A big, giant hello from Belize! It’s now the middle of February, and we have celebrated Christmas and the New Year, contracted the flu and probably passed it around, and have been taking time to go over 2019 and plan for 2020. I know Mary Beth’s updates are a lot more colorful and fun than mine, but I wanted to have a chance to get into the quantitative details of how things are going—where we’re at in our Central American ministry and North American financial support—and give some steps for how you can be a part of supporting our service here before we get too far into this new year.
The State of Your Missionaries
In general, we have been taking a more gradual approach to reentry this time around than we did in 2016. Much of this comes from five months of reflection while we were in the United States: we were anxious, stressed and burned-out by June of last year, and we want to approach our re-entry cautiously to make sure that we are investing for long-term fruit rather than short-term results. Even more of our caution probably comes from having a handsome, intelligent, growing 10-month-old that has shifted schedules from those of adventurous newlyweds to go-to-bed-by-nine parents. We want to make sure that we set up functional routines, healthy expectations, and an adequate balance between attention to our parishioners and attention to our family. All that’s to say, we’re not yet doing everything that we had been this same time last year, and for now we think that’s probably okay. And as we create space and take time to wait on God to show us how best to serve, we are seeing new ways that God shows up and does astonishing things we were not expecting.
What we have been doing is sticking to the basics: preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, meeting with the sick (when we don’t have the flu), serving at the schools and mentoring our up-and-coming youth leaders. As Mary Beth has seen her schedule revolve more around Austin, much of our labor in these theaters of ministry has been taken up by her lesser half, but she has restarted planning and accompanying music at St. Andrew’s and St. Hilda’s, and her Bible study for high school girls is in full swing.
And now, let me get down to brass tacks. January is almost always a time for reflection, evaluation and planning as we prepare for our Annual General Meetings and other year-end (or year-beginning) obligations, and this past year has been no exception. Building on last Sunday’s AGMs, I want to share some insights that I presented regarding the state of our churches, and then I want to give you an update on where things stand financially for our family’s mission and what our current needs are at this time.
The State of Our Churches
It is always difficult for a pastor to be away from his church(es) for an extended period of time, and although St. Andrew’s and St. Hilda’s are used to it, it does not make it any easier. Although 2019 opened with lower attendance at both St. Andrew’s and St. Hilda’s, our averages were still on the high side. That changed with our departure to the United States for our triennial Home Ministry Assignment. Although we were blessed with the presence of Evan and Missy Hansen as medium-term “Bridger” missionaries in our absence, they were limited in the roles that they could take on, and although our churches were not without an instrumentalist on Sunday or a licensed counselor throughout the week, much of our momentum was lost.
In fact, at St. Andrew’s the average Sunday attendance for Weeks 25–47 (covering the Sundays we were away last year) dropped by one third compared to the previous year. I am convinced that we would have lost even more momentum had the Hansens not been here in our absence to shore up our churches, and we are so grateful to them for keeping many aspects of ministry going while we were gone. They are truly missed. But two things make this dip in attendance worrisome.
For starters, during my previous Home Ministry Assignment in 2016, St. Andrew’s average attendance did not dip at all; in fact, it increased slightly. Part of that may be that a lay minister and deacon took the lead while I was undergoing deputation, but part of that may also be changes in the composition of our churches. I would add to this an observation that our Third Quarter’s median attendance at St. Andrew’s has decreased for the last six years, from 56 in 2014 to 29 by 2019. This value reflects a decrease in the commitment of our membership to attend frequently, seen especially in the summer months when our students’ attendance is not encouraged to the same degree. St. Hilda’s attendance figures have more nuance to them, and have bounced back faster than St. Andrew’s, but we still see a decline in regular attendance from a peak in 2017.
My address to St. Andrew’s last Sunday reflected the obstacles to growth that I see related to these and other numbers. Here’s how I put it to our largest congregation:
We need to stop seeing a single person, or small group of persons being the center of our church and its life. Jesus Christ is the only head, the great High Priest, the only Good Shepherd of his people, and having poured out his Holy Spirit on all flesh we are all called to participate and act in his service rather than become spectators and watch someone else serve in Christ’s name alone. This is always a temptation, but our failure to place Christ as the head of our community is most obviously seen when the priest is gone.
We need to reinvigorate our sense of community. Our congregation is not presently a body that tends to seek out ways to meet much outside of Sunday worship, whether in a kind of discipleship group or just to hang out and enjoy one another’s company. Not only do we need to become more hospitable to visitors, we need to build stronger relationships with each other if we are going to allow our congregation to become a real community.
We need to transform our church from a low-commitment model of membership to a high-commitment model of membership. Noting our low attendance and low giving for 2019 and citing the Catechism of the Church in the Province of the West Indies, I pointed out that the duty of every Christian is to fellowship weekly with other believers while worshipping the Lord, and to work, give and pray for the spread of Christ’s Kingdom. This high level of commitment is inescapable if we are to be the church that our Lord is calling us and making us to be.
In the end, I see the ebb in attendance and the barriers to growth that we are experiencing as an opportunity for us to trust the Lord for the maturity we long to see, and for us to get back to the basics of what it means to be the church. As Mary Beth, Austin and I gradually reenter ministry, we are trying to take time to pray and discern how God will use us and our other leaders this next year in ministry, and imagine creatively how we can join with him our Vine in pursuing the fruit he is requiring of us as his branches.
It’s high time that we also gave you an update on how things are going for us financially since our time on Home Ministry Assignment. Our time in the United States was amazing, exhausting, beautiful, stressful, and everything in between! But one question that remained to see after we returned was: did we meet our financial goals during our travels?
The quick answer is … not entirely. Our support is as consistently high as it has every been, and giving did not really decrease while we were in the United States. This was a huge answer to our prayers. And in fact, a few churches and individuals have increased their annual pledge to our ministry. But we are still significantly short of the amount we would need to increase our salary following the addition of Austin to our team, as well as to cover his medical insurance. Without belaboring the point, if you have been considering partnering with us through a monthly or quarterly gift, now would be an excellent time to set it up. Even small gifts add up quickly, and we are deeply grateful for (and very dependent upon) every single one of our supporters.
Let me add (since quite a few people have asked), it goes without saying that we have not met our goal of adding a housing allowance to rent somewhere else, as this was a lower priority to that of covering Austin’s place on our missionary team. On the other hand, God is so good: our neighborhood is still much louder than we would prefer, but things have ended up quieting down a bit while we were away—an incredible answer to prayer, and a reason to stay in the Rectory … at least for the time being.
A very pressing financial matter for us however is that we just applied to SAMS to be reimbursed for our operational and discretionary expenses, covering a period from just before Austin was born through early this week. We had not wanted our missionary account to drop too low, especially while we were on the road traveling across the United States, and so we just saved our receipts and hung onto them. But it was almost past time, and we needed to file our expense report and request our reimbursement.
Although there are sufficient funds in our account to cover the reimbursement, it brings our account balance much lower than it should go … not a good sign as we embark on new things. We are asking that you consider giving a one-time donation to our ministry so that we can get our missionary account back to a better position. Your gift will be going to help cover everything from Austin’s delivery in Belize and doctors’ visits in the United States, to plane tickets and hotels on the road and fuel for the 14,000 miles we drove, to research materials for my ongoing preparation for further graduate training. If you are able, we would be very grateful for anything you could contribute as we stabilize our missionary account balance moving forward.
Much Love from Team Alenskis!
Let me wrap things up here by just reiterating how grateful we are for your prayers, for your gifts, for your reception for us while we were traveling across the United States and for your remembering of us since we came back two months ago. It means the world to us that you would partner with us in this ever-evolving, truly progressing global ministry of the Gospel. Shoot us a message whenever you get a chance: we would love to hear from you, and we will keep you updated again very soon!