Beloved St. John’s community,
This Sunday, January 23, we will have our second annual meeting entirely online (at 11am after the 10am morning service). Last January when I was preparing to write my report about the previous year, in a way it was easy. There were two giant and new things to talk about: the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing impact of the murder of George Floyd. Both of these radically changed our lives: how we do work, school, church, life; what we prioritize; how we connect. They have forced us to ask difficult questions about the church’s role in creating and healing from systemic racism and the dominance and exploitation of the earth. They have empowered us to seek the Spirit’s presence through deeply and imaginatively exploring scripture together. As one member said, “I have never learned more about the Bible, or been more profoundly transformed by it and the wisdom of this community, than this year we’ve been meeting over Zoom.” I don’t think we anticipated that in the beginning of 2022, we would again be in a COVID-19 surge, or that after nearly nine months of carefully worshipping together in person, we would again be worshipping together online only.
If you read the wonderful reports of other St. John’s ministers in our annual report, you will see the extraordinary ways God’s Spirit has been active in and through the St. John’s community. Through Sunday morning and other weekly services—video, in-person, and livestreamed; soulful music programs for adults and children; adult formation on Sunday mornings, Wednesday Spirit groups and Thursday evening book groups; vibrant and thoughtful children & youth programs; and incredible justice & service action and reflection, we learned more about what it is to follow Jesus’ Way of Love together during radically changing circumstances.
And through it all, we’ve also seen what other churches nationwide are seeing. We are smaller in attendance, membership and budget. But those who remain are passionately engaged and even more generous than they have ever been. Although we have significant cash reserves due to the incredible generosity of St. John’s members and the federal government’s PPP loan, we are also facing the reality that unless things change, in 2023 we will need to adjust our structures to support the church’s mission—what is most important to us—given then-current resources.
Rather than view this from primarily an anxious place, I believe with all my heart that we can use this time as an opportunity to distill our purpose and follow Jesus with courage and innovation. We can follow the wisdom of Stephanie Spellers, the Episcopal Church’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation, who this year published The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline and New Hope for Beloved Community. In this book, she compares the church to the alabaster jar the woman broke to anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and her tears, wiping them with her hair. It was an extravagant gesture that released what was precious to honor the one she loved. Similarly, Spellers says that the pandemic and racial and creation crises facing us have been instruments the Spirit has used to break the church open. She talks about our collective yearning to be a church liberated from the various ways empire and systemic racism have operated in and through us, and then says:
Now that we are here, humbled and open, we have a choice and a chance….
If you know God has more love, more freedom, and more life in store for us, and you want to be part of making that dream real…What will you do?
I pray that we can embrace each other’s cracked hearts and the cracked-open pieces of God’s church and take advantage of this rare opportunity to be reshaped into communities that actively, intentionally embody and witness to the reality of God’s beloved community…God may even now be taking hold of the dismantled pieces and refashioning a community after God’s own heart.
In order to continue to do this work, and to risk believing God’s good news that Beloved Community is the end toward which God is moving all creation, we will take the next year to be asking questions like:
If God’s Spirit could create anything in and through St. John’s, what would our vibrant, faithful faith community look like in a year?
What would we need to embrace?
What would we need to let go of?
Where would we see evidence of God’s Spirit?
For myself, I believe we will be seeking to heal from the marriage of church and empire by moving from duality to unity, from dominant distance to humble relationship, from intellectual abstraction to embodied experience. We will seek to experiment with these shifts in our structures, identity and purpose. We will take a year to listen, act, reflect and pray; to explore these questions through trial and error, humor and joy. We will answer these questions by drawing closer to the person and love of Christ, by learning rhythms of life and spiritual practice that nourish us together, and by stepping forth in courage, trusting that God’s Spirit will never leave us, and is always making everything new.
In Christ’s love and hope,
 Stephanie Spellers, The Church Cracked Open (Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021), 133-135.