News & Reflections

RenewalWorks goals, part 3: Meet and invite others

Children's Choir photo for "invite others" story

The RenewalWorks team came up with four goals for our parish. Here’s the third in our series revisiting them (see also part 1, part 2):

Meet people where they are as we invite them to explore the Christian way of life and deepen their spirituality.

We become more ourselves — our true selves — as a result of spiritual growth. Our church community encourages that transformation through Bible studies, the Bible Challenge, quiet days, Christian basics classes, Godly Play, the Wednesday night Common Table Theology gatherings, the social justice and racial justice groups, baptism and confirmation prep, our children’s choirs — to name just a few of the many ways we reach out.

We respect people where they are, as we work together to help us all discover who we may become in Christ. And may we continue to extend that radical welcome to all who walk through our big blue doors.

Joy in worship: Our St. Cecilia choristers cavort before the Diocesan Chorister Festival at St. John the Divine Cathedral.

Arlene Bullard asks “Where Is God at Work in Our World?”

Arlene Bullard photo

Arlene Bullard can multitask with the best of them. She’s special-projects assistant to the Rt. Rev. Andrew M.L. Dietsche, Bishop of New York, and assistant to the Canon to the Ordinary, a position without a Canon at the moment.

Arlene manages the diocesan database and the bishops’ visitation schedules for the 193 churches in the Diocese, and coordinates the training for Eucharistic Ministers/Visitors, among many other assignments.

“In everything I do at the Diocese I get to work with people,” Arlene says. “I like the variety of it all.”

And then there are her volunteer ministries at St. Michael’s. A former two-term vestry member, she’s the mentor for Education for Ministry, or EfM; a Eucharistic Minister/Visitor; a Healing Prayer Team/Prayer Chain member; and an acolyte.

As EfM mentor, she leads 12 parishioners through an intensive 36-week, four-year course — in effect, a night-school seminary, with a curriculum on the Old and New Testament, theology, church history, Episcopal Church beliefs and practices, and more.

“The RenewalWorks survey revealed how hungry we are at St. Michael’s to learn,” Arlene says. “EfM is one way to recognize how God is at work in your life and in the world.”

In 1985 Arlene and her mother Naomi and late father Abner discovered St. Michael’s. Born and raised in Manhattan, Arlene attended public schools and colleges in New York before earning a master’s degree in marketing research.

Arlene’s first job out of college was with the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, where she encountered some of the city’s poorest and sickest people. “That work informed my faith,” she recalls. Later on, Arlene managed Trinity Bookstore, where, she says, “I learned to talk about my faith.”

At St. Michael’s now, Arlene says, “People have an honest, intentional desire to know and honor God and to care for one another. Our ministries more than ever reflect that desire.”

Photo: As Arlene Bullard sees it, “St. Michael’s parishioners don’t feel that the week is right if they don’t start it by going to church on Sunday.”

From the Rector: Seeking the Promise of Resurrection

Kate Flexer at Easter Vigil

As we invite everyone forward to Communion on Sundays, we say something like these words: Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here. And today, in this celebration of the resurrection, I want to echo that again.

You may be here as a regular worshiper — or you may be with us for the first time. Maybe you’re tagging along with family and friends. Maybe you left the church for one reason or another but attend days like Easter out of habit, or even a sense of guilt.

Maybe you come from no faith tradition but you like the majesty — and music — of Easter. Maybe you are trying to balance Christian faith with another faith; or maybe you’re just wishing that you too, even you, could somehow believe.

Here we embrace and explore questions of faith together. And we in this church hardly have all the answers.

But on Easter we affirm that we believe in, hope for and desperately need the promise of resurrection — that light shines in the darkness, death is not the end, and the suffering of this world is not all there is. Join us at our Easter table. We’re so glad you’re here.

Come thou font of every blessing: Stewardship over the years

Stewardship In-Gathering 2018 photo

The 2017 pledge season was bountiful: The Lift Every Voice campaign elicited 179 pledges and $551,160.

But students of stewardship (or Wall Street) know to watch trends rather than year-over-year results.

Fortunately, Galina Koubassova, our parish administrator, has kept detailed records about pledging for the past 16 years.

How are we doing overall, from one year to the next? Answer: Very well.

Over these 16 years, we’ve seen an average year-to-year increase in the total amount pledged somewhere between 3.5 percent and 5 percent—after inflation. This may not sound like much, but in fact it’s amazing, given that many churches struggle to break even.

Galina’s data enable us to answer some important questions. For example: In any given year, how many pledgers renew and how many don’t? (Most renew.) How many new pledgers are there? (It varies a lot, with no clear trend, but there’s a healthy number every year.) When people renew their pledge, does the renewed amount keep up with inflation? (Mostly not. Word to the wise.)

Do we depend more or less heavily now than we used to do on a few large contributors—a common phenomenon in every nonprofit? (A bit more, but this trend unfortunately mirrors society’s increasing inequality. We continue to have a healthy, broad base of smaller pledges that serve as our fiscal meat and potatoes.)

We have had splendid stewardship committees, with Eric Vigen and Allison Downing at the helm most recently. Stewardship is hard and often frustrating work, but indispensable. Our results would not be nearly so good without these stalwart miners swinging their picks.

They have a rich vein to work. The people of St Michael’s—our second-greatest treasure, after the Greatest of all—abound, as our parish collect says, in “grace, prayer, commitment, and love.” Pledging, alongside volunteering, is part of the commitment clause, and it’s clear that we take it seriously.

Of course, we have our sights set on continuing improvement for 2019 and beyond …

— Michael Smith

Photo: At the in-gathering on Sunday, Nov. 5, pledgers streamed to the altar with their contribution to the future of faith at St. Michael’s.

Carole O’Connor Edwards knew she wanted to serve

Carole O'Connor Edwards photo

Carole O’Connor Edwards radiates calm, which may help explain why she’s essential to some of the most personal and immediate ministries at St. Michael’s.

Carole is an acolyte, a healing prayer minister, a lay Eucharistic visitor, and a member of the Community of Hope International training group. Oh, and she’s also a vestry member, with committee assignments in human resources and parish life.

Perhaps you’ve received the chalice from Carole. “I’m constantly praying as people take the chalice,” Carole says. “We were trained that the chalice isn’t about you, the acolyte—it’s about that person receiving, and God. It’s humbling to take part in that moment.”

Now retired, Carole was a labor management coordinator (among other jobs) at the now-closed North General Hospital in Harlem, and a union delegate. Her husband Bill worked in the operating room at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

“At this stage of my life, I knew I wanted to serve,” Carole said.

A cradle Episcopalian, Carole came to New York at age 19 from Trinidad, where her 98-year-old mother Elvira Collins still lives. “I get back now as often as I can,” Carole says.

In 1998, she moved to the Upper West Side and found St. Michael’s. On her first Sunday visit she was impressed by the preaching of our former rector, the Rev. Canon George W. Brandt Jr. “The first time I walked through the door I knew I was going to stay,” Carole recalls.

“There’s so much opportunity to grow at St. Michael’s,” Carole says. “Our priests are working to train us to do more than we think we can do. The challenge always is to get more parishioners involved. But things are only getting better. I can’t see our church going any other way.”

Photo: Carole O’Connor Edwards after the Ash Wednesday service: “I wanted to be an acolyte,” she says, “and then one ministry led to another. I always seem to fall into things and sometimes it’s hard to know who found who.”

RenewalWorks goals, part 2: Communicate better

Blessing of the Animals - communicate

The RenewalWorks team came up with four goals for our parish. Here’s the second in our series revisiting them:

Better Communicate Who We Are

How do we spread the Good News at St. Michael’s? How do we communicate who we are, what we’re up to, and what we believe?

A short list would include

  • our newsletters, The Messenger and Looking Ahead, in print and via email;
  • the website, with its events calendar and other new features;
  • our Facebook page and other social media accounts;
  • the new iVolunteer online sign-up system;
  • meditation booklet for self-guided tours of our worship space;
  • outward-facing promotion of popular opportunities such as our Advent/Christmas and Holy Week/Easter services;
  • community events like the Blessing of the Animals;
  • the Saturday Kitchen, which so movingly represents our commitment to service and fellowship in the name of Christ; and
  • the faithful witness of all our parishioners, in person and online, to the message of God’s love and redemption.

In the RenewalWorks process we learned that there is a yearning for spiritual growth in the congregation. When Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep,” he was setting in motion a process that we continue today, growing inwardly by reaching out.  

What are we forgetting for the list? What aren’t we doing yet but should be? Drop us a line to share your thoughts.

The Blessing of the Animals: The Rev. Kyle Oliver with Mary Nash and Snowball, her Westie.

Lent in our own words

Lenten devotional editors photo

Lent is a time for reflection, not just for individuals but the community. For nearly 20 years now, our reflections have been guided by a home-grown publication “of Lenten devotional material, by and for the people of St. Michael’s Church.”

Forty pages long, with 40 authors, meant to be read over the 40 days of Lent, the idea for the book first came from Arlene Bullard in 2000. That year’s edition was intended as a one-off. But when Ginger Lief saw it, she knew it ought to be an annual event, and she made it one.

Ginger has been a member of St. Michael’s since 1983; she’s also a national leader of the Episcopal Church Women. Ginger, Elisabeth Avery, and Margaret Cotterell begin work on the book when the church gathers each September.

These three must round up 40 scribes to reflect on the “Proper”(selection of readings) for each day, wrangle art for the cover—often from children—and shepherd it all into a book in time for Ash Wednesday.

Avery calls it the wisdom of the people, a “lovely and easy discipline” for the subway or anywhere. Ginger adds that it’s a year-by-year chronicle of the church’s spiritual life, a chance for parishioners to get to know each other, and for people to look within themselves and “know that they are religious.”

“Lent 2018 at St. Michael’s” is available in the rear of the church, or at the front desk. Get yours today!

— Tom Phillips

Click here to download a PDF of this year’s booklet.

Image: Margaret Cotterell, Ginger Lief, and Elisabeth Avery collect parishioners’ day-by-day reflections on the season.

Putting RenewalWorks in action (part 1)

Young adults making hot cross buns

Last year our church embarked on an exciting self-study through RenewalWorks, looking at our spiritual practices and how we could continue to grow as a congregation.

A heartening number of you responded to the survey. After much cogitation and numerous meetings, the RenewalWorks committee came up with four goals for our parish.

Here is the first in a series aimed at reminding us of those goals and ways we live them out.

Goal #1: Embrace Every Opportunity to Build Relationships

Name tags at worship, retreats, pasta dinners, BBQs, small groups, Bible study, the Knit Wits, Saturday Kitchen, Sunday school, Sunday forums, moms’ dinners, the men’s group, coffee hour, singing in choir, and just chatting with someone you met in the next pew.

This is just some of what we do.

And guess what? It’s all crucial to our spiritual growth. 

Relationships abuilding: The Young Adults prepared hot cross buns last Maundy Thursday. From left: Taylor Johnson, Anne Pearce, Joshua Witchger, Michael Taylor, and Anne Marie Witchger.

Sing to the Lord a new psalm: Cantrell the composer

John Cantrell at the piano photo

When Choirmaster and Organist John Cantrell began planning the six-month sabbatical he took last spring, he intended to devote much of his time to composing.

Fortunately for St. Michael’s, he found the ideal text in the Psalter — a collection of 150 sacred poems. The psalms were written as long as 3,000 years ago, and are still performed constantly in both Jewish and Christian worship.

John took on an ambitious and unusual project. Like many congregations, at St. Michael’s we usually sing the psalms to Anglican chant. This musical form allows each verse to be sung in the rhythm of natural speech. Composers across the ages, including John, have written these chants.

The challenge in a psalm setting is twofold: The music must accommodate not only the speech rhythms but also the mood of the text. The psalms cover a vast range in tone and subject, from the penitence of Psalm 51 (Verse 10: “Hide your face from my sins: and blot out all my iniquities.”) to the sheer joy of Psalm 150 (Verse 5: “Let everything that has breath: praise the Lord. Hallelujah!”)

Whether written or spoken, the Psalms provide a direct connection to both our Jewish sisters and brothers and past generations of Christians. As John points out, “This is our oldest known reference to the music of the church.”

In the Cantrell Psalter, each individual psalm will have its unique melody and harmonies that amplify “all the emotional and spiritual aspects of a particular psalm,” John says. And if the huge scope of the project were not distinctive enough, John has also chosen to work in a jazz-inflected mode.

“I find the jazz mode has more capacity, with both consonance and dissonance, to express the emotional content of a text,” he says.

What is John’s goal for his Psalter? A high and lofty one: “that when the texts are well matched to the tune, they become woven into the fabric of a person’s being in mutual support.” John has already introduced a few of his psalm settings into our worship, with more to come.

Go deep with God this Lent—join The Good Book Club

The Good Book Club logo

Want to deepen your faith this Lent and Easter season? Join St. Michael’s parishioners and Episcopalians around the world for The Good Book Club.

Whatever your schedule and whatever your knowledge of the Bible, there’s a way to get involved with this opportunity for spiritual learning and growth:

• During Lent, our Wednesday Night Bible Study will follow the Good Book Club outline for the Gospel According to Luke.

Everyone can sign up via email to receive a daily reading passage and short meditation from Forward Day By Day. This subscription is usually $10/year, but it’s free from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost with no payment required.

• Families who want to read Luke together can get activity ideas from national educator network Forma and parent reflections from the website Grow Christians.

• Various St. Michael’s small groups will also be following the Good Book Club Reading Plan in ways appropriate to their life together.

• On Mondays in Lent and Easter, our St. Michael’s Facebook Page will publish the weekly readings and pose a reflection question for us to chew on throughout the week.

• Want (or know someone who wants) resources in Spanish? Haga clic aquí para videos y más.

Here’s a little Q&A from Episcopal publisher Forward Movement, creators of The Good Book Club:

What is the Good Book Club?

The Good Book Club is an invitation to all Episcopalians to join in reading the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts during Lent-Easter 2018. Episcopalians will start reading Luke on Sunday, February 11 and read a section of Luke’s gospel every day through the season of Lent. Then the entire season of Easter will be devoted to daily readings from the Book of Acts. Already, individuals, congregations, and organizations are committed to being a part of the Good Book Club, and we hope you’ll join the journey too!

Why read the Bible?

People who read scripture with an open heart grow in faith through their encounter with the sacred stories of the Bible. We know this to be true in our personal experiences — and we have research to back it up. RenewalWorks, a Forward Movement research-based initiative, has data from nearly half a million participants that identify scripture engagement as a key catalyst for spiritual vitality in congregations and for individuals. In other words, if you want to grow and strengthen your faith, reading scripture is the perfect exercise.

Why Luke and Acts?

We love sequels, and Luke-Acts provides a wonderful two-part narrative. Luke tells the wondrous story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection. Acts picks up where Luke leaves off and tells the story of the earliest disciples through the lens of Peter and Paul and the real star of the show — the Holy Spirit. Written by the same author, the books are accessible, and the story is a page-turner!

How will it work?

Forward Movement has created a set of daily readings to divide Luke and Acts into 50 days each. Each day, participants will read a few verses of Luke or Acts. These readings are available on the Good Book Club website. Readers of Forward Day by Day can easily follow along, with Luke and Acts guiding the reflections during Lent-Easter 2018.

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