Each year in January, our parish, along with Episcopal congregations across the world, gather together to reflect upon the past year and set the stage for ministry in the upcoming one. The year just passed has been an extraordinarily difficult one for human beings across the globe. As I write this address, more than two million people have perished as a result of COVID-19. As the pandemic began, few of us realized what we were in for. At the church, we began the practice of ringing our church bell each day at 5:00pm for those who had died in the state of Minnesota on account of the virus. When we began the practice, we would ring the bell one time for every soul lost. As this new year commenced and the vaccine began to be administered, I deemed it a suitable time to conclude the ringing. On December 31st, we rang the bell one time for every 200 lives lost. In the state of Minnesota alone, almost 6000 people have died of COVID-19. By this time, most, if not all of us, know somebody who has contracted, or even perished from, the virus. All of our lives have been impacted, and the life of our parish has as well.
In addition to this, the year just passed has had an inordinate amount of racial tension. A certain amount of disquiet is useful in helping us identify issues that have been eating us up from within. Our nation continues to deal with the parasitic disease of racism, and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police forced us to confront just how little we have travelled down the road of reconciliation and justice. Here at St. John’s, a significant group of us gathered twice a month to discuss issues of race and bias, particularly as they have affected our own experience. I realize that these discussions have been happening also around many dinner tables, and often these critical conversations are being initiated by the younger members of our families. Despite the uncomfortable nature of these conversations, it has been a good thing to bring it into the light. It is my prayer that as we enter into a new year, these conversations will continue both in our families and in our parish family.
And finally, the year just passed has been replete with political drama as we participated in the quadrennial work of electing a president and other officials to lead us for the next span of time. It has been a contentious year with strong opinions and often uncharitable words spoken on all sides of the political divide. As with our conversation regarding race, some of the discussion has been helpful, but so much of the conversation has been utterly divisive. As rector, I have tried to find a proper balance of tending to the issues of justice to which the call of Jesus demands us address, while also recognizing that solutions to unjust conditions come in many forms. We have lost a few parishioners here at St. John’s on account of the political unrest, and I have been saddened by their departure. We have also gained members as many people want their church to speak to the issues of the day. Our Presiding Bishop has reminded us that as leaders of the Church, we must do our best in the public arena to remain politically neutral, but as followers of Jesus, we cannot and must not ever be morally neutral. God’s ways and will must be discerned and spoken to the best of our abilities. I and all others who have preached and taught from the place of authority at St. John’s have sought to do this while recognizing the vast difference of political opinion.
The presence of the pandemic, racial unrest and political turmoil in this last year have all challenged the solidarity of our families and our communities. This unholy trinity has certainly been a challenge to our common life here at St. John’s. Back in late April and May as I and other parish leaders began to understand the severity of the pandemic, we took measures to reduce the hours of some parish staff and to increase the responsibilities of other staff. We felt this was necessary because the pandemic really did grossly alter the nature of our parish ministry, necessitating a correction. We also anticipated that with some parishioners losing their jobs and others being impacted by losses in their savings and stock portfolios, giving to the church would decline.
Many of our fears, however, were not realized. Our parish has faithfully weathered what I believe to be the darkest days of the pandemic. Much to my surprise, giving to the parish was not diminished, but rather remained strong. At our Annual Meeting in January of 2020, the Vestry presented a financial plan that had a rather substantial deficit, but we have actually ended the year with greater income and less expense than expected with the fiscal year ending in the black. Our parish staff and our parishioners have been understanding and patient as we have shifted gears, attempted to find appropriate ways to be the hands and heart and mouth of Christ in our community, and engaged in new and different ways of ministering. Needless to say, it has been an immensely challenging time, but we have risen to the occasion and have emerged from 2020 in a strong position.
As we head into this coming year of life and ministry, we are taking our direction from our new bishop, Craig Loya. He has established four priorities for our common life in the Episcopal Church of Minnesota, these being: practiced discipleship, faithful innovation, justice, and vitality. We will live out these priorities here at St. John’s as we pray and grow and serve together. In particular, this year at St. John’s we will be putting extra emphasis on the first of the four ECMN priorities, that of practiced discipleship. It is our intention this year to dig deep, to learn how faithful followers of Jesus live their lives of faith, and to engage in these practices together.
As rector, I am so very blessed to have Rick Todd and Margaret Thor and Kate Maxwell as my clergy colleagues. They are each of immense assistance to me. In addition, we have an incredibly strong staff who not only do their work with excellence, but are even cheerful in so doing. Maureen Vruno, Mike Ferguson, Rona Pasch, Carrie Thomas, Megan Jahnke and Jake Malark are just the best in what they do, and our parish is being well served by their faithful ministry among us. I am also so grateful to the outgoing Vestry members, Al Bradley, Jason Knauss, and Gretchen Brunner. They were among those parish leaders who agreed to bring me on board as the new rector of St. John’s a couple of years ago and have continued to provide such strong leadership. In particular, Al Bradley, as a fellow ordained minister of the gospel, has become a favorite preacher here in the parish and has been especially helpful to me personally as I have discerned a variety of difficult issues. Thank you, Al. St. John’s has also been faithfully served by our wardens, Linda Carpenter and Karen Herrera. It is never easy work to be a warden of a parish. The work entails discerning needs and available resources, coming to the defense of the rector some times and at other times, reining him in, leading a gifted but altogether opinionated group of leaders. To do so in the context of such a challenging year has taken patience and care and strength. Again, St. John’s has been well served. Thank you, Linda and Karen. Special thanks also to Andrew McClaren, our Treasurer and Angie Gordon, our Associate Treasurer. You have informed, instructed and provided guidance that has allowed the Vestry to make its decisions. Jeanne Thoemke has done the perennially unheralded work of Vestry Clerk with diligence, skill and exactitude. Thank you Jeanne. And to those of you who will continue your ministries of leadership into 2021, I am so grateful. Finally, I remain eternally thankful for all of our parishioners and friends who have been so patient with us as we have tried new ways of ministry and have done our best to adjust to changing circumstances. Truly, you have extended to us the support and grace that we needed to continue with joyful hearts.
It is my hope and expectation that in 2021, we will gather physically, once again, in our beloved church building. We, however, will not gather together in person until it is safe for us to do so. Until that time, I humbly ask that you remain patient, that you participate in our virtual offerings as much as is helpful to you, that you let us know of your needs, and that you continue to pray and reach out to each other. God is faithful, and will see us through these difficult days. That has always been the story of the relationship between God and humanity. God is faithful, ever faithful. May we place our trust and hope and lives in the hands of God who desires not only life, but abundant life.
And so we go forth as the people of St. John in the Wilderness into 2021! May we do so as the heart and hands of Christ. May we do so faithfully and joyfully and full of hope. I am honored to be on this journey with you as a fellow pilgrim on the Way of Love. May God bless our lives and may our lives be a blessing unto God.