2023 Annual Parish Meeting & Rector's Address
Sunday, January 29, 2023
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany A
The 2023 Rector's Address
To my dear siblings in Christ,
What a joy and privilege it is to be able to deliver another Annual Report to St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church! Believe it or not, this is the seventh Annual Meeting that I have presided over in this parish. I am extremely grateful to God and to you, the people of St. Matthew’s, for the opportunity to continue to serve you as Rector.
2022 was the first full year that we have been able to gather together in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic began. That means that some of us said goodbye to online worship entirely, while others in the community continue to depend on virtual offerings, and others have participated in a little of both. We are in a brand-new era of our church’s history, in which membership and community look different. The neighborhood around us is changing rapidly (look across MLK Blvd). We have a clergy duo now, with changing leadership dynamics and more leadership energy to go around. We can look at these changes as threats or as opportunities to get creative. Second Corinthians teaches, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17)! I believe that God wants St. Matthew’s to become a new creation, and we need to trust in God’s loving care as we undergo this transformation together.
Of course, some things in 2022 stayed the same. We continued with the basics of regular rhythms of Sunday worship, weekday Evening Prayer, and opportunities to learn together. We had a Lenten book study (This Band of Sisterhood: Black Women Bishops on Race, Faith, and the Church by Westina Matthews from St. Peter’s, Savannah); we held a Bible Study over Zoom; we met with other Episcopal and United Methodist churches for CORR (Conversations on Relationships and Race). Thanks to the Vestry and Budget & Finance Committee, we continued to be faithful stewards and administrators of the parish’s resources. We continued to offer high quality pre-K education at St. Matthew’s Day Care & Learning Center to over 50 children throughout the year.
But we also got creative. Bishop Logue blessed St. Matthew’s by appointing Deacon Ella Roundtree-Davis to serve St. Matthew’s. She has helped lead some concrete changes (like that parish-wide deep cleaning day) and some new ministry initiatives, which you can read more about in her report. We upgraded our church’s sound system to make our worship more accessible. We held a series of joyful celebrations in September for our parish’s 167th Anniversary: Lemonade on the Lawn, a Gospel Brunch at Good Times Jazz Bar, in-person Evening Prayer with guest preachers, and finally our Anniversary Sunday Worship and Potluck Supper. We hosted an NAACP event featuring gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. We hosted a worship service for the Diocese of Georgia’s Annual Convention. Throughout the year, a group of parishioners formed a committee to compile and edit a book full of my sermons that will be sold as a fundraiser when it’s ready for publication this fall (fingers crossed).
As a member congregation of JUST (Justice Unites Savanah Together), St. Matthew’s participated in the first large-scale, in-person Nehemiah Action on May 2, 2022. St. Matthew’s brought 17 people to this event in support of new funds for affordable housing and changes to our court system. In my role as Court Equity Committee Chair, I negotiated with District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones to grow a pretrial diversion program and improve the county’s criminal data collection. I continue to be part of that committee, following up on the DA’s progress, and now serve on the JUST Executive Committee. In the fall of 2022, Della Jones and Sandra Mitchell agreed to become Team Leaders for St. Matthew’s Justice Ministry, and we have a team of 13 people representing St. Matthew’s at JUST events. They will recruit a lot more people to attend the Nehemiah Action in support of affordable housing and education reform on April 24, 2023.
I continue to work 10 hours per week for the Diocese of Georgia as its Missioner for Racial Justice. I wrote and presented a workshop for clergy about how to combat police brutality through organizing and advocacy. I brought a lot of this knowledge to bear in co-leading the JUST committee on court equity and criminal justice reform. I met with thought leaders from Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research & Policy. I continue to collaborate with Faith in Public Life to speak out on issues affecting the whole state of Georgia. (This partnership led to our forum on voting rights in October with Minister Shavonne Williams.) And now, I am planning to write a book about Antiracist Abolitionist Christianity; I want people to bring their beliefs about grace, mercy, and love into the world of criminal justice policy to end police brutality and mass incarceration.
As a trainer for Diocese of Georgia Leadership Ministries, I helped the diocesan team redesign the program formerly known as Church Development Institute (CDI) into Leading With Grace (LWG). I recruited Della Jones and Paul Berksteiner to represent St. Matthew’s in our inaugural class from March through October 2022. Their work with me and the other trainers helped me see that we needed to bring those leadership skills back to our parish. LWG laid the foundation for our church’s decision to begin a formal parish-wide Strategic Planning process in 2022-2023.
See, in May, I had the opportunity to attend CREDO, a wellness retreat for clergy run by the Church Pension Group (CPG). There, I got to step back and look at the bigger picture of my ministry in St. Matthew’s and the Diocese. It became clear to me that we needed to be more intentional about weaving together all these old and new threads, so that St. Matthew’s will grow into who God is calling us to be in the 2020s and beyond. We have a lot of good things going on at St. Matthew’s right now, and lots of them emerge from your energy and efforts. But truthfully, our parish’s ministry is being limited by my energy, attention, and interest. I have not done a good enough job of sharing ministry leadership with others and involving more of the congregation in decision making, planning, and execution. Our Strategic Planning process is a way of engaging a lot more people in the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms of our church’s ministries. That’s why we hired outside consultants and why I’m not chairing the planning team and I’m not in charge of this process. We are all going to be a part of the process. We are going to make decisions about the future direction of this parish. We are going to share that leadership because we are St. Matthew’s, not the building, not the clergy, but all of us.
There is one more thing I’m going to do this year to remind the church and myself that everything doesn’t depend on one person. Like I mentioned earlier, this is my seventh year serving as your priest, and the Diocese encourages clergy to take twelve weeks of rest every seven years, so it’s time for me to take a sabbatical. And to be honest, I feel like I need it to step back and refocus on what the future of this parish holds. I’ll begin my sabbatical on May 29 and return to my duties on August 27. During this time, Senior Warden Joenelle Gordon will be the point person for most ministries of the church; Deacon Davis will handle pastoral care needs. I am arranging for supply priests to hold communion services for about half of the Sundays I am gone and the Deacon Davis will lead non-communion services on the other Sundays. Rev. Steele will be on sabbatical from St. Peter’s at the same time; we will travel around the Mediterranean in Europe and north Africa, then visit family and friends domestically; I’ll also take some focused time to work on my book idea.
Some things may slow down while I am away, but they don’t need to stop. There is no “I” in “team” and there is no “I” in “church.” We are St. Matthew’s. You are St. Matthew’s. When I come back at the end of August, I expect to be refreshed, restored, and ready to hit the ground running. We will implement the Strategic Plan that we all developed. And we will answer God’s call to serve one another and this community in Savannah. Through these experiences and others, our trust in God’s provision will grow. We’ll need to lean on the grace, love, and power of God to work miracles in us. May we allow God to transform us into new creations together.
Your servant and brother in Christ,
The Rev. Guillermo A. Arboleda
VI Rector of St. Matthew’s, Savannah