The only thing constant is change. The longer I live, the more I appreciate the truth of this maxim.
Ordinarily in this, the January/February issue of the Extended Family, I devote this space to my annual State of the Church column. And I will come back to that. But first I want to address a very big change in our life together.
In just four Sundays, and after nearly eight years here -eight wonderful, eventful years- Beth will be officially leaving us. (I’m not using the phrase “saying good-bye” because I’m hopeful we’ll still be seeing her in church from time to time in an unofficial capacity.)
Speaking personally for a moment, it’s hard for me to express what a gift Beth has been to me over the course of her time here. Fortunately, I don’t have to express that because many of you know from your own experience what I’m talking about. But let me try anyway. Beth is the kind of colleague every head of staff hopes to have. She is conspicuously gifted for ministry, but also highly collaborative and easy to work with. She is grounded and mature, creative-minded and kind-hearted. And, not least, she is completely trustworthy. Whenever I had to be away, I knew that the congregation, and the Sunday service, were in highly capable hands. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine ever having a better colleague, and I will miss her greatly.
Of course Beth has developed deep bonds with many of you, too. So we want to make sure we send her off in style, in a way that celebrates her time here, and lets her know how much we love, value and appreciate her. I’ve asked a small group of people who worked most closely with Beth (Kristin Williams and Sandy Brauer from our Christian Education team, and Sarah Anne Eller, Corise Gambrell and Susan Laney from Congregational Life) to help us plan the specifics of what this celebration will look like.
But I hope you will plan now to join us for a special luncheon in her honor, which we’ll hold after worship on February 26, her last Sunday here. (And if you have ideas or thoughts to share about this, please contact me or Kristin, Sandy, Sarah Anne, Corise or Susan.)
Obviously, Beth’s departure does have a significant bearing on the state of our union here at WWPC. So let me now focus more specifically on that question.
Looking back, it felt like 2016 was something of a fallow season for us, the first half of the year especially. Participation in our programs — Sunday school, Just for Fun, Back Porch Sessions — stayed at roughly the same level we saw in 2015, or even declined slightly. And, of course, in June we marked another major transition in our staff when Steve Williams retired from his role here as our Director of Music to focus full-time on his faculty duties at the college. Perhaps because of Steve’s pending and subsequent departure, worship attendance declined slightly as compared to 2015, particularly over the summer.
But then it felt like something shifted. In September we welcomed Vivian as our new Director of Music and under her leadership the choir quickly returned to full strength, with many new faces and voices gracing our choir loft.
In October we celebrated the completion and roll out of our Ministry Plan. From that point on our fall programs saw a surge in attendance and vitality, in large part because, following our plan, we made an intentional effort to promote them on campus and in the wider community.
Our October Trunk or Treat event was a huge success, with the Chapel parking lot filled with children and families, many of whom we’d never seen before. Ditto for our December Christmas party: our fellowship hall was bursting with “children of all ages” — older adults and younger adults, high school students and young children, all the way down to toddlers, many of whom were new to us. Then, a week later our fellowship hall was again filled with college students and with our members, who all came together for a fun-filled evening of cookies and carols. And caroling, as some of us headed out afterwards to sing the great songs of the season around campus–to the surprise and delight of the students we encountered.
So on the programmatic side of the ledger we finished the year on a high note. That said, it’s also true that we were not able to close the gap between our income and our expenses and so, financially, we finished the year with a deficit. Clearly, this is not sustainable. In order to help close this gap for 2017, we’ve been forced to make some painful cuts to staff salaries and benefits, and (perhaps even more regrettably) to our social outreach programs.
But I truly believe that in our work together over last year, particularly the investments we’ve made in our ministry plan, we have laid the foundation for a vibrant new chapter in our life together. I also firmly believe that we will continue seeing measurable returns on these investments in the weeks and months ahead.
It’s important for you know that I am not alone in this belief. Even with a very tight budget, Session has voted to fill Beth’s position later this year. This decision was driven in large part by strong feedback we got from you, our members, especially from those of you who work most directly with Beth and know first-hand how vitally important her ministry is here. I see this investment as an act of faith in our future, and in our ministry plan, and, most importantly, in God’s goodness and generosity.
So for all the changes we’ve seen in the year that is behind us, and all the challenges we met, and for the changes, challenges and opportunities that await us in the year ahead, we give thanks to the One who does not change, and whose faithfulness endures forever.