Rector’s Address: 2017 Annual Meeting

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Following is the text of the address given by the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham at the Annual Parish Meeting of Grace Episcopal Church. The entire written report can be downloaded from our website.

Apparently, I carry my stress in my back and in my “chestbone.” Lisa tells me there is no such thing as a “chestbone,” but I think I have one, and I think it gets knots in it. It’s been very knotted up these past few weeks, for sure, as maybe yours has been.

I can barely turn on the news or look at social media without having my chestbone knot up. So much in our world seems to cause a spiritual indigestion, doesn’t it? How to get past the polarization? The animosity? The mean-spiritedness? The tackiness?—as my grandmother would say. How do we speak the truth, as we receive from the Gospel, respecting the dignity of every human being, faithfully questioning any political agenda that falls short of this Jesus’ call to love God with whole selves and our neighbor as ourselves? How do we walk the fine line between wanting to share our passionate views while not overtly offending anyone? Is it even possible?

One of the main reasons my chestbone has knotted up is that Grace is an amazingly diverse spiritual community. There are folks from so many slices of life here: republicans, democrats, socialists, green partiers, tea partiers, Rotarians, vegetarians, Africans, British folks (we love them to read when they can), and even Yankees (we love for them to make egg salad when they can). How to hold this together—to put it that way—as the rector of this community… How to speak the truth, to call us to action, to name sins that need to be named, to offer comfort and hope, to meet folks where they are, and challenge us all to grow—and all the while not offend anyone!  Easy…

We have so many wonderful people, gathering here in this space not just on Sunday mornings but throughout the week. The building is always full of people: Poetry groups, quilters, knitters, painters, Family Promise, book club, youth, children, choir, vestry, staff, funerals, weddings, folks needing a conversation, folks just dropping by to say hello, folks wearing crazy glowing shoes, folks wearing chicken outfits.

You are an incredible group of people.

And we’ve learned a lot from each other, going into four years now. We’ve learned that we support each other in times of grief and loss: family deaths, accidents, loss of jobs, scary diagnoses, suicides.

We’ve learned that we like to laugh—at a lot of things.

We’ve learned that we’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and get to work: whether it’s taking on an additional week with family promise, welcoming in new members to Grace who have moved from all over, hosting a community partnership, or exploring a new compassionate endeavor. You are a community who leans in to the call of the Gospel…

And, we’ve learned that when we disagree, we can still speak with compassion and kindness. There are so many sensitive issues, and it’s easy to slip into thinking that we just tiptoe around each other and have a list of off-limits topics. If it’s true that “polite conversation” avoids religion and politics, we cut off enormous parts of our lives from spiritual reflection. Perhaps we’re left with sports and the weather. But, I’m not sure how deep a community’s life goes if we only talk about the weather or sports or recipes.

You have taught me how to ask questions, to listen, to take risks sharing what I think… to grapple with hard circumstances.  Because grappling with the hard and rich questions is where life is!

And Grace is full of life!

Jason and George will share details about our common life—and I will be forever grateful for their friendship and incredible leadership as wardens. Here are a few thoughts from my seat as your rector.

Bicentennial Work:

I want us to take full advantage of these few years before we celebrate turning 200 years old! Markers such as these are incredible times to focus attention, delve deeply, and listen intently to the Spirit’s call on our lives.

The Bicentennial Committee has spent the past year doing wonderful work even as we make plans to explore how the Spirit is calling us.

We are listening, wondering, asking, and collecting… and the glimpses we are getting of God’s movement within the community are…to put it briefly…deeply, deeply meaningful. If you serve on the Bicentennial Committee, please stand: led by the Honorable (in more ways than one) Kathy Gosselin.

The Campus Vision and Development Committee has been at work for over two years now, focusing their attention on the physical plant: refurbishment plans, repainting the entire campus in one year (we won’t do that again!), exploring signage, lighting, parking, entrances, and the many crucial details that help a church building support and nurture the community’s ministries. In this way, the church building ITSELF is a ministry…a space that fosters growth and fellowship and prayer. If you serve on the Campus Vision and Development Committee please stand: led by the incomparable Mary Lynn Coyle.

And this leads me to:

A Sabbath Year:

As you may have heard, I am inviting the parish into a Sabbath Year for 2017 as a critical part of our Bicentennial Discernment. A word about what this means: we need time and space to reflect more deeply on our history and our common life. With almost 190 years of ministry, there are so many meaningful experiences to reflect on! I’m calling us NOT to add any additional large-scale ministry programs for an entire year. Rather, what if we delve more deeply into what we have—and invite more folks from throughout the entire parish to participate? For instance, our pledge percentage pushed 53% this year, and while that is wonderful, what if we dedicated ourselves as an entire parish to exploring what greater participation in all areas of our common life would look like? We need to work more on “deepening our bench” as it were, with the ministries we support and share. We need to focus more on welcoming in new members and helping folks share their gifts throughout the parish’s life.

With the many new ideas we will have, the staff and vestry will literally have boxes we can put them in. We will hold them, and then look back at the start of 2018 to see where the Spirit is at work.

We handed out a short booklet on what we see as the potential for this Sabbath Year * with the Annual Report. I invite you to read it and soak it up, because it really will frame our common life moving forward…

And this leads me to where we are now:

I am pleased to announce to you that, with the parish’s truly, truly, hard work—and with the guidance of the vestry and staff—after 26 years, Grace Church is entirely debt free!

Friends, this is worth celebrating!

We went back and gathered all the information, and I can tell you that the Grace Community evolved, grew, and paid off some 5.9 million dollars over the past 26 years of our life!

In addition to retiring the debt, we have also seen our pledge and giving participation total amount increase by almost 30% in three years. That is remarkable…simply remarkable! And now, with this financial stability in place, we can step even more fully into the deep spiritual work before us

For you who have been here since the church started in 1828, the evolution of this community is amazing. For those who, perhaps, joined Grace in the past few months, you may not yet know all the history, but I know that you—as a newcomer like me—feel the energy and momentum here. And, I give thanks to God for that. Everyone has a place. And we should celebrate!

Shrove Tuesday:

I invite the entire parish to come on Shrove Tuesday, February 28, as we have a celebratory Burning of the Mortgage! We’ll eat pancakes and sausage, hear Bicentennial updates from Kathy Gosselin and Campus Vision and Development updates from Mary Lynn Coyle, reflections from Jason Voyles, our Senior Warden, and others as we truly set our eyes on how God is inviting us to move forward.

Some have apparently heard that I’m taking us straight back into a capital campaign. This is news to me! No. Not immediately.  At some point in the future, yes, we’ll share in that deep work. But, for now, we are going to step fully into the deep spiritual and imaginative work of prayer, compassion, and belonging that we outline in the Sabbath booklet.

I hope you’re ready!  I know I am!

Thanks be to God for you…for this space we share together…for the gifts we have been given…and the opportunities we are being invited to share!

The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham
January 25, 2017

* text of booklet has been posted on our website


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