You might think that Christmas and Easter are a pastor's favorite Sundays, but mine are the first Sundays after. The hype and expectation that surround the high holy days are exciting and the crowds are bigger, but there is something about the next Sunday that is more relaxed and real. On those Sundays everyone is here of their own free will! One of the many signs of vitality at St. Paul can be found in the spirit and size of the congregation on the Sunday after. I stood in amazement for the first hymn on the Sunday after Christmas when I saw and heard the crowd that had gathered. What is going on here? I wondered.
I must confess that even as I write this annual report, I continue to wonder about what is going on here. My two best guesses would be that God is graciously present when we gather here and that you are God's beloved faithful people, despite all the struggles and hardships going on in your lives. If this report were boiled down to one sentence, I would say that after the joy and inspiration I experience from our Sunday gatherings, the honor and privilege of knowing you, getting to know you, and bearing witness to both your faith and challenges in life would be a close second. There has not been a day in all my years here that I have not experienced a sense of wonder and deep gratitude for the great privilege of serving here. It’s how I begin every Sunday.
This annual report tells a remarkable story of a remarkable church, serving its members of all ages, its neighbors, its town, and the world in the name of its Lord. The story told here often emerges in little places and relatively minor events, but God is at work through it all.
In 2014 we have been gathering, growing and giving--faithfully, intentionally, and generously. Saint Paul has been blessed by the love and loyalty of its members over all these years and they have carried us into a new year. We began as a Swedish immigrant church in Somerville in 1923 and moved to Arlington after WWII. The late 40's into the 60's were a time of expansion and growth here and a glorious era for Protestantism in the United States. While much of the wider church has been in decline the last three decades, Saint Paul continues to thrive and grow and I am grateful for this in a particular way. At 92 years old, we are losing the last remaining members who were here at the beginning. There are less of the oldest generation here on Sundays but more time to visit and share communion in their homes. I'm glad for their life in the church over all the years and that their hopes, dreams and prayers for St. Paul are being fulfilled. We carry on.
Of the Lutheran churches in New England, Saint Paul is a big, resourceful, generous and geographically diverse congregation. This year, more than most, I’m aware of how we are also a congregation of individuals whose relationship to the church is marked by the seasons of life: birth, baptisms (20), confirmation, marriage, divorce, death. Our connection is marked by high moments of worship at Christmas and Easter, on all the Sundays in between, by moments when we head to church because there is no better place to be, for funerals and memorial services, in times of personal and national tragedies, through illness and recovery, for celebrations and remembrances. A church, we must always remember, is a place where people have met and continue to meet God, where God has met us. And so it is a holy place.
As you read this report. I hope you will be amazed, as I always am, at all the ways this church represents the good news of God’s love for the world. And do remember all the quiet and mostly invisible ways this church is a place where people meet, and are met by, God.
Several highlights of the year for me were—
- You who gather here. The church is essentially people who gather to hear God's Word and receive God grace through water, bread and wine. Dozens of you make church happen as you serve in church council, altar guild, coffee guild, Godly Play, children's church, social ministry and in worship as deacons, lectors, ushers and choir members. Having heard the Good News we "go in peace to serve the Lord." I long for you to know yourselves as God' s people called in the vocations of daily life to love and serve those around you. I am inspired by who you are and what you do each day.
- Working with an amazing staff in full force all year. I am particularly grateful for Paul Ricci in a year of financial and property challenges. He and Dennis Obrien deserve a lot of credit for getting the church house ready for occupancy. I am also grateful for Kira Winter as a gifted musician and excellent partner in ministry in planning and leading worship. And for Megan Getman as our parish administrator and director of children, family and youth ministry. She updated our database and directory this year while improving our weekly updates and web page. She has organized our upcoming ELCA youth gathering and a pageant in time for the fourth Sunday in Advent. Somehow she also keeps our copier going!
- Generous Hearts. The response to our special appeal in November as we struggled to get the church house ready for occupancy was nothing short of amazing as was the annual appeal that immediately followed. We ended the year in the black and had pledges to balance a new budget and carry us forward.
- Two highly gifted interns in Douglas Barclay and Eric Worringer. This past year Daniel Eisenberg was ordained and was called to a church in New Jersey, Douglas was approved for ordination and Eric dropped from Heaven when all hope was lost that we would be assigned an intern as seminary enrolment shrinks. I am grateful for their ministry among us and often find myself amazed at the good fortune we have at St. Paul in attracting such talented vicars.
- Maile Hedlund and her first year of service as our church president. Maile's thoughtful leadership and calm presence have been a gift.
- Extra work. Pastors' callings should go beyond the local congregation they serve. I'm proud to be on the board of the former Lutheran Social Services, now Ascentria Care Alliance, in the midst of transformation that will lead to greater strength in serving those in need. I was recently elected President of the board at Bethany House of Prayer a resource for us and a center for prayer and spiritual direction. I continue to serve those in dire need as the night chaplain at Children's Hospital, called in about one night a month. I have found these to be joyful and manageable commitments beyond St. Paul.
- My wife and family. They have been a great source of strength and support to me that I rarely mention. I'm especially grateful for Janice, a pastor's daughter who vowed she'd never marry a minister! She has been a faithful and beloved partner for 30 wonderful years that included thousands of nights out and 1,402 weekends when I had to "work."
One of the most important activities during the year was one of the least visible. The management of this wonderful church is complicated, to say the least. Church budgets are built not only on missional aspirations but also financial realities. In our case, substantial income (about 40%) has come from two other congregations, three cell phone contracts, and a church house rental. The largest component of our yearly spending plan (about 60%) comes from pledges and offerings. That balance has shifted for 2015 as we depend on one less cell contract and significantly less church house rental income. The congregation's response to these changes bear witness to our resilience and generosity.
I was privileged to personally thank most of you for your pledge of financial support for 2015. It’s hard to describe how much I treasured this task, but it comes in part through my strong belief that God’s work is being done through this church. The visits and phone calls also provided an opportunity to hear about the joys, blessings, struggles and challenges going on in your lives.
As the economy improves and we refinance our mortgage, I believe this is a good year to plan an appeal not only to retire our mortgage but to dream and discern what we might do with greater "mission freedom" as such debt-reducing campaigns are called.
A good time to wonder about what is going on in a church is Christmas eve. At the 4:00 p.m. worship service a small flock of sheep arrived. It almost wasn't meant to be. Two days before Christmas eve a farmer in Lincoln said he couldn't bring a donkey and a sheep that had been firmly promised well in advance. What is a pastor to do? A wild goose chase ensued. A lead developed. A flock was found. What I have in mind with live and unpredictable animals in church on Christmas eve is not only engaging the imagination of our children, young and old, but also the surprise of the Good News of Jesus' birth and the incarnational dimensions of a real baby in a tiny stable with real animals. I'll never forget that rambunctious little flock standing still for the reading of the Christmas story or the delight in the children's eyes at such as strange and wondrous scene in front of the altar.
On Christmas and Epiphany I marvel at how fragile God became in human form. Looking back on the year and so many of your stories I marvel at how fragile our world is. Life is fragile. Grace is real. We live by faith.