Updated: Jan 18, 2020
PASTOR’S ANNUAL REPORT for 2019
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals in whom there is no help.
when their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made the heaven and earth,
the seas and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.”
--- Psalm 146:1-7
When my friend Pastor Michael invited me to his daughter Mimi’s wedding, how could I refuse? I couldn’t pass up the chance to attend an Ethiopian wedding – and what a beautiful wedding it was! The food was tasty, the people were friendly, and the entire event was a worship service from beginning to end. The bride and groom were dressed like a king and a queen, and they came in dancing down the aisle to Ethiopian praise music. The whole evening was punctuated by preaching and prayers, stories and well-wishes in English, Amharic and Oromo languages. No alcohol was served, but the wedding party and guests of all ages did a lot of dancing – mostly in a circle, arms lifted to God while shimmying and shuffling to the strong beat.
I’m not much of a dancer. I stood there outside the circle, clapping my hands and watching the participants, taking pictures with my phone. The dance was simple enough that children could run in and out of the circle while the elderly people shuffled and clapped along at the margins. Everyone was included. At the urging and beckoning of several people, I finally found the courage to jump in. We danced and clapped and shuffled along together, a room full of smiling, celebrating, worshiping well-wishers who came together from all over the world to pray God’s blessings on a lovely young couple.
Here at Atonement I hope that we’re doing as wonderfully well as they did at that wedding at sharing Christ’s love, glorifying God, and extending his kingdom. I hope we are inviting and including everyone in the dance… that we’re not moving so fast that people get left behind or doing something so complicated that the youngest or oldest among us can’t keep up. I hope that we are all getting up to dance the dance of discipleship, moving with the joy and spirit that only God can give, calling and beckoning our friends and neighbors to join in. I hope that we’re putting God at the center of everything we do at church, at home, and in our relationships. It may not sound very Lutheran, but I hope we are all willing to shed our shyness, to get up and dance together.
We ended 2018 with great enthusiasm as we drew closer and closer to the expected construction date for our new building. This was a project we knew we needed. We knew it already back in 2013 seeing our tiny fellowship hall filled to overflowing at congregational dinners, our food pantry ministry growing and using more space in the church, the growing number of groups and ministries using the building crowding together most evenings, placing a premium on privacy. As we planned and worked toward the construction of new space, we began new ministries like the godify and Child of God services, expecting that we’d soon be able to hold them in the new building.
When a project I’m working on at home ends up taking longer and costing more than I expected, I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I finally realize it. 2019 began with that feeling, times ten. This new building project which we had begun working on prior to 2013, which had gone through multiple designs (we were on “plan F”), which we had already spent 3 years fundraising for, which we spent calendar year 2018 trying to get permitted for, which we broke ground for back in December of 2017, was now coming in considerably over budget.
We prayed, discerned, and deliberated. What was God up to? Based on struggles of the past, we were wary of getting a loan. We looked at alternatives…do we stop now in mid-stream and reevaluate? Do we wait and run another fundraising campaign while construction costs continued to rise? $300,000 had been raised specifically toward this project. We saw no fair way to return that money or reallocate it for something else.
On February 17, 2019, at a specially called congregational meeting, the congregation approved a $200,000 loan from the Mission Investment Fund. Though we finally ended up being approved for $150,000, we wanted to keep the loan to a minimum and only used $125,000. Still, this was a major break with the unofficial policy we’d been following for close to 15 years. The Atonement Lutheran Church of 15 years ago was a congregation on the edge of survival. Like Wesley Chapel itself, Atonement has gone through incredible change since then. The new Atonement looks very different from the one that was fighting for survival – for instance…
…the new Atonement has a new building, which we will be naming at the annual meeting. The occupancy permit for the fellowship annex was obtained in mid-September, allowing an official dedication at our Child of God service on September 15. Our $50,000 special appeal for outfitting the building and bolstering the 10-4-10 fund for the mortgage is officially wrapping up on December 1. A task force has been meeting to make recommendations on purchases and building usage.
…the new Atonement has multiple music ministries. In addition to our choir and music team for the 10am service, Atonement also has a praise band for the 8:30am Rise and Shine service, a godify band, and an informal bluegrass style band called “The Dusty Hymnals,” seen and heard at our Beer and Hymns nights. The new Atonement also has a new keyboard in the sanctuary, thanks to generous participation in fundraising and a spectacular “Night of Music” celebration in September.
…the new Atonement has a Tuesday women’s Bible study, a Wednesday evening men’s group, an advocacy group that meets one Saturday afternoon a month (Faith Action Coordinating Team or FACT). Starting soon will be a Sunday morning class on prayer. Current prayer ministries include our Prayer chain, prayer list, Prayer team, and the “God squad” that prays after worship and during the Friday drive-through prayer. Our wide range of caring ministries includes parish visitors and Eucharistic ministers, Stephen Ministers, and special programs held throughout the year.
…the new Atonement features a food pantry that is one of the most visible and effective Christian ministries in Wesley Chapel. They just celebrated their 10-year anniversary this March with a volunteer appreciation luncheon. Volunteers and donors come from the whole community. With over 200 families a week served, the food pantry takes in food every week-day. Volunteers pick up food at local stores, sort, weigh, and shelve it for distribution. Pantry guests are now invited to wait in the sanctuary, which has greatly improved the safety and comfort of our clients.
…the new Atonement has a part-time Office Administrator and a new website. We are grateful to Marybeth Gandiosi for being the calm in the midst of our busy office. We celebrated her first year with us on November 1. She has brought with her wonderful organizational, computer and communication skills to enhance our ministries. With the help of Cara Chiaramonte, she put together a website that is inviting and informative. Visitors can find directions, interior pictures, and descriptions of the worship services. Members can find info on ministries, watch services when away, and find out what’s happening on the church calendar. We are developing the website’s blog as Atonement’s new hub for up-to-date information. Su is working on a Gallery blog that will take the place of the photo album in the old website.
…the new Atonement is an internship site. Years ago, we hosted the internship of Dr. Eddy Perez, with Pastors Lin Houck and Julio Travieso working together as supervisors. Today one of our own members, Esthel Kane, is part of a pilot program to train pastors in an intensive 2 year period of study, internship, and clinical supervision. This program is called MDivX (meaning she will earn an MDiv or Master of Divinity degree in an accelerated time period) and is administered by Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I have gone through their training to act as Esthel’s internship supervisor, and a team of Atonement members meet with her regularly as her Internship Committee.
…the new Atonement takes safety and security seriously. A new task force has been meeting twice a month to help develop policies and upgrades to enhance the safety of our members and visitors. With new cameras in place, new procedures for security at worship services, and with assistance provided by the Pasco County Sheriff’s department, Atonement is adjusting to the changes in our community environment to be welcoming while keeping our faith community as safe as can be.
In 2019 we added 23 new members -- the most since 2015. Our Stephen ministry grew, with 2 new leaders and 3 new Stephen Ministers commissioned as well as a new Stephen Minister transfer from another congregation. We’ve seen great enthusiasm from visitors to our new services, with new people from godify and the Child of God services requesting to become members. A retired couple recently attended our Child of God service and expressed regret that their large ELCA church in south Florida doesn’t have anything that nice for children. I believe we have developed great ministries here at Atonement, and now’s the time to go into the community to invite and serve.
To this end, we are looking at engaging in a year-long focus on vitality in 2020. Our Florida-Bahamas synod staff have developed a process to help congregations get to know themselves and their communities better so that we can grow the vitality we already have. We are already doing some of the things they recommend. For instance, we are using the Stewardship for All Seasons consultation process (which the synod is partially funding) to help direct our Special Appeal and plan next year’s stewardship drive. The vitality process begins with intense and active listening to God in prayer, so that’s what we’ll be doing in the early part of 2020. That will prepare us to begin developing our latest version of our vision for future ministries, something we haven’t done since 2015. Stay tuned for more information on our 2020 Vitality project.
I should also mention that some very important repair work happened this year. We took care of some major issues that had literally been “hanging over our heads” – repainting the sanctuary and fixing the support beam between the sanctuary and fellowship hall. We fixed mold issues in the old AC room. We restored the landscaping in the front of the church and repaired the irrigation to that section. All the while, we have been battling issues with roof leakage, trying to patch as we see problems arise. We will be keeping a close eye on the condition of the roof, and begin preparing for its eventual replacement.
Of the many important actions at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly this year, one caught national media attention. The Assembly voted to approve an amendment to designate the ELCA as a “sanctuary denomination.” The move was made without prior knowledge of the congregations, and information on what this would mean was not immediately available. We received a letter from Bishop Suarez stating that congregations would not be required to take any specific actions, but that further study would be made. On August 31 we held a discussion forum, sharing the ELCA’s informational video and talking points on the action. By then some Atonement members had already decided to leave, feeling that the ELCA’s position was incompatible with their own.
It is true that Lutherans have a history of helping immigrants and refugees. At Atonement we have had refugees and migrants use our food pantry and attend our ESL classes. Some say that the ELCA declaring itself a sanctuary body just means they are encouraging us to keep doing what we’ve been doing. So far there has not been an outpouring of new information or resources on this action, and we are considering where to go from here. Thoughts and suggestions are welcome.
Finally, most of you know that the biggest challenge for Su and I this year has been dealing with her breast cancer. The last nine months has been a journey we didn’t want to take, but one we never felt we were taking alone. From the initial unsettling diagnosis through doctor visits, chemo infusions, lab tests, surgery, physical therapy, more chemo, and now radiation – we have felt your prayers uplifting us. The Lord gave us good doctors, a good prognosis, minimal side effects, and so far very good results. Su has been her amazing self through it all, calm and accepting at every stage. There’ve been days I was a nervous wreck, and days all I could do was stand in awe at how God was walking with us through this valley.
I just want to say how proud and humbled I feel to be a part of this Atonement family of faith. Every prayer and word of encouragement, every gift card and meal, every smile and hug has made a difference. We know all healing comes from God, but you have truly ministered to us, been the heart and hands of Christ to us. We’re not used to being on this end of the praying, but it feels wonderful. I hope and pray that every person who joins us for worship, who comes to us for help, and who joins our community of caring will discover God’s love through your love.
Thanks for getting up and joining the dance. Thanks for being CHURCH!