NORTH CAROLINA: Lay leaders, retired pastor resurrect small African-American congregation

April 25, 2011

Over time, any story, even the Easter story, can be worn smooth. Told and retold, over 2,000 years or just a lifetime, a story becomes familiar. What gets lost in the retelling, even with the Paschal mystery, is wonder of the unexpected.

This Easter season, one small church in North Carolina is hearing the story afresh, with ears attuned to surprise.

A historically African-American congregation, St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church barely had a pulse two years ago, when maybe 15 people showed up on a good Sunday. Even worse, after sharing a priest for 40 years with the white Episcopal parish across town, St. Cyprian's was suddenly on its own. Some in the tiny church believed it would die.

Today, propelled by one unexpected event after another, St. Cyprian's is growing.

Lay leaders have stepped forward with new ideas for ministry and outreach. Out of nowhere, a white Lutheran pastor, bored in retirement after 45 years serving African-American congregations, came knocking on the diocese's door, looking for part-time work. At 75, he said, he is experiencing some of the most exciting, fulfilling ministry of his career. New members, black and white, are joining the church, 20 in January alone.

One of the bigger surprises: all of this is happening in Oxford, North Carolina, a small town with a troubled racial past, the town where the events recounted in the book "Blood Done Sign My Name" occurred.

"This is a church that was stuck, suffering and near death," said the Rev. John Heinemeier, the Lutheran pastor who now serves as vicar at St. Cyprian's. "But a big part of Easter, then and at St. Cyprian's, is surprise. The resurrection came as a flat-out surprise to the disciples and everyone else around Jesus. They just didn't think that was going to happen. That was not one of the options."

The story of St. Cyprian's is more than just an Easter story about one small congregation's resurrection. St. Cyprian's holds lessons for all churches, and insights into new ways of doing pastoral ministry, says Heinemeier and the Rev. Michael B. Hunn, canon to the ordinary for program and pastoral ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

Hunn said the church is slowly emerging from an era where it operated based on a "priest-as-CEO" leadership model.

"The ethos was one priest, one building, one parish secretary and one very bad Xerox machine," he said. "That was the team you had to have. The professional staff ran the church, with lay oversight from a board."

Heinemeier and St. Cyprian's offer signs of the increasing role that lay leadership will play in the future, freeing up clergy to be true pastoral leaders. They also illustrate the untapped potential that retired clergy offer for leading underserved congregations, particularly those that can no longer afford full-time clergy.

At St. Cyprian's, the vestry and other laity play a critical role, coming forward with new ministry proposals, handling most administrative matters and doing much of the visitation. Recently, for example, Heinemeier asked a layperson to attend a custody hearing to provide moral support for another parishioner. "I don't need to be there," he said. "A layperson can do it."

The church is reclaiming a more active vision of lay ministry, one in which laity are ministering in the world on behalf of Jesus, and clergy are their servant leaders, equipping, teaching and supporting laity, Hunn said.

"Lay ministry doesn't mean having laypeople acting like priests, but a real partnership between laity and clergy," he said.

That lay-clergy partnership that has been so evident at St. Cyprian's has to happen more and more, Hunn said.

"No one went into seminary thinking they wanted to be the administrator of a nonprofit," Hunn said. "If you see yourself as an employee working for a board that hired you and that expects you to manage the church, that's a lot to put on one person.

"If you don't have time to pray and study and you're expected to chair meetings and make sure the budget is balanced and do the administrative management, and that's what your priesthood is measured on, then you will burn out."

Heinemeier, of course, now works only part time, generally one day a week. Few pastors outside of retirement can expect such great hours. But the pairing of part-time, retired clergy and lay leadership will also play an important role in leading congregations in the Episcopal Church, and likely other denominations as well, Hunn said.

Nationally and in the diocese, the Episcopal Church is trying to work with retired clergy, changing the way it does clergy deployment and transition ministry. Last year, the denomination launched New Dreams-New Visions, a pilot project aimed at pairing retired clergy with small, under-resourced congregations with strong lay leadership. The project was convened to address two key issues in the Episcopal Church: a significant number of clergy are poised to retire, and a significant number of congregations will not be able to afford to pay for full-time clergy.

"In our denomination, we are seeing lots of baby boomer clergy coming up on retirement age, and a lot of them want to and are able to work part time," Hunn said. "Retirement doesn't mean what it used to mean."

-- Bob Wells is associate editor of Faith and Leadership, an online magazine published by Duke Divinity School. This is an edited version from a package of stories posted on Faith & Leadership.

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