My Annual Church Conference Pastor’s Report
After extensive research, I have determined that, on average, only four people read the entire Church Conference Booklet cover to cover, and, illogical though it may seem, only two people read my Pastor’s Report all the way through. In order to encourage more thorough reading of this important literary document, I will insert clever content questions throughout. When the letters of the correct answers are put together, they will spell the key to our church’s life. Figure it out, and you win you a prize! Now, how’s that for incentive to read?
At a recent Skylands District meeting, Bishop Devadhar summarized some striking statistical trends regarding the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He said that over the past 40 years, the membership of the conference has declined by over 100,000 while during the same time period the population of New Jersey has grown by over three million persons. In 1965 Methodists made up 6.5 % of New Jersey’s population. In 2005 we made up only 1.25 %. The average age of a person living in NJ is 37. The average age of members of the GNJAC is 57. We have 65 fewer churches than we had forty years ago. Currently, there are 597 churches in our conference. Our smallest 306 churches are declining at a rate of 7%, while the largest 20 churches are growing at a rate of 2.5% If these trends continue, over half of our churches will likely be closed twenty years from now, and the conference (as well as the denomination at large within our country) will be dominated by large churches.
Demographically, there are obvious challenges facing our church. In Parsippany for example, the great majority of those who would consider themselves “Christian” would identify themselves with the Roman Catholic tradition. Parsippany contains a range of faiths other than Christian, with the Hindu population being the one that is growing most rapidly.
1) In 1965 Methodists made up 6.5 % of New Jersey’s population. In 2005, what portion of the population did we make up? Was it,
E) 1.25%; F) 5.5%; G) 3.0% ; H) 8.25% ?
Despite our loss of membership in our conference, Bishop Devadhar pointed out the striking fact that 65% of New Jersey’s population have no real involvement in a community of faith. There are no lack of people near at hand who are in need of a spiritual community. The direction in which our society continues to rapidly move — towards greater materialism, isolation and transience, anxiety and emptiness — makes the need all the greater for a spiritual community grounded in Christ.
To say the least, these are challenging times for our denomination. Although I am confident that twenty years from now our congregation will still be carrying out a vital ministry in Parsippany, nonetheless, it is clear that we need to be intentional as we look at how we go about being the church in a world that has changed dramatically in recent decades.
2) What two persons marked the 50th anniversary of their membership in our church on December 1, 2007? Was it, A) Jim and Rita Maclay; B) Dorothy and Toto; C) Fred and Grace Schlosshauer; D) Lewis and Clark ?
To assist with this process of reflection, our bishop has encouraged conversation around a book by Robert Schnase entitled “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.” I want to attempt an analysis of the present state of our congregation around these five practices.
1) Radical hospitality. It’s tough to be truly objective about how we are doing with hospitality, since we are the “insiders” imagining how “outsiders” see our church. Nonetheless, I am inclined to think that we are a more welcoming congregation than most. The lament you hear made elsewhere of by people visiting congregations and having no one greet them is one that seems unlikely to be made by newcomers in our midst. If anything, a newcomer is more likely to complain about getting too much attention, particularly in the context of our enthusiastic passing of the peace.
For years I have made it a point of extending a welcome at the outset of worship in which I state that we believe that newcomers are Jesus come in disguise with blessings. Every week we celebrate that “there’s always room in the circle” because Jesus is at the center of our circle.
3) How many new members did we receive in the past year? Was it,
A) 10 B) 7 C) 4 D) 16 ?
In the past year we established a hospitality committee made up of persons of a range of ages with natural gifts for extending welcome, in order to make sure that new persons don’t somehow fall through the cracks.
At the beginning of the Fall we held three workdays at our church building. These workdays served two purposes: they provided folks who had only recently been attending our church opportunity to work beside long term members, thereby enhancing their sense of belonging. And it allowed us to spruce up the walls with fresh paint, making our building space more inviting. Particular attention was given to the entrance foyers as well as to the Little Angels Room. We have new families bringing young children to our worship and Sunday School, and we wanted the space to be particularly welcoming.
4) How many baptisms took place in our church in the past year? Was it,
P) 2; Q) 4; R) 7; S) 5 ?
With an eye to the impression made on newcomers among us, I redid all of the bulletin boards in our entranceway, filling them with candid photos from the life of our congregation that convey our vitality, joy and warmth, with special emphasis on our children. (One bulletin board now contains our “cradle roll”, emphasizing the responsibility our congregation has for each child baptized among us. Another bulletin board is entitled “Hall of Saints”, listing the members of our fellowship who have died in the last thirty years, with photos for remembrance. Our fellowship includes those newly born into this world, all the way to those newly born in the next world.) We took photo displays to the September Parsippany Day Street Fair to witness to our presence in the community. Some day soon we hope to have a new sign out front; in the meantime, a colorful, invitational banner has been hanging on the front lawn since shortly before Easter.
A significance change in the age we live in has to do with the role of the internet. People commonly visit church websites before they ever set foot within the building. With this in mind, I began a Pastor’s blog on our website, where my reflections and sermons have been posted. A number of the new people in our midst have commented on how helpful they found this.
Our church has established a reputation for hospitality with the variety of dinners we host. In the past year, this has included a ham dinner, a flag day pork roast, a roast beef dinner, a murder mystery party, a covered dish summer picnic, and the Skylands District Clergy Christmas Dinner.
On May 6th our congregation hosted an evening with Ursula Pawel, a Jewish holocaust survivor and educator. Following a write up in local newspapers, sixty people gathered in our sanctuary to hear Mrs. Pawel speak movingly about her experience in a prison camp, followed with a time of questions and answers and concluded with refreshments. About half of the people present were from beyond our congregation, including Rabbi Ron Kaplan from our neighbor, Temple Beth Am. It was a deeply moving experience for all of us.
5) On May 6th, Ursula Pawel spoke in our sanctuary describing her experience surviving D) Hurricane Katrina; E) being shipwrecked in the Pacific; F) getting lost in the Sahara; G) a Nazi Concentration camp.
2) Passionate worship. For me, what happens on Sunday morning is at the heart of my ministry. I spend a good deal of time reflecting upon the Scripture lesson for the week, listening for the voice of God, preparing myself to preach. People often ask me, “After all these years of preaching, why don’t you just save yourself a lot of time and recycle old sermons?” It is hard for me to explain, but this simply isn’t a viable option for me. If I were to do this, I am certain I would find the experience lifeless. For me, preaching is an event lodged in the present — impacted by what is going on inside my own soul as well as what is going on in the life of our congregation in the present. Having preached now for 27 years, the scripture passages are all familiar to me, having preached on them numerous times in the past. But each week, I hear something new in them. So, preaching is a passion for me.
6) On April 22nd, Sharon Coughlin spoke in our worship about D) her experience of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro; E) playing on the women’s national softball team; F) her experience almost getting attacked by a coyote in Reynolds Park; G) Global Warming.
The music offered up in worship also arises from passion, whether it be our choir, bell choir, acapello group, instrumentalists, or soloists. Our time of prayer in worship provides opportunity for members to go to the microphone at the front of the sanctuary to pray out loud both their joys and their concerns, with their church family seated behind them in prayer. Often we are moved deeply with the authenticity of what is shared with God in our mutual prayer. Bob Keller, Darryl Sokolowski, Al Booth, and David Turner have all taken turns preparing and delivering the sermon in my absence.
Sharon Coughlin spoke to the congregation on Earth Day, April 22nd, challenging us to take seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of God’s good earth in the face of the reality of Global Warming.
7) Which of the following did not give a sermon in worship in the past year:
L) Al Booth; M) Bob Keller; N) Derek Jeter; O) Darryl Sokolowski.
3) Intentional faith development. There have been a series of short term study and sharing groups offered both on Sunday mornings and weekdays, three led by David Turner, and one by Tim Tyler. I have lead two new members’ classes. In addition, our Wednesday morning healing prayer group continues to be a staple of our congregational life, with 6 to 12 people gathering each week for sharing, guided meditation, and intercessory prayer for countless needs within and beyond our congregation.
A special emphasis was given to faith development during the season of Lent. I wrote a daily devotional which was given to all members. The devotions were also sent out daily through email, encouraging everyone to share a common theme of reflection. A well received component of these devotions was the fact that over the course of the six weeks of Lent, the entire membership of our church was prayed for, with six or eight persons (both adults and children) lifted up each day by name. On Fridays during Lent I made a commitment to spending the lunch hour in our sanctuary praying for our church’s renewal, and inviting anyone so moved to join me. During Holy Week a temporary labyrinth was placed on the floor of the Fellowship Hall, and members were encouraged to walk it for personal prayer, reflection, and repentance. An article in the Daily Record extended an invitation to the larger community to walk the labyrinth.
8) During holy week, which of the following was set up in the fellowship hall:
A) a Labyrinth; B) a nativity scene; C) a petting zoo; D) a re-enactment of Jesus’ driving out the money changers and pigeon salespeople from the temple.
The United Methodist Women have continued meeting faithfully once a month, and every Tuesday morning a small group of men meet together for breakfast. A small senior high youth group has met faithfully every Sunday evening with Bill and Amy Gripp. Recently a new middle school youth group is beginning to meet.
In March I began inviting members of the church to set up an appointment to spend an hour or more with me for conversation, without an agenda in mind, simply giving the holy spirit opportunity to lead us. The meetings have taken place in restaurants, in homes, in the church office or sanctuary, and over walks through parks. They have been a rich blessing to me, and I trust for those I have met with as well To date I have met with our about 45 church members.
9) Funding for the retreat that we sponsored in June for persons living with HIV/AIDS came from which of the following: W) The Federal Government;
X) the Kiwanis Club; Y) An anonymous benefactor referred to as Mr. X;
Z) The Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.
3) Risk taking mission and service. With funding provided by our annual conference, our church hosted another weekend retreat for persons living with HIV/AIDS in Northern New Jersey. The retreat was held at Xavier Center on the campus of St. Elizabeth College from Friday evening, June 8 through Sunday lunch, June 10. Twenty people gathered, with the majority of persons coming from Jersey City and Paterson. I gave a series of talks in which I retold the story of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. The response sheets that were filled out by the retreatants indicated that the weekend was a wonderful time for drawing closer to Jesus and to one another.*
10) Which of the following quotes was not found on the evaluation sheets filled out by those who went on our HIV/AIDS Retreat:
X) “We even received a relaxing and meditative massage!” Y) “I am blessed to have this retreat as an outlet to look forward to after life’s wear and tear each year.” Z) “I believe that God is here.” A) “Enough already with the trombones blasting at 4 a.m.!”
Every other month a group of persons from our church prepare dinner and take it to Homeless Solutions, the homeless shelter in Morris Plains, where they serve it to the thirty or so people who have found themselves forced to find shelter there.
11) How much money does our congregation pay each year towards our mortgage: Is it, J) $39,000; K) $51,000; L) $18,000; or M) $67,000?
5) Extravagant generosity. Six years ago we began construction of our long awaited new sanctuary. Along with a particularly awe-inspiring worship space came the responsibility to meet a mortgage that at the outset stood at $640,000. After steadily paying $66,943 each year, the mortgage has been reduced to $452,637. Paying off a mortgage isn’t the most exciting thing to give to in the world, but in ten years, after making these payments year in and year out, we will be able to remove this line item from our budget, freeing up our resources for any number of new ways of funding our ministries.
Although we typically run behind throughout each budget year, every year we have succeeded in paying our “fair share” giving by the end of the year, supporting the ministries of the United Methodist Church in New Jersey and abroad.
During every Sunday worship service, dollars for missions are collected as our children come forward for the children’s sermon. Nearly $2,000 was raised for Heifer International, including $500 for Bessie the cow. Recently we have begun raising money for the United Methodist program, “Nothing But Nets”, in which $10 sends bed netting to a family in Africa, protecting them from the mosquitoes that spread malaria, the cause of death for millions of people.
Throughout the year, donations from our membership make it possible for me to assist persons both inside and our outside our congregation in times of financial crisis through the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund. In the past year I gave out over $2,000 in emergency aid. Food offerings are collected throughout the year and taken to the Parsippany Food Bank. At Christmas time, four local families living in poverty are “adopted” through Social Services, with presents purchased for each family member. The United Methodist Women make contributions to a variety of missions projects.
Nonetheless, meeting the budget each year tends to hang over our life together with a certain heaviness. Much energy and effort is put into fundraisers that go not to special mission or ministry projects, but simply to help reach the general budget of the church.
12) This past Fall, mission dollars were collected at the outset of the children’s sermon over the course of eight Sundays that funded which of the following: X) an elephant named Tootsie; Y) a rhinoceros named Rocky; Z) a missionary named Harry; A) a cow named Bessie.
After all these years (18 and ½, to be exact), it continues to be a joy to serve with you in our common ministry.
In the kindness, the power, and the amazing grace of Jesus,
Pastor Jeff Edwards
Okay, so by now you should have come up with letters corresponding to the correct answers from each of the 12 questions listed above. Write the letters beneath each of the numbers listed below:
12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
!, the key to our church’s life.
*Here are some of the things the people attending our Spiritual Life Retreat for persons with HIV/AIDS wrote on our their evaluation sheets:
“To be able to come together and to rest in God, to get together with my brothers and sisters in the community living with the virus is a truly wonderful thing.”
“The singing was wonderful.”
“I believe that God is here. And you cannot improve on him.”
“The hospitality, kindness, love and patience that continues to be shown to me, and the group each year… I am blessed to have this retreat as an outlet to look forward too after life’s wear and tear each year.”
“The togetherness, the music and the spoken stories. Life is good.”
“Being there takes the worry of the world far from my mind.”
“The retreat is something I wait in anticipation for each year, and look forward too. I love coming to the retreat and being united with old as well as new friends. Pastor Jeff, and all that help to make the retreat a joyful time for us are truly blessed and chosen by God to give so much of themselves.”
“A very needed thing.”
“I really had a good time. I hope the retreat will keep going, because I really need this kind of experience. I just love it.”
“We absolutely felt at home at this year’s 07 retreat. We relaxed; we communed with others in similar places, played music, ate three scrumptious meals a day, received God’s words through Pastor Jeff, slept very well, took picturesque walks through the campus, prayed my face off, and most of all got along well with others.”
“We even received a relaxing and meditative massage! What a blessing!”
“Lastly, it is my personal view that once a year is just not enough. I realize funding is an obstacle, but, through coordinated communication concerning fundraising; I believe that we can raise the money.”