Several people have asked that I share the remarks I made at our 2020 Annual Meeting. Below is a transcript
For my remarks this year, I don’t want to simply say aloud everything that is in my written report. There I have outlined the accomplishments we have made in the last year as a worshipping community. There are many and we should be unabashedly proud.
Instead, I want to spend the next couple of minutes sharing some of the broad observations I have made in my year and a half with you and then outline a vision I have for my ministry with and for you.
The standard of practice for any new clergy in a church is to actively observe for the first year of the ministry. As your minister, I have needed to get to know you, both as individuals but also as a community. While I have made a few necessary changes, mostly because this congregation has moved from a part time to a full time minister, for the most part I have been observing the life of this congregation, talking with you, and seeing how you are called to stretch or stay still.
There are three things, in a very broad and general way, I have learned about this community in the last year:
- First Congregational is truly a community. What I mean by that is you relate to one another not simply as people who gather for an hour once a week, but you relate to one another with the understanding that you are bound together. That is both good and tricky. Its tricky because when you are emotionally committed to a person or a group, emotions can run high, personalities can clash, and slights (either true or simply perceived) can hurt. That is all true because when we are truly invested in a community, we are invested with our whole selves. And that is what is good about First Congo being a true community. For the most part I have observed that we are all invested with our whole selves into the life and mission of this worshipping community. So many of you give so much, whether you are recognized for it or not.
- You are willing to try new things with me. This year we experimented a lot. Some things have worked, others have not. We did different types of things in worship – whether it was a Creation Justice service that took us outside on a drizzly day, or it was 5 weeks where we completely upended how we worship together by gathering on Thursday evenings out at the lake – whatever it is, you are willing to give it a go. Even if you are quietly grinding your teeth wanting to get back to what feels more familiar. I am so grateful that you are willing to try. Because I am experimenting with you. I don’t know how things will go when we try them. The simple fact that we are trying and growing is a true accomplishment, even when the experiments don’t work out.
- You have a desire to grow, but are committed to holding onto a long-held identity. This church has deep roots for some of you personally and for the wider Winona community. There is an established sense of identity here, and it is one that I have loved getting to know. There is so much, SO MUCH, in the history of this church that we are rightly proud of. We will continue to celebrate that and use our history to help point us where we are going in the future. But we are all very aware that the world is changing and the Church needs to catch up. In order to grow that will mean taking a hard look at what the world needs from religion and what religion needs from the world. That may mean letting go of some things and holding on tight to others. This is something we will do together.
- Finally and most importantly I have learned that this community is one that has a tremendous impact. And that our small worshipping community has and will continue to do great things. As your pastor, my identity within Winona is wrapped up in First Congo. That means I hear, all of the time, what people think about our church. And I can tell you, even those folks who never come to church, they are so grateful for our progressive and socially aware faith. I hear people tell me that they feel good knowing that a church like First Congo exists. I know there are some who think the hey-day of First Congo has passed. That people simply do not find church relevant anymore. I know that not to be true. In fact, I think the exact opposite. I think the greatest period in the life of this church is ahead of us. In world that is so divisive and, in many ways, frightening, people are looking to find a sense of something greater than them. People are looking for God and searching for their role in God’s Kingdom, even if that is not the words they use. They are looking for a place that welcomes and encourages questions, that holds together science and faith, that allows for mystery, and values humanity in all of its glorious forms. They are searching for a language of hope and love. We are uniquely qualified to provide the community and resources the people of today’s world need. That, I am sure of.
So, we are a community truly invested in one another, willing to try, eager to grow, all with a solid historical foundation. And we are positioned to be a beacon of light, a taste of salt, and a city set upon a hill for a world longing for God. Taking that assurance with us, where will we go from here, and most importantly, what can we learn together?
I see our ministry growing together in the following ways:
- Leaning heavily on the words of the prophet Isaiah, we will continue to make our corner of the world a better place. We will continue to provide space for everyone. We will see ourselves as true and real neighbors, intimately connected to our town and community, and we will be determined to make real the radical and revolutionary love of God as taught to us by Jesus Christ.
- We will likely never be a huge church. That is simply not the world we are living in and it is not what the world will become. However, it does not take a sanctuary filled to the rafters with people every Sunday to make a community vital. A worshiping community is vital in many ways as evidenced by how they interact and engage with one another and with the wider world. While I will always be eager to welcome new people to our community and I invite them to join us with abandon, and I strongly urge you to do the same, it is not my primary function to simply go out and find new people. My role will continue to be to make the life and ministry of this community as it exists today vital and life-giving. I will do so by honoring who we are today, loving each of you so much it is ridiculous, and, steeped in that love, urging us all to listen carefully to where God is calling us. And even if there are only a few of us, we can be confident that Christ is among us.
- Finally, I will teach and preach the Gospel and help you all develop the language and tools to use the radical good news of the Gospel in your lives. I will never shy away from a topic that feels too controversial, and I will listen carefully to what moves you. I truly believe a space that is fundamentally safe to voice ideas, doubts, and disagreements is exactly what the world needs. So, just as the early followers of Christ did at the very beginning of the church, we will not let fear win and stay silent, instead we will keep on speaking. We are followers of still-speaking God, which is such an exciting thing
- These are big, broad goals for our growing ministry together, but it will be the foundation we will place ourselves. And, all of this and so much more will be achieved by holding strong to our faith, our faith that we do not do this alone but rather with the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit and the unbreakable and unquestioning grace of God.