Piety Hill Musings

The ramblings of the 52 year old Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church of Detroit. Piety Hill refers to the old name for our neighborhood. The neighborhood has changed a great deal in the over 150 years we have been on this corner (but not our traditional biblical theology) and it is now known for the neighboring theatres, the professional baseball and football stadiums and new hockey/basketball arena.

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Location: Detroit, Michigan, United States

Monday, February 02, 2015

Rector's Report to the Annual Parish Meeting - February 1, 2015

St. John’s has now completed her one hundred and fifty-fifth year of worship and ministry, and 2014 has not only been one of great grace and blessing, but will be marked in the annals of our history as one of the great benchmark years.  
          Over the course of St. John’s history several periods stand out as benchmarks.  Our founding in 1858, the opening of the chapel in 1859 and the opening of the church in 1861 marks a glorious start of this parish.  The 1880’s saw the first major cosmetic renovation of the church sanctuary as well as the building of our former parish hall building which for 90 years saw heavy use by community, diocese, and parish groups.   The 1890s brought a renovation of the church sanctuary to make it deeper, taller, and to contain our now famous altar reredos and supereredos.    The 1910s & 1920s saw the church neighborhood morph from residential to commercial, with the church beginning to be dwarfed by large buildings.  In 1936 and 1937 the church and chapel were moved, placed onto a new foundation, and steel beam reinforced during the widening of Woodward Avenue.  Having survived the depression years the church was called to service by hosting soldiers during WWII. The neighborhood began changing again with the growth of the suburbs, resulting in the degradation of the area immediately around our edifice in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  The decline began to reverse at the end of 1988 when the Fox Theatre reopened after it was renovated by the Ilitch family, who also moved their pizza empire headquarters into the Fox building.  The opening of Detroit Tigers Comerica Park in 2000 solidified the remaking of our neighborhood into a destination for sports and entertainment and began providing appreciable income through our parking lot.
          I am grateful to have come into the history of the parish at that point.  The renewal of the neighborhood provided opportunities to revitalize this grand old parish, which had seen a decline in attendance and membership since the 1920s: from a high of 2500 to an average of 45 people on Sunday just before I arrived.  By grace, average Sunday attendance is almost four times larger than what it was in 2000, income from pledges and other sources is up considerably, and after having had to use it out of necessity since the 1930s the parish has been able to not use the endowment for her operating expenses for the past two years. 
          This past year we have had glorious worship, opportunities for education, and have renewed the Sunday School program.   We’ve hired a minister to Young Adults, our fastest growing demographic in the parish.  After today’s election 1/3 of our parish vestry will be under 38 years of age, something I don’t think any other congregation of the diocese (other than the college missions) can claim. We now offer a  service at a nursing home in Plymouth which has become a wonderful opportunity for ministry.  10 people were baptized this year, 6 couples married, 7 people confirmed, and 4 buried.  Pledge income surpassed the budgeted expectation and was just .3% below last year’s record high amount.   I am most grateful for the generosity of the congregation, dedication and leadership of the wardens and vestry, and the daily diligence of the office staff and volunteers.  In particular, I want to commend Cathy Morgan for her dedication as treasurer of this parish as she underwent 6 months of chemotherapy.  And I also thank God for all the time and effort put in by the volunteers at the Altar, in the Sacristy, at the Narthex doors, in the Kitchen, and everywhere else people have pitched in to make their parish the wonderful place it is.
          And I would be remiss if I did not mention with sadness the death of two of our pillars in the parish, Mary Bedford and Barbara Frisby.  They are both greatly missed.
          But 2014 will be remembered most as the beginning of a new era through an opportunity with the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development.  At the end of July, with the public announcement for the building of the new hockey arena across the freeway from St. John’s, we also began a discussion with them about development plans closer to us, including the building of apartments on a portion of our property.  The vestry began these discussions, committees comprised of members of the vestry and others in the parish were formed, and the parish met twice (once informally in September for dinner, once formally for a vote in December) as negotiations progressed.   At one point over 30 people had been involved at some level in the committee discussions and negotiations to bring about a long term lease.  The terms of that lease are almost completed, and God willing its signing is imminent.  I particularly want to commend and thank our Senior Warden, Bruce Burton, for his business and negotiation acumen.  In consultation with both a real estate development and legal expert, Bruce and I went into the meetings with Olympia’s representatives well prepared.  Bruce was able to put very large dreams for the parish onto their radar, was patient when they wanted to move quickly, and negotiated those dreams into what is about to become a 49 to 99 year lease reality.
          At a vestry meeting in the Spring of 2001, my first year here, there was concern about money and the budget.  At that point I proclaimed, “there are no money problems we have today that can’t be solved by 100 more people in our pews.”  Then I continued, “of course, we will have new, different money problems then.”   Within a few years we had those new people, and as predicted, new problems as well.  Looking at the expected windfall of a new lease with Olympia Development, we once again have a new  ”money problem”.  Instead of the question of “how are we going to get more money to pay the bills?” we now have the problem of “how is God calling us to use these new funds to glorify Him and to be the parish He wants us to be?” 
The common thread for those early years, which we will now weave through solving this new “problem”, is that we put First Things First.   The First Thing is to put God first: Faithfulness, right doctrine, and desire to grow in holiness.  When we concentrate on those things, the money solution comes as a result of grateful hearts motivated by the Holy Spirit.   This has been the guiding principle for this parish during my tenure. The exception was a few years of the economic recession, when we got distracted and focused on the money.   We seemed to forget that if we are faithful, He is faithful.  We got back on track to First Things First in the past two years.
So now we move forward in a new era at St. John’s.  The faith and doctrine will not change, nor our adherence to traditional Anglican worship which precisely, and expansively, embodies both.  But our neighborhood will change, our ministries will expand and change as God leads us, and as the congregation grows it will be as exciting as it will perhaps be scary at times.  But grounded in a solid foundation we boldly go forward in faith!  God has, and will continue, to provide.

With the abundance of blessings God is bestowing upon us, we have to continue to put First Things First.  Now is not the time to rest on our laurels, become complacent, or think we no longer need to financially support the parish with our tithe and talent.   WE NEED to keep our hands to the plow and keep working toward the building up of the kingdom.  WE NEED to be generous in our giving to the parish; not because God needs it but because WE NEED to give as a spiritual discipline.  And we need to work together, avoiding negativity and other temptations that would prevent us from keeping focused on our mission.  And please, if you hear anything about this project, past or present, which is novel to you, or contradicts what has been published, please come to the Senior Warden and to me right away so that we can clear up any misinformation.

God has given us a goodly heritage and a hopeful future.  Let us respond in Faith, Hope, and Love, to His greater honor and glory.