Pastor's Report for 2014
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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.
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"And Mary said, 'My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.'"
Advent and Christmas require a lot of planning. To-do lists get longer and more complex from a week before Thanksgiving all the way to Christmas. Expectations run high.
Lots of people I know have been sick with the flu or colds. They get run down and fall ill, but keep going because there isn't time to stop. Even when our bodies tell us to slow down there is no room for interruptions.
For the most part, I don't like interruptions. My schedule fills up with things to do, from the important and the urgent to the mundane and sometimes trivial. Much of it might be considered holy work, but not because I am a pastor but because I am a Christian. Holy simply means set aside for God's purposes which ought to be the case for much of our lives as God's people. From this perspective, our lists might seem even more important. But alas it is still my list of things to do and I want to accomplish all of them and hope no interruption will prevent me from doing so.
I say that as a confession, because interruptions are one of God's preferred modes of encountering and confronting us. The word interruption means, literally, "something that breaks in between." We may experience interruptions as disruptions to our routine, but they might be God's way of breaking in to our lives, even when we get sick, not that God causes disease.
In the Christmas story, it is remarkable how the characters respond to having their lives interrupted. For instance, Mary's plans to marry are interrupted by an angel who tells her that she is about give birth to the Messiah, even though she is little more than a child herself. How does she respond to this interruption of her plans? She sings a song of praise.
The birth this angel proclaims is itself an extraordinary interruption. It is God interrupting God's own routine by coming as a infant, born in a forgotten corner of a vast empire. And when God chooses to come as close to human life as flesh and bone and breath, we can’t look at our own lives in the same way again.
It's not a story we would have come up with ourselves. It's nothing we would have planned. In a way, it's an interruption. But in this last week of Advent, and only week before Christmas, perhaps we have a chance to put our plans aside long enough to greet an interruption as welcome. After all, it could be God breaking in.
God, don't listen to me when I ask not to be interrupted. Break in. Amen
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As a child near Christmas time long ago I remember being mesmerized by the yearly showing of Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer. It first aired on December 6, 1964 when I was barely 5. When the cover pops off his nose Rudolph is found to be in "non-conformity" because his nose glows. Now we have a story. The part I loved the most was when Hermey and Rudolf run away, meet up with Yukon Cornelius, escape from the Abominable Snow Monster on an iceberg and arrive on the Island of Misfit Toys ruled over by a winged lion named King Moonracer. Ah…The Island of Misfit Toys. Any chance that lion could be a hint of Aslan from C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia? Is there any way that Island could be the church?
A photocopied sign was posted inside a church office. It was one of those humorous full-page slogans that people in different offices duplicate and pass among themselves. Most of us have seen this particular message, I suppose, but posted in a church office, the words took on a new meaning. There it was, taped to the wall behind a secretary's desk. The sign read, "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps."
There is something strange about the church. We are not just another club or civic organization. The church's view of reality is increasingly out of phase from a lot of prevailing views. In the church, we do and say things that do not always make sense to people on the outside. Here we are, gathered on the weekend, sitting in rows facing a bath, a table, a reading desk and something called a pulpit. The vast majority of the population is either sleeping, or doing a million "other better things to do." We come together on a morning to hear God’s Word. This is not to say we are better than or holier than… but rather to say that to some outsiders, it must look a little bit crazy. Praying in church is the last thing many people would do on a Sunday morning. The strangeness of the church should be evident in the lives of its members the rest of the week.
In the Gospel of John Jesus prays to God from the upper room of the last supper as the hour of his death approaches. It’s a long meditative prayer taking up the entire 17th chapter. And because of the prayer's more elaborate, soulful nature, it serves as a window onto the close relationship between Jesus and the Father. Through it we can see the richness Jesus’ love for his disciples.
Perhaps the most impressive theme of his prayer is the juxtaposition of the disciples and "the world." A tension between the "church" and the "world" has occurred ever since. That is, we are "in" the world, yet we are cautioned not to be “of” it. We arechosen "out" ofthe world; yet we are "sent" into it as Jesus’ people, what St. Paul would call the Body of Christ.
We in the Church should be a community of faith "distinguishable" from the people of the "world." In one of the most influential books I've read as a pastor, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon issue a strong summons for the Christian community to reclaim its "distinctiveness" by being the "Church of the Cross." They say:
"As Jesus demonstrated, the world, for all of its beauty, is hostile to the truth, Witness without compromise leads to worldly hostility. The cross is not a sign of the church's quiet, suffering submission to the powers-that-be, but rather the church's revolutionary participation in the victory of Christ over these powers. The cross is not a symbol for general human suffering and oppression. Rather, the cross is a sign of what happens when one takes God's accountof reality more seriously than Caesar's"
Lately I have been thinking about Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke powerfully to deepest hurts and greatest hopes of our society. He still does. King confronted the evils of racism with a clear word of gospel justice. His work provoked allegations against his character and threats against his life. Yet he remained faithful to his vision until the day someone shot him. The key, as he said in a number of his speeches, was a certain maladjustment, a certain form of craziness. Consider how Kings words might apply to the way Christians seek to live in these sad and challenging times.
“There are certain things,” he said, “within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon all [people] of good will to be maladjusted”. “If you will allow the preacher in me to come out now, let me say to you that I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. And I call upon all [people] of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.”
Finally King said, "Let us be as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could look into the eyes of the men and women of his generation and cry out, 'Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Pray for them that use you.” And so when we live in the world but not of it we come off looking a bit strange. So be it.
The church as the Island of Misfit Toys. "You don't have to be crazy to work around here, but it helps," the sign says. Likewise, you don't have to be out of your mind to do the work of Jesus Christ, even though a faithful life can provoke the world to think of you that way. Faith can lead us out on a limb, but when we dare to go a little too far out we discover that that is where the fruit is.
Faithfully yours, Ross
For further reading:
Nicholas Kristof on What If Whites Were the Minority
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(second in the series How it Works)
What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? Psalm 116:12
The widow gave a penny (Mark 12:42); the Pharisees gave a tenth (Mt. 23:23); Zacchaeus gave half (Luke 19:8); the rich man was asked to give all (Mark 10:21). The early church shared everything in common (Acts 2); Barnabas sold a field (Acts 4); the disciples left their nets (Mark 1). How much will we give?
How much money should we give the church? It’s a question to consider as we prepare our annual appeal for financial pledges. I’ve been asked to write you a letter with my thoughts on this matter.
I took a closer look at tithing in the Bible and in the Jewish community. I’ve mentioned tithing as one of my own spiritual practices but I wanted to take another look—not to “get out of it”—but to see if there was something new to learn. I learned two things!
First, tithing or giving away a tenth of something is a concept found throughout the Bible, but it’s very difficult to apply to our modern circumstances. Many churches promote it in pledge drives as if it is a requirement, but in fact it is not, at least not for Christians. But just when one might feel “off the hook,” along comes a second lesson.
The tithe is sacrificial giving and would not apply toward the basic financial support due to one’s community of faith. In other words, biblical tithing is really over and above what we give as responsible church members to support the life and mission of our local church.
Many churches would do well to observe the way local synagogues approach this. Membership includes a schedule of dues that are appropriate to various household configurations (single, married, etc.) and incomes. Such dues are not considered charitable giving but simply the cost of belonging to a community of faith. Membership dues at the local synagogue cover all the basic costs. Beyond that, much fundraising happens that would be considered charitable and part of the tithe. My friend and colleague Rabbi Susan Harris told me of her membership dues and how the extra giving beyond that is really considered a requirement to help the neighbor in need, near and far.
A 2010 study compared a synagogue and church of similar size and make up. It found that the total giving was about the same, but much more unevenly distributed in the church. Often when there are no dues or requirements to belong, 20% of the members give 80% of the money.
There is a way that we can think of this at St. Paul without requiring membership dues. Let's say our pledge goal for 2015 is $400,000 to carry out our ministry for another year, including giving ten per cent to the wider church. If we divide that by 150 potential pledging households, the average pledge would be $2,666. That is by no means each household’s fair share because there is quite a spread in household income across the congregation. St. Paul is blessed with a fair share of diversity in this regard. This is why it's much more helpful to think about proportionate giving rather than an amount. Not all could give the same amount, but we are much more able to give the same percentage of income to the church. Sadly, the average across our denomination is between 1 and 2 percent.
In November you will be asked to consider how much to pledge to Saint Paul. You might think of your contribution less as an act of generosity and more as fulfillment of a basic commitment to our community of faith.
I hope we can also consider how much might we give in offerings that represent a cheerful sacrifice for God. In all of the Bible passages I mentioned at the beginning of the letter that is what is at stake. Sacrifice and renunciation are countercultural concepts to say the least, but they can have a powerful spiritual affect on our lives. Jesus calls us to give up our material possessions as a cheerful sacrifice to God; it is an act of worship; it is an expression of our love for God and an invitation for God to take deeper hold of us.
The good news is that everyone at Saint Paul can be generous. Everyone can grow in their giving. Indeed generous people know the joy of faithful stewardship. There is the joy of knowing that all that we are and all that we have belong to God. This leads to trust and gratitude and beyond envy, greed and anxiety. There is the joy of giving as a way of loving and serving God. It might seem crass to link love with money, but we demonstrate love by sharing, especially that which is so precious to us. There is the joy of pleasing God and receiving the promised blessings of God. What better words could we hear from God than “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Finally there is the simple joy of benefiting others with our gifts. Generosity has built houses of worship, hospitals, universities and art museums. Through our church, souls are saved, the hungry are fed, the homeless housed, and the naked clothed.
You can be a generous person and live in this joy as one who knows God, loves God, pleases God and benefits others. So I put before you this day both duty and delight: the duty of giving our fair share of support to St. Paul and, beyond that, the delight of making a cheerful sacrifice to the Lord with grateful hearts for all that God has done for us.
Check out the Bishop's video on generosity here
How it Works (an October Weekly series)
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I love Wikipedia. I read something on it every day because I'm curious about the world. So are some 500 million other visitors per month. I've taken it for granted. It's just there and available for all to use. How does it work? Where does it come from? Who pays for it? So I looked up Wikipedia on Wikipedia and learned a lot. Last night I just happened to be reading about Julia Child when an invitation to make a donation popped up at the bottom. I gave the suggested $3.00 remembering that Wikipedia is a non-profit and there are no ads getting in the way or companies to be beholden to. The thank you email informed me that there are thousands of volunteer editors, a Foundation to support it and that it's in 287 languages. I'm glad I made a little gift. I'll plan to do that once a year!
I love Saint Paul Lutheran Church. I go there almost every day because, well…I'm the pastor. Several hundred people come here each week for a variety of very important reasons, because they belong to one of three congregations including St. Paul, or an AA group. It too can be taken for granted, because the building and its programs are open and available to all. How does it work? Where does it come from? Who pays for it? So I looked up St. Paul Lutheran Church on Wikipedia and we weren't there, but we will be someday! I happen to know that it has non-profit status as a church so there are no ads getting in the way or companies to be beholden to. Each year I'm asked to make a financial pledge of support which I do with great joy and thanksgiving. I plan to do so again in about a month when I'm asked.
So how does it work?
Members and friends of St. Paul are probably all over the place when it comes to knowledge about how the church works. It takes a lot of time, talent and treasure from lots of folks to be the healthy, lively growing congregation that we are. At its most basic our Lutheran confessions define the church as a gathering of people around God's Word (Jesus and Bible) and sacraments (baptism and Holy Communion). That's it! That's us, but every congregation is different.
We started out in 1922 as a Swedish immigrant church in rented space in Davis Square, Somerville. From the very beginning, time, space and money were needed to form a new community of faith. After almost 30 years of growth, someone donated the land at the top of the hill where we are presently located. Most of what was built then was torn down a few years ago to build something new and bigger. Most churches are not "made" until they can support themselves financially. Most churches are not "thriving" until they can give themselves away in mission and money. Saint Paul is such a congregation. We are one of the longest standing internship sites in the wider church and one of the top ten giving congregations in the New England Synod.
But what about right here at home? Here is a summary of how our annual appeal works.
You might not even know it exists, but we have a church constitution. It helps us keep good order. It requires us to submit a balanced budget at every annual meeting on the fourth Sunday in January and you are invited to come! In the fall leading up to that meeting, two groups go to work. One prepares a spending plan (budget) for a new year to accomplish our ongoing mission and ministry. Another group organizes an appeal to share the vision and make an appeal for pledges, or estimates of giving, for a new year. What we plan to spend and what we plan to receive have to match up.
Saint Paul receives income or money in just two ways: offerings (including fulfillment of pledges) from members and friends of the church and rent from all those who use space here. That's it. In this past year, in big round numbers, $300,000 came from offerings (this is also about the amount it cost for staff and programming), and $200,000 came from rent (this is also about the amount it cost to have our building, including mortgage payments). We've been both blessed and somewhat spoiled from so much rental income. It's unusually high for a church but it has included contracts with three cell phone companies, two other congregations that use our building, and a social service agency that used our church house. The rental portion is changing as you may have heard. We've lost one cell phone contract for 2015 due to a merger and we are changing the church house from a group home to affordable housing in Arlington. More about all that will come later.
Saint Paul is not a website like Wikipedia with lots of good information, or public radio with lots of news and shows. It is really not like any other non-profit. We are a church, a people who gather around the Good News of God's love for the world revealed in Jesus and tangible signs of God's love in the waters of a bath and the bread and wine of a meal. We are sent out each week from those things to love and serve our neighbors, whether they in our home, next door, at work or far away in a distant land. In case you didn't know, it is expensive to do these things together, but nothing could be more worthwhile.