My dear All Saints family,
Grace to you, and peace, in God the Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ!
We are rapidly approaching the start of a new year together. The last Sunday of November will be the first Sunday of Advent, which this year not only marks the beginning of the Church year, but also the 1-year anniversary of my arrival in Appleton and my stepping into the role of rector for All Saints Episcopal Church. Safe to say, I suspect, that the nearly twelve months that have passed since December 1, 2019, have not exactly gone the way that many of us would have predicted last winter. Nevertheless, I want you all to know that my family and I remain overwhelmingly grateful to have been welcomed by you into this parish family, and we continue to thank God for calling us to this place, to this ministry, and to this relationship with all of you. We are blessed!
All Saints is blessed, as well! Thanks to the grace of God and the faithful efforts and hard work of the Vestry, staff, and lay leadership of this parish, we have weathered the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, managing not only to maintain our worship, fellowship, and formation, but also to expand the scope and range of our ministry in totally new ways. Necessity really is the mother of invention: when the pandemic forced us to shut the physical doors of our building and kept us from gathering in person, we created an online ministry and online worship services, and we did it nearly overnight.
It is due to your continued and generous giving throughout this pandemic crisis that All Saints has been able to pay our bills, sustain our payroll, address critical maintenance issues in our building, and at the same time expand our ministries into the online environment. Your ongoing support has meant that All Saints has not had to face a financial crisis on top of the Covid crisis. THANK YOU! It is a sign of your love for this parish and your enduring faith in God that even in a time of global plague you have made your faith community a priority.
As one parishioner observed: “Are you pleasantly surprised that our connection to one another has endured, even though we haven’t seen each other in months? Are you pleasantly surprised that our connection to All Saints Church, our spiritual home, has endured, despite our not having entered her doors in eight months? Apparently, the mystical body of Christ is stronger than we knew.”
I would bet that some of you knew, though. This parish has deep roots in faith. That has been apparent to me since I got here a year ago.
We’ve been through a lot together since December of last year. But one thing we haven’t been through together yet is the annual stewardship campaign. I’m told that, normally, the stewardship drive would have already ended by now, with pledges being gathered in by All Saints’ Day. Since almost nothing has been “normal” about 2020, however, perhaps it isn’t too surprising that stewardship is working a little differently this year. So I’m writing to you all today to invite you to join me in a new way of looking at stewardship and, by extension, an exciting vision for the future of All Saints Episcopal Church.
Each of us is at this moment dealing to varying degrees with feelings of separation, constraint, uncertainty, and/or fear. What if we, as a parish, were to transform our sense of uncertainty into a spirit of inquiry? As new circumstances compel us to enter a new church relationship for a new decade, we need to consider opportunities for flourishing in new ways. What if, as we look forward to a return to in-person gathering, we also work together to plant the seeds for a post-pandemic All Saints Church that preserves all that we love about our church yet allows us to expand the reach and impact of our church in our lives and in our community?
Working with the Vestry and the Finance Ministry Team, and supported by a Stewardship Team called together to help flesh out and implement this vision, here is what I am proposing:
Three phases & three stewardship drives—a unified three-year plan
THIS YEAR: PLANTING THE SEEDS
What we need to do: Sustain the parish.
In a year full of crises and unforeseen changes & challenges, we seek only to maintain what we currently have. We need to pay the bills and keep the church functioning, yes. But beyond that, we need to offer our thanks to God and our gratitude to this church for all the blessings we share together. In that way, we will plant the seeds of future growth.
At this stage, we are primarily concerned with keeping the seeds of our faith and of our All Saints community alive.
What does that mean in practical terms? Well, here is a rough calculation of the daily costs of our three main areas of expense:
Ministry staff $391 per day
Buildings & grounds $209 per day
Current operations $202 per day
These figures are based on a very conservative budget proposal that is aimed at simply maintaining our current ministries and levels of expense. We have benefited somewhat from being shut down during the pandemic, since closing the building has meant lower costs in terms of cooling and heating. Eventually, however, we will return to in-person worship, and that will cost us more than our current, online worship does.
We need your generous support and your faithful giving that has kept us going during this pandemic to continue. We need you to help keep the seeds of ministry alive until we can emerge from this crisis and begin to grow our future together.
NEXT YEAR: TENDING THE GARDEN
What we need to do: Move from maintenance toward mission.
Building upon the solid foundation we have established, we must seek to discover our identity as a community of believers and followers of Jesus Christ, and also to discern God’s specific call to us to act as Christ’s body in this place. We need to ask challenging questions to push us beyond mere maintenance to get us excited about the future and to prepare us for real growth to come.
At this stage, our focus begins to pivot from being primarily internally-focused to becoming more externally-focused as we move beyond securing our own needs and sustaining our own community toward a vision of what we might do for God with the community and stability God has given us.
What does that mean? It means prayer and discernment. It means studying the Holy Scriptures. It means discovering and naming the specific gifts and resources that God has entrusted to us—both as individual members of the parish and especially as a community of Jesus-followers. What do we have to offer anybody who is not already a member of our parish? What gives us joy? More importantly, what are the most critical needs of the folks who live just outside our parish doors?
To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, the intersection of our deep joy and the world’s deep need is where we discover our vocation.
God is calling us to do more than merely continue existing. God has work for us to do. In Year Two, we begin the work of discovering the details of the mission God has in mind for us—the reason God wants us to grow.
These will be challenging conversations that invite us to re-vision how we see ourselves as a parish and how we see our purpose as the people of God in Appleton, Wisconsin. How exciting!
THE YEAR AFTER: WORKING THE HARVEST
What we need to do: Define and enact God’s call to us in concrete actions
Having discovered our identity rooted deeply in Jesus Christ, and having listened faithfully to His call to grow His Church (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – Matt. 28:19), we begin to harvest the seeds planted and tended in previous years. We need to discern the specific ways in which Jesus is calling us to be His body here in Appleton—the particular people in our area (and beyond) to whom Jesus is sending us as apostles and ministers.
At this stage, we look to both present and future with excitement, confidence, and zeal, and we offer up to God a stable, sustainable, highly-functioning community of committed believers ready and eager to do the work that God has given us to do in our community, our city, our region, and beyond.
What will that look like? Who can say? But I imagine it looks like a dynamic, engaged parish, full pews on Sundays and Wednesdays (at least), a congregation actively living out our discipleship in many different ways, a presence in the Appleton community that sees us tending the needs of “the least of these” whilst at the same time offering a safe haven and a source of healing and true inspiration for all of God’s children.
Does that sound outlandish? Unobtainable? Not to me. I’ve seen hard proof in my first year of what your faith can do. And I have no doubt whatsoever in the absolute power of God to do great things within, through, and by means of All Saints Episcopal Church. But we do not have to figure out how to get there (or how to fund such a vision) all at once!
All we have to do is commit to God, and commit to God’s Church. We do not, will not, cannot ask anyone to give beyond your means or to commit to more than you can manage. We simply ask you, please, to continue to support All Saints with your generous giving as you’ve done throughout this year. Help us maintain the great gifts we have in this church, and help us plant the seeds this year that will grow into a beautiful, bountiful harvest in years to come.
Thank you, and God bless you all!
On Holy Communion
My dear friends in Christ,
As you know, we have been working hard behind the scenes to figure out the best way to return to celebrating Holy Eucharist as our principal act of weekly worship. Rapidly changing—and rapidly increasing—Covid numbers in our area and our state have made the task … difficult, at best. As I’ve observed in a number of my previous Newsletter columns lately, it has become apparent that, for various reasons, this virus isn’t going away anytime soon.
Because the virus is still with us, and because it is not likely to abate in the foreseeable future, we are left in a tricky spot: we cannot simply “wait it out” before we get back to Communion; we also cannot simply resume gathering together in the church building to celebrate Eucharist, either. What, then, can we do?
Well, the best we can do is experiment a bit within the parameters of our current situation.
Current diocesan restrictions limit us to having no more than four persons together in the church building for the celebration of Eucharist (including the priest). That doesn’t leave much room for physical participation on the part of the parish. Our current Zoom format actually allows greater interaction and participation in the service than we could have if we just switched over to Communion in the church that’s limited to four people.
Given those factors, here is what I’d like to try going forward: let’s do exactly what we’ve been doing for live-streaming, but let’s add actual Communion to the end of the service. In other words, we’ll still use Zoom to connect to social media for live-streaming the service. We’ll still have lectors and intercessors and psalmists join in the service from their homes, thus avoiding having to have groups of people physically gathered in the church space. But instead of concluding the service with Spiritual Communion, we’ll conclude with literal Communion.
Here’s the catch, though: in the Anglican tradition, and therefore in The Episcopal Church, priests are not to celebrate “solo” Mass. In other words, in order for me to celebrate the Eucharist, there must be at least one other person present with me to share in the Communion of Jesus. Now, the experts are telling us pretty clearly that the next six to twelve months are going to be with worst since the pandemic first broke upon us early this year. I am extraordinarily hesitant, therefore, to take the chance of putting anyone at risk in this climate.
So what I’d like to do, again as an experiment, is to offer this possibility to the church: my wife, Anne, and our children, Emily & Elena, already live together with me in the same space (often on top of each other!) and share the same air. Because of that, if I were simply to bring them to the church building with me on Sunday mornings, we would be able to celebrate the Eucharist because there would be people here to share in the celebration with me. We could then live-stream actual Holy Eucharist for our Sunday worship service.
I realize that doing things that way does not offer the larger parish the opportunity to receive Communion, and that’s what we’re sorely missing after all these months. But I’m seeing this proposal as a very temporary “solution” until the Covid numbers allow us to bump up to larger numbers in the church building. If we can get the pandemic numbers down enough, we’ll be able to move to a lesser level of restriction (perhaps 20 people in the building, instead of four). At that point, we would absolutely adapt our practice to make sure as many parishioners as possible could come participate.
So. A temporary solution. Not an ideal situation. But it has been weighing more and more heavily on my heart that, during a time of great strife and great plague, we ought to be saying more Masses, not fewer. As a priest, the centerpiece of my vocation is a call to celebrate God’s holy sacraments. And our entire Christian tradition is very clear that the celebration of the Eucharist brings immeasurable benefits not only to those who participate physically, but to all those on whose behalf we offer the sacrifice, and indeed to the whole world, the entirety of God’s creation. So if we can get back to celebrating Eucharist, even in a less-than-ideal way, sooner rather than later, I think it’s worth it. And we would be doing it especially with an eye towards expanding the scope of the service as soon as it’s at all safe to do so.
So that’s the plan at the moment, and a bit of the reasoning and thought process behind the current plan. Please let me know what you think, what questions you have, what you’d like to see in the future, etc. – I’d love to hear from you and have the chance to talk about our worship in these trying times in greater depth. Please drop me a line at email@example.com and let’s connect!
Yours in Christ,
“But when are we going to get back to the way things were?”
My dear friends in Christ,
Not quite two weeks ago, I wrote these words to you all:
“The truth is that we will never get back to the way things were. We won’t. Because we can’t. Our world is changed, and it cannot be un-changed.”
I was talking about the prospect of our resuming some form of in-person worship at All Saints—in particular, of resuming the celebration of Holy Eucharist.
As if to drive home the point, as soon as my last message was published announcing that we would be resuming in-person worship in the month of October, the rates of Covid infection in Appleton, in the Fox Cities, in Wisconsin overall, skyrocketed. This latest spike in the numbers, significant by any measure, was the sole subject of the latest meeting of the diocesan Covid-19 Task Force. I’m not sure if the decisions made in that meeting will have been published by the time you’re reading this message, but if not then they very shortly will be.
The good news is that the Task Force did not recommend totally suspending all in-person worship until further notice. The not-bad-but-perhaps-not-wonderful news is that the Task Force did recommend, and the bishop has now directed, that in-person worship services be restricted to no more than four people in the building at one time (including priest & servers), masked and spaced at least six feet apart. These stricter regulations are temporary measures, but they will remain in place until further notice from the bishop.
What that means for us … is a bit up in the air at the moment. We do not, at present, have the capability to live stream from our worship space a Communion service that involves more than one person. One priest, one lector/intercessor, and one server leaves room for only one participant in a Communion service that’s restricted to four people, total. Given that we cannot at the moment broadcast such a service, I imagine some folks might feel there wouldn’t be much point in even holding that service at all. If so few people could actually participate, and nobody else could see it, what’s the point?
On the other hand, it has been weighing heavily on my heart and my soul since the shutdown in March that, for spiritual and theological and pastoral reasons, we should be saying more Masses during a time of great plague, not fewer. That even if nobody’s there to see such Masses, they still ought to be prayed and celebrated on behalf of—and for the spiritual benefit of—the whole parish, our whole community, our state, our nation, and our world. After all, if we really believe what we claim to believe, theologically, about what happens in the Eucharist, then isn’t it our bounden duty as faithful followers and disciples of Jesus Christ to celebrate and enact his life, death, and resurrection, until his coming again?
All of which is to say, the announcement I made in the last newsletter must now be modified somewhat in light of the recent surge in Covid cases—and we know from watching this same thing happen in other states that a surge in Covid deaths will inevitably follow—and that our exact plans for how we will move forward with in-person worship are today a bit more up-in-the-air than they were two weeks ago. I will continue to be conversing with our wardens and vestry, and together we will shape our plans both to conform to diocesan policy and to meet the needs of this parish.
In the meantime, I really would love to hear directly from you all. Let me know your thoughts, hopes, fears, and concerns regarding worshipping together in-person and about celebrating Communion whilst managing the very present risks of Covid-19. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thank you all for your continued grace, devotion, faithfulness, and commitment to this blessed parish of All Saints. Even in the midst of crisis, it is an absolute blessing to get to be part of your church and share this journey (however difficult this present stretch of road may be) with you all.
My dear friends in Christ,
There is an old joke about a supposedly ancient curse, which says, “May you live in interesting times.” The joke is that it doesn’t really sound all that bad, the prospect of living in interesting times. It sounds, in fact, rather interesting. At least, until one remembers that the most interesting, the most gripping, the most riveting times to read about in history books are times that were full of great strife, upheaval, chaos, conflict, even violence—all the things that also make for interesting and exciting movies and television shows.
That’s just it, though. The exciting events and situations that make all those stories from history or Hollywood really interesting … those are generally not the sorts of experiences that any sane person would ever want actually to live through in real life.
My friends, it would appear that we are, right now, living in interesting times.
I won’t rehearse and rehash the details of the violence and chaos that has been recently and still is being experienced by our neighbors in Kenosha. By now, I’m sure we’ve all seen too many details, too many times. Our own Bishop Matt last Friday issued a powerful and uplifting pastoral letter to the diocese. I commend it to your reading and consideration. I cannot improve upon any of the things that +Matt has said so eloquently, speaking into this deeply troubling moment in our lives together.
I can say, though, with some confidence that the shock and horror of these particular incidents on our doorstep will begin to fade, sooner or later. The 24-hour news cycle will rush to latch onto the next shocking and horrifying headline, in the next town or city, and those of us who have the privilege of being able to do so will start to return to life as normal (“normal” itself, these days, being something of a different concept than it used to be).
But issues of race and racism, of police and policing, of deep, seemingly intractable divisions in our society—divisions that often render us incapable of agreeing upon even a shared set of facts, much less what to do about them—are not going to go away any time soon.
So what do we do? How do we find God in this? How do we find each other? How do we do any of that when we’ve been physically separated from each other, from our church building, from the worship that comforts and sustains us in deeply familiar ways, for half a year?
There are, of course, no simple or easy answers to any of those questions. I do invite us all, however, to borrow an idea from our Pentecostal cousins in the Christian faith: the idea of holy chaos.
Now, that’s a term that takes some unpacking. Let me begin by clarifying what I don’t mean by it. I don’t mean that the shooting of Jacob Blake was in any way, shape, or form a “holy” thing. I do not mean that a teenager’s choice to carry a rifle across state lines and to murder two protestors and wound a third was in any way, shape, or form “holy.” When I call chaos “holy,” I do not intend to imply that God wills the chaos or inflicts it upon us. As the saying goes, God is good—all the time! No, what I mean by “holy chaos” is that God finds ways to sanctify even the darkest, most evil events and acts and circumstances, turning them always to the greatest possible good and the highest possible purpose in the unfolding of God’s will in God’s creation.
This holy work that God constantly does throughout creation is most perfectly demonstrated and exemplified in the broken body of Jesus Christ on the cross, and by the empty tomb on the morning of the Resurrection. It was not God’s desire that Jesus suffer and die, but suffer and die for us Jesus did, and through his suffering and sacrifice God worked the miracle and the mystery of Salvation.
We should note that it took centuries for Christians to work out the meaning of everything that happened on that cross. That is not to say we should expect it to take centuries to find God in the midst of our present chaos. The earliest Christians recognized God’s presence in their midst, even in their experiences of persecution, violence, and death. What I’m saying, rather, is that we must be gentle with ourselves, and we must accept whatever grace we can offer each other, as we all struggle to make sense out of this moment in our shared history and to discern God’s will for us in the midst of chaos.
For grace abounds, and it will continue to abound. God is yet with us. That is the promise God made to us in Jesus Christ—that he will be with us, even to the end of the age. The age is not yet ended, though some days it may appear that we are at the end of all things. Let us lean on each other, carry each other, lift each other up. For whatever divisions may stand between us, we are united by something greater. We are all bound together by God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Let us remember that, always, and be faithful to God and to each other. Amen.