Celebrating the First Fifty Years
2009 Pastor's Report
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

2009 was an amazing year for St. Stephen UMC.  It was a year of significant accomplishment for the church, culminating in the celebration of its 50th Year in Mission and Ministry.  Much of the congregation’s effort in 2009 was directed in some way toward this celebration, and the resulting events over the September 18-20 weekend were, indeed, exciting.  It was a blessing to have several of the Church’s former pastors present and participating in our worship and, indeed, to have Bishop Bledsoe offer a powerful word for the church as we both celebrated our past accomplishments and looked toward the next 50 years with excitement and great anticipation.

2009 was also a year of significant financial, missional, and ministry achievement.  Our 2008 Strategic Planning Retreat: “Forward in Faith,” set the tone for many of our initiatives in 2009 both in connection with the 50th Celebration as well as with our longer-range goals. Several people took on new leadership roles during the year, and I want to thank them for “stepping up to the plate” and “taking their swing at bat.”  Serving in the church is often difficult, but your efforts are greatly appreciated by all. I have been especially pleased to note that the Adult Sunday School classes have carried forward with the study of Bishop Schnase’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.  What has been learned through this study has helped to direct both Outreach and Membership Care & Evangelism in their work.  We have seen several significant initiatives relative to Communications, with the congregation establishing a stronger presence in the Mesquite and Garland Area as well as in the GLBT (Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered) Community of Greater Dallas.  This has resulted in a noticeable increase in visitors throughout the year, as well as the continued presence and participation of several gays and lesbians – both singles and couples – in the life and ministries of our church.  Our message that: “God calls us to welcome all … and all means all” has touched the hearts and souls of several who have been looking for a welcoming, safe, non-judgmental place to be.  Some have stayed with us for only a short time, but others appear to be with us permanently. While we have seen some members leave through transfers to other parts of the country, and for other reasons, we have also experienced growth as new constituents have begun to worship with us and as some have even joined the church.  This is all very encouraging, and we look forward to furthering this growth in the year(s) to come.

Financially, the congregation appears to be in good shape; this is no small part due to the faithfulness of the Church’s membership and the incredible responsibility of the Church’s leadership. Late in 2008, in response to the findings of the 2008 Strategic Planning Retreat and with the guidance of the Texas Methodist Foundation, St. Stephen UMC launched a Capital Funds Campaign. The objectives were modest: raise about $30,000 to enable some critical, emergency repairs to be conducted to the building’s external structure and interior facilities.  While there were some who seriously doubted that such a campaign would be successful, the congregation surprised us all by substantially subscribing to the campaign and, by Easter 2009, actually raising the largest portion of these funds. As a result, we were able to not only do the most critical and expensive portion of these repairs prior to the 50th Anniversary Celebration, but we have been able to move forward in making other highly critical repairs to our building. Much more work needs to be done, and since the work thus-far conducted has come in under the original bids, there is great optimism the more can be accomplished as we move in and through 2010.

Due to the importance of highlighting the Capital Funds Campaign, St. Stephen entered 2009 without a working budget. We did have a guide in our 2008 budget, and the Administrative Board approved (with amendments) its simple application to the needs of 2009, but we moved ahead without an extensive pledge campaign. While, at times, this made life a bit uncomfortable for certain members of the Church’s staff (those directly involved in the financial operations of the Church), it was amazing to see the congregation continue to give at levels near the previous years’ support, and to see the loose plate offerings rise significantly to meet other gaps in our income. As a result, St. Stephen managed to negotiate 2009 with financial strength which is both inspiring and hopeful for the future … particularly-so given the economic shambles of the national economy at this time. Members of St. Stephen have been adversely impacted by the “Great Recession of 2009,” however, by-and-large we have managed to pull together and “make it.” Our prayer is that, as we move toward 2010, those who have been without work these past many months will fine gainful employment and that, as we move into our Budget Campaign for 2010, the faithfulness which drove St. Stephen in 2009 and in years past, will be present yet again. Our bills our paid, our building is paid-off (for the first time in our 50 year history!), our apportionments have been paid in full, and while questions about financial viability, budgets, and income remain, faith, hope, and love continues to be strong.

In 2008-2009 our first Lay-led class of Disciple Bible finished its course, and we are in hopes that future groups of Disciple Bible Study will be forthcoming as new members of the church develop an interest in this intensive form of Scriptural inquiry. Meanwhile, the Pastor’s Bible Study has continued to grow both in numbers and in sessions.  From the Fall of 2008 to the Summer of 2009 the Pastor’s Bible Study took a long, in-depth look at Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  This was a very intensive study, and even though it was quite exhaustive and exhausting in both its approach and its length, it was well attended by a cross-section of the congregation as well as by constituents from outside the church. In the Fall of 2009, and projecting on through the entirety of 2010, the Pastor’s Bible Study has charted a new course in its approach.  Up until now in my ministry I have taken many groups through most of the Pauline, Petrine, and Johannine Letters as well as through Revelation and through several books of the Old Testament. In 2009, however, we have begun an in-depth, systematic study of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – reading them through in-parallel, using Mark as our chronological guide and examining how Matthew and Luke expand upon Mark and draw from the hypothetical Q source for most of the teachings of Jesus.  In addition to our long-standing evening class, we have added a morning session for those who cannot drive after dark.  Both groups have grown significantly, with about 30 involved in the study between both classes.  The setting is informal and relaxed, and people are encouraged to come-and-go as their schedule allows.  Given the level of interest in this study, and in Bible studies in general at St. Stephen, I intend to continue these two sessions, parallel to each other, through the entirety of the Synoptic Gospels and beyond.  This study should take the balance of 2010 to complete.

Both my Sunday morning sermons and my Pastor’s Bible Study sessions continue to be recorded, processed, and uploaded to the internet in podcast format (.mp4) and are being served by both my own website ministry – RevNeal.org – and through iTunes. This online ministry has proven meaningful not only to the several thousand long-distance listeners who have been accessing my messages for years, but also for several members of our local church who, for whatever reason, find it difficult or impossible to attend Worship and/or Bible Study on a regular basis.  In connection with this, in 2009 I began a mass-email campaign to the congregation and my online constituency – Grace Incarnate Update – which has served to bring news about upcoming messages and events at St. Stephen as well as links to the prior-week’s audio-sermon and to the audio-Bible Study sessions.  This Update reaches (as of this date) 8,472 addresses, inclusive of the church’s master e-mail list, and includes recipients in 31 countries beyond the United States and, indeed, on every continent of the planet (including Antarctica, for there’s are 2 people at McMurdo Station who have signed up for the Update and who have been listening to my messages for more than a year). In short, the ministry of St. Stephen United Methodist Church extends far beyond our local neighborhood and this region: the world is our parish.

After two full years at St. Stephen, and having been blessed to be involved in many events in the life of this incredible church, I can finally say that I have come to feel truly at home here. I also believe that, after a period of transition and adjustment to my character and the nature of my ministry, the congregation at St. Stephen has become increasingly comfortable with me and with my pastorate. It is my prayer that our ministry, together, may continue for years to come.

© 2009 Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved