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June 11, 2013

"We Can Do All Things Through Christ."

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

nj districtA number of months ago, we were asked by our New Jersey District to take part in a congregational survey entitled “Probably, Possible, Preferable,” a survey that had all congregations in the district take a serious look at where they were regarding their existence. It was one of those surveys that, at least to me, forced us here at Saint Matthew’s to ‘rip the scab’ off a festering wound and look seriously at the state of Saint Matthew’s.

If this survey provided nothing else than forcing all of us to seriously look at where we are as a congregation and what our future looks like right now, then on this narrow level, the survey was worth it. For me, this survey not only ‘ripped the scab’ off the reality of where Saint Matthew’s is, it also forced me to seriously think of where my pastoral future is here in New Milford. It is not easy to sit back and consider placing my name on a pastoral call list. In all honesty, after reading the results of the survey that were submitted to our church more than a month ago, any clergyman would be in the same frame of mind.

When we received copies of the survey results, our Voters’ Body set up a committee to discuss how we are going to “break the survey results” news to the congregation. This committee has met, but no final plan was devised as to how we are to let everyone know the results. In fact, the committee is going to meet again this coming Thursday evening at 7pm here at church. Our big question: When do we let everyone know the answers the New Jersey District provided us? How are we to deliver the news? Should copies of the district’s response be made available?

Our big concern is for the summer time — people go on vacation, they go away for several months, people sleep in. Should we present what essentially is difficult news before we “break” for summer, or should we wait until the fall. This Thursday, our committee is going to finalize these plans. Or at least, that is on the agenda.

Last night at our Voters’ Meeting, all of whom around the table had received copies of the district’s report to Saint Matthew’s, I could sense a little tenseness. When the District, after reviewing our answers to their survey questions, responds with a line: “Without serious revitalization and renewal, the probability of sustaining the congregation’s life is seriously hampered. Sadly, many congregations exist on life support long before they realize there is not hope of recovery,” I guess the reality that we face as a congregation can really get to people.

Personally, the district’s report provided me with a little mirror on my ministry here at Saint Matthew’s. The following paragraph is taken directly from the report:

“We are thankful for Pastor Iovine’s involvement in the District, but we would further encourage him to get involved in a learning community since this a major emphasis of the District and the direction that the District’s President believe God is asking us to go.

“There is no doubt that following a long Pastorate of 40 years, comes with a special set of circumstances, many of which are difficult to get beyond. By being at St. Matthew’s for 7 1/2 years, Pastor Iovine is showing his determination not to let the past dictate the future. Most pastorates following long term pastors are short lived, one to three years. When you stop and think about it, most of the current members of St. Matthew’s have only known one Pastor and most of their understanding of what a Pastor does is seen through the ministry of one man. The current challenge of becoming established and to help the congregation begin a new life cycle does not come without its price. The amount of energy needed to begin a new chapter can be exhausting and can take its toll. Pastor Iovine has also had a personal battle with cancer that can leave anyone exhausted. There is no wonder that at times he feels frustrated and wonders if a change is in order.

“Pastor Iovine desires to refocus himself on a new chapter and ‘fire up my pastoral life.’ This cannot be done without congregational support and the support of his fellow brothers in the ministry. What he is attempting to do is no small task. Besides following a well-liked Pastor such as Pastor Wangerin, the world has also made significant shifts in its values, morals, and behaviors. Pastor Iovine should therefore be encouraged and supported by the congregation to become involved in some type of continuing education to address some of these needs that will better equip him to lead the people of St. Matthew’s in the direction that the Lord would want the church to go.”

And one of the paragraphs in the report that made me sit up a bit in my chair:

“St. Matthew’s has no reported vision statement, although they link their vision statement to their mission statement. The two statements each serve a different purpose. A vision statement serves as a valuable tool to help create a clear understanding of a preferable future that is imparted by God to His chosen servants. The vision is based upon an accurate understanding of God, the congregation and the community that surrounds the congregation. A vision clearly states what you want the church to accomplish. Vision encourages unity, creates energy, provides purpose, fosters moving people out of their comfort zones, enhances leadership, promotes excellence,  sustains ministry, and encourages a renewed passion to bring Christ to the nations. A vision is vital for the overall direction that the church is going. It has often been quoted ‘that without vision, people perish.’ This lack of vision also directly affects some of the challenges that the congregation is facing in the way of finances, members time commitment, lack of volunteers, and complacency. A clear understanding of Christ’s Great Commission and His call to be ‘salt of the earth,’ and ‘lights to the world’ will help motivate members to grow in their faith, and to combat their reluctance to be more outreach oriented. Again, members need to realize that the work of their Pastor is to primarily ‘equip the saints for ministry,’ (Ephesians 4:12) motivating them to join him in caring for the members and reaching out with the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

But a few sentences that should not surprise anyone, but it should be an eye-opener:

“There are critical days for St. Matthew’s. Significant growth is needed to be able to afford a full-time Pastor without living off of endowments and previously invested gifts. Without serious revitalization and renewal, the probability of sustaining the congregation’s life is seriously hampered.”

I am glad for this report, and a subsequent district-wide Summary Report that we received in the mail today. Of the 33 congregations in our district who filled out the district’s survey, it seems like we are all in the same boat, be it financial, ministerial, attendance-wise. And from the summary report:

“Complacency is predominant among our laity. Financial struggles, decreasing attendance, and a low commitment to discipleship are at the forefront of most of our congregations. If there is a stewardship effort, it typically is focused on financial giving and the budgetary needs of the congregation with little or no education or understanding of the ‘Whole-life Stewardship’ concept. What has worked in the past no long works today no matter how diligently the effort.

“Some display the attitude of giving up, knowing that the obstacles are too big and the odds to success too great.

“Few Churches and fewer Pastors have a compelling vision and most of those who have a mission/purpose express it without much passion or conviction. In some cases, there is a lot of busyness, but few results. It seems as if many are going ‘through the motions’ taking care of basic ministry needs but having little time or energy to reach out to those who do not know Jesus Christ. There is a conspicuous lack of creativity and innovation, embracing of new ideas and methods of doing ministry. Few new ideas have been discovered and even fewer shared. Status Quo is a dominant factor among many of our churches and often overrides the excitement of doing ministry and the belief that God is not daunted by the odds against Him.”

Where does this leave us?

It is the question that I’ve asked myself since reading the original Saint Matthew’s survey results report. Where does this entire reflective moment leave us, as a congregation, and me, as a Pastor?

This is the question that we have to seriously consider during the coming days. I am one of those people who doesn’t like to give up in the face of adversity. When I went through cancer, I wouldn’t let the pain, the sickness, and weakness get to me. I fought and struggled and never gave up.

I believe, as a congregation, our lives in Christ must be the same. Yes, our congregation and those of our sister churches are all facing difficult mountains to climb.

But these mountains can be climbed.

These struggles can be overcome.

By the grace of God through Christ Jesus, we can not only reestablish our Christ-centered beachhead here in New Milford, but make it grow…together.

In the final paragraph of the newly received summary report, they end it in a most perfect way, one that all of us here at Saint Matthew’s need to hear and consider:

“Moving from the last seven words of the church – ‘We’ve never done it that way before’ – to the first seven words of renewal – ‘WE CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST.'”

This weekend, copies of Saint Matthew’s survey results and the newly received district Summary Report will be made available.

But before you take a copy of the reports this weekend, you need to circle a date on your calendars — Monday, June 24th, 6pm. Our Vision Team is meeting here at church. I want you to join us.

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