Church leaders take hard look at congregational ministry

November 19, 1998

More than 160 leaders with a passion for congregational vitality spent an intense 48 hours in October envisioning ways to build the Episcopal Church's capacity for ministry in the next eight years.

Sequestered at an airport hotel Oct. 19-21, the "stakeholders" wrestled with realities they must deal with as they dreamed about a future about which they could be proud. Before they emerged, they had covered the walls and windows with newsprint, created several new networks and even managed a resolution or two. Facing a welter of societal and congregational trends scrawled on a huge mind map, one participant sighed, "No wonder we're confused!" while another exclaimed, "This is a marvelous description of the problems. Now we can move ahead!"

But in what direction? The most concrete and creative ideas came from the most focused arenas. Henry Burt of Richmond, Va., announced the formation of the Young Adult Vocations Network on the final morning; the Rev. Ted Mollegen Jr. of Willimantic, Conn., reported that the new Episcopal Network for Evangelism had 11 members and was growing fast. Other groups - for example, one interested in innovative liturgies, another worried about the dearth of black priests and bishops - set up electronic communication links.

Calls for new staff at the Episcopal Church Center came from those interested in Christian formation, small church and gay and lesbian ministries. More gatherings, some studies and more resources were urged to support almost every initiative. Money was an issue, but participants tried to think in terms of abundance, not scarcity. The Rev. Winston Ching, director of congregational ministries, said that while he was initially unenthusiastic about its concept, the conference proved worthwhile. "The challenge will now be to collate and share the materials with everyone," he said. "There were so many common themes," he said. "There [appeared] to be a lack of awareness of what people are already doing. A lot of what people are asking for already exists." Don Betts, a member of Executive Council from Nebraska, agreed. "We should take what we've got now and make it better - we shouldn't ignore all that is going on now."

Concerns about identity
Other participants expressed serious concerns about the Episcopal Church's identity ("Do we know who we are?"), ability to train leadership for an increasingly complex world and commitment to inclusiveness ("We're just talking the talk"). They affirmed that the work and relationships necessary to revitalize the church involves everyone.

"I was worn out by the process and by the time demands," said Western North Carolina's Bishop Robert C. Johnson, who said he was struck by the "youthfulness of ideas" and creativity he encountered. "I learned about the importance of searching for newness and came away more committed than ever to inclusivity and diversity. We must ask this question of our church at every level - 'Who is missing here?'" Warren Ramshaw, a retired history professor from Hamilton, New York, compared the consultation to a Renaissance Fair, where different events compete for a visitor's interest. "There were many ideas, all challenging, all calling for attention. Participants seemed to be pulled in different ways," he said.

The purpose of the conference was to seek common ground and action, not try to solve problems or resolve conflict. There was real energy for a variety of agendas - and that drew a word of caution from Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, who shared in every minute of the exercise. In a brief homily in the closing Eucharist, he warned against being "so driven by a multiplicity of agendas that we forget the context." Referring to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he urged the participants to heed the invitation to die to old attitudes about singularity and power so as to become part of the risen Body of Christ. "That's the fundamental agenda," he declared. "As we go forth, it's important to reclaim our sense of church."

The very diversity that made the conference so stimulating also made it difficult to formulate an overall action plan. But some of the hopes expressed in the opening moments - for example, "that we can help congregations breathe rather than hold their breath" or "that we can fulfill our call to be reconciling agents in the world" or "that we can be hopeful, not fearful" - seemed to be realized.
The participants had been identified as leaders engaged in stewardship, evangelism, congregational development, black ministries, Asian-American ministry, Hispanic ministry, native American ministries, rural and small-church work and women's ministries.

Episcopalians defy labels
They were placed in one of nine stakeholder groups: "Generation Next" and young adults, congregational clergy, laity, bishops, persons engaged in racial/ethnic ministries, women's ministries, educators or those involved with formation ministries, diocesan staff and Episcopal Church Center staff. As it happened, there were half a dozen Executive Council members scattered throughout the groups. Using the "Future Search" process (based on the premise that the future is created from what we do or don't do every day), consultant Helen Spector and her team shaped and reshaped participants into groups large and small. The pace was hectic as all were urged to remember, think, feel, report, respond, assess, analyze, talk, dream and plan. Times of worship gave form to the day and the hymnal supplement "Wonder, Love and Praise" was given to each participant. 

It quickly became evident that Episcopalians can't be labeled easily - their interests are enthusiastically multiple and they resist being put in boxes. But the process was designed to help them find kindred spirits, and action plans began to take shape in at least 14 categories:

· Making disciples of all Episcopalians
· Building vocations among young adults
· The Hispanic church for the next millennium
· Understanding our diversity and learning to embrace it
· New liturgies for the next generation
· Reforming the priestly vocation
· Small churches
· Developing lay and clergy leadership
· Black churches
· Double membership by 2020
· Evangelism
· Gay and lesbian ministries
· A church engaged with the world beyond it
· Finding the resources to do it all!

The congregational ministries staff and others, both at the Episcopal Church Center and throughout the church, then began the process of shaping program and resources to fulfill the vision expressed in St. Louis, hoping that the participants are heeding the final admonition of the presiding bishop: "Be faithful, resolute and stick to what you said you'd do." In a November 18 letter to participants, Griswold thanked them for their efforts to "take soundings as we order our systems and structures to best serve the work of congregations-that is, to build their capacity for ministry." The primary purpose of the meeting was achieved, he said, in "learning what you see as priorities."

--Margaret Larom, who participated in the St. Louis conference, is on the staff of the Anglican and global affairs office at the Episcopal Church Center. Jerry Hames contributed to this story.

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