Monday, August 29, 2016

State of the Church

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14:

Normally in June I preach a state of the church address to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year, talk about where we still have room to grow and to set out a vision for where we are going in the coming years. I was set to do that message in June, but I instead preached about the shooting in Orlando, and so today I am going to deliver that message, even as we mourn another senseless killing except this time it is in our backyard.  But, I am now into my fourth year serving here at Mesa View, and we have seen some large highs and some large lows, and I am hearing two different themes about my tenure here recently. The first is that since the last two pastors to serve here were only here for four years, people think that I too will be moving very soon. It’s always a possibility, but I don’t think a very strong one, at least not at this moment, and the other thing to remember is that the two pastors before them were both here for ten years each.

The other thing I am hearing a lot of recently is that people want me to stay another 20 years, which is often followed by “so that way you can do my funeral.” I appreciate the vote of confidence, I think, but two problems with this. The first is that it sort of says, “stay here until I’m gone, and make sure to turn off the lights when you leave.” But the bigger problem is that 20 years would only get me to age 63, and I don’t really want to have to move to a new church to get me to retirement, so at least say you want me to be here for 22 more years.  But here is the real truth. If you want me to stay, we have to do a lot of work to make that a reality, and the biggest ones are to be financially stable and viable as well as to be growing spiritually, missionally and numerically. The Bishop is not inclined to move clergy from churches that are doing well. So keep that in mind for today’s message as well as for the coming years.

If you were here three years ago when I started, you may remember that we were not in a very good position financially, which is the reason I was appointed here. My strongest memory of that time is Kim Short, who was then the director of our preschool coming in needing to buy a roll of stamps, and of the office administrator calling the treasurer to make sure we had enough money in the bank to buy those stamps. In addition, we were behind on several different bills, including being nearly $15,000 in debt to the conference.

I can gladly say that we are no longer in that position. It used to be that Don Coates and I would sit down several times a month to talk about what income we expected and what expenses we also expected and how we were going to make those two things stay equal. For most of 2016 we didn’t have to do that, but in June and early July our finances got really tight, to a level that I had not seen since that first summer, and we wiped out of emergency funds and held back on paying some expenditures that we thought could be held for a little while.  But as I have said all along, we did not get here over night and we will not get out of our situation overnight. The biggest piece of that is the mortgage payment, which, behind my compensation, is the largest expense line in our budget. It is basically equal to having another clergy person on staff. The good news on that is that by the end of the year, we should have it below $800,000, but that’s still a lot of money owed.

The other good news is that we are now caught back up, we are up-to-date on all expenses, and are even ahead on some items, and we have built back up our emergency fund to more than $6000 with a goal to getting it closer to $15,000 by the end of the school year. One other cautionary note is that the YMCA, which rents the annex building from us, were unable to make their preschool financially viable and so have closed it. When they did so, we were told that they were going to try some other programs in the space to try and make them financially viable, but if they can’t, then they will be terminating their lease at the end of the current year. If that happens, there will be some financial impact to us, but it will also give us some opportunities to do other things that might limit or avoid that impact all together.  I am also happy to report that we also had our financial audit completed, the second consecutive year that has happened, after not having one done for a long, long time. That report can be found on our website, or you can obtain one from the church office.

So there is some bad and some good news. But, as I also said when I started here, ultimately it’s never about the money. When we are doing God’s work, when we are fulfilling our mission, the money will come through; God will provide. Now one of the ways that God does provide is through you, so don’t think we don’t have to do anything, but God will provide. I was reminded of this recently when Irene Bishop showed me a letter I had written to Santa for the newsletter just before Christmas in 2014 outlining some of the capital projects that we were looking at, but for which we did not have anything budgeted, and she wanted to know how we were doing on that list.  The truth is, except for the largest costing items, we had either completed them, had eliminated it as not being worth the immediate cost, or were looking at ways to get them done in the coming month or year.

It was a really good reminder for me that it’s easy to miss all the things we have done simply because we now take their place for granted. So some of the capital improvements we have accomplished in the past year include installing the new fence around the playground, and making some other improvements to the playground, finishing painting classrooms and other rooms so that the only room not be painted now is this main room, and we have a bid on that and hope to do it sometime relatively soon. We have installed new panels in the sign out on Taylor Ranch Road, we have installed announcement screens now in both buildings, we have a new worship software and the new screens here in the worship center. And when we installed them, one of the girls in the preschool said to me “now it feels like church in here,” because that’s what she was used to. And we have new flooring in places in the administrative and education building. We will also be re-keying the buildings and installing security cameras in both buildings in the new future, starting with this building first, to work into the new safety and security plans and procedures that the trustees and staff have been working on.

And it’s not just capital improvements but it’s our other programs and ministries that are also growing.  We hired Ann Marie Leyba as our preschool director last year, and she has been doing a fantastic work for us, and has some big dreams to make our preschool even better. Carla Zabalza has taken over from Kelly as the head of our praise team and is building on the strengths of the team. Last year Lee Anna and Jordyn started up a new youth program that started out with four youth, and by the end of the year had nine youth involved, and in case you’re not good at math that’s more than 100% growth.  The work that Al has been doing with the food pantry has expanded greatly our outreach as they are now also collecting discarded milk from schools which we are distributing to other food pantries as well as several homeless ministries. We’ve collected enough money to provide three more schools in Kenya with clean water systems, we collected lots of coats for the homeless, as well as for the local schools, our prayer shawl ministry makes hats and booties for newborns as well as blankets given to people wo are having a difficult time that are a representative of God’s love, the covenant group has just started their  snack bag ministry to provide some food items to those in need and we collected more than 250 teddy bears for the fire department to give to children then encounter on calls, and that doesn’t count lots of other things that we are doing collectively and individually. But we still have a way to go not only to be meeting the needs of our community and also to be living into our mission statement.

The mission statement created by the Leadership Council this spring says we are to know and love God and our neighbor through relationship, service and witness. It’s the knowing and relationship part that I think are the hardest parts of this statement. It’s not just knowing and being in relationship with God, which entails more than just Sunday worship, but also participating in faith development activities and small groups, something we need to focus more on, but knowing and being in relationship with our neighbors is even harder work. Because we are good at being in service to people, and we do a great job at that, but where we have a long way to go is in being in service with people. That means meeting them, getting to know them and establishing long-term relationships, or at least long enough that they last for more than the hour we are doing something. That will require a rethinking of how and where we do mission. This does not mean that everything we do has to do that because that would make a lot of what we do, that is important, impossible to do. But if we are not building relationships with some people, and getting to know our neighbors, then we are not doing what we should be doing.

Which builds into a bigger picture, and that is that in looking at whether a church was growing or declining was on where they are focused. If they are focused on themselves and what they do and their buildings, they will probably be declining, versus if they are focused externally in reaching out in service and witness then they tend to be growing. I think there are lots of reasons for that, but one of them is matching the scripture passages we heard from this morning, in welcoming strangers, and continuing to share what we have, because that is pleasing to God, as well as not thinking more of ourselves, and sitting in the seats of honor, but instead sitting in the lowest place, a place often occupied by a servant, a place from which we can be elevated not by ourselves, but by the person who has invited who invited us to the table, to the party, and that is by God.  It is still my hope and desire to have everyone in this congregation to give a minimum of one how a month in service to the church and the community.

When we are faithful to God, then God is faithful in return, and people want to be a part of places that are focused not on themselves, that are not just a big social club, but instead are setting out to not only proclaim the kingdom of God but seeking to bring it about in all that they do. I think we are heading in that direction. I am glad to say that the number of people we are serving has nearly doubled over the past year, and our worship attendance is also up 10%. It was actually up 20% before we went into the summer months, and I’m very very hopeful that we will return to the normal attendance we saw in the spring. Our prayer partners team, which is a group of people who pray for the church and its leaders every day, has been praying that we would average 60 in both worship services, and average is up for both services, although we are seeing the greatest growth in our traditional service. They have also been praying hard for several other issues of the years for which we have seen those prayers being answered, sometimes in dramatic ways. We are always looking for other people to join our prayer team, so if you would like to partake in this opportunity, please speak with me. But our numbers are moving in the right direction, and we should celebrate that.

But we still have lots of things left to be done.  We have to put together a team who are going to oversee our faith development activities, including our small groups, and we have to start thinking of new ways of doing things in order to reach our neighbors and be of service to our community. Now one of the good things is that this congregation is much more open to change than other places. We have made two major changes in worship in rearranging the chairs and also in installing the new TVs and I heard very little grumbling or complaining about it, so if you were doing it, it wasn’t getting back to me, which is okay. But while these may seem minor, I can guarantee you other places would have made a ruckus about it. Which is the next point.

Another thing that separates growing churches from those who are stable or declining, is that growing churches know who they are. That is, they can tell a story about themselves that makes them unique. Could you say how we are different from Cross of Hope, or Harvest Fellowship or First Baptist, the closest churches to us? What do we have to offer that they don’t? What are we strong in, and what are they strong in? We have to be able to tell a story that is unique to us and to be able to tell a story of how we are changing lives. How our lives and being changed, and how lives in our communities are being changed. We are not good at that at the moment, and so we have to work at it because that’s the only way it’s going to get better, and it’s the only way we can let the world know what it is that we are doing and why we make a difference. Indeed, one of the questions churches should routinely ask themselves is if we closed would it matter to the community, would anyone notice?

I think people would notice here, but we can still engage even more in ways to make us a place that serves the community.  We have this back piece of property that is currently not being utilized.  There have been conversations about lots of different ways that it could be used, and too often we think of it as an either/or rather than as a both/and.  One of the ideas I am most intrigued about is that there is going to be an increasing need for adult day care facilities.  That need is not being met yet, and it’s only going to increase in demand, and surprisingly churches are not stepping into that gap, at least not yet.  We already operate a very successful Christian preschool here, and there are some amazing things being done in combining preschool with senior living, and the huge benefits for both groups, so what if we began thinking about utilizing our property to fill a need we know is there in our community? Or perhaps we think of other things we could use that land for that would be of service to and transform our community.

Which leads me to the other piece of the property being underutilized and that is this corner. I know that people have lots of different ideas about that corner, and deeply held, and expressed opinions, but what I have said to the trustees who are responsible for the property, is that before we do anything there, we need to make a plan for what the entire corner will be used for, and then how we are going to maintain it.  Because until we do that, we’re not being good stewards of our resources.  I know there are people who love it being a pond, but it’s not a naturally occurring pond, it’s there because of water drainage, which we can deal with in different ways.  We could still have a water feature, but use the land for different purposes. For example, we could make it more like an amphitheater and put in a stage, which we could certainly use for worship and other activities, but it could also be used for concerts and plays, and different ways that  the community could be invited to come to the church, and there are other elements, such as a prayer garden, columbarium, and my dream is still that we will construct a playground that is truly handicap accessible so that even children in wheelchairs would be able to come here and be able to play.  We have huge opportunities and possibilities before us, and it’s up to us to seize those opportunities and possibilities, to see visions and dream dreams, to welcome the strangers and be of service to each other and to our community.  But it is something that we have to do together.

We are standing at a critical moment in the life of this church, and we really have two ways we can go. We can dream big dream, dreams so big that we know that we can only do it with God’s help, and seek to become not the church that has a pond, but the church that is transforming the community that truly knows and loves God and our neighbor through relationships, service and witness. Or we can turn away from those dreams and seek to last as we can, and then move on hoping that some other church somewhere will do that work.  One of those paths will lead to growth and new life, and one of those paths will lead to decline and eventual death.  I have closed a church before, and it was the right thing for them, and I am proud of that work, but that is not why I was sent here, and I do not believe that that is where God is calling us.  I believe we have a huge future in front of us, but we have to be willing to dream big Holy Spirit filled dreams, dreams that are too big for us to be able to do by ourselves, and then to seize them and begin working on them knowing that God won’t deliver them for us, unless we are willing to do it. Let us never forget it’s not about us, and this is not our church. This is God’s church and God has big plans for us, so let’s seize them and be known as the church that makes a difference, that transforms lives and that transforms our community. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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