Annual Parish Meeting: Rector’s Report

Bishop Anthony Burton
Bishop Anthony Burton (email)

I would like to begin by saying what a privilege it is to serve with the finest clergy team I know of anywhere; with an incredibly gifted, creative, and hardworking staff; and such a deep, talented, and smart bench of lay leaders. I count every day serving here as a blessing.

I thought this year that rather than trying to give an overview of every department, I would just focus on three or four new initiatives to give you a peak of what is coming down the pike.

If you will forgive me a personal note, as some of you know, my mother died peacefully on Wednesday night in her 87th year, so I would like to thank each of you who have kindly offered your condolences to me and my family in recent days. She had a long, good and active life and passed on after only twelve days of illness, so I am full of gratitude.

I think she would have burst out laughing at an exchange I had on the phone on Friday when I phoned the Ottawa Citizen newspaper.

    “Hello, I’m calling on behalf of my mother, Rachel Burton, who has died. I would like to cancel her subscription.”

    The guy on the end of line replies, “Are there any specific reasons why she is cancelling her subscription?”

    Plainly he had to check a box on a form so I replied, “She’s moved outside of your delivery area.”

It was a profound experience to sit beside her for her last five days.

On her last day, when she was capable of nothing more than labored breathing, I thought of George Herbert’s description of prayer as “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.”

I had a lot of time to pray and reflect as I sat there. I reflected on a lot of things, among them what I would say to you today.

A week earlier, when she was being sent home from the hospital to die, there was a question as to whether she should go back to her retirement community or go to a special palliative care facility in another part of town. The palliative care nurse was direct with me: my mother needed to go home to her retirement community, she said, because her dying was not her own but something which those she lived with shouldn’t be robbed of.

At first I was slightly offended by the idea but I soon realized that the nurse was right. We live in and through one another in the body of Christ. So her dying was not a private tragedy but one last ministry she could exercise just by allowing others to take part in it.

We live in a highly individualistic culture and make much of our rights. Too much, I think.

Experiences like this are severe mercies that focus us on what the mission of the Church really is. The heart of the church’s ministry is helping individuals connect with God and supporting them in their spiritual journey in a community of love. And so in all our main services, what do we do? We break bread together: and together proclaim the Lord’s redeeming death until he comes.

I begin with all this because there is a temptation in the life of a parish which is flourishing the way ours is flourishing — and everything is significantly up: attendance, giving, pledging and the rest of it — to buy into the ethos of so-called ‘successful’ large churches — to be about growth for growth’s sake, or statistics, or novelty, or technique, or celebrity — to lose sight of what we are called to be as a Christian community that cares about people.

We are soon to break ground on some magnificent buildings. The last contracts are about to be signed and we should be see construction underway in three or four weeks. The Capital Campaign was not only the largest in the Episcopal Church so far this century but in relation to our annual budget almost unparalleled among large churches of any denomination in this country. But it is not the comparison to other churches that matters. What matters is that it is an indication of what the Holy Spirit has been doing in people’s hearts here. Jesus said that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, so I give thanks not just for what has happened but particularly what it means.

Beautiful as they will be, these buildings are not monuments but instruments. They are specialized tools, designed to serve, made to reach those who do not yet come here, so that they may encounter Jesus Christ and new life in him. They are being built to change lives.

As you know, part of the Capital Campaign was directed to fund the construction of a beautiful new church in the Diocese of Belize, situated in the village of Santa Elena. We have already built the basic structure and in less than two weeks we are sending an Incarnation Mission Team to work on its completion.

Closer to home, we have already made substantial progress towards one of the other purposes of the Capital Campaign — our mission to Homeless Teens at North Dallas High School.

I can’t praise too highly the professionalism of the staff in our Outreach Department who have been laying the foundations of this project. As many of you know, the North Dallas High School across the street has more homeless students than any other high school in Dallas. On any given day, between 90 and 110 homeless students attend. This population of homeless teenagers is wary of adults and authorities in general, and because of this lack of trust, these teens often fail access the disconnected array of government and other services designed to help them.

Trust must be built, and so we have started the very first drop-in program for homeless teens in the DISD. It is deliberately a ‘model’ program, and has already been copied by two other high schools in Dallas. ‘Drop In Fridays’ takes place an hour before school starts, provides simple basics like a hot breakfast, access to DART passes, hygiene kits, warm clothes and books. Volunteers from our church attend regularly and have started to build trust among this alienated group.

The next phase launches this Spring: ‘Touch Base Tuesdays’ is designed so that homeless teens who are staying for our Young Life program can spend an hour immediately after school meeting with our volunteers to get homework help.

The phase after that will be the creation of a permanent space — a safe and nurturing place full of resources, both tangible and spiritual where these vulnerable students can spend time both before and after school, where they can have a locker, somewhere to do laundry, a safe place that is theirs. We envision a place where volunteers and professionals act as advocates, mentors and positive adult role models.

If I may dream for a moment — and dreams do come to pass around here — wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Beecherl/Corrigan Fellows (who were themselves still a dream at last year’s Annual Parish Meeting) were to live in a building on the top floor of an Incarnation House, where they could both pray and live together as a new monastic community, and also befriend these homeless teens and model for them what their lives could be if they succeed in school?

And speaking of the promised Beecherl/Corrigan Fellows, I wonder if they could do us the honor of standing? They are guinea pigs of the first quality, and are road-testing the Fellows Program this year. Our goal is ultimately to have twelve Fellows each year, praying together, serving in our church, and learning about what it means to be a Christian in the workplace.

So my theme this morning it that the heart of our mission at Incarnation has nothing to do with glamour or show or razzamatazz but rather God working in the lives of individuals through this incredibly resourced worshipping and serving community.

I am resolved that we should never become the kind of church where individuals get lost in the shuffle. As we grow bigger, we need also to grow smaller. After all, a church where people neither know nor love one another is not a church.

One of the most important things that has been happening over the past year is one of the least visible: the creation of a Growth Group system which is structured to identify, train equip and support growth group leaders. Fr. Joe Hermerding is heading up this ministry and with the support of the Incarnation Foundation he is working with a renowned expert in the field, M. Scott Boren, to design our system suited to the culture of our parish.

We need to grow ‘smaller’ as a church of loving relationships but we need to grow deeper as well. To that end, this fall we are launching a theme for 2014-15 called the Year of Discipleship.

Everyone will be invited to take a ‘Spiritual Fitness’ assessment. We are currently designing a “spiritual inventory” so that you can better identify the strengths and growth areas of your faith. We will explore what discipleship really mean — in the pulpit, in some of our adult Sunday School classes, and to our growth groups. My hope is that this will be fruitful not only for personal growth and development but that it will also help us come to better understand our strengths and weaknesses at a church which will be invaluable in planning for the future.

As a final note, Fr. Greg and I will together be leading a pilgrimage to Israel November 4 to 15. We are going to use social media on the trip so that not only those who are able to go, but also those who are not, will be able to share in the experience.

We have all come to see in the last few years that God has put his hand on this church. And while our vision is a humane one it is not, by any measure a small one. We are called, I am convinced, to be center of renewal nationally — as we worship, make disciples, serve the poor and raise up leaders. It’s a huge vision — preposterous if there weren’t so much evidence that is already happening — but it is a vision which is neither more nor less that Jesus’s instruction to Peter: Simon if you love me, feed my sheep. Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs.

Download: 2013 Annual Report (.pdf)

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