The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
2016 Annual Meeting – Year of Gratitude
January 17, 2016
I want to begin with a story. Late last fall, minutes before the nine o’clock service, we were short one acolyte. We had two kids there who wanted to serve, they both volunteered to pinch hit. But, there was only space for one of them, so we reverted to the time honored tradition of making decisions – paper, rock, scissors, best two out of three. There we were, in the Vesting Room – one, two, three, shoot! Admittedly, I forgot who won. But that wasn’t the point. The point was this – neither Jacob nor Brynn thought that they “had” to serve. They “get” to serve.
The difference between “have to” and “get to” is a wide gulf. “Have to” is about obligation and duty. “Get to” is about gratitude and joy. “Get to” is about love. To me, watching that paper, rock, scissors competition was an image of where we are as a parish. We get to. We get to worship God in this community. We get to give our money to a church that is making a difference. We get to be mentors for at-risk kids. We get to go to bible study, to pray, to sing, to be with each other.
And, perhaps what is weighing on our minds the most, we get to have a building project. We get to dream big dreams, have bold visions, think about this grand future. We get to trust in the Holy Spirit. Now, we could come at this project with a “have to” attitude. And believe me, sometimes that’s where I am. Just this week, when our Parish Administrator is on her hands and knees sopping up water that is coming through the floor boards, I think, “we have to do this.” When I talk to parishioners who can’t come to church on Sunday because we don’t have handicap accessible facilities, I think, “we have to do this.” About three time a year when the water well pump gives out and we don’t have water on campus, I think, “we have to do this.” When the septic system breaks down, as it did last Palm Sunday, and we have to close our restrooms, I think, “we have to do this.” But more than that, we get to do this.
This entails a few things. There is a process that we must trust. And it’s a long process. But we have an incredible team working on this, and we get to trust their expertise, their passion, and their enthusiasm for this project. And there will be others, more of you, who work on this project.
But most of all, we get to grow spiritually. Believe me, this is a spiritual exercise. Planning a capital campaign, designing a campus, building, and growing – this is about our relationship with the Lord God. This is about God calling us out of our comfort zone to lay claim to the vision we have been given. We can get wrapped up in all the details – details that will be taken care of – but we can’t forget the big picture. This is about glorifying God. And I sincerely believe, that when a congregation is challenged, that’s when we spiritually grow the most. A congregation that is complacent, and has no vision, is a congregation that is losing its spiritual vitality. If you want to grow in your relationship with the Lord God, then this project is for you. Because it will take everything that we have, and more.
For those of you who were here on my first Sunday, you know that I’m passionate about spiritual challenges. For those of you who weren’t, here’s a direct quote from my first ever sermon at Holy Comforter: “This means that we are going to take risks. As a church, we sin when we do not take risks for God’s Kingdom. These risks may be challenging and difficult. They will require all of us, including me, to be uncomfortable and vulnerable; because the cross of Christ is neither comfortable nor safe.”
But we trust in the Lord God. We get to move out of that place of fear and insecurity. We get to, we get to, dream of a church that is beautiful, and sustainable, and accessible. We get to pray and listen for the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that is calling us to love.
That’s why this is 2016 – Year of Gratitude. Gratitude is akin to love, because when we give thanks to God, we are not trying to get anything out of it. Gratitude to God is completely selfless. That’s what I’m talking about. Our church, and ourselves, growing out of the inward fears and trusting in the outward faith.
And we already have much to be grateful for. Our parish has grown by 60% in three years. Average Sunday attendance for 2015 was 177. This makes us three times bigger than the average Episcopal church. The average parish has 61 people in church on Sunday. This means that we are not a little church. The way the numbers work, Holy Comforter is in the top 20% of churches in the Episcopal Church. We are not a little church.
This means that we get to do things that big churches get to do. We get to. We get to have a staff. That being said, as we continue to grow, our staff will need to grow too. Already, the size of our church has outpaced the capacity of our staff. We used to have slow moments around the office. It’s just not true anymore. That’s a good sign! So this year, we get to do something about that! We get to grow our staff. In two ways, first yes, we simply need more staff hours.
Second, our staff is going to clarify their roles better. Especially me. This year, my favorite phrase will be, “you need to ask Jessie about that.” Jessie, being our Parish Administrator. Because, right now, I am the bottleneck for ministry. When I am asked questions about any the calendar or announcements or the worship bulletin, I just turn around and ask Jessie. So, when I say to you, “you need to ask Jessie about that,” you get a quicker answer to your question. Because a church of one hundred eighty people on a Sunday behaves differently than a church with one hundred people on a Sunday. This is a great thing because the staff provides continuity and becomes the leaders of the church. The Vestry empowers them to do their work, sets the policies, and provides guidance.
In the church world, Holy Comforter is what is called a transitional sized parish. We are transitioning from a church that revolves around the priest to a church that revolves around ministries, program, and worship. Everybody says this is a hard transition. We’re learning what it means for the staff to make decisions. We’re learning what it means when you can’t possibly know everybody in the church. That’s all okay. Because people are no longer plugged in around me, they’re plugged in to what they’re passionate about. Bible study. Serving at the altar. Various groups and ministries. We get to become a more complex system.
This is true also of communication and pastoral care. We can’t communicate like we used to. Word of mouth does not work in a church our size. To stay up to date, you we have the worship bulletin and the weekly emails (they’re the same thing). And pastoral care. When you need to talk, because you are sick – physically, emotionally, or spiritually – or because you want a visit from me or Deacon Bob, you need to tell us. Look, I wish that the bishop ordained me, he would have given me wizard powers. But he didn’t. I cannot read your mind. Maybe some day in the future I will. But for right now, you need to tell me. Becky Palmer, our pastoral care coordinator, is helping me schedule hospital visits, eucharistic visitors, meals, all those things. And the same with her – she doesn’t know how to help if you don’t let her know. And finally, whatever you say to me is held in confidence. The same goes for Deacon Bob and Becky. We are going to entrust you with your own story. We aren’t going to tell that story for you.
And thinking beyond the church, one of our biggest mission fields right now are the local nursing homes and assisted living facilities. At the Broadmoor, every Sunday, we have teams of parishioners that lead Morning Prayer or communion for the residents of that facility and their families. It’s not about size, but numbers don’t lie. Our community at the Broadmoor is already bigger than some parishes in the Episcopal Church. Another piece of our work this year will organizing our outreach ministries. We’re already doing great work with our on-campus partners, but one thing that was so clear in our listening groups was the desire to reach out beyond our campus. This year I’ll be calling together an outreach team that will coordinate all the ministries that we do now and to think about new ways to serve the community.
Notice, I said the outreach team will be doing this. Not me. As we continue to grow, my job changes. Already, I don’t have the same job from when I started. That’s a good sign. My role in this new system is a very ancient role. I am here to preach, to celebrate the sacraments, to empower, to cast the vision, and most of all, to pray.
Now, I want to get back to the bigger picture. Last year, we got to move to three Sunday services. And I’m going to tell you, I was a little worried. I think we all were. But we did it, we trusted in the Lord God who was calling us onward. The numbers don’t lie. On average, twenty more people worshipped with us each Sunday when we had three services than when we had two. More people got to serve on the altar, sing in the choir, serve on Sundays. More children came to Sunday School. But it’s not about numbers. It’s that we stretched ourselves, and in that stretching, we came to know God more. It all gets back to what I was saying – when a congregation challenges itself, it rises to its fullest potential. What gives me courage going forward is that we have already proven to ourselves that we can take on challenges and that God gives us the gifts, the talents, and the abilities to accomplish them. Is it hard? Yes. Do we still have kinks have to work out? Of course. Did we get to know God better? I sure did. Will a building project be hard on this congregation? Yes. Do we still have details to hash out? Absolutely. Will we come to know Jesus? Praise be to God, yes.
And that’s how I want to end. Everything we do in the church is because of, and for, the Lord Jesus. That’s why this Annual Meeting is taking place in Morning Prayer. We aren’t meeting to meet, we’re meeting because of Jesus. Churches can get confused. When things become about us, rather than about God. That’s why the question about our future, about our ministries, about our mission, it’s not, “what do we want?” The question is, “what does God want?” What does God want?
And you know, we could sit back and look at all that we’ve done, and congratulate ourselves. We could give thanks for what has happened and say we did what God wanted. Kind of like this story from the gospel of John we just heard. We’ve had the great wine at the beginning of the party, and now we can start drinking the not so great wine. But things don’t work that way with God. The more you get to know God, the better it becomes. The best is yet to come. The good wine is still sitting on the shelf.
That’s where we are. The good wine that is our future, is still waiting for us. Do not be afraid. Do not be anxious. In all things give thanks to God. Rejoice, again, I say, rejoice. The best is yet to come.