First baptismal ministry teams initiated in Western New York diocese

January 19, 2005

The liturgical affirmation of Western New York's first baptismal ministry teams took place in January at Holy Apostles', Perry and St. John's, Youngstown. The affirmation of these teams is giant stride for Baptismal Ministry Development, a concept that gained its first real momentum here with the election of Bishop Garrison in 1999.

Holy Apostles' team of four was liturgically affirmed on January 9th. The team currently consists of four members: Ann Katner as parish administrator; Betty Rice as catechist; Frank Paul as a worship leader and pastoral care minister; and Kirk Katner as priest. St. John's team was affirmed the following Sunday with Karran Swazye and Mary Wieland as administrators; Kit Williams as pastoral care minister; Karran Swazye, Mary Wieland, Kay Collard and Tony Collard as worship leaders and John Donahue as priest.

The process by which a congregation establishes a baptismal ministry leadership team was devised by the Rev. Canon Tori Duncan, Canon for the Development of Mission and Ministry. It is an adaptation and melding of best practices from programs already in place in other dioceses around the globe.

"I borrowed the team concept from the Diocese of Perth [Australia]," comments Tori. "Like them, we will not commend an isolated individual. We require a leadership team of at least three people."

Leadership teams may include persons called as administrators, catechists, pastoral care ministers, preachers, worship leaders, deacons or priests. The only requirements are that there are at least three members and that the congregation, in some way, has provided for the administration of the parish. The administration aspect may be covered by team member(s) called to that ministry, or a paid or unpaid church secretary. The inclusion of a person called to a priestly vocation is NOT required.

"The profound flexibility of our plan," adds Tori, "is a gift borrowed from Nevada, a model that Bishop Garrison and I both lived before moving to WNY. We help each congregation discern its needs and devise a team structure to meet them.

"Another facet of our plan modeled after Nevada's is our commendation process, especially the portion that involves the bishop."

When a congregation agrees to enter into the process, the first step is a period of congregational education and discernment culminating in commendations to the bishop of people members believe are called to the various parish ministries.

"Timing and communication are important during the education and discernment stage. The concept of a baptismal leadership team is quite a change from the traditional way we were used to ding things here," reports Kit Williams of Youngstown. "Once the congregation understood the concept, it was well accepted."

When the time comes for the congregation to make commendations, the process is conducted blindly and anonymously—members of the congregation are asked to write down the names of those they feel have a calling to each identified ministry. The papers are conveyed to the bishop without any member of the congregation reviewing them. The bishop considers the proffered names. If a sufficient number of congregants have discerned, for example, that "Pamela" is called to a particular ministry, and the bishop has no knowledge to the contrary, the collective wisdom of the congregation is affirmed.

To move forward, a team of at least three members must be affirmed by the bishop. That's when those commended are informed of their congregation's discernment, and are formally asked if they are willing and able to commit to this calling. If at least three accept, the team is announced and liturgically affirmed.

"Because I was already functioning as the parish nurse and Fr. Massie, our last priest, had indicated that through that ministry I was already doing the work of a pastoral care minister, I wasn't surprised to learn the people in the congregation had discerned that I was a person who could serve them in that capacity," says Kit. "I was, however, deeply honored that they had the confidence to call me in this way."

Ann Katner of Perry felt similarly honored, and surprised. "When my husband told me he had been one of the people who felt I was called to be an administrator, I said, 'You did?' I was so surprised!' I just never thought of myself as doing this sort of work for the church," she comments, "even though I've enjoyed being treasurer for the past few years."

The affirmation liturgy used was written by Tori. It celebrates the leadership team's commendation as an exciting continuation of the life of ministry upon which we each embark at our baptism. A powerful moment in the liturgy comes when each member of the team dips their fingers into the baptismal water and declares aloud one hope for their new ministry or the life of the congregation.

An ancient idea whose time has come

"The ceremony was very moving," says John Donahue of Youngstown. "This way of being the church is new to us, but it's very ancient. It dates back to the early days of the church."

"When [our congregation] looked at the role of the rector, we realized how complex a job it is, and how absurd it was to think one person could do it. The idea of a ministry team addresses so many needs in the community. It makes the church more inclusive, more open, because everyone has a role. It's a challenge, but I do think it's an idea whose time has come."

Once a team has been liturgically affirmed, its members are committed to the pursuit of regional training and formation appropriate to their specific calls. In time, this will lead to diocesan licensing in their respective parish ministries, or for those commended as deacons and priests, entrance into the diocesan ordination process. New canons adopted by General Convention in 2003 provide for the priestly ordination of persons who successfully complete diocesan-approved training at the local level. Prior to this canonical change, all those ordained to the priesthood were required to attend seminary.

"The regional college that the Diocese of Litchfield, England, established impressed me as a solid way to offer appropriate training," says Tori. "Litchfield's college is an actual physical facility that their people travel to for training. By establishing regional Bishop Brent School programming, we've been able to offer training at the local level, a shift that has been very well received.

Because a team of at least three members is required, natural synergy, support and encouragement is always near at hand. To prevent the burnout of team members, the plan also provides for ongoing commendations so that the team as a whole can be refreshed and replenished on an annual basis.

Ongoing congregational education supports this renewal and replenishment. The concept of requiring congregational education on a regular basis came from Northern Michigan. Their entire educational piece is one of the options from which our congregations can choose.

Western New York's unique baptismal ministry serves congregations that are unable to support even a part time professional priest, as well as medium and large sized congregations that have full or part time clergy in place. It accomplishes this by honoring each congregation's individuality and helping to orchestrate the ways it can best serve Christ in his Church.