Sermon, Jan. 20

Every year, in preparation for Annual Meeting Sunday, I undertake the daring feat of trying to write something that is both a sermon AND a “state of the parish” address, of sorts. It works better some years than others. Last year the Lectionary handed me a terrific Epistle about holding the present lightly, so that we’re more able to welcome the future. That was easy to preach. 

This year… we have these beautiful texts of reassurance. A prophet tells God’s people in exile, You shall no more be called Forsaken or Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your God shall rejoice over you. The Psalmist sings, How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. Paul writes to the church in Corinth to say: God has gifts for each of you, by the power of the Holy Spirit; and those gifts all work together to help the fellowship of the faithful fulfill God’s intentions. And this Gospel – a story about God’s unlimited bounty. 

These are all wonderful words… But I could not find traction to preach about them. Yes, God loves us, and everything will ultimately be fine. I know all that. Most of the time. But, y’all, those words weren’t meeting me where I was. And I try really hard to start my sermons from the place where the texts are speaking truth to me, so that I can speak to you with authenticity. 

And then I read a sermon on this Gospel – by the Rev. Anne Sutherland Howard – that honed in on one of the emotional notes of this Gospel story: Anxiety. Howard begins, “’They have no wine.’ I hear a question in Mary’s voice as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. I hear a question that I carry deep within myself, a question familiar to many of us:  Will I have enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? Safe enough? Good enough? Will we go over the budget?  Can we put dinner on the table and keep the wolf from the door?” (

Think about the steward – the headwaiter – at the beginning of this story. It’s his job to keep food on the trays and wine in the cups. He’s been watching helplessly as the wine supply gets lower and lower. You can’t just TELL people to go home. Maybe they’re running short because Mary’s oldest brought all his weird scruffy friends with him, and boy, can they put it away. 

Regardless: This is a terrible situation for the steward. Any time you’re offering hospitality, you want there to be enough. More than enough: PLENTY. Both so that the guests feel welcomed and enjoy themselves – and so you come off looking good. There’s honor at stake. You don’t want to come up short. People might talk about what lousy hosts you are. People might not come, next time you invite them. People might even go online and write you a bad review. Worst of all, people who need what you offer might look around and think, There’s nothing for me here – and walk back out the door. 

Anxiety: Is there ENOUGH? In that question, this Gospel finally met me where I am. But before I talk about that, let me lay a little church growth theory on you. If you have ever read a book written by a church growth consultant, you’ll find lots of diagrams and charts and magic numbers. I take all that with a substantial grain of salt. But there is something to the notion that a church with fifty regularly-participating households, functions differently from a church with a hundred regularly-participating households. 

The church growth literature has names for churches of different sizes, based on the ways they tend to function. Churches of about our size or somewhat smaller are called pastoral-sized churches. They are fundamentally pastor-centered. People belong because they like the pastor, and they may leave because they don’t like the pastor. People expect to have a direct relationship with the pastor – and the pastor expects that too, expects to know everybody and more or less know what’s going on with everybody.  The pastor is also the information hub: if you want to know what’s going on or who’s doing what, you ask the pastor. Everybody doesn’t know everybody – that would be a family-sized church, the smallest size category – but everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. 

Churches of about our size or somewhat bigger, on the other hand, are called program-sized churches. They have a diversity of church programs, run by staff or volunteers so committed that they function like staff. Program-sized churches are big enough to have multiple social networks within the church. Alice Mann writes, “[The] larger and more diverse membership will contain a ‘critical mass’ of people from several different age and interest groups… This substantial presence of varied populations stimulates creative ministry.” (The In-Between Church, p. 5) And in a program-sized church, people’s primary connection to the church may be through a program or peer groups – rather than the pastor. The pastor is less central to parish activities, and might not know everybody. 

I don’t know about you, but I see elements of each of those categories in our current common life at St. Dunstan’s. The book I just quoted is called “The In-Between Church,” and I think we’re in an in-between zone. I think we have been for several years. In my annual meeting address for January 2013, when I’d been rector here almost exactly two years, I said that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish. Period. I think that was true at the time. I don’t think it’s true anymore. 

Church growth in the 21st century is tricky because the way we used to measure it doesn’t work very well anymore. The standard metric used to be Average Sunday Attendance – ASA.You knew you were growing because your ASA went up by 10, or 50. ASA still tells us something, but it’s less useful as a core metric, because the ways people participate in churches have changed. This is large-scale stuff, not specific to St. Dunstan’s. For many people, regular attendance now means 2 – 3 times a month, which can tilt ASA downward even as new members tilt it upwards, because math. And people are more likely to connect and participate in non-Sunday morning ways, which ASA does not capture. 

Our ASA has gone up somewhat since 2011. But that number doesn’t really reflect how many new people and households have become part of St. Dunstan’s in the past few years. My first year here, one member told me that she’d been here ten years and was still seen as “new.” That same person definitely counts as a long-time member, now. 

Our capital campaign last year, and the resulting renovation that’s going to dominate our life this year, are symptoms of that growth. We might not have ten kids in a Sunday school class EVERY Sunday, but we have ten kids in a Sunday school class SOME Sundays, and we need space – in our classrooms, our gathering area, our kitchen, all over! 

So here’s the thing: This in-between zone is hard. The consultants say so, and I think they’re spot on, because I’ve lived it, both here and elsewhere. I mentioned that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish in my first years here, but five years earlier, parish leaders were preparing for a possible transition to program size. It’s quite common for congregations to plateau, or go up and down in this in-between zone, for a number of years. Because it’s demanding to break through and develop the necessary new patterns and new culture to become stable at a new size.

The in-between zone is also called the stretch zone, because, well, it’s a stretch. In lots of ways. It demands both rethinking and restructuring. It’s the reason a smart pastor – smarter than me, probably – will be cautious about holding up church growth as an unambiguous good, because growth does not feel good to everybody, or all the time. Growth means real changes, both subtle and obvious, and change is demanding. 

In the stretch zone, some things tend to be stretched thin. Gary McIntosh, who’s written about this, says leadership, facilities, and finances can all be stretched.  We’ve got a plan to address the stretch in our facilities – we start knocking holes in the walls right after Easter! – but those other stretches are real, and we’re feeling them. 

Stretches in congregational and ministry leadership happen because there’s more going on, and more people to engage and incorporate. But newer members may not yet feel read to step into ministry or leadership roles, OR may be looking for something else from church than the opportunity to serve on a committee! We end up with a choice between asking the people in leadership already to serve longer and do more; or letting there be vacancies sometimes and seeing what happens. Here’s what that looks like right now: We have a couple of empty slots for our Vestry, our church board. Thing is, we’ve actually had a great Vestry recruitment season. We’ve had terrific conversations with a bunch of people about what it means to serve on vestry, and what we think they’d bring to that work, and a bunch of people said, That sounds great; ask me next year! So rather than twist arms, we’re sitting with some empty spots. And we are not going to try to fill them today.  Our vestry is an amazing body; it does important work and it does it well; and it’s too important for people to make snap decisions about joining it. I hope that a couple of you out there are thinking, Hey, maybe I should give Vestry a try. We want to hear from you! We do need to fill those slots! But we want that to be a process of conversation and discernment, not just a raised hand and a quick vote. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

By the same token, stretches in our finances happen because we’re doing more, with more people. We see that in the parts of our budget that increase as we increase: things like kitchen supplies, youth group budget, and photocopying. This year, we’ll be adding some new expenses as we bring our second building back into use, because we need the space. And our diocesan assessment, the portion we give to the larger church, goes up as our budget goes up, just like income taxes. The upshot of all that is that our 2019 budget shows a small deficit – our first deficit budget since 2013. The deficit is around $6000, less than 2% of our total budget. Now, I hasten to say that the vast majority of our regular pledgers and givers have continued to be incredibly generous and faithful in your financial support. Many of you increased your pledges this year, even as you also made commitments to our capital campaign. Your Vestry and your Finance Committee see this small deficit not as a red flag, but as perhaps a symptom of some factors far outside our control, like new tax laws and stock market instability; and we also see it as a – very predictable! – symptom of being in the stretch zone. 

The good news is that our parish financial situation is not dire; we don’t need to panic or make sharp cuts that might starve growing ministries. We often get pledges during the course of the year, as new members decide they want to commit to helping sustain our common life. We commit to be watchful and transparent about our finances this year – as we always are! – and see how things go. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

Anxiety – will there be ENOUGH? Stretched leadership and stretched finances demand my attentiveness and my prayers. But I’m not actually anxious about those things. I’ve seen God, and this church, do much bigger miracles before. Where anxiety gets traction for me is whether there’s enough me. While refreshing my memory of the church growth literature, I opened a blog post that began like this: 

“If you are sole pastor and your congregation [is moving towards program size], you probably already feel pretty stretched by:

  • Keeping up with non-crisis visitation and counseling
  • Tracking visitors and incorporating new members
  • Providing leadership for adult classes, groups, and committees
  • Managing clashing expectations [among members]
  • Stepping up to more complex processes for planning and communication.”

And I thought, Yeah. Pastoring a pastoral-size church is different from pastoring a program-sized church. We’re a little of both right now, and it’s stretching me. I have some learning and growing to do. And some letting go. Y’all did a terrific job caring for each other and making church and deepening relationships during my sabbatical last fall, a wonderful opportunity to discover that St. Dunstan’s is not as pastor-centered as we thought. It gives me so much joy when someone brings me an idea and says, We’d like to do this. OK? Unless there’s serious clash of calendar or theology, I’m going to say, GREAT! What do you need? 

I’ll probably always do a lot because, guys, I like my job, but over the years I’ve been able to move more and more towards doing stuff that’s exciting and rewarding for me, instead of stuff that has to happen because That’s What Churches Do. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for our staff and for the volunteers that function like staff, whose skill and commitment mean we can offer ministries and opportunities far beyond the limits of our budget or your pastor’s time. But it’s true that my role in the parish has changed, and is changing. It’s good. But it’s a stretch, and sometimes I feel it. 

It’s hard for me to release the idea that I’m going to know everybody. What’s going on with your job and your family and your spiritual life. I never really did, but I thought maybe I could; and these days when I look out at all of your faces, I know we’re not that kind of church anymore. I’m not going to be able to have a meaningful coffee date with everyone in the directory on a regular basis. I’m going to have to trust y’all to have meaningful coffee dates with each other. And you do, and I love that so much! 

If you’ve ever seen my desk, you know I’ve got a lot of quotations and prayers posted around it so that when my eyes wander from my computer screen, they land on something helpful. One of them has these words from a mentor, Dwight Zscheile – “Clergypersons must ask themselves, What am I doing that someone else can do, so that I can be freed up to do what God needs me particularly to do in this place?” (People of the Way, p. 124) It’s a heck of a good question, and one that’s particularly important for me to sit with, in this in-between season, this stretch zone. 

Being in-between is uncomfortable for churches. We have two choices, friends: we can lean into the stretch – trust God, trust each other, and see what happens – OR we could stop growing. Show enough inhospitality that new people stop showing up, and ideally start a big fight about something, so that some folks leave and the church can be a more comfortable size again. That’s actually a pretty common path churches take, friends.But it’s not the one I hope we’ll chose together. I hope that when we’re tempted to ask ourselves or one another that anxious question, “Will there be enough?”, we’ll be able to trust in God’s power and God’s abundance. 180 gallons is a LOT of wine, y’all.

In our Gospel story, the steward’s anxiety is relieved; the party is a resounding success. There is enough. Why? Because somebody shared their gifts. Somebody at the party had a skill that could fix the problem. It’s miraculous, because it’s Jesus – but it also happens all the time. Just like in today’s Epistle – Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of activities, but one God who activates them in everyone, as manifestations of the Spirit for the common good. I love the awkward syntax there – the Greek word is energeo, energy! There are many energies among us, all energized by the Spirit of God.

Paul lists some possibilities – miracles, prophesies, wisdom, healing – but I’ve seen some others: To one is given the ability to build a whale out of PVC pipe; to another the willingness to bake cookies for the youth group; to another the skill to keep the white robes white; to yet another the capacity to sort the markers – a Herculean task. 

My trust in our future together is founded on God’s faithfulness and your giftedness.You have all kinds of things you’re good at, or enjoy doing – charisms, gifts given for a purpose, with God as the energizing power. Maybe you can’t name yours yet, and need friends to help. Maybe you know your gifts, but haven’t spotted where they could be useful here – or, like Jesus, you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with me?” In the weeks ahead, as part of our lean into what’s already happening among us, I’m inviting us to reflect on our gifts and skills. This box will be in the Gathering Area – it’s empty, so far! 

Next to it will be these slips. One is for sharing something YOU’RE good at or enjoy doing, that you’d be interested in bringing to our common life here. And one is for naming a gift or skill you see in somebody else here, adults or kids.  Because it’s really important to call forth each other’s gifts. I encourage everyone to take at least one of each, and do some thinking and some noticing in the weeks ahead. When you’ve got something to say, fill them out and put them in the box! I PROMISE you that I am not going to go through this box and assign people to ministries. Pinky swear. But these little slips of paper, taken all together, might point us in some new directions in our common life. Some new ways to use the gifts you bring, for the common good. 

For the common good: Symphero, in Greek – a word that can mean, To carry each other; to endure hard things together; to move forward as one. May it be so. 

Let us pray.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were being cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by the One through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 291)