Report of the Pastor for 2016

“The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” - Martin Luther, “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, October 31, 1517


Dear Members and Friends:

2017! This is the year we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. But perhaps we shouldn’t assume that what we’ll be observing belongs only to Lutherans: a more proper label for this event is the Protestant Reformation. But even that  isn’t perfect, because the term “protestant” leaves out at least half if not more of Christendom and only dates to 1529 (not 1517). At that time, at least in some quarters, this designation even became somewhat pejorative.

Nevertheless, however one understands the term, it’s hard to deny that what Martin Luther set in motion on October 31, 1517 changed the Christian church and the course of European history. Troubled by his sins and sense of guilt before God, Luther was led by his father confessor, Johann von Staupitz, to study the scriptures in order to find the peace for his soul which had eluded him, in spite of the fact that he was an exemplary monk and priest. There in the Bible, especially in Galatians and Romans, Luther discovered the “true treasure of the church,” the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, completely apart from any merits on our part. And he spent the rest of his life proclaiming this gospel and trying to correct abuses in the church of his day.

This gospel of the glory and grace of God is what should be at the heart of all we do as the people of God at First English Evangelical Lutheran Church. That is why the weekly worship service when we gather to hear the gospel proclaimed in word and sacrament is so central: everything else we do emanates from the fundamental truth proclaimed by thesis number 62. If you want to tack the name “Lutheran” onto our activities at 1603 Monument Avenue, you’d better understand what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. That’s why I’ve always found our mission statement so powerful: “We are a Lutheran community celebrating the gospel of Jesus Christ and striving toward faithful living in God’s world.”

Celebrating the gospel: we do that through our weekly worship services. But there’s also the second part of the statement: “striving toward faithful living in God’s world.” When we have grasped what the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ means, we will want to tell others about the wonderful treasure we’ve found: that’s known as evangelism. Striving toward faithful living also results in what we here call social ministry: as Luther also said, we are freed as Christians from trying to earn our salvation (which we already have in Christ) to concentrate on serving our neighbor. It can assume various forms, and our congregation has always taken the call to serve beyond the boundaries of First English very seriously.

Discovering how to put our faith into action can be challenging. It’s relatively easy to learn something about Luther’s life and work or read a book on the Reformation. But how do make all of that relevant to our world today, a world that is as divided and conflicted as the one into which Luther was born? This is the conversation I urge us to engage in as we make our way through the year of the 500th Reformation Anniversary. What does being Lutheran, a church of the Reformation, mean for us in 2017? Luther injected new life into an old church that had become turned inward on itself (incurvatus in se); it had become a worldly institution which had lost sight of the heavenly treasure it was its holy task to proclaim. So how can we as a relatively old congregation (by American standards; Lutherans in Europe would consider us still to be in adolescence!) discover the secret of new life? The answer lies in the thesis quoted at the beginning: by focusing on the gospel and Luther’s teaching that the good news of our salvation in Christ frees us to be creatively engaged with the world around us, especially with those least able to care for themselves. And the more we do that, the more we will be a city on a hill, that light of the world our Lord speaks about in Matthew 5: you are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. All of this begins with us taking hold of our birthright, the true treasure of the church, the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God!

End of sermon. Now let’s look back at the past year, 2016. What were some of the highlights? First of all, our Congregational Life Committee has continued to show outstanding leadership in providing opportunities for fellowship, getting to know each other, and engaging in the biblical mutual conversation with and consolation of each other. It was really heartening to see everyone come together as a church family to the aid of Joyce and Joedy Smith and to witness Joyce’s brave steps towards recovery from the brain infection she suffered shortly after Easter. The Soul Stitchers, though small in number, have become a new way for members of First English to serve those in need. We’re still discovering what a blessing the Wagner Room is for our congregation, and the fellowship time there after the 10:30 services continues to be a good transition from the morning worship to the marching orders with which the service ends: “go in peace, serve the Lord”.

And there’s more. Our choir under Linwood Lunde’s capable leadership continues to enhance our worship; in addition, the bell choir is now up and running again and we’ve begun a children’s choir as well. Sunday School is a joyful time, as are the 10:30 children’s sermons, which have been moved to right after the opening liturgy, making them an effective introduction to the scripture readings which follow. The Adult Bible Class began observing the 500the Reformation Anniversary described in detail at the beginning of this report by studying various aspects of life at the time of the Reformation, resulting in a number of new persons becoming regulars in this class. Such short-term studies will continue in 2017. Also, copies of the classic Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton were made available (and still are) at the modest price of $ 10 (hardback with illustrations!). A gratifying number of our members have read or are reading the book and several opportunities for discussion of its contents will be offered in 2017. Our youth continue to participate in synod-wide activities for young people, and under their leadership we again conducted a one-day Vacation Bible School in the summer which was a lot of fun. The church picnic on June 5 took place at a location we hadn’t been to since 2003, Forest Hill Park. On June 12 we celebrated both the 50th ordination anniversary of FELC member Richard Ruff and the 70th wedding anniversary of Bill and Betty Davidson. And on Rally Sunday, September 11, we again took part in the ELCA-wide program called “God’s Work. Our Hands” which was a good segue into Social Ministry Sunday the next week.

Now to the statistics: in 2016 I performed five weddings, two baptisms, and four member and one non-member funerals (therefore, four members departed this life in 2016). We received seven new adult members. Four adult and three child member transferred their membership to other congregations. Two of our children received their first Holy Communion in December after the required instruction; a new confirmation class was formed which will be confirmed on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the members of First English for their love and support, most especially (and I’ve never said this in a yearly report before) our youth, who throughout my time here have always accepted me as a friend yet respected me as their pastor. Special recognition is due to Sheryl Finucane, who as Council President always keeps us on agenda and challenges us as leaders to help the congregation discover new ways for First English to strive toward faithful living in God’s world; to Brian Wingfield for running our office so efficiently; and once again, Linwood Lunde, whose enthusiasm for music at First English knows no bounds. Finally, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to my wife, Carol, whose vast experience as a pastor in her own right and a professor of Practical Theology provides me with pastoral care, guides me when perplexed, and constantly reminds me of “the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” by embodying it in her own person.

Faithfully yours,

Pastor John Schweitzer

Report of The President

As my year as president comes to a close, I first and foremost give thanks.

Thank you, to the entire First English family, for your support during the past 12 months. There are many people who pour a great deal of love into keeping First English a lively and vibrant place to worship, learn, and enjoy fellowship, to all of you, THANK YOU!!!

To my fellow council members, thank you for your support, for your vibrant discussions, for sharing your faith and love. Council said a fond bon voyage to Carolyn Heltzel, we rejoiced with the return of both Roger Riggle and Joyce Smith to the council table. Roger’s short absence and Joyce’s longer absence were deeply felt.

In conjunction with Advent, a Wed morning prayer service was started with invitations to other congregations in the Stuart Circle Parish. Thanks to council member Josh Eckert for developing the idea and Josh and council member Richard Ruff and the Worship and Music Committee for getting this off the ground. Also initiated in Council discussions was holding a food drive for the VCU RAMpantry, thanks to assistance of the Congregational Life committee this will be coming up in winter/spring 2017.

Carol McCue (Council Vice President) and Jim Byerly were tasked with looking at the FELC constitution and bylaws. Delays in updates from the synod have delayed any recommendations for changes. Council approved reducing the number of members to 9 through gradual attrition over the next few years. This change was allowed within the existing guiding documents.

One of my personal concerns is having effective communication about faith, worship opportunities, and activities within the congregation and extending out into our wider community. Cheryl Shiembob resigned as our newsletter editor. We are working to make the midweek update an effective replacement for the newsletter. Nicole Krause continues to work on keeping our website up to date, and a number of people work to keep our Facebook page active. Pastor Schweitzer is sending out a weekly message. If you are not getting the electronic communications please let the office know, copies can be mailed to those who do not have e-mail. Also, please share ideas for improving communication!

Over the past year, it seems that there has been a slight increase in the number of children and young adults present on Sunday mornings. Please actively invite individuals new to the First English community to join in faith development, service, and fellowship opportunities.

For many years, First English has ran a deficit budget. This year was no different. You will find details in the Finance Committee report. The council met with members of the First English Foundation Board to refresh our understanding of the Foundation’s mission and policies. We are thankful to the Foundation board members and to the foresight of past members for creating the Foundation.

After being elected President of the Council I started reading about the declining trajectory of “traditional” Christian churches. On one hand very sobering and on the other inspiring to read about how some “traditional” churches are finding ways to bring active and vibrant faith and ministry to their communities. This is a challenging time not just for First English. I ask that everyone, look toward the future with an eye on how to bring the message of Christ to the broader community, being open to the concept that the future might not look like the past. As we embark on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is a fitting time to be committed to prayerful discernment in order to discover the path God has for the future of First English Lutheran Church. Leaps of faith may be needed.

Yours in Christ,

Sheryl Finucane,
President, FELC Congregational Council

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