A MESSAGE FROM THE REV. J.C. AUSTIN: CONSIDERING OUR OPTIONS
Friends, it’s good to be back after two weeks away on study leave. I’m grateful for the opportunity to step back from the demands of daily ministry and reflect more deeply on the opportunities and challenges facing the Christian church in the post-pandemic world, and it was a joy to be able to do that in South Africa, which has been so formative to my life and ministry in so many ways. Even so, I found myself especially eager to return to Bethlehem after such a wonderful annual congregational meeting right before I left!
For those of you who were unable to attend, it was a watershed moment for us in many ways for us as a congregation. In addition to electing a wonderful group of new congregational leaders at the, the Session and Trustees reported on our ministry and finances in 2022, and then turned our attention to 2023, which we have identified as a crucial year for us to “swing for the fences.”
As you know, our normal practice is to present a balanced budget for the coming year of ministry as a congregation. With the increase in expenses from inflation as well as the increasing demands of facilities that have been accumulating deferred maintenance for decades, the Session cannot project a balanced budget under the status quo of our income and expense streams.
That leaves us with only two options: reduce expenses or increase revenue. The Session and Trustees were both unanimous that our focus needs to be on increasing revenues, because the only ways to meaningfully reduce expenses is to add to the burden of deferred maintenance on the facilities and/or drastically cut staff expenses, which would deal a crippling blow to our ability to do ministry, given how lean our staffing model already is.
Therefore, the Session has established a Mission Strategy Steering Committee, made up of seven members, with myself and Lindsey as staff support, to guide an energetic effort to help us discern, develop, and pursue new long-term strategies as a congregation that will increase our ministry impact in the world exponentially while simultaneously re-purposing existing resources and cultivating new ones to get us to financial sustainability.
This work is in addition to the Trustees’ current Facilities Usage Task Force, which is pursuing short-term opportunities to generate income in the meantime. The good news is that every church in the United States is in the position of needing to do this kind of work; many simply haven’t realized it yet. I am beyond grateful for the leadership of the Session and Trustees in recognizing both the need and opportunity in this moment for us to do this work, and I am convinced that we will be seen as a national model before we are done.
The question, of course, is how do we get there! With that in mind, the Steering Committee had its organizing meeting just this past Wednesday night. It was an exciting and hopeful conversation, and we came out of it with a clear sense of next steps in terms of exploring possibilities, resources, and existing models for this kind of innovative and impactful ministry.
As was stated in the Annual Meeting, both the church leadership as a whole and this Steering Committee in particular are committed to strong communication and frequent conversation as we move through this work. To that end, please mark your calendars for 10 a.m. in Fellowship Hall on Sunday, March 26. That will be the first “Strategy Conversation” that the Steering Committee will hold, and all are encouraged to participate. More information will be forthcoming, but I hope you will be as excited as I am to be there and be a part of it.
Finally, we are about to enter the season of Lent. As you have often heard me say, Presbyterians have a tradition of “taking something up” for Lent rather than “giving something up.” By that, I mean that the purpose of Lent is not minor self-deprivation, like giving up chocolate, but an intentional focus on our lives of discipleship, such as taking up new practices of worship, prayer, study, generosity, and service.
To that end, I want to invite you to take up an adult education class that I will be teaching on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m., starting on February 26. I will be leading presentations and discussion on the key concepts of two books that have been guiding the recent strategic work of the Session and Trustees: Shift: Three Big Moves for the 21st Century Church, by Mark Tidsworth, and We Aren’t Broke: Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry, by Mark Elsdon. (Note: this class will take the place of Hearts N Minds during Lent.)
You are encouraged to get the books* and read them as part of your Lenten discipline, but you do not need to do that in order to engage in the class, which is designed for people who are unfamiliar with the books but invested in a positive future for this congregation. I hope you will join me, and I look forward to a stimulating class and season of Lent!
Grace and Peace,
*If you are interested in borrowing a copy, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or the church office (610-867-5865) and we’ll help connect you.