What salsa dancing has taught me about church in the 21st Century: Annual Report 2019

Another year of growth, with exciting new developments in our common life and ministry as we were reminded by the lovely slide show prepared by Arianna. Before going further, I would like to thank the staff—Christina, Ari, Pat, the folks in the kitchen, Berkley and Mark, Vikki, and especially Deacon Carol. And the outgoing wardens John and Greg, and vestry members Paula, Kabura, and John, who agreed to fill out the balance of Jarrod Irwin’s term.

It’s great that we are growing, especially because we are going against the trend of decline in the diocese, the Episcopal Church, and Christianity in the US. Growth brings challenges. As new members join us, and as visitors continue to explore connecting with us, we are reaching the limits of what we can do with our current staff and volunteer base. We began talking about the possibility of calling an Associate Rector, the budget that is being presented to the congregation today includes funding for such a position beginning on July 1, but our conversation should be driven not by financial worry but by our desires to deepen our relationships with each other, to reach out more effectively and creatively into our city and to respond faithfully and courageously to God’s call.

Bishop Search.

In the coming year, we will say good bye to Bishop Miller as he retires after 17 years as the Bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee. We will also begin to make plans for our next bishop. Even now, that search process is taking shape. The Standing Committee of the Diocese, the entity with the responsibility for overseeing episcopal transitions, is in the process of selecting a search committee. It’s likely that the members of that body will be made public before the end of the year.

The search consultant, the Rev’d Dr. Anne Hallisey, will be in the Diocese in January, leading the clergy retreat from January 20-22, and then holding a retreat with the Search Committee January 24-25. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an episcopal search, so it’s worth reminding you of the process. There will be intensive study of the current state of the diocese. Members of the search committee will visit parishes, interview clergy and lay people. There will be a survey distributed that will solicit opinions about the state of the diocese, perceived needs, and what we might like to see in the next bishop. Eventually, a diocesan profile will be prepared, and the names of nominees solicited. The search committee will hold a retreat with select candidates, visit them in their contexts, do the necessary vetting process, and eventually publish the list of nominees. But even after that, there will be the possibility of additional nominees being brought forward. An election date will be set; the candidates will tour the diocese giving us the opportunity for us to get to know them. Finally, there will be an electing convention. The candidate who receives a majority of votes from both the clergy and the delegates elected by parishes, will be elected bishop; but their ordination will not take place until they receive a majority of consents from bishops and standing committees of the dioceses of the Episcopal Church. We don’t know the timeline for any of this, but it’s likely that the process of election will take most of the next year, and we won’t have a new bishop until some time in 2021.

Many of you may wonder what any of this has to Grace Church. We see the bishop only rarely; few of us are involved in any diocesan ministries or commissions, beyond the Haiti Project, Deacon Carol’s work with the Commission on Global Reconciliation, and our delegates’ attendance at diocesan convention. Still, we are not a stand-alone congregation. The search for a new bishop provides us an opportunity to intensify our engagement with the diocese, help shape its future, and allow other congregations and clergy learn from our experience in downtown Madison over the last decade.

I am completing my second term as a member of Diocesan Executive Council. In the last year, I was asked by the Bishop to participate in a subcommittee of that body whose task was to look at the relationship of the Diocesan Haiti Project with the diocese as a whole. As we worked, it became clear that the future viability of the Haiti Project would depend on a period of intense diocesan engagement with the Project, helping to develop new leadership, bring transparency and stability to its finances, and raise its visibility in the diocese. I volunteered to co-chair the Haiti Project Steering Committee for at least a year as we sought to build on its strengths and address some of its vulnerabilities. Our work is made more challenging by the difficult situation on the ground in Haiti. I expect to continue involvement in that work for the immediate future but hope that by the end of 2020, new leadership will be in place to work with a new bishop to shape the future relationship between the diocese and this crucial outreach ministry.

New Homeless Shelter.

As most of you know, for a number of years a group from Grace Church have been exploring a bundle of issues around the possible redevelopment of the West Wing and the future of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter that Grace has hosted since 1984. In addition, there have been questions about the impact of the proposed new historical museum on our property. Over the last year, we have taken a number of significant steps. As we continue to research future possibilities for the West Wing, we worked with a developer on the economic feasibility of a limited project that would add a floor and create a roofline that would match the nave. Unfortunately, that possibility while aesthetically pleasing is not feasible economically. We have not had significant conversations with the Museum project developers in the last year.

Much of our work has focused on exploring whether there is interest and energy in the wider community for a new, purpose-built shelter adequate to the needs of our unhoused neighbors. We contracted with Ms. Susan Schmitz, retired president of Downtown Madison, Inc, to help us discern whether a new shelter project might be welcomed by both the private and public sectors. Her initial contract is concluding and with her help we have decided to move forward with the formation of a steering committee that will continue our work and build coalitions with the ultimate goal of a purpose-built shelter. Along with her, we have met with city and county elected officials and staff, service providers, and other stakeholders. There seems to be significant interest and momentum building that over time could result in a new facility for people experiencing homelessness.

As that work proceeds, Grace Church will continue to be involved with representation on the steering committee and shepherding the process. It will undoubtedly take several years to reach completion and as we have watched the progress of the proposed Salvation Army redevelopment, we know that it will take a great deal of effort, political will, and careful listening.

With the new museum project and the potential shelter move, we will have to engage in simultaneous conversations about the future of our physical plant, especially the west wing, and how our ministry and mission might adapt to the changing needs of our neighborhood, and the changing built environment. As I have said many times over the years, the questions driving our conversations should begin with our careful attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and our faithfulness to Jesus’ call to us to share the good news. How can we be a blessing to our neighborhood, and how can our buildings be an agent of the church’s mission to reconcile humans with God?

I want to close with a story; it’s one I told the vestry a couple of months ago but I hope it will get you thinking as well. Corrie and I are ballroom dancers, and the demographics of ballroom dancing are pretty much like the demographics of the Episcopal Church; the vast majority of people at ballroom dances are over 50; except that is, for the young couples learning their wedding dance (sound familiar?). This summer, we decided to try something new—salsa and we went to a venue downtown that has an hour-long bachata or salsa lesson followed by live music. The demographics there were quite different—of the 100 or so who usually attend, no more than a handful were over 50, and in the group classes the same teacher offers at a studio, the difference is even more stark. We were usually more than 20 years older than anyone else in the room. But it’s not just about learning moves; the teacher has created community, making use of social media. They have regular social gatherings, they become friends and hang out together. My point is not that we need to start salsa classes or a jazz mass; my point is that community is being created in completely new ways now and often outside of traditional institutions like the church.

We have to take risks; we have to experiment; we have to continue to ask new questions and explore new approaches as we seek to deepen our relationships with each other and make connections with our neighbors who work and live in downtown Madison. In the last ten years, we have done that time and again, and while sometimes our efforts have faltered, we have also seen new life. My prayer for us as a congregation is that as we continue to discern God’s call, we have the courage to experiment, to take risks and to follow Jesus into the heart of the city, and into the heart of his love.



Rector’s Annual Report

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