‘Revolutionary, radical’ ministry initiatives taught church this triennium

June 23, 2015



Under the watchful eyes of previous bishops of Pennsylvania, a group of “pioneers in ministry” sat in a circle at Christ Church, Philadelphia, and talked about their experiences in The Episcopal Church’s Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts project. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Under the watchful eyes of previous bishops of Pennsylvania, a group of “pioneers in ministry” sit in a circle at Christ Church, Philadelphia, and talk about their experiences in The Episcopal Church’s Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts project. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories about The Episcopal Church’s pledge at the 77th General Convention to partner with dioceses to begin innovative mission strategies. Previous stories are here.

[Episcopal News Service]  The first three years of The Episcopal Church’s project of granting greater freedom to people who want to try to reach new believers in new ways have taught its participants about the need for ongoing partnerships and conversation, and for a willingness to take risks, be open to transformation, and to be in it for the long haul.

“What I want people to know and begin to understand is how revolutionary and radical this is,” Anne Watkins, the recent chair of the Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Local Mission and Ministry Committee.

The committee considered proposals for the $2 million General Convention allocated in the 2013-2015 Five Marks of Mission triennial budget for Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts initiatives.

Now, with little more than six months left in the triennium, Watkins told Episcopal News Service that it has become clear to her that the project is “calling us to be transformed fundamentally because we do have to start looking at things and talking and speaking in ways and behaving in ways that are radically different than what we are accustomed to.”

The bishops and deputies allotted money for the project as part of The Episcopal Church’s commitment to the first of the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission: to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.

The zones were defined in their establishing resolution (A073) as “a geographic area, as a group of congregations or as an entire diocese committed to mission and evangelism that engages under-represented groups, including youth and young adults, people of color, poor and working-class people, people with a high-school diploma or less, and/or people with little or no church background or involvement.” The zones were to have strategic plans with leaders trained in anti-racism, cross-cultural community development, ministry development and evangelism. Bishops and other parts of the diocesan leadership would be expected to grant the zones “greater freedom” in terms of their congregation status, leadership formation and the sorts of liturgical texts that could be used.

Grants were available for up to $20,000 for a mission enterprise zone and up to $100,000 for new church starts. Dioceses had to have an equal amount of money on hand and ready to match the grants. The full list of grants for the first round is here and the list of the second round of grants is here.

In all, 40 grants were made, ranging from Latino ministries to Warriors for the Dream, a community-enrichment project in Harlem, and from Kairos West Community Center, a community center in West Asheville, North Carolina, to the Abbey in Birmingham, Alabama, where the motto is “Sinners. Saints. Coffee.” In four instances, Episcopalians have partnered with colleagues in other denominations to do the work.

General Convention 2015 Resolution A012 proposes a continuation of that funding. And the budget the church’s Executive Council proposed to the convention’s budget committee increases the triennial seed money available to $3 million (line 27 here).

Learning from experiences in the first triennium

Watkins, whose Local Mission and Ministry committee poured over and prayed over every proposal to get to the 40 that were funded, said the entire process is radical for a number of reasons, including the fact that the church officially opened itself to listening to “marginalized voices … both the people in our parishes and the people on the street.” The church’s willingness to “give them our trust that they are as able to discern God at work as we are [as] church professionals; I think that is revolutionary because we don’t do that very well.”

It has been a case of “not just paying lip service to local ministry or local mission or God at work locally, but to really understanding that God is at work locally and not necessarily within our institutional structures,” she said.

“God is so much bigger than our institutional structures,” Watkins continued. “I know we say that and believe it, and I know we use those words and I do trust that people at their core believe that, and yet I also think we get caught in behaviors that are ingrained and learned that go against that tremendously.”

The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, who with Ora Houston co-chaired the church’s Standing Commission on the Mission and Evangelism of The Episcopal Church during the 2010-2012 triennium, said experience showed that these sorts of new missional initiatives need support for their diocese beyond the financial kind.

(Spellers; the Rev. Deborah Royals, who chaired the commission in the 2013-2015 triennium; and member Megan Anderson formed the commission sub-group that developed the project idea out of all the information gathered over a triennium of listening.)

After the first two rounds of Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts, The Episcopal Church has the “stories of leaders who fell in love with what God was doing in the world around them, and that’s really the launching place,” says the Rev. Tom Brackett, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for church planting and ministry redevelopment. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

After the first two rounds of Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts, The Episcopal Church has the “stories of leaders who fell in love with what God was doing in the world around them, and that’s really the launching place,” says the Rev. Tom Brackett, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for church planting and ministry redevelopment. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

While “the willingness of diocese to pony up has been heartening” it was also clear that “we can’t be off in a corner somewhere without a bishop and others being in conversation with us,” Spellers said.

It took time for some  of the dioceses to engage with the new initiatives being created in their midst, according to Spellers, but soon the word got out around the church and other dioceses that did not make proposals for partnerships in the new venture felt left out.

“I think it is a good sign when something has enough impact that other people are looking and asking, ‘How come we didn’t have one of those mission enterprise zones?’ ” Spellers said.

But in this first triennium, a number of things began to emerge as themes, Spellers said, thanks in part to how the Rev. Tom Brackett convened initiatives’ leaders and, at times some of their bishops and other diocesan staff, for conversations about their work. Brackett is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for church planting and ministry redevelopment.

(The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission.)

Brackett said his goal has been to form a community of learning whose members’ could “lower the cost of failure” in the future by passing on hard-earned knowledge.

During an April gathering at Christ Church in Philadelphia, most of the initiatives’ leaders came together for one of those discussions. One of the things that became clear, Brackett said, was that several of the leaders “really did not like the idea that they were [seen as] leading an experiment” because some of them had relocated across states to do this work and did not want to have the diocesan structure pull the plug after three years.

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During a recent meeting at Christ Church, Philadelphia, Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts project leaders recorded on sticky notes a lesson that cost them something, and that they hoped by sharing it does not cost others as much. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The leaders filled part of a meeting room wall with sticky notes on which they listed a lesson that cost them something and that they want to pass on to others in the hope that future leaders can avoid paying that price. One of the prayers read: “No matter how much you think you know or how long you’ve been in ministry, that you may still be open to receive new learnings with a humble heart from the least-likely suspects.”

As the leaders, whom Brackett called “pioneers in ministry,” sat in a circle and talked about their experiences, many noted they felt what one called “day-to-day isolation.”

Sitting in the outer circle and listening to those comments were participants in the Conference of Diocesan Executives of The Episcopal Church, who were also meeting in Philadelphia. “Help us tear the silos down,” one missional initiative leader asked of the CODE members.

Another said she was thankful for “being granted the flexibility to try something, have it not work and then get back up and try something else – sometimes having help to get back up and try something else.”

One missional leader said she wanted to state to the large group an issue that had often come up in small-group discussions: How hard it is to have to spend most of their time raising money for their ministry. “We worry about money all the time,” she said. “We would have a lot more freedom to do ministry if that were less true.”

After the CODE members moved into the inner circle and the missional leaders moved to the outer edge, one CODE member said diocesan leaders need to hear the stories about how these ministries are transforming lives. “Help us gain new eyes,” another said.

Finding a new way to measure the church’s mission, ministry

The projects also have raised in a new way the long-discussed question of whether the churchwide annual parochial report, which every congregation in the church must file, truly measures all of a congregation’s mission and ministry.

“Right now, I think our reporting doesn’t allow us to lift and celebrate and learn from” ministry experiences of congregations, Spellers said. “It tends to tilt to who’s got the numbers,” she said. “It’s not to say that numbers don’t matter. I’m not necessarily in that camp either.”

She and others want the church to celebrate both the small, new congregation that is having “a new conversation about who Jesus is and how we are living into his body” and the 2,000-member parish with all of its ministries.

The Rev. Andrew Green, chair of the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, said his committee agrees with that desire. “There’s lots of stories there and we need a venue for sharing them,” he told ENS in a recent interview.

And, he said, the church needs a way to measure the vitality of congregations. Thus, the committee proposed in its report to convention Resolution A038 calling on the church to develop an “index of congregational vitality.” The resolution came in part as a response to Resolution 2012-A010, which asked the committee to identify what new information needed to be added to the report based on “current changes and new realities” in the church.

“While The Episcopal Church’s Parochial Report contains vital statistics that we need to know, it is neither the only way, nor perhaps the best way, of assessing congregational vitality,” Resolution A038’s explanation says, noting that some dioceses have added a “fifth page” to the report in “an attempt to capture a sense of exciting new ministries and signs of new and growing spiritual depth, even when other metrics may be static.”

The banner on Kairos West Community Center’s Facebook page summarizes the organization’s goals. The Asheville, North Carolina, ministry is a one-year-old church-in-the-world initiative of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville and the Diocese of Western North Carolina. The ministry, based in a former fabric store on increasingly gentrified Hayward Road in West Asheville, received a Mission Enterprise Zone grant. Photo: Kairos West Community Center via Facebook

The banner on Kairos West Community Center’s Facebook page summarizes the organization’s goals. The Asheville, North Carolina, ministry is a 1-year-old church-in-the-world initiative of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville and the Diocese of Western North Carolina. The ministry, based in a former fabric store on increasingly gentrified Hayward Road in West Asheville, received a Mission Enterprise Zone grant. Photo: Kairos West Community Center via Facebook

The Very Rev. David duPlantier, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans, agrees. “We measure something that was important in 1967 and was important in 1980 and is important now to some degree,” he told ENS in a recent interview. “But Sunday attendance, baptized members, how much money to get from them, when you look at thousands of people who are in our Episcopal spaces, who are becoming aware of our ‘brand,’ who are becoming maybe comfortable with taking another step into the worship community – that we don’t measure.”

Along with all the other reasons to find ways to measure that ministry, duPlantier said, the other reason to do so is to counter Episcopalians’ impression that their church is shrinking and becoming irrelevant, an impression with which duPlantier does not agree.

(The parochial report lists the number of each congregation’s active baptized members and communicants in good standing, average Sunday attendance, total number and types of services, Sunday school enrollment, stewardship and other financial information, among other statistics.  A copy of the 2014 parochial report form is here).

Meanwhile, the Standing Commission on the Mission and Evangelism of the Episcopal Church proposed a different revision to the parochial report in its 2013-2015 report to the convention. Resolution A084 would add a section for congregations to report their activities as they relate to the Five Marks of Mission. It would also add an attendance category called Average Distinct Attendance, defined as the per-week attendance at all non-Sunday worship services.

Resolution A084 would also allow communities such as those formed as mission enterprise zones and new church starts to file parochial reports and capture some of the information about that work.

For some “the scope of work that they have proposed is going to take much longer than the triennium and it’s going to require that they go much deeper into the community than the typical worshipping community or church tends to go. So how do we measure their progress?” Brackett asked.

The legislative committee on congregational vitality will consider both resolutions, as well as A085 and A012, which would continue the Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts initiative. All of the resolutions assigned to the committee to date are here.

What could the next triennium’s project look like?

Assuming the funding continues in the 2016-2018 triennium, Watkins said she hopes the Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts initiatives will lead to “bishops and their staffs increasing in their capacity to use different language, to apply different kinds of lenses to look at things to allow greater freedom” in ministry starts.

And, she said, “I’d like to see proposals coming from places that we didn’t even talk about in this triennium.”

Brackett believes local funding for ministries such as these is hard to access with the church’s current structure, but it’s there. He wonders if a group of congregations could raise the matching money the grants required and also commit to learning how to support such new ministry on an ongoing basis, with the help of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s staff members where appropriate.

“We could accomplish a lot more that way and we could actually fund more initiatives than if we strictly went to the diocesan general budget,” he said, adding that the issue of funding new missional initiatives in dioceses that do not have money to match the grants might also have to be addressed.

Spellers told ENS that she hopes the Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts initiative is not seen as a “one-off” initiative only intended for the 2013-2015 triennium.

“This has to be an ongoing process of experience, learning, growing our capacity as people in mission, investing and essentially creating a research and development arm for The Episcopal Church,” she said. “You can’t do that in one triennium.”

Spellers and Brackett said they hope for more one-on-one coaching of people who feel called to these sorts of ministries. Spellers would like to see more work in assessing what sorts of skills and gifts are needed for this type of work, as well as learning as a church about how to train lay and ordained leaders in entrepreneurial ministry, and nurture them in their work.

“I am thinking more and more about sustainability and how we create a healthy, flexible infrastructure so that these ministries can that really begin to take off for God,” she added.

“I am amazed, I’m happy and what I know is we are all only scratching the surface of what is necessary to embrace mission in our present, much less our future.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.