This is the fifth time I have come before you at Annual Meeting to give a report. I wonder whether that is as surprising to you as it is to me. In some respects, it seems like only a few days ago that I first walked through the doors of Grace Church; in other ways, it seems like we’ve been working and worshiping together for a very long time. Grace Church will celebrate the 175th anniversary of its organization as a parish in the coming year, and seen from that perspective, my tenure as rector is barely worth mention in our parish’s history. Historical perspective is always humbling.
In many ways, the past year has been consumed with work around the master plan. Later in today’s meeting, you will receive an update on where we are at—many of you have already had a chance to look at the revised plans for a first phase of renovations. We will also hear about the feasibility study for a Capital Campaign that will take place in the coming weeks. Throughout this process, I have challenged us to view any renovations in light of our mission here on Capitol Square. Even more important, we should be asking how our plans might help people in Madison, our friends, neighbors, and strangers, to connect with God, to encounter the sacred, and to develop and deepen their relationships with Jesus Christ. This is evangelism, even if most Episcopalians think that’s a dirty word. It might seem odd to think about our building as a tool for evangelism, but by opening our doors to the community, we are also opening up the possibility of conversations about God and encounters with God.
Evangelism has to be about more than opening our doors. It begins when we go outside our walls and into the community. When I stand outside on the corner before services, I do it to greet you as you enter; but I also greet those who are walking toward other destinations. On Ash Wednesday, when I offer to put ashes on the foreheads of passers-by, I am inviting them to think about the sacred in the midst of their daily routine, to encounter the divine in the middle of their day, in the middle of their week. I am inviting them to ponder time and eternity. When I walk into a coffee shop and the barrista asks me if I am an Episcopal priest, I invite her to enter into a conversation about where she is now, where she came from, and how her life now might be a place where she experiences the love of God. I cite these examples not in order to invite you to think about how the encounters you have each day, how your daily routine might be a place where your friends, acquaintances, and coworkers might experience the love and grace of God.
A couple of weeks ago, a parishioner told me about a conversation he’d recently had with a co-worker. He was asked, “So, you’re a pretty smart guy, you’ve got it together, why do you go to church?” And he didn’t know what to say in reply. No doubt some of you could share similar stories; some of you might even say that your co-workers, your friends, don’t know you go to church. Now there are several reasons for this. One is that there are large portions of our culture for which Christianity is meaningless. They have no idea why one might go to church. Even worse, if Christianity does mean anything, it means narrow-mindedness, religious and political conservatives, opponents of LGBT inclusion, gay marriage, and the like. In our context, it’s very difficult to know what to say, how to talk about our faith when we’re not sure how it will be heard or whether we’ll be understood. Let’s work together in the coming year on becoming more open to talking about our faith, more open to asking the hard questions, and inviting others to explore those questions with us.
One of the things that has struck me about Grace’s uniqueness is the presence among us every Sunday of people who are visiting for the first time, or perhaps second or third. Even last week, when many of you stayed away because of the Marathon, there were people at both 8:00 and at 10:00 who were relative, or absolute newcomers. Some Sundays, especially in the summers, I’d guess that up to 20% of our 10:00 attendance are people who are unknown to me. That’s quite remarkable. Now, many of those who visit us are here for a short time—the weekend, a business trip, what have you. Many others are trying us out or have come because there’s something going on in their lives that makes them want to attend services, seeking God. We do a pretty good job welcoming visitors. Some of you have taken responsibility to seek out unfamiliar faces, introduce yourselves, and engage in conversation. What we’re less effective at is bringing visitors into our community. We struggle at incorporating those new people into the body of Christ. In the coming year, I hope to make this a priority for the new vestry and I also encourage you, if this is something that you’re interested in, to contact me about how you might get involved.
Outside our doors is another immense opportunity. The thousands of young adults who make Madison their home, college students, of course, but also grad students, young people who have chosen to make Madison their home because of its opportunities for interesting work, outdoor activities, and vibrant culture. I’ve probably mentioned this age group in every annual report. They weigh heavy on my heart because I believe that Grace can offer young adults a rich spiritual life, opportunities for outreach, and connections with other demographic groups that are rewarding and fulfilling. I’m calling on those of you who share this passion to work with me on developing new opportunities for worship and community that would focus on young adults.
The entire report is available here: Annual Report_2013