Annual Meeting: Christ Episcopal Church, Shaker Heights
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Fourteen years ago, Christ Church, Shaker Heights was – in the eyes of many - a parish that didn’t have much of a future. In prior years, a series of events involving inappropriate behavior by both clergy and lay leaders substantially diminished our parish life. Fractious arguments between various groups split the congregation. A significant number of congregants fled to other churches or nowhere at all. Morale was low and the financial situation was dismal.
As people and money fled, there was an increasing overreliance on the White Spire Fund principal to balance the operating budget, which was $200,000 larger than it is today. Based on then-current levels of principal withdrawals, the parish estimated it had no more than five years of cash reserve left. It was a grim situation. If things did not improve quickly, we were destined to join the forty-plus Episcopal churches that close every year because they lack the money, membership or both to sustain a viable faith community. Many of you remember those very challenging days.
Despite this gloomy outlook, a remnant of faithful people believed in Christ Church and knew that God had a future for this parish. They had faith and hope. While they might not have discerned exactly what the future looked like, they knew they had one. To paraphrase the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, "[They had] faith, [which] is confidence in what [they] hope[d] for and assurance about what [they] did not see.” At least did not see in that moment of time.
This is a faith that stems from the heart, not the mind. The heart is that place where God meets us; it is the fountain spring of faith. As the psalmist proclaims, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.” (9:1)
Heart is central to faith. In secular terms, baseball captain Van Buren sings this to his demoralized team in the play Damn Yankees:
“You've gotta have heart
All you really need is heart
When the odds are sayin' you'll never win
That's when the grin should start
You've gotta have hope
Mustn't sit around and mope
Nothin's half as bad as it may appear
Wait'll next year and hope
When your luck is battin' zero
Get your chin up off the floor
Mister you can be a hero
You can open any door, there's nothin' to it but to do it
You've gotta have heart
Miles 'n miles n' miles of heart
Oh, it's fine to be a genius of course
But keep that old horse
Before the cart
First you've gotta have heart.”
Having a heart open to hear God’s call saved this parish, even when we doubted.
- A heart that welcomed all of God’s children.
- A heart that was ready to reinvent this parish and how we used this building we have been given.
- A heart to try new things, even to the point of failure, so we could keep on discerning and learning.
- A wise heart that could grieve. A big heart that could embrace. A warm heart that could love.
You’ve gotta have heart - and we did.
As we enter 2018, Christ Church is here – breathing, active, brimming with tenants and proclaiming the good news of the Gospel. No one is talking about the end of our days any longer. We now ask what God has in store for our future.
Today, we find ourselves positioned to be a heart in a new way. God, in His wisdom, has literally placed us in the heart of the Van Aken District! See how the City of Shaker Heights defines the district:
- Pistone’s to the north…
- The post office to the south…
- Tower East to the east…
- The Farnsleigh/Van Aken intersection to the west…
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) This parish knows where our heart is and we treasure what we are known for: radical welcome, forgiveness, hearing God’s call, sensing God’s presence in our midst, quality Christian formation, great liturgy and music, caring for the least of these, our location in this unfolding new community around us, and much more.
Is there more treasure than those things for us to mine? Hold on to that question.
At Diocesan Winter Convocation last February, guest speaker and Episcopal priest Dwight Zscheile provided insights. Zscheile has written several books about the church and the surrounding culture in an age when the culture grows increasingly hostile and ambivalent to the church and all institutional religion.
The focus of Dwight’s presentations revolved around his book, The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age. “What does it mean to be the Church in this age? What does it mean to be a faith community in a world where institutional faith is increasingly seen as irrelevant?”
He observes that “most people in today’s world don’t need one more thing in their schedules; if anything, they need help simplifying and focusing their lives.” Yet, “the church rarely listens long enough to its unchurched or disconnected neighbors to learn how the church might meaningfully connect with their hopes, dreams, struggles, and spiritual yearnings. In shame and grief, it doesn’t ask its children or grandchildren why they no longer participate in church or how church might have to change to speak to them.”
Zscheile’s answers to this question is amazingly simple: he claims that the church needs engage in close listening relationships with our neighbors. This of course requires meeting people where they are in their lives. As he states, “the church cannot expect people to listen to its teachings without first engaging people where they are.”
The “Agile Church” is goes into community neighborhoods where it lives and meets people where they are in their lives. It doesn’t come with a list of demands about belief, practice, attendance, etc. It is a church focused on fostering spaces and relationships in which people can learn, explore, practice and play so that they can grow in relationship with each other and develop one with God.
Mark Swaim-Fox led two successful workshops last year with numerous participants. These groups explored who they felt were our neighbors and how we as the spiritual heart of this new Van Aken neighborhood could meet them. In a few weeks, a third workshop with previous participants will assess our initial workshops and devise an action plan.
The Vestry hosted two trial events last year to meet our neighbors. We hosted an ice cream social for the Thornton Neighborhood Association in August, and then had a wine and cheese reception for tenants and groups who regularly use our building. We were able to meet people, make connections and foster relationships. We understand that our literal Thornton neighbors and our building neighbors are treasures we could mine in the heart of Christ Church.
And these become relationships of reciprocity. As we meet people where they are, they get to know us for who we are. The suspicions, preconceptions and fears that many people have of Christians and institutional religion fall away. People come to discover we are not one of those fundamentalist, Biblical literalist, judgmental and exclusivist expressions of the faith. As followers of Jesus, we know that this is not what he preached or practiced. We are called to be better than that. We are a place whose heart is sure that Jesus has redeemed for God from every family, language, people, nation and more. We know that Jesus loved radically and wantonly, and we are called to follow that example.
At the Shaker Community Gallery grand opening last year, artistic director Leslye Arian told the crowd of 100-plus that Christ Church is a hospitable, warm, and caring faith community. Gallery founders felt we were gracious in all ways when they considered establishing the Shaker Community gallery in our chapel. Leslye added, “I’m Jewish, but if I weren’t, I’d be a member here!” Testimonies like this are evidence of how we are an authentic heart-centered community and how others perceive the treasure that is Christ Church.
Let us continue to explore our heart, the treasures that lie in it, the treasures we have yet to mine – especially our neighbors - and all other treasures God wants us to acquire as we build God’s reign. Let us not only be an agile Church, but a community of Jesus followers who love our neighbor as ourselves and love God with our hearts.
In my State of the Parish address three years ago, I challenged the congregation to a “BHAG: A big hairy, audacious goal.” That goal was to balance the parish operating budget by 2021 to be self-sufficient and no longer reliant on any principal withdrawal from the White Spire Fund (WSF).
The purpose of this BHAG was several-fold:
- To make sure that the WSF was a long-term resource to support the ministry and mission of the parish;
- To not rely on the generosity of deceased members to provide the daily needs of the current congregation (relying on the generosity of dead people’s assets to run the church is a terrible business model);
- To have the members assume better stewardship for the sustainability and viability of their spiritual home.
In 2016, 2017 and 2018, stewardship giving has increased. The incentive of an anonymous $40,000 one-time gift toward 2018 pledging inspired many people to increase their giving. To date, we are $30,000 over what the Vestry budgeted in pledge income for 2018: $361,000 versus $331,000. Our rental income is strong. The staff, lay and clergy leaders continue to exercise restraint in spending and controlling budgets. Barring any major operational crisis, this means we will draw down the smallest amount of principal from the WSF in 18 years. We budgeted for a draw of just under $83,000 this year.
At our current pledge level, that will be closer to $50,000, maybe less. It wasn’t that long ago we were above $130,000 per year. That’s considerable progress toward the BHAG and is simply phenomenal!
We are indebted to our anonymous donor for their confidence in the BHAG and the parish’s future. I hope it inspires us continually engage in good stewardship. I also hope it inspires us to do a few other things that will help us achieve our goal:
- To make provisions in our legacy giving to the church;
- To tell our neighbors about Christ Church;
- To invite people to participate in the activities of our various tenant.
- To proclaim the good news of this place in the heart of the Van Aken District.
If any of you would like to make a one-time challenge pledge gift to the parish, please see me!
Speaking of legacy giving, I want to remember Jackie Hudson. Some of you will remember Jackie, a marvelous, warm, big-hearted woman from Jamaica who worked for Nestlé in Solon. Jackie was a faithful and loving Christian who was devoted to Christ Church. Among her many ministries, she was a lector. I assure you there is nothing more beautiful than hearing scripture in a gorgeous Jamaican lilt. Jackie died from cancer in 2009. In her legacy giving, she left a $50,000 gift to Christ Church in a Deferred Executive Compensation Plan with payouts made to the church over nine years. We are about to receive the final payment. Because the money was wisely invested, each yearly payment was in excess of $7,000. Over nine years, this resulted in more than $63,000 to the parish. Jackie’s gift of love to this parish is one reason we are here today.
Each of us can do something in our estate planning. No gift is too small or too big. It all accrues to the good. It allows us to proclaim the gospel in this corner of the vineyard well into the future.
Of course, it’s not only what happens here. It’s about what happens here that nourishes and encourages us to go into the world to love and serve God.
January’s Women’s March, we had dozens of Christ Church members – women and men who respect them - march in Cleveland, New York, and Washington, D.C. These folks incarnated the gospel as they publicly proclaimed that in our America, all people are equal, love always wins, black lives matter, immigrants and refugees are welcome, disabilities are respected, women are in charge of their own bodies, people and planet are valued over profits, and diversity is celebrated.
We supported Forest Hills Presbyterian Church with our financial assistance and prayers as they took in Leonor Garcia, a woman with four children born in this country, whom ICE wants to deport.
Our Vestry voted unanimously to support a resolution before the Shaker City Council to make this a sanctuary city, living into the Biblical commands to “not wrong or oppress the foreigner in [y]our midst” (Ex. 22:21) and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We also had several Christ Church members who worked on the steering committee that supported this resolution, which failed to pass Council by one vote. Justice was heard as many community leaders – including me – spoke to Council to encourage its passage.
We continue to provide 50 sandwich lunches a week to St. Herman’s Orthodox Monastery on the near-Westside, which operates a 24/7 feeding program for those experiencing food shortages. This ministry is now solidly financially solvent and able to continue tanks to your generous giving.
Our Outreach Committee continues to provide donations of food and hygiene kits to the Homeless Stand Down, supports Family Promise and Episcopal Relief and Development and makes micro-loans to women beginning their own businesses in two Third World countries.
These are but a part of the ways that we share the treasure of our hearts with our neighbors, near and far.
Our tenant roster continues to grow. The Shaker Community Gallery (SCG) had its inaugural exhibit in the spring, followed by two more in the late summer and late fall/early winter. The SCG has attracted hundreds of people into our building to see the artwork. In the process, we have had the opportunity to make our community known to them. I have had several conversations with folks interested about the parish and our expression of the Christian faith. Once the construction is completed across the street and the entertainment and commercial aspects are up and running, the SCG will have a much wider audience to come and see future exhibits.
If you have not attended the SCG or one of the special lectures on art that are part of each exhibit, I encourage you to do so and bring a friend!
Meghann Heenen, an artist who does dance interpretations on canvas with charcoal, has rented one of our old IHN family rooms. Her art is fascinating and a must-see. Meghann is a charming and vivacious spirit who exudes a zest for life.
Our vision to utilize this building as an asset and to develop it as an arts and culture center and the home of a vibrant faith community in the heart of the Van Aken district continues to come to fruition.
We are talking with Clay Works, a ceramics studio that currently operates in the Cleveland Heights Coventry Library. Since the library is being remodeled and taking over the entire building for their operation, Clay Works is seeking a new home. We should know in the next few days if we will be their new home.
Last year, the Diocese of Ohio celebrated its 200th anniversary. As part of that celebration, the Diocese asked all parishes to engage in a #What’sYour200? Campaign. Essentially, we were asked to do things to build up God’s reign in units of 200. Laura and Mollie Borgione were literally our cheerleaders for this campaign at Christ Church. I’m biased, but I believe their charismatic and enthusiastic leadership helped us surpass other #What’sYour200? projects.
We collected 200 packages of baby diapers and wipes for the Interfaith Hospitality network (IHN). We made 200 pretzels to buy a goat for Bellwether Farm and collected 600 + quarters (3 times 200) for a small flock of chickens. We donated 200 hours to the Cleveland Food Bank. We planted 200 tulip bulbs around our Warrensville sign. We sold 200-plus Retap water bottles (proceeds support the Outreach Committee), St. Herman’s, the Altar Guild and the Rector’s Discretionary account. And there were other 200’s. It was awesome!!!
While this didn’t count for the Diocesan project, we poured way more than 200 draft beers at the June Van Aken beer garden! We certainly made more than 200 people happy in doing so! Kudos to Mollie and Laura for their leading us last year in this anniversary event.
Next year is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the first Christ Church congregation. We will share our plans to celebrate this auspicious occasion in the coming months, but rest assured a #What’sYour150? will be part of it!
Last year was a big year for Christ Church at the Diocesan level. Our beloved Byrdie Lee was the recipient of the Bishop’s Medal for her tireless, life-long work for racial justice. I can’t think of a worthier person to receive this distinguished honor.
Katie Ong-Landini was honored with a Bicentennial Medal recognizing her tireless efforts as the Project Coordinator of Bellwether Farm, our new camp and retreat center. I do not think I have seen Katie more radiant and happy than the day the farm was dedicated with our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry in attendance. She deserved this honor. Byrdie, Katie and faithful Christians brought great pride and joy to our faith community. Thank you both!
Speaking of Bellwether Farm: We will be offering an overnight parish retreat this autumn, October 13 - 14. Mark your calendars. The fall will be a lovely time to enjoy this beautiful property and be with God.
Construction isn’t only going on at Bellwether Farm. In 2018, we will commence with Phase II of our capital campaign construction project. As I wrote you last year, we were the first parish in the Diocese to pay off in full our Diocesan share of the monies we raised for the Capital Campaign. This is commendable and means that enough people have maintained or have exceeded keeping up with their capital campaign pledges, allowing us to begin phase two. Phase one included brick repointing, stair and patio reconstruction, water abatement, air-conditioning unit replacements, boiler repairs and upgrades, the repairs and painting of our iconic White Spire, new LED lighting, the portico lighting and an electronic carillon.
Phase 2, as we learned earlier from Lisa and Lynn, will be the addition of a men’s restroom, a new ladies restroom, and a unisex restroom on our main floor. We also hope to make major electrical upgrades, especially in the utility closet on the sanctuary balcony where all the Byzantine panels, switches and reo-stats that control sanctuary lighting are located.
From a utilitarian perspective, the new men’s room is very practical. From the perspective of Christian hospitality, especially toward elderly and differently abled people, this is a big deal! In an odd sort of way, I am considering that the addition of a men’s room on our main floor (finally, after sixty years!) may be one of my cornerstone legacies at Christ Church!
I’d like to touch for a moment on evangelism. Okay, I hear everyone sucking in their breath thinking, “He said that nasty “E” word!” We Episcopalians are never, or least not anytime soon, going to engage in evangelism through talking directly to people and convincing them of how valuable a relationship with God in Jesus is to a good and whole life. We are definitely need to be a stealthier, more Trojan horse in our efforts.
Visitors to the Shaker Community Gallery and the clients of our tenants allow us to evangelically engage people in subtle ways as they experience the artwork, bulletin boards and literature on Great Hall’s table. These things often pique their interest in us. But another significant and powerful tool is social media, web sites, printed material and to a lesser degree email. Let me give you an example: We printed several hundred postcards for both Cookie Walk and our Christmas services this year, as well as posters. We then created ads for social media that were posted not just on our Facebook page, but on the Lomond and Sussex Neighborhood Association Facebook pages, the Van Aken District Facebook page and the Shaker Heights Development Corporation Facebook page. We also place postcards and posters at local coffee shop, restaurants and businesses who would post them.
We saw a 40% increase in activity and sales at Cookie Walk this year and attendance was 30% higher at the Children’s Christmas Pageant compared to 2016. For the Pageant, it was the highest attendance in over a decade! I am convinced that the work we did in getting the word out, especially on social media, played a significant part in these success stories. And had we not had heavy snow resulting in poor driving conditions later on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, I am equally as convinced that we would have seen attendance increases at those services. This past year, the numbers stayed flat at those services compared to the past few years.
Sharing on social media, giving or mailing postcards, and sending email links is soft-evangelism that we all can safely do without thinking we are getting in someone’s face or forcing religion on them. It’s certainly easier than ringing doorbells! So, let’s make a commitment to share and post and mail the good news about what is happening at this parish.
We have Holy Week and Easter to give this another trial run. We also have a marvelous Concerts at the Crossroads series that J is planning. This approach to evangelism is easy and it’s effective. We certainly have good evidence that it will bring positive results. The “E” word never sounded so good!
Every time you share on social media please add the phrase, “Christ Church, in the heart of the Van Aken District.”
Earlier, we recognized all vestry members who have served this parish this past year. I would like to especially recognize the members of this year’s outgoing Vestry class of 2018. Rhonda Haugabook, Jane Macarthy, Frances Baker, as well as youth representative, Skylar Biggerman. They have been faithful servants of this parish and the Lord. Jane served as our clerk for two years and was always a stabilizing presence with a great sense of humor at Vestry. Frances is graciously signing up for another tour of duty and taking on a second term on vestry as she fills out an unexpired term. She has been source of wisdom and gravitas for us all and the person with some of the wryest humor I have ever met! Skylar provided the vestry with a young person’s perspective and was always thoughtful and thought-provoking in the questions she posed at meetings.
Rhonda has served for three years; one as vestry member, one as Junior Warden and one as Senor Warden. She has been a wonderful companion and confidant to me during her tenure. I am grateful for her leadership, her support and her devotion to this congregation. She face some challenging issues while on vestry, especially the Helen Road house property. The property had seriously deteriorated and become uninhabitable. Her taking on that task and turning a debacle into a blessing is a monument to her skills, talents, devotion and endurance as a leader. She did this all while planning a wedding and getting married! You truly are wonder woman! I am very grateful for her companionship in ministry.
Jim Walton continues to serve us well as our treasurer, even with the demands of his position at University Circle, Inc. and a beautiful granddaughter whom he adores.
The Property Committee continues to step up to the plate as it deals with all the mechanical issues that occur in a 60-year-old building. My thanks to Katie Ong-Landini, Lisa Fletcher, Lynne Winkelman and all individual members for leading the charge. I want to commend Fred Gage as an exemplary member of the Property Committee for whom no task is too daunting. I really do not know where we would be without Fred’s skills and devotion to this parish. He is generous to a fault.
Two people retiring this past year are our Altar Guild co-directors, Nancy Morrow and Marge Stewart. These two women have served the parish quietly from the liturgical nerve center of the sacristy. Being a member of the Altar Guild is a significant job and without them, we would not be able to worship. Being its leaders is doubly so. It takes dedication, patience and attention to detail, gifts that Nancy and Marge have brought us with grace. They are the right arm of the priest and I am very grateful for their service. Our new co-directors of the Guild are Sarah Gage and Yvette Wilson. We will commission them at the 10:30 service this morning.
Someone else who retired last year was Ruth Mercer, who was our ROTA master. For those of you who don’t know what that is, the ROTA is the schedule of all the participants in the worship services: chalice bearers, lectors, sub-deacons, etc. The task of doing that schedule is somewhat akin to herding cats. I am grateful for Ruth’s faithfulness to that task for several years. Our new ROTA master is Dana Biggerman, who has taken to this new ministry like a duck to water.
I also want to offer special thanks to our retired sexton, Harry Holliman. Harry served this parish for nearly ten years as our maintenance person. As you are aware, he was a faithful servant who worked hard to keep our facility in good shape. He was appreciated by many people, our congregation and tenants, for his willingness to serve and with a wonderful sense of humor. I do miss his contagious laugh ringing throughout the building.
As always, a state of the parish report can get unwieldy. And it would take another half hour to honor each and every person who gives of their time and talent to make this parish run well. Like at the Oscars and Tony’s, I’m always afraid the music will start to crescendo if I go on too long, and I definitely don’t want to pull a Bette Midler on you if that happens. I do want to offer my deepest thanks to all the volunteers: Counters, tellers, Outreach, Finance, Property, Worship and Budget committees, office helpers, Christ Church Hosts, Cookie Walk coordinators, catechists and teachers, liturgical ministers, acolytes, the choir and our various musicians, for all they do and all that they are. You are a blessing to me and to us all. Thank you!
We continue to be well-served by our staff.
Karen Rockwell, our parish administrator, holds down the fort in our office and keeps a sharp eye out for the building. I appreciate her skills, gifts and enthusiasm that she brings to her work. And of course, with Karen we get two adjunct office occupants with Hannah and Poppy, her two Whippets.
Leslie Swaim-Fox steadfastly continues as our Director of Religious Education. She is one of our pearls of great value and valued by all.
J Bennett is our new Music Director who arrived this past August. When our former music director, Jeanette Ostrander relocated to Ithaca, New York last spring, we were concerned that we would not be able to find a new Music Director of her caliber. God was good though. Out of 9 applicants, we had three excellent candidates. J was the best of the group and we are blessed to have his talents as a fine musician with a wonderful friendly demeanor and charisma.
And while not on staff, I want to recognize Shane Millette, our accountant, for all he does and his wisdom. He helps keep the financial house of this parish in good order, which is no small thing.
We continue to be blessed by the presence of some excellent clergy in our midst.
- Fr. Jim Greer who will celebrate his 60th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood next year, and is like the energizer bunny with his endless zeal to serve the Church.
- The Rev. Meghan Froehlich, who offers us grace, wisdom and laughter, and is our “in” at the national Church Center in Manhattan.
- The Rev. Dean Myers, a Presbyterian minister who not only sings in the choir, but gives us the gift of his wonderful, insightful, wise homilies, including one later this morning. Dean also led one of the more popular adult formation classes we have ever offered, on aging gracefully this past November.
- The Rachel Hackenberg, a UCC minister who works at the United Church of Christ headquarters in Cleveland and worships with us. Rachel preaches several times per year and offers us the gift of her considerable spiritual wisdom. Of course, there are those awesome red high heels!
Having other clergy at Christ Church enriches this community in numerous ways and I am very grateful for the offering of their gifts and companionship.
I am going to conclude by using the same quote I closed with last year. It bears repeating.
The poet Mary Oliver states that, “God . . . [is] invisible, quite understandable. But holiness is visible entirely.”
The presence of God in our hearts is holiness. Holiness comes from the heart. There is much holiness in the hearts of the people of this parish. We make that presence visible through loving our neighbors as ourselves, welcoming the stranger, seeking Christ in all persons, alleviating the suffering of the least among us, practicing forgiveness and more.
My dear friends in Christ, we have good news to offer people during these challenging times. The holiness of the heart begets hope. Let hope be one of the greatest treasures of our hearts that wells up out of us and pours from this church like water from the rock in Sinai. Let it pour from this parish in the heart of the Van Aken District, and be – as Jesus said to the woman at the well, “the water that he gives from which all who drink will never be thirsty again.”
It continues to be a privilege to serve as your rector. Thank you.