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From the Clergy

Date Posted: February 11, 2021

2021 Annual Parish Meeting

The Annual Parish Meeting of Grace Episcopal Church in its 193rd year was held on Wednesday, February 10 via Zoom. Following is a link to the annual report, a recording of the meeting, and a copy of the remarks made by the Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham, which includes vestry election results.

It is very hard to know where to start this evening, as we look back on a year unlike any we have experienced before. I didn’t want to type out a script for tonight. I would rather just share some thoughts and point you to a couple of resources that I think are very important for us as a community as we look ahead. But I want to make sure I don’t miss anything. After I speak, Dan Scott, our Senior Warden, and Hank Goble, our Finance Chair, will share a few thoughts of their own, and I am grateful for them.  

Thank you to our four parishioners who are rotating off the vestry: Charles Kelley, Scarlet Pendarvis, Doug Smith, and Patrick O’Rouke. If ever there were a time that demonstrated the importance of having a strong, prayerful, compassionate vestry who understands that their role goes far beyond financial duties, this was it. And if ever there were a year that demonstrated how fortunate we are as a parish to have such dedicated folks stand for and serve on the vestry, this was it.  

Thanks to the staff for their constant presence, dedication, faithfulness, and creativity.  For Reba and Jess and their administrative eyes and dedication; for Cheryl and her keen gifts for spiritual formation; for Brenda and her gifts for detail and promoting participation; for Cynthia and her enormous gifts and for helping coordinate Compassion; for Will and his gifts with music and liturgy. And, for Jennifer and her enormous gifts for communication and the new website platform. For Jeremy and his constant presence in helping manage the facility and also the AV advancements. For Ansley and Meg and their diligence and care with Children of Grace Preschool. For Mary Demmler and Betsy and David Powell and their presence and help with services and pastoral care. And for Mike Thibadeaux, whom you may not know, but who serves as our custodian and for whom I am very grateful these days. We are blessed with an incredible team at Grace, and I am grateful to serve as rector among them.  

Thanks to the Finance Committee for their attention to the health of the parish. With so much uncertainty this past year, their attention and experience was so important. To Hank Goble as chair and Callie Flack as Treasurer, thank you.  

Thanks to the Medical Advisory Team for their counsel in navigating the stressful situation around worship, working with the bishop’s directives and finding a way to create our own space within guidelines and structures. It was not easy to make these decisions, but we did it as a team, and I will be forever grateful for their willingness to share of themselves.

Let me share my screen and bring up the online Annual Report that Jennifer has compiled. I won’t read through all of this, but I will scroll though and highlight, again, how we have structured this report along the lines of our five Ministry Clusters. Once again, this structure served us well as we all moved into our homes and continue to work together to prayerfully hold the spectrum of the parish’s life.  And I encourage you to take the time to read it and soak up this summary of the community’s life.  

Now, if I could, let me take just a bit of time and share with you some of what I see, of where I believe the Spirit is inviting us to go as a parish.  

I want to begin by telling you that I found another heart-shaped rock while on a three-mile walk in the woods this morning. I try to go on a hike each day behind our house. That has become my other office, there in the woods, sitting next to the pond with my prayer list and a piece of paper I can write notes on.  

I started seeing these heart-shaped rocks early last year while on walks around the lake, and now in the woods. Lisa says that some barely fit the description of “heart-shaped,” but I see it there.  

The point is, those rocks have been there for a while, but I never noticed them before. I never noticed them until I was pushed into this new situation, until we all were, and we have learned–are learning–to see things in different ways. We notice things that we have not noticed before: about ourselves, about our community, about our nation, about our world.  

Some of these things are quite painful, and there is a part of us that would prefer to avoid them. I can understand that, even as I know the Spirit is challenging us to bear witness to things that need to be named.  

Many of the things we have noticed are beautiful and graceful. Typical, ordinary things in life take on new significance. Even the rocks cry out, the text says. We notice the birds more. Smiles. Hugs and the simple experience of human touch with our families. The focus on the eyes when we wear masks.  

So, this is one major theme or focus that I am reflecting on: what are we noticing in these days? How are we paying attention to the Spirit’s presence in our lives? How are we choosing to participate with that movement–or how are we resisting it?

This question underlies our work on the new School for Christian Practice.  In talking with the team, the community, and colleagues sharing in the broader Christian contemplative work  around the world, it is clear to me that the institutional church is undergoing a profound transition. We all know stories of parishes and churches that have struggled with attendance and budgets for years. We have all experienced these challenges. For the past several years, this community has risen to the challenge, and we have invested in ourselves and experienced growth. And not just growth in budgets and other numbers, but growth of the soul. Significant growth.  Meaningful growth that will continue to bear fruit long after we all are gone.  

Long after we are gone, I believe–I hope–that members of Grace Episcopal Church, say in 2121, will look back on this season of our life and smile as they see the prayerful dedication we showed to God’s call on our lives.  

The hope for the School for Christian Practice is that we can focus our attention on an image of renewal for not only this parish but for the institutional church as a whole. How are we called to delve more deeply into the practice of our faith? How are we called to see Sunday morning worship as a starting point for a life of discipleship? How are we called to explore what we see as the four main areas of focus: practices of prayer, scriptural proficiency, stages of faith and development, and sacramental ethics?  

What questions do we need to ask, both in terms of strategic development as well as in terms of our own soul’s growth?  

It is not an understatement to say that these next few years will be a watershed time for this parish–and for the wider Christian Church. We truly are at a crossroads, and the Spirit has brought us to a point where we can choose to take steps toward spiritual practice and community life that will shape us for decades to come.  

This is “where I am” at this moment, in my eighth year as your rector. I am looking ahead to many years to come, and I am enormously grateful that we have the privilege to share in this together.  

Personally, I look forward to a very intentional period of life through the spring, and I will step away for May and June to feed my own soul and do some deeply reflective spiritual work. And cook, read, write, and spend time with family. As a parish, we will continue to pace ourselves, asking the essential questions, and always, always, listening for the Spirit to lead and guide us as we continue in our practice as followers of Jesus. There is far too much important work to share in, to just “be busy.”

So, my friends, let us reflect back on this year and honestly grieve what we need to.  And let us give thanks for the opportunities before us as we look around carefully at the treasures that lie all around us.


And now let me share with you who was elected this year to serve the next three years on the vestry. Thank you to the Nominating Committee for their work in gathering names and ensuring that we once again have a dedicated and prayerful vestry.  

As I do each year, I will read the names within the context of a prayer, which I think is most appropriate for our life.  

Holy One, we give you thanks for this community and the many gifts that are embodied and shared by all who take their place within it.  In these days, we continue to learn so much about ourselves–even as we learn, more and more, to trust your presence in our lives.  It is no small thing to trust in the movement of the Living Spirit.  

On this night we give thanks for Alison Zavodny, Gale Smith, Beth Neidenbach, and Stephanie Wells who were willing to stand for election on the vestry.  We give thanks for their lives and their dedication to this community in so many ways.  

As well, we give thanks tonight for the four who were elected by this parish to serve on the Vestry: Daniel Grizzle, Barb Batog, Vance Holifield, and Sonja McLendon.  We remember them before you know as they begin their three-year term in the midst of so much transition–and opportunity.  

Bless the Vestry of this parish and all the committees and ministry groups whose love and presence connect us all to one another–and to the entire world.  

For the blessings of our lives we give you thanks.  Amen.