Rector’s Report for Annual Meeting

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A deep bow of gratitude to all those who came together to plan and host our Annual Meeting last night.  It might be odd to say that I look forward to the Annual Meeting each year, but I really do.  I am deeply grateful as well to Barbara Batog, Mary Broome, Shannon Dorsey, and Callie Flack who stood for vestry and for Charles Kelley, Patrick O’Rouke, Scarlet Pendarvis, and Doug Smith who are willing to serve a three-year term.  What follows is the report  I gave to the parish, highlighting key moments of our shared life as well as our ongoing conversation around how a contemplative posture nurtures our common life.

The Rector’s Report for the Annual Meeting of Grace Episcopal Church in our 191st year

Good evening to you all.

Tonight we come together in the 191st year of our parish’s life. This is a time to celebrate and give thanks for all the ways we have seen our community grow and share Christ’s love in this town and region. It is also a time to continue wondering what the Spirit is up to, what new spaces we are being called to explore together.

I want to begin tonight by expressing gratitude for the staff and vestry of this parish. We are blessed with a staff who is second to none in their collegiality, their gifts, and their dedication. I am in awe of the ways that the nine staff work together to make sure that the complex and often fast-paced life of the community is well-organized and attuned to how we sense the Spirit at work. To Reba, Cynthia, Brenda, Will, Jeremy, Jennifer, Cheryl, Liz, and Ansley: this parish owes you a deep bow of gratitude for all you do!

As well as a phenomenal staff, we are blessed with an extraordinary vestry. The twelve sitting vestry members, as well as Doug McDuff, our Treasurer, and Louise Forrester, our Clerk, work tirelessly to hold together all the facets of our common life. I want to especially thank Jason Voyles for his leadership during these past two years as Senior Warden—a position that, in a parish this complex, resembles an odd mix of prime minister, counselor, legal aid, calendar manager, diplomat, and resident guitarist. Jason, thank you for all you have done.

And to Ben Wagner, our Junior Warden and Finance Chair, whose mind works in a way I cannot imagine—that is, logically. You have served this community so well in working with the Finance Committee, and I am deeply grateful. Doug, Ben, and Reba worked tirelessly on the details of the budget for this year, making sure that the Finance Committee and the Vestry truly saw the full picture of the parish’s financial health.

I also give thanks for Polly Jones who has been willing to rotate on to serve as Senior Warden this year.  A deep bow to you, Polly, for your availability and dedication.  I look forward to what lies in store, and I know the parish appreciates you very much!

If you would bring your attention to this year’s Annual Report, you will notice that the layout is different. I worked this year to collect glimpses and stories from the five Ministry Clusters. I wanted to work with the staff and vestry and committees to capture nuggets of how our community continues to thrive.  We have listed bullet points that highlight key moments in our shared life, and we have also listed key focus points for this coming year. It by no means captures all that we shared, but it offers a helpful framework. I am sure that this report will help us frame our conversations in a rich way.

We have spent the past four years together leaning more into what we have called a mindful or contemplative way of doing ministry together. While this language may still be unfamiliar to some, I am sure that you have all experienced collaboration, discernment, dialogue, and imagination throughout the ministries of the parish. We are learning that “contemplation” isn’t some mysterious and distant thing; it is the posture we take as we listen for God’s presence in and through each other as a community.

You have shown your willingness to risk new expressions of grace and hope in a community that deeply appreciates it. From partnerships with the city council in honoring over 1,100 unmarked graves, to an ongoing analysis of the efficacy and impact of our ministries of compassion, to musical partnerships with regional and national organizations, to community art shows, to hosting world renowned speakers and authors, to the consistently dependable liturgy and music and pastoral care that are the core of our common life—you are deeply committed disciples seeking to live more and more into our vocation to be a community of prayer, compassion, and belonging.  And I am grateful to be here with you!

This year especially we celebrate a strong financial picture. Our budget has increased, allowing us to further expand key ministries in the parish. We paid off our debt last year, enabling us to breathe as we explore our Bicentennial Campaign in full force this year, coordinated by the Bicentennial Steering Committee. Thanks to the exceptional work of the Endowment Working Group, we have a thoroughly revised and efficient endowment process that has positioned us for long-term sustained ministry support with a keen eye toward both community ministries as well as campus development. Our ministry committees are strong, and I am particularly grateful for the way we continue to weave in the gifts and strengths of those who have only recently made Grace their spiritual home.

This year in particular, we will focus on an expansion of our communication network and online capability, further positioning us to step into our role as a center for spiritual formation and education as we host ministries and retreats.

We will partner with St. Mary’s Retreat Center and the School of Theology at Sewanee and others in a regional retreat on contemplative practices and compassionate action.

We will further expand our music and artistic gifts.

Our Campus Vision & Development Committee will continue its phenomenal work with targeted capital projects, utilizing both the Endowment process as well as the generous Gignilliat family gift you see in the Administration Cluster report.

Indeed, this year, I see us having time to breathe and wonder together. I see us listening more deeply to the many stories that make up this community, as we also listen to the wisdom of our history. I recognize that I am quite young—although 40 is peeping at me just over the horizon. The elders of this parish have been quite patient with a young turk who came in back in January of 2014, and I am grateful for your trust. With each rector, I am sure you roll your eyes at times and take a deep breath, especially those of you who have experienced many people in my chair, but I give thanks for the space we have shared, for the growth we have experienced, and for the way we have risked listening to the Spirit’s nudge.

Over the past four years, we have seen a 22% increase in pledging, with a 21% increase in overall revenue.  In the face of the pressures the institutional church faces, what you have done is extraordinarily faithful.  Thank you for leaning in and sharing…for risking and listening. A deep, deep bow…

Now, we have time to breathe. We have a space to relax our shoulders and open our hearts even more. We have space and time to listen, not to rest on our laurels, as it were.

To that end, keeping in mind the invitation we have to contemplate how the Spirit is leading us, I am forming two key working groups that will contribute greatly to our common life.

The first is a Stewardship Working Group that will look at the working memory of our parish, learning what we have done well in years past, how we can further increase our participation, and how we can imagine an even more robust stewardship campaign. I only know what I know—which is from my limited perspective—and I need those who have shared in stewardship and leadership to come together to wonder and plan…(to use your favorite word: to discern!)

The other working group, I am calling the Circle of Wardens. I am asking all former wardens, prior to my arrival, to meet for the first part of this year to talk and gather insights and wisdom. This would be Kathy Gosselin and Pete Miller and before. If you are in that group, would you please stand. I am calling you together to gather your wisdom from our history: what you learned in your time as a warden, what wisdom you gained, what challenges you helped the parish overcome, what you wished you had known then, and where you sense the Spirit at work in our life.

It is important that we take advantage of the wisdom of this community. It is important that we continue trusting in the Spirit of Christ who is present within and among us. Our Ministry Clusters help us do this daily, weaving together committees and fostering collaboration and prayerful listening. These two working groups will add enormously to our experience of deep listening and trust—both in one another and in the Spirit of Christ.

It is my prayer that this year be a year of the heart for us, a year of paying attention to and resting in and listening from our spiritual heart: that place in us where we meet God, where God meets us and lives. When we look out from that heart place, we see the Spirit alive and at work.

Like St. Augustine once said, “Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.” [1]

So, thank you. Here is to an amazing year together as Grace Episcopal Church.

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham+
January 31, 2018

 

[1] John Main, Word Into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2006), 28. Main references St. Augustine…

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