Remembering the Future: A Sermon for the 173rd Annual Meeting

Good morning, and I now call to order our 173rd Annual Meeting. In the interest of time, I’m not going to start by reading out vital statistics like baptisms, funerals, attendance numbers, and other things I’ve enumerated in prior reports. All that information can be found at the bottom of the printed portion of my address in your Annual Meeting booklets.

I will point out, however, some highlights from that information. The first is the number of baptisms we’ve had this year, 14, 12 just since September. Baptisms are an important marker of a parish’s vitality, and this number assures us of a promising recovery from the pandemic.

We lost notable parishioners last year. I’d like to mention three of them especially: Patty Wessel, Louise Clark, and John Bourhill. Patty and Louise were both trusted sources of information about our parish, Louise even being the parish historian. Both had been at St. James since the 1940s, and with them we lost a tremendous part of our heritage (and just two amazing women). We also this past year lost the Rev. Deacon John Bourhill, a man with a gracious and generous personality. We’re grateful for their lives and faithful, unwavering love of this parish.


Three years ago, we stood on the brink of a pandemic that would change our lives, and many of the institutions we hold dear. Soon after it began, a self-selected group of dedicated parishioners met to discuss the church and its future. Within a year of the pandemic’s start, another committee had gathered to conduct a parish survey about people’s reasons for attending St. James, and their hopes for our church moving forward.No one expected this pandemic to drag on for so long, and I suspect that if we did all this over again, the conversations and surveys would look slightly different. Still, we gleaned from this time some meaningful information, much of it still helpful as we chart our path forward. 

On several occasions since that work was completed, I’ve hoped to roll out a “Strategic Plan” for St. James, but those have been thwarted time and again--by new waves of virus, and of course by events in my family’s life. I don’t know if you remember, but literally the day before we took our daughter to the emergency room, I had preached a sermon all about well-laid plans going awry and the need to be nimble. I even included in that sermon, as an example, the plans we make for our children being upended. I believe that sometimes we can unconsciously sense danger ahead. At least that’s how I make sense of the eerie prescience of that sermon.

Needless to say, all this has made me suspicious of neatly-crafted “Strategic Plans.” At the same time, these events have strengthened my resolve to focus on the things that matter. That’s another thing I’ve learned about tragedy: while it beats you down, it also inspires a renewed concern and intensity about life and its priorities.

One of those priorities is seeing to it that St. James is strong and well positioned for the future. So let me share with you some of the things I believe we need to accomplish in the next several years to ensure a solid footing. 2024 marks our 175th anniversary as a parish. What will they say that we’ve done to ensure St. James’ success and longevity 175 years from now, or even just 20 years from now?  

We need to be financially responsible moving forward, and we have been. Our 2022 endowment draw was lower than projected. The same goes for our 2023 budget. Cuts were made thoughtfully over some time, and in a way that wouldn’t impact our vital ministries. You’ve been generous in your giving, and that’s a large reason why we are where we are. With the continued oversight of the finance and investment committees, as well as a strong Annual Appeal team in Jim and Barbara, we’ll continue on this path. 

We’ve expanded our pledging base by 30% in recent years. Pledges moreover are more evenly distributed across giving tiers than they used to be, with our biggest growth in the middle tiers. Not only has our income increased, but it’s become more resilient. We should work hard to continue these trends.

We still have to broaden our sources of income and leverage our buildings for income. We are blessed with this beautiful facility and grounds and need to share them. If that’s done right and with some improvements, we can actually profit from them. I’ve reached out to local clergy who do this well, and they’ve agreed to show us the steps they’ve taken to make this happen in their communities.

Reports in your booklet go into more detail about much of this. I raise these issues here, because remembering the future in all our financial decisions has been, and will continue to be, a priority for me as your rector, and for the vestry and wardens.

I’d like to talk about some other priorities I see for us in the years ahead, and let me begin with an observation about our parish. Our geographical circle is expanding. I bet if you turn to someone in the pew in front of or behind you, you’ll meet someone from slightly further afield than you would have traditionally expected. Churches are closing. I can’t say for certain, but some of our new members ten or twenty years ago might have gone to a more local Episcopal church, but that local church either is shut or unable to provide adequate programs and resources. There may be other reasons for our broader reach: most people now search for churches online, which helps increase our visibility across a wider area. Being able to hold meetings and small groups virtually has also helped. But what this amounts to is that increasingly we’re not just a local parish; we’re a regional parish. That shift is underway. It’s something to celebrate. It’s also something to get strategic about.

Several priorities emerge from seeing ourselves as a regional parish. Having flexible service times, where people can get here from farther away and once they get here, find services that suit their schedules and also where they are--this is important. It’s impossible at this point to confirm this, but I would guess that our two services at 9 & 10:30 are not unrelated to our growing demographic and geographic reach. That includes finally having space for people to park without hassle and confusion being your first experience when you arrive at our church. It also includes being able to have an outdoor service, an addition that has had overwhelming approval.

Let me add here, because this is important and I am listening: I truly understand the feelings of loss some feel as a result of increased attendance distribution across two services (rather than the bulk of the parish worshiping at one service). Change can make us uncomfortable. I get that. What initially may seem a loss, can evolve into something new with unexpected benefits. I’m asking those of you who may have reservations to give this a chance for success. Consider 1981 under Father Michael Kendall when we went from a 7:30, 9 and 11:15 am service to an 8 & 10, 10 being the principal service. There was no doubt grief there, too--and a feeling of contracting. But we’re expanding now. We’re making that a strategy, and priority. We’re making room for people who will walk through these doors next week, next month, next year, ten even seventy-five years from now. There will always be space for everyone here, and room for others yet to join.

Another priority that follows from our expanded reach as a parish is having staff and leadership who reflect both our immediate and wider community. I continue to be grateful to the diocese of New York for partnering with us to bring Mother Eliza here. She grew up at St. James in Fordham, which we’re in relationship with through our food bank, and she spent many years as a deacon at Trinity St. Paul’s in New Rochelle. And, by the way, we have parishioners here from both the Bronx and New Rochelle.

I want to tell you two things about Mother Eliza that illustrate why this matters--this isn’t just about her personally, but about the importance of diversity in staff and leadership. First, when she and I were discussing the preaching schedule for January and I asked if she wanted me to preach on Martin Luther King weekend, it being a holiday, she said, “Astrid, how would that look, the white woman preaching about Dr. Martin Luther King while I just sit to the side?” I laughed. She’s right. (Eliza, you make me a better leader and I’m grateful.)

The next day we went to Shaarei Tikvah synagogue where we joined all the houses of worship in our area for a Martin Luther King Day celebration, followed by a forum on race with local high school youth. (It was an amazing service, by the way.) It was significant that we, St. James the Less, were represented by the only black clergy person from a Scarsdale congregation. In Lower Westchester 2023, and project ahead now 50 years, but even now, if you walk into a church and it looks like (quoting Dr. King of Sunday mornings) the “most segregated hour in America,” then you have reason to think that church might not be around in 100 years. We plan to be here then, and to be relevant.

One more priority that comes from our expanded reach as a parish is the need to define “church” more broadly. When we do our Breakfast runs, when we go to the St. James Fordham Pantry and serve 55,000 meals, as we did last year--we’re doing church. Looking fifty, a hundred years out, will there be Sunday worship? Absolutely. That’s why we put the resources we do into it. You come here on a Sunday morning and you get a good sermon, reliably beautiful music in our beloved tradition, a sense of reverence and awe and community, all things that will sustain human beings as long as we exist. Our ancient liturgy unites and defines us as Episcopalians.

I also know from talking to many of you that, just like one style of worship may speak to you more than another at different times in your life, so too, your engagement with the church might one year be more around packing grocery bags than singing hymns, and could change still. Many points of entry; many ways of engaging; many ways to be church. That, I believe, is essential for our church’s survival into the future. (Not to mention the crucial fact that we’re called by Christ to serve those in need--that’s the clearest imperative there is in the Gospels.)


There was another time in our history when this church faced a juncture similar to today’s. In the 1920s and 30s, the commuter rail had just gone in and people were moving all the way up to Scarsdale. St. James recognized this opportunity in changing times. This sweet wood-raftered rural church where the same warden might serve for over 30 years strategically turned itself into what you still see now--and they added the parish hall. And they added the parish house, the building between here and the parish hall that now houses the nursery school and church offices. And they added three more services on Sunday. Just think about this for a minute. All those additions to our physical plant with their sturdy stone walls, built-in oak bookcases in nearly every room, lead-paned windows and decorative finials: That was all built by a congregation. If you’d lived then, in your lifetime you might have witnessed the transformation of a small country church into what became the biggest church in Scarsdale and one of the largest in Westchester County.

I can’t imagine what the conversations to get there must have been like. There was a lot to be gained, but there was also a lot to lose. They transformed themselves into what God was calling them to be. Had they not taken the chances they did, I’m not confident this place would be here today.

Our culture has changed a lot since then. We won’t have a confirmation class of 150 students likely ever again. But we have a similar opportunity tailored to our time--to widen our boundaries, to set priorities and foster a mentality that will invite people in, maybe even expand and improve our physical spaces like they did back then. Whatever we decide to do together, it must be not just for our benefit now, but for generations to come. No institution survives, let alone thrives, without remembering the future in each decision it makes. No institution thrives without an awareness of what’s happening around it and responding bravely, and strategically.

To close, one of the guiding questions of the past few years has been What is God calling us to be? God has been calling whether we’ve been aware of it or not. We’re honoring our tradition and who we are as a parish. We’re expanding who we are geographically and demographically. We’re expanding how we define and do church. All the while creating a solid financial foundation to enable and support St. James for decades to come.

In the meantime, it’s time to move on with our service. Absolutely stay afterward for the rest of our meeting, where there’ll be an opportunity for questions and conversation. And as ever, I’m grateful--every year more than the last--to be your rector. May the spirit lead us forward.