'Moving on': Congregations, continuing dioceses celebrate growth, new life and ministry

November 29, 2010

Episcopalians in the renewing dioceses of San Joaquin, Quincy, Pittsburgh and Fort Worth say the challenges of living through church divisions have also led them to new life, increased mission and outreach, deepened community and an empowered laity.

Initially, property, financial and other struggles may seem daunting for congregations starting up or starting over, but Grace Episcopal Mission in Bakersfield, California, in the continuing Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, is a reminder to "hang in there and keep hope and have faith and work hard," said the Rev. Tim Vivian, vicar, during a recent telephone interview from his office.

"We started from nothing," as a house church in 2007 with a dozen members meeting in each other's living rooms, he recalled. Within a few months the new congregation had doubled to 25 and was worshipping in a nearby chapel.

"We called it 'church in a box' because we had to bring everything with us" including donated linens and vestments, said Vivian, a professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield.

On Nov. 7, 2010, All Saints Sunday, Grace celebrated its third anniversary in the chapel. Average Sunday attendance has tripled, to about 80.

"None of us could have imagined that we'd grow so fast," added Vivian, who attributed the growth to hospitality, inclusiveness and a focus on mission and outreach.

Members are former Roman Catholics, continuing Episcopalians whose former congregations left the Episcopal Church in 2008, and the formerly unchurched; about 20 percent are gay.

Their experience has rendered "attempts at forecasting not very fruitful," said church treasurer Marilyn Metzgar. "We've changed so much in three years that what seemed possible or probable then isn't what we see now."

And the challenge, while exciting, is still a challenge, said Metzgar, 73, a lifelong Episcopalian, who had dropped out of church rather than accept the former leadership's policies against ordaining women and gays.

Now, "I feel closer to my church and to God than I ever have in my entire life. This is the first place in all of my life where I have felt confident enough to ever put myself out there as a leader, to try to have my voice heard," she said during a recent telephone interview from her Bakersfield home.

The congregation has already surpassed its 10 percent pledge to outreach of the annual $72,000 budget but needs to begin a capital campaign, especially if current growth rates continue, she said.

"If we reinherit property" after resolution of ongoing litigation, "it's going to need care, and we're going to need money to do that," Metzgar said. But she's also relying on faith, adding: "I've also given it over to God."

Pittsburgh: 'Growth as part of our DNA'

A year after All Saints Episcopal Fellowship in Bridgeville was founded in the continuing Diocese of Pittsburgh, the congregation's average Sunday attendance has doubled to 60, and the Rev. Dick Pollard is already scouting new locations for both his current congregation and possibly another new church plant.

"We intend to have growth as part of our DNA," said Pollard, All Saints rector. The congregation held its first meeting Oct. 4, 2009 and at this year's annual convention meeting was admitted as the diocese's newest congregation.

The Pittsburgh diocese "is a happy, vibrant place," said spokesperson Rich Creehan, in spite of the 2008 split which left about 40 percent of parishes and continuing diocesan membership intact.

"We want to find a way that both (the continuing and the breakaway groups) can go about their mission," he added. "It's true we have differences over property issues but we are focused on finding a way to serve a growing community and establish an Episcopal presence there."

Pollard agreed, saying focusing on growth is important. He has targeted "fertile areas" in growing suburbs as possible sites for another new church.

"We are a faithful group of parishes of the Episcopal Church and we're moving on … and we have fun. Our motto is 'no attitudes, no preservatives, no artificial flavoring, no artificial sweeteners and no political agendas.'"

For senior warden Paul Rebholz, 65, pitching in to help renovate an abandoned beauty parlor into the current worship space cemented the group as community.

"We started with an empty room," he said. "We got church pews that were in storage in an old barn, sanded and varnished and refinished them. We built an altar. People made altar cloths by hand. Everybody in the church community has done their part to help make this work. I've never been more dedicated.

He believes the rapid growth is a result of "people out there looking for something. It shows in our society that people are frustrated, unfulfilled. Hopefully our church can take care of a lot of those problems.

"We are there to focus our services on helping others," he said. "I feel I'm doing something to help that and I'm glad about it."

Quincy: Empowering laity, 'building church'

Lin Goldstone and other volunteers "build church" in a rented space each Sunday—setting out the handmade altar, arranging movable lecterns, positioning the eight-foot wooden cross, unstacking chairs, plugging in the electric keyboard—and after worship, returning it all to storage.

"It's a reminder of where church is and isn't … and it's not in the building," said Goldstone, 62, who helped organize All Saints Episcopal Community of Faith in Feb. 2009 in the continuing Diocese of Quincy after a majority of congregations left the Episcopal Church.

It's been a complicated and an amazing time for the faith community of about 80, mostly former members of breakaway congregations Christ Church, Moline and Trinity, Rock Island, in the Peoria, Illinois-based diocese.

But when the split happened, the next course of action seemed simple to Goldstone. He and a group of laity from both congregations, working to reorganize, called up two retired priests and said: "We need to start worshipping somewhere as Episcopalians."

The Rev. Larry Larson, 74, was one of those priests. "This was definitely lay-led, and so is this community now. It's a team ministry the whole way, much different than what I've experienced in the past; it's the way it should be," said Larson.

Larson said ministry is different the second time around. He'd "retired happily" in 2001 after 24 years as rector of Trinity, Rock Island, but is "even happier, more rejuvenated" as one of three part-time clergy serving the community of about 80.

"Our morale is much, much higher than before the secession," he said during a recent telephone interview from his Illinois home. "Of course, there are a few people unhappy about the loss of the buildings, but most of us are happier and not interested in going back to them, in worrying about roofs leaking. Our energy is in ministry. We can do a lot of outreach because our budget isn't absorbed in buildings and salaries."

Goldstone agreed.

"It's a really growing, vibrant church," said Goldstone, who'd worshipped at Christ Church nearly 40 years. "Once we started the church and brought together the two congregations, it took awhile for us to gel. The Christ Church people stayed together and Trinity people stayed together. Now we're one."

Fort Worth: 'The hardest part of change is the first step'

Initially, when Jackie Meeks and about 30 other former members of St. Simon of Cyrene Church, Fort Worth, Texas, began meeting at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Fort Worth in March 2009 they were just looking for worship space.

Instead, they discovered deeper community.

"People talk about congregations like St. Simon's … as being exiled or thrown out of their church or barred from their own building," said Meeks, 45, who was the first child born at the historically African American congregation, founded in 1947.

Now she believes that leaving in December 2008 was one of the best things that happened for the 30 remaining Episcopalians. Other members who disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church but held onto the property, "literally clapped us out the door. It had been so ugly and in some ways so cold for so long that it wasn't a difficult decision to go," she recalled.

After several months of meeting as a house church, they received an invitation to worship in St. Christopher's chapel. "Here was a facility that wanted to offer their chapel to an Episcopal community that needed it, and we were in need," Meeks recalled.

"Everybody liked each other. We had a lot in common," Meeks said. Shortly afterwards, "we became involved in things that were going on there."

Bishop C. Wallis Ohl described the blended congregations as a marriage, where each brings their best to the table during a special service uniting the two, said the Rev. Bill Stamford, St. Christopher's rector.

"It's been amazing what we've been through in the last three years, from the split till now," he said. "None of us could have asked or imagined, what has transpired. Together, we have some extraordinary folks."

Meeks agreed. "This has been energizing, rejuvenating, a recommitment of our faith. We see it as part of the journey Christ has for us.

"The hardest part of change is the first step," added Meeks. "It's that way with any challenge."