Annual Meeting: Now it’s time for a few days off!

Annual Meetings are necessary things, but it’s not always apparent why. We elected wardens, vestry members, diocesan and convocation delegates, heard about our financial situation and the draft budget for 2012. Ideally, they should be a time to reflect on where we’ve been over the past year and to talk about plans for the coming year. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on my own tenure at Grace. This was my third annual meeting and so, in some ways, I suppose, we are entering into a new phase in our shared ministry.

Here are some excerpts from the annual report I gave to the parish today. Blog readers will recognize many of the themes.

The news is dire. Church membership and attendance are going down. Membership in the Episcopal Church has dropped below 2,000,000, a 16% decline between 2000 and 2009. Average Sunday attendance has declined even more precipitously—23% in that same period. Closer to home, membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee has shrunk by a third. Here at Grace, while membership has declined, attendance has remained rather stable and perhaps even ticked up in the last few years.

But it’s not just the Episcopal Church. All of the mainline denominations are getting smaller and even the Southern Baptist Convention has seen decline in membership in each of the last four years. Wider studies bear witness to this phenomenon: more Americans than ever before, as many as 20%, claim no religious affiliation.

To begin the annual rector’s report with these statistics may seem a bit odd, even depressing. I cite them not as an excuse or explanation, but to help us understand the world in which we live and the reality that faces us. Whatever struggles we have are shared by churches across the country, in all denominations and traditions. At the same time, Grace is positioned well to meet the future, to adapt to this changing environment and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in a fearful and hurting world.

This new reality invites us to experiment with new ways of being God’s people. Old patterns and structures, no matter how well they may have worked in the past, may no longer be adequate to reach people. We have already begun to do just that.

One of the most important ways in which we can experiment is through cooperation. Thanks to Andy Jones, Rector of St. Andrew’s, who reached out to me and to Paula Harris, who began as Rector of St. Luke’s on the same day I did, the Madison Episcopal Churches have forged new bonds of fellowship and have begun to cooperate in joint ministries. The Madison Episcopal Teens, or MET, as it is now called began as our attempt to create a youth experience for our teens that could achieve critical mass and create relationships and community across parish lines. Now under the direction of our own Lauren Cochran, MET meets monthly, with average attendance of 15 from at least four parishes. Thanks to the vision of Michael Ramsey Mulshoff, a group representing four parishes began meeting to talk about ways of making our congregations more inviting to LGBT persons, and especially to teens struggling with sexual identity. Eventually this group took the name Gay Straight Episcopalians, participated in Madison’s Capitol Pride march. Over the years, we have cooperated on Vacation Bible School and Lenten programming. We will continue to seek out ways of cooperating on outreach projects as well as formation.

The past year has also seen increased ecumenical cooperation. Grace became a gathering place for clergy and people of faith during the protests, and with the help of other clergy I organized a successful interfaith service on the tenth anniversary of 9-11. These are important steps, but more important are other efforts to find common ground and cooperate on ministry and mission. I convened a meeting of representatives from the four downtown churches this fall as we began conversations about the effects of the library and capital closures on the downtown homeless population. I hope that meeting is a first step in a developing relationship among our parishes. We also welcomed to our services the Rev. Franklin Wilson of Luther Memorial Church, and although our relations with LMC were strained by the proposal for development of the St. Francis House site, we will continue to work on ways in which we might cooperate. Next week, representatives from the Lubar Institute will be presenting an adult forum on interfaith relations and I hope many of you will participate in that session. For all of the differences among the religions, in some respects we have more in common with one another than with the secular outlook that pervades much of our society.

Next October, Diocesan Convention will be headquartered in Middleton, but we are already making plans to celebrate the Convention Eucharist here at Grace. Convention will be an opportunity for us to work even more closely together as Madison Episcopalians, and to highlight that cooperation to the rest of the diocese.

In addition to experimentation in our relationships outside the parish, this year has also been a time of experimentation within the congregation. The book of annual reports records many of the achievements in our ministries and programs. I would like to highlight three. First, thanks to the vision and hard work of Junior Warden Bruce Croushore, Grace Presents, our concert series has gotten off to a marvelous start. Experimenting with different kinds of music from classical to Gypsy Swing, and with different times including Saturday mornings and most recently a Wednesday evening, the series has opened our doors to new audiences and created a space where musicians can offer their gifts and skills.

With the retirement of the Rev. Pat Size last year, the Hispanic Ministry could have ended, but its membership decided to continue. Mary Ray Worley has provided much needed leadership and organization, and that group continues to show its strength, resilience, and passion for being a Spanish-language presence on the Capitol Square. Lay leadership has developed to officiate at Morning Prayer and to offer meditations during those services. In addition, the Rev. Charles Granger has recently stepped forward to offer regular Spanish-language Eucharists at 12 noon on Sundays.

Growing out of conversations around pastoral care, Darby Puglielli has gathered a group of people to meet each Monday to pray together. The presence of this prayer group at Grace may be a spark for all of us to deepen our prayer lives, both for ourselves and on behalf of others and the church. Prayer helps to bring us together, and even if you aren’t able to join with the group at Grace physically on Mondays, you may pray with them at home, work, school, or wherever you might find yourself.

Each of these efforts has been led and nurtured by lay people. The staff and clergy have offered assistance, insight, and moral support, but most of the envisioning, planning and implementation has been done by lay people. That fact reminds us of the power of lay people to develop and sustain ministries and programs, to catch sight of a vision and to make that vision a reality.

As we look ahead into 2012, it is important that we capitalize on the momentum we have already gained, and seek new ways of expanding our efforts to engage the wider community. One crucial step in that process is to make our space more inviting and welcoming to visitors. The last major renovation of our facilities took place almost twenty-five years ago. Crucial areas of our program and ministry—the undercroft which is home to our nursery and Sunday School, the reception area, to cite two examples—need to be re-imagined as places of invitation and welcome. In the coming months, our Aesthetics Committee and Buildings and Grounds will develop a plan to create in those areas spaces that invite the our congregation and the larger community to make them spaces of respite, life, and sanctuary for the twenty-first century.

The presence at Grace for the next year and a half of the St. Francis House Episcopal Campus Ministry is also an opportunity for us to think carefully and creatively about outreach to young adults. We already do that well. Someone recently mentioned to me after a 10-O’Clock service that our young adults embrace and engage young adult visitors enthusiastically. The fact of the matter is, however, that for many young adults, Sunday morning services are never going to be the center of their spiritual lives. We need to think about ways of engaging them in non-traditional ways, and at non-traditional times. With the help of a new full-time chaplain arriving some time in the New Year, we may be able to create other opportunities for worship, outreach, and spiritual development among college students and young adults.

One of our greatest strengths is our liturgy and worship, thanks to the strong music leadership offered by Berkley and Greg, and all of those people who are involved in preparing and offering worship—from the altar guild, to acolytes, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers. I cannot tell you how many times visitors tell me how wonderful our services are. Still, we need to do more, explore ways of making our worship more accessible to outsiders, more meaningful to all, and ensure that what we do on Sunday morning and at other times speaks to the deep spiritual needs of our culture, needs that may not be met in traditional ways. For example, our new sound system will allow us to offer our services online which may allow us to connect both with parishioners who are unable to attend on Sunday morning and to reach out more widely into the community. In addition, during Advent, and if successful on a continuing basis, we will offer a weekly  evening Eucharist.


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