Giving Ourselves Up To God

St._Martins_Church_Providence2017 Rector’s Report


Taken together the reports from the various ministry groups in this Annual Report provide in detail a record of achievements in 2017. I have no wish to duplicate this information here. For the purposes of this annual state of the parish reflection, I want to review 2017 through the lenses of spiritual practice, engagement, and overall health, a slightly different take on our three strategic priorities.

Christian communities often get bogged down in issues of belief and miss the point that what we believe is often much less impactful that how we live and act. The prayer of General Thanksgiving recited every day at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer puts it succinctly:

And, we pray, give us such as awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days. 

We express our discipleship not through the words we speak but in the manner of our living. Hence spiritual practice is a first lens through which to review these past 12 months.

Spiritual Practice

Worship is the first element of spiritual practice. At the Bishop’s visitation in January 2017 he consecrated the new nave altar and communion rails. The care and attention given to the design and manufacture together with the financial generosity of members in the congregation symbolize our commitment to the importance of worship as a community of practice.

In 2017, the average Sunday (ASA) attendance danced around the 120-140 mark. ASA is gradually falling as a stable measurement as older patterns of weekly attendance change. In addition to our traditional schedule of services, we added a new worship opportunity in the form of a monthly, Tuesday evening Eucharist during which the sacrament of anointing and laying on of hands with prayers for healing is the special focus. So far numbers are slowly climbing at this service as word of mouth promotes this as an opportunity to connect spiritual practice with the emotional and spiritual yearnings in 21st-century life.

In 2017, the offering of prayers for healing in the chapel during communion has drawn increased numbers of folk for whom this is an important support in bearing the burdens of the heart. Attendance at the weekly Meditation Hour on Thursdays continues to hold steady with the introduction of a more body focused meditation practice. On the Thursday before Christmas, we held our second Blue Christmas service, with a focus on the experience of sorrow in a season of joy. This year we drew 70 folk, roughly double the numbers on the same event in 2016.

It’s clear to me that a traditional Anglican emphasis on worship continues to not only define our community identity but is leading us to encounter a deeper spiritual connection with God as a community as we peer into the mists of an uncertain 2018.

The second element of spiritual practice in 2017 has been in the area of embedding the Bible through the ambitious program of the Bible Challenge – reading the Bible over the course of a year. An unthinking and unreflective approach of – it must be true because the Bible tells us so, as well as a cynical rejection of the Bible as a source for anything applicable for life in today’s world, are both attitudes that are equally challenged when we are exposed to the unfolding epic of God’s relationship with the Judao-Christian community over the span of some 4000 years of social and theological development. Scripture is a poor and tyrannical rulebook. However, it is a powerful source of wisdom for how human beings and communities can find strength and purpose as they contend with the sorrows and joys of living with God at the center of their lives.

I don’t have an accurate sense of how many people are actually participating in the Bible Challenge program but in 2017, yet, we have had more conversation about the Bible than before, and Bible Study has flourished in surprising settings.

For instance, Vestry meetings no longer start with a ritualistic pause and a prayer as Vestry members have each taken responsibility to begin meetings with a personal reflection on a Biblical passage, inviting wider discussion. A good third of our Vestry meetings is now given over to spiritual practice in the form of Bible reflection at the beginning and Compline or night prayer at the end. The Vestry, long the bastion of the practically minded has in 2017 continued its evolution into a leadership team of spiritually inspired vision crafters.

Yet in 2017 the Bible Challenge has deepened our scriptural fluency and tolerance for complexity. Whether you are participating actively or passively in the Bible Challenge, it continues into 2018 as a central element of spiritual practice with knock-on effects that are as yet, hard to measure. 

Member Engagement

If we were a retail organization we would report a sharp increase in foot traffic in 2017. As a lens, engagement offers us a very positive story to tell in 2017. We had a staggering 120 visitors in 2017. The definition of a visitor is a new face we’ve not seen before. Of the 120 visitors, 40 have become members.

The website has played an increasing role in showcasing the parish to enquirers. While usage by members remains disappointing considering the amount of time spent on maintaining the website, it is a key factor for enquirers in finding their way to our doors. At the end of the year, e began to revamp the website in the direction of greater simplicity and pictorial appeal. The new design will be launched within a month or so into 2018.

The fact that I can tell you how many visitors we have had in 2017 indicates an enhancement in our ability to capture this information thanks to the tireless efforts of those involved in the welcome ministry. I commend their report to you. It’s also clear to me that, in 2017, increased energy for engagement has resulted in us taking greater strides towards being an every member ministry community where everyone takes responsibility for engagement with newcomers. Over and over again, newcomers report that this is the most friendly and welcoming church they have come into. One young man who attended on a baptism Sunday said: I felt like I had stumbled into a family gathering. He stayed and was formally received into membership of the Episcopal Church by the bishop last Sunday.

In addition to increased visitors on Sunday morning, we are seeing participation from non-members for weekday offerings, for example 10 women attended the Women’s Spirituality Group who are not part of Sunday congregational attendance. This is a sign of how we have opened another doorway for people to participate in the life of St Martin’s.

An important challenge in 2018 will be able to offer men an experience of solidarity that functions to open a door to men in our wider community, beyond the boundaries of the Sunday congregation.

Any increase in numbers is an amazing achievement of swimming upstream against the flow of traditional New England indifference to the serious practice of Christian faith and the demographic challenge of a still sluggish Rhode Island economy.

A picture of Health

Financial support is not the only indicator of levels of engagement and health in our community, but it is a crucially informative metric. As with average Sunday attendance, there continues a decline in the number of pledging members. This is a global phenomenon, again reflecting changing generational demographic priorities. I commend the Treasurer’s Report where you can gain a sense of the underlying trends, which are resulting in a smaller number of pledging units contributing a higher level of income – to produce in 2017 the first surplus in some years.

At the beginning of 2017, the draw from the endowment was budgeted at 5.5%. We will end the year with a draw of slightly less than 5%. I note that this is a real achievement, for when I arrived in 2014, the endowment draw was 7 +%. The autumn annual renewal campaign netted 22 new pledges going into 2018.

Health as a lens revealing a steady progress. In my first two years at St Martin’s my focus was on reenergizing the parish system. 2017, my third year, shows a parish system fully re-energized.

This is thanks to all of you believing that St Martin’s is a community that is not only worth your continued support, but a community worth your enhanced investment of time, talent, and treasure.

Of the three elements of personal investment -time, talent, and treasure, time remains at the highest premium as the pressures of modern life take their toll on us. In 2018, the danger will be that despite an increase in membership numbers and a healthy balance sheet we remain in danger of overheating as we all run at capacity to keep the size and complexity of our program going.

A phrase we will hear again in the coming year is – less is more, i.e. we must invest more energy in fewer programs In 2018, our priority remains one of becoming more and more a magnetic community of attraction, giving testament to Archbishop William Temple’s comment that:

The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.

2017, has been a phenomenal year for St Martin’s during which we have shown forth God’s praise, not only with our lips but in our lives.

In conclusion, I want to return to the notion I mentioned earlier that an overemphasis on believing is less impactful than focusing on how we live our lives.

It’s a false distinction in some senses because belief and practice are intertwined so that we can’t live and act well if our primary belief in the centrality of God in our lives is absent.

Let us continue into 2018 along the path we have chartered, a path of spiritual deepening characterized by the manner in which we {give} up ourselves to God’s service, walking in holiness and righteousness -all our days.

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