which we celebrate Thanksgiving, a time when we express gratitude for how full our lives actually are, gaining some perspective on how much more of the glass there is to fill relative to the abundance of what we already have. And if I took that approach to counting our blessings, it spins a very different narrative for our congregation.
We have had the most active year in terms of program and involvement during my entire tenure here. This year we have not only turned the corner on the direction of the congregation, we are now purposely striding in new directions. For that I am profoundly grateful.
Our children are bursting around us at the seams. Even on a school three day weekend, we have nearly twenty children in church. On a regular Sunday we have between twenty five and to thirty. What does it say that between a quarter to a third of those coming to church on most any given Sunday are children? I think it says a lot, considering that five years ago you could count our children pretty much on one hand. For that I am grateful.
Worship continues to evolve. When Mary was on vacation in October, I felt the difference in worship. It was a more somber and reflective service, and that was OK. But it tells me that the new norm for worship is more energetic, uplifting and upbeat. Mary and Nikki have led us into new territory, and their leadership graciously beckons us onward still. For this, too, I am grateful.
The Restoration Project is poised to take off, completing years of planning, and paving the way for providing a stable structure to house our spiritual community. Soon we will be able to realistically dream about how we provide space for our growing children’s programs, and eventual youth groups. Again, I am grateful for that.
The Growth and Vitality Ministry Team continues to meet with persistence and seriousness, taking their lead less and less from me, becoming a self-directed and passionate group of people. They care about the church, and how we are perceived by first time guests, as well as by the community at large. They are forging ahead with developing a compelling social media presence, which I think has great potential for us to promote the congregation in positive ways. Word of mouth these days flies more readily on the internet than in person. I am really grateful for what they are doing.
“Where there’s a will…” is poised to make a comeback within the congregation. The debilitating life circumstances among key leaders and their families in this Ministry Team are receding, and I am sensing a new desire to re-engage and re-envision. As one who has a passion for touching the world with compassion and justice, again, I am grateful for the potential that is latent here.
The Harvest Dinner has come back strongly. Last year we resurrected it after a twelve year hiatus. The nostalgic glamour of resuming it as a tradition has worn off, and the challenges it presents in pulling it off have been realistically faced down. We will be serving about three hundred people again this year. I know the organizing committee wanted to increase the number of people served this year, but it takes time to build an event and its reputation. But here’s the real payoff. The congregation is becoming known again for its active and positive contributions in the community, as a place focused on being of service. That is a huge perception shift in the midst of a culture that increasingly assumes religious institutions to be self centered, and all about what they take in. My gratitude for this knows no bounds.
But by far the most far reaching development we have lived through over this past year was the strategic planning process we engaged in. It was refreshing to be able to carve out time to sit and listen to each others’ dreams for the congregation’s future. And we did it with dedication and respect. We wrestled with a number of possible alternatives and settled on four things that we really want to work on for the next five years or so. And the emphasis in that last sentence in on “we.” It has long been my goal over the past few years to give the congregation back to the custodianship of the members of the congregation. I have been afraid at times that we were drifting into the configuration of a staff-driven congregation, where members are merely passengers and consumers in church life. That is a model that works well in the short term, but it ultimately manifests itself as a cancer eating away at the vitality, creativity and ownership of a congregation. Now, with members of the congregation affirming a vision that was evoked from congregational conversation, ownership of the future of the church lies firmly within the congregational community, and staff can act in appropriate and healthy ways as catalysts and turbo-chargers to an increasingly dynamic, engaged and compelling community. To say that I am grateful for this development is a crass understatement.
I will admit that there is room for a good deal of fretting around our financials. But I believe that there is greater room for celebrating the kind of spiritual community we are becoming. And I am convinced that as we strengthen our congregation, getting our budget balanced is just one more manageable hurdle we need to pay attention to, in order to create a stable programmatic platform to launch us into the preferred future we have envisioned together. We can do this. And future generations of members will be grateful that we did.