Congregational growth seminar growing more popular

June 19, 2002

'Our idea of evangelism seems to be getting all dressed up and wondering why no one else shows up for the party.' That's the phrase that really stuck with Jackie Fielding, who attended the 'Start Up! Start Over!' congregational development seminar, held in Park City, Utah, June 10-14.

'I wish I could remember who said it,' Fielding lamented. 'There was so much they gave us. But it was a great week.'

Fielding traveled to the Utah mountains from San Francisco, where she is an assistant in the department of missions at the Diocese of California. She was one of 77 participants from across the continental U.S. and Hawaii.

The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) has been presenting these seminars for 18 years. Usually one is held in the East and one in the West. This year, for the first time, a third seminar has been added for November in San Diego.

'It seems to be the right time to be presenting this,' said Sally Dresser, conference coordinator and vice president of ECBF.

The Rev. Charles Fulton, currently serving in a dual role as ECBF's president and director of congregational development for the Episcopal Church, described the need for such a seminar because 'congregations are discovering that familiar models are not producing desired results.'

Growth down, out and up

In one session, the Rev. Alvin Johnson, rector of St. Michael's in Barrington, Illinois, said a parish grows three ways: down, out and up. Growing down, he said, is going 'deeper towards becoming fully devoted to Jesus Christ and God's love for all.' Out, he said, 'is embracing the 'other' and breaking barriers to connect with those in need.' Up, for Johnson, is increasing the number of those actually attending church. 'The potential for growth is found at places of tension which produce chaos.'

St. John the Baptist in Sanbornville, New Hampshire, experienced the untimely death of its rector more than two years ago. Shortly after that a beloved long- time previous rector died of cancer. Now with the Rev. Peter Faass as its new rector, the parish sent him and lay leader Carol Branco to the seminar.

'We say we want new people (in the church) but we send the opposite messages in subliminal ways,' Branco said. 'We either have bad lighting or signs behind bushes or worship that doesn't attract the people we say we want to attract,' said the Middleton, New Hampshire resident. 'We need to make some changes that speak to the population we are trying to reach.'

Branco and Faass agreed they were still processing much of what they had taken in during the weeklong seminar. 'We hope to get together (and share with other parishioners) what is applicable to us in the short term and what we need to look at in the long term,' Faass said.

Experiences may vary

Not all the material is applicable in every parish or, in the case of Utah, every diocese. 'We don't have the huge unchurched population they talked about,' said the Rev. Diana Johnson, rector of St. Stephen's in West Valley City, Utah. She, the two other Utah clergy and eight lay people who attended are planning further discussions to see what they learned and what is adaptable to Utah with such a dominant Mormon culture.

'Having clergy and laity work in teams seems to be making a big difference,' Dresser said. She recommends parishes send such teams to these seminars. Branco agrees. 'Each parish should send a delegation,' she said. 'I think it would be hard for only one person to take this all in and go back to be a lone voice in the parish.' And Branco suggests that a parish doesn't have to experience a trauma or calamity to think about sending a team. 'Any parish could benefit from what they presented to us,' said the New Hampshire laywoman.

Other workshop topics dealt with diversity in the community and in the church, using the media, incorporating new members, and dealing with authority and conflict.

The unprecedented third seminar, now planned for November 11-15 in San Diego, was already 85 percent filled by mid-June. When asked for an explanation of the growing popularity of this conference Dresser said, 'I think we've provided what people needed.'

For more information call the Episcopal Church Building Fund, 800-334-7626, ext. 6003, or go to

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