by Pastor Doug Kings

The last week of January I share here my annual report to the congregation. There is much I and we have to celebrate and be thankful for. At the same time, I want us to be aware of the challenges before us, especially the continuing effects of covid and changes to our island community, and how they are impacting us.

As I did last year, I begin by expressing my thanks and appreciation for all of you and for your support of me and the many facets of our congregation’s ministry. It is a privilege to serve you and serve with you in the many ways we experience and share God’s love in our lives and in our diverse and dynamic community. I also want to thank the many people who work diligently to make our congregation life possible: our congregation officers and council members, those who volunteer in so many ways and in so many aspects of our ministry, and our dependable and generous office administrator, Tricia Murphy.

The activities which take the largest part of my time continue to be rewarding and, it seems, appreciated: preparing and leading worship, preparing and preaching sermons, preparing the weekly eNews and my Reflections column, and the semi-regular book discussion groups via Zoom. Thanks to electronics and social media, with these ministries we reach a community far beyond our geographic neighborhood, especially our many seasonal members and friends. I continue to hear regularly from people of their appreciation of our efforts to share our congregational life through these means.

The effects of the covid pandemic have abated but not gone away. People continue to get sick, and while often it feels like a bad cold or the flu, for some it can become very serious, especially those whose health is already compromised. In addition, there continues to be reports on the serious consequences of long covid and of getting multiple infections. For these reasons we continue to take the pandemic seriously and adapt our life and ministry as needed. We fully support those who choose to wear masks whenever we gather, as well as those who choose to participate virtually rather than in person.

The pandemic continues to impact us as a society, and that includes the church. It’s been nearly three years since it began, and nationwide churches of all types are reporting a decline in worshipers of roughly 25%. That is about our experience, as well, and it is widely agreed that this is now the “new normal.” It should be remembered, however, that churches have been in decline for a long time and the change during covid was mostly an acceleration of that trend.

Gloria Dei is also being impacted by the ongoing economic and demographic changes on Anna Maria Island. The community our congregation was originally intended to serve—full-time island residents and extended-stay part-time residents, aka snowbirds—has shrunk dramatically. Housing costs have pushed most of these people to the mainland or other communities, and they have been replaced by shorter-stay tourists. At the same time, traffic congestion to and on the island deters many on the mainland from participating in island activities. This year for the first time I heard of Gloria Dei members starting to drive to Sunday worship, only to turn back home due to traffic.

Because they are easily measured, our gradual decline in worshipers and income are the most obvious consequences of these developments. But what is actually having a bigger impact on us now is the parallel shrinking core of volunteers which keep our congregation functioning. In sports terms, we have a good first string but no bench. I am especially concerned about burnout among these members. Some are performing tasks individually which normally would be handled by a committee.

Let me make clear that there is no “finger wagging” on my part in anything I am reporting. People are not shirking responsibility; more likely, people are trying to do too much. Most of the situation I have described is outside our control. In presenting these developments frankly, I am hoping to avoid expressions of either blaming or hopelessness. Rather, I believe that there is no reason not to continue doing ministry and celebrating our life together for as long as we can.

Church leaders at all levels and across denominations are struggling to adjust to the cultural changes underway and to find new ways to be the church. Experimental ministries are underway and, if anything, there needs to be more of them. Typically with experimenting, most do not pan out as hoped but a few are surprisingly promising. The jolt of the pandemic, for example, has been a blessing in that it forced the video and electronic ministry revolution that has swept the church and is still unfolding.

In any case, it is now widely recognized that the church is changing in fundamental ways, likely more than at any time since the Reformation. In this I believe we have to see the work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible and church history are filled with times of upheaval and even destruction. But we often forget that the cross always precedes new life. In Isaiah 43, God declares through the prophet:

Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

To those who have spent their lives in the church it may seem that we are entering a wilderness. But we need to hear God’s promise to show the way forward. It will not be a path back to where we were before because God wants “to do a new thing.” What will it be?

While we may experience anxiety and disappointment, we ought to ask such a question with anticipation and excitement. What’s God going to do next? Our world can be and ought to be so much more than it is. The Bible is filled with the prophets’ glorious dreams of the world as God intends it to be. We have no reason to settle for anything less.

When dealing with the Spirit there is no excuse for being complacent or “realistic.” As has happened many times before in its history, the church needs to rediscover the surprising transformative power of the gospel. I have lived long enough to know that change is inevitable. This will be true for me, as I approach retirement, and for all of us individually, whatever our circumstances. It will be true for us as a congregation. What is constant is our life in the Spirit and the knowledge of God’s love, from which, Paul says, nothing can separate us.

Blessings in your life and ministry.