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Bo Millner


February 4, 2018


The Rev. Bollin M. Millner, Jr.  Rector

I am completing my fifteenth year as Rector of Grace and Holy Trinity Church and I thank you all for the opportunity to serve here. I thank each and every member for the support you give to the mission of this church.  And I offer a special word of thanks today, as we elect a new Vestry class, to all those who have been serving on the Vestry, and especially our Senior Warden, Leslie Winn and our Junior Warden, Andrew Peacock.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to deliver a “State of the Church” address.  I have some challenging things to say, maybe some uncomfortable things to say, but in the end, I am very optimistic about the future of this congregation. So bear with me.

It was a number of years ago I introduced the concept of the “death tsunami” at an Annual Meeting.  This is not my invention, but I learned it from Lovett Weems of the United Methodist Church, and the point is that mainline churches will undergo huge demographic change as baby boomers die. The death rate, especially amongst Anglos, who make up the majority of our denomination, will be higher than it has been since the invention of antibiotics and other medical advances. The tsunami has started and it will continue until the middle of this century.  The part of the “demographic pie” that we have effectively appealed to is shrinking radically.

You may be tired of hearing about this, which I understand.  I raise it today not to simply present data, or talk about demographics, but I present it as a call to action.   But first of all, let me say that this is not an abstraction to us. We have felt the profound personal pain of the death of dear members of GHTC.  There is a very real of sense of loss and grief. Walking through that together, supporting one another,  is very important. This is what we do as “church.”

There is also the knowledge that we will not continue to enjoy the amazing support given, for so many years, by these stalwart, faithful, and generous members. We are deeply grateful for all they have done, we stand on the foundation they have built, and moving forward we understand that a new day dawns.

We cannot expect there to be more money from fewer folks.  We shall have to refocus and the bottom line will have to be reset, but done in such a way that the church is able to do what is really most important – and that is mission- answering God’s call to us.  I truly believe that the realities we are facing are actually great opportunities.

But to get to the opportunities, we have to be honest,  the massive changes that are happening to mainline churches at large and GHTC in particular, make us anxious and fearful.  And chronic anxiety will insure failure.

Peter Steinke of the Alban Institute has written extensively about this in a book entitled, “Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times:  Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What.”  Let me share some of his insights.  First of all, anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, by definition.  “Our Creator has provided us with a strong urge for survival.  At one level, anxiety can make us alert, more self-conscious, and highly motivated to take action.”  However, if “intense and prolonged, anxiety has a strangling effect, depleting people’s energy, disturbing their thinking, and dividing their loyalties.” [1]

There is a difference between acute anxiety which is “situational and time based”[2] …an appropriate response to a real life situation…and chronic anxiety. “Simply stated, chronic anxiety is not specific to a threat.  Any issue, topic, or circumstance can provoke chronically anxious people.  Consequently, they have little capacity to step out of their experience, observe their own emotionality, reflect on what is happening, make choices based in principles, and manage their lives.”[3]

“Anxiety is also contagious.  It connects people.  Let one or two people unleash their anxiety, and it won’t be long before it has a ripple effect through the congregation.”[4]  This can lead to scapegoating, looking for someone or something to blame and the “blame game” blinds people to the real work at hand.

I share these insights from Peter Steinke with you not to say that this is where we are, it isn’t.  But I offer them as words of warning, and to say, if we let chronic anxiety take over in the current moment and with the current challenges, then that is exactly where we shall go. The words will be prophetic.  So let’s be honest, and note our anxiety, but let’s move past it.

There is another way and it begins by looking to Jesus.  Jesus had this to say in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel:  “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’…indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”    So…strive first for the kingdom..i.e. focus on the mission.

And then there is the Gospel of John chapters 14 through 17.   In the Fourth Gospel, on the night he was betrayed, the day before he was crucified, Jesus teaches his disciples and he prays for them. Jesus’ disciples are getting ready to face a transition so large, that everything pales by comparison. They have traveled with Jesus.  They have seen his mighty works, his love, his compassion, his fire and his strength.  And now, Jesus is to be taken away.  He will be crucified and he will die.  Jesus will never be present to the disciples in the same way ever again.

And what does Jesus say:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me…I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father…”  So look to Jesus always and especially now, and “do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Let go of anxiety, channel that energy into productive work, receive the Holy Spirit, and believe.  Strive first for the Kingdom of God.

These are matters of the heart.  These are matters of trust and faith in God.   Now, I know, there are also practical things to consider.  As I noted earlier, the bottom line will have to be reset, but done in such a way that the church is able to focus on what is really most important – and that is mission.  So again, I really do believe that the realities we are facing are actually great opportunities.

First of all, we are called back to our essential mission to share the gospel with all people.  At this time, it is important that each one of us become ambassadors of the gospel, that we invite, welcome, and incorporate new people into the life of this congregation and more importantly, into the Christian faith.   As Lovett Weems has said, if we take this seriously, we will have younger members and we will have greater diversity.  Why?  Weems says, “Well, we’ve got all the old folks already.  So anyone new, will be younger.”   There will also be greater diversity, because there is growing diversity in the country and in the Commonwealth.  Younger people may not be able to support the church financially in the same way as older people, but they bring great vitality and new ideas.  So this means, going forward, the church needs to embrace appropriate change…realize that one size does not fit all…that our purpose is rooted in the eternal gospel and not in time conditioned expressions of it.

Let me say a bit more about mission.   According to the Outline of Faith, our mission as the church “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ…the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love…The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members”  (Book of Common Prayer, page 855).

GHTC’s mission statement is in perfect harmony with the mission statement in the Outline of Faith and applies it too our specific circumstances:  We are “an inclusive, spirited, and Christ-centered urban church community that transforms lives.”  The commitments we have set out in our Strategic Plan, makes this mission statement real.   And it is this commitment to mission by each and every person which assures vitality, and nothing else. This congregation has such great people with wonderful gifts and the list of what you make possible is practically endless, and you can read about much of this in the  Annual Report.

Not only that, our facilities are in great shape so that we have the room we need for the ministries we undertake.  And thanks to your faithful payment of capital campaign pledges, we were able to close our line of credit at the bank, at the end of 2017. Amazing!

There is so much to celebrate.  We have done so many things right and well and we have what it takes to meet the next set of challenges.  With Christ at the center, through the ministry of all our members, -through worship, proclamation, the pursuit of justice, love and peace-  the congregation will be strong.   As James Russell Lowell wrote in 1845, “New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still and onward Who would keep abreast of truth.”  So…upward still and onward Grace and Holy Trinity Church. Fear not. And all glory to God.

The Rev. Bollin Madison Millner, Jr.

[1] “Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times:  Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What”  Peter L. Steinke, the Alban Institute, copyright 2006, page 3.

[2] Ibid page 10.

[3] Ibid page 10.

[4] Ibid page 10.