'Shoestring' evangelism: new Reno congregation taps unchurched

May 14, 2007

The Rev. Laurie Chappelle was newly ordained with no church planting experience, but none of that fazed her last year when she recognized "that God was doing a new thing" and was beckoning her to do likewise in suburban south Reno, Nevada. She was serving as a pastoral associate at Trinity Church in Reno, one of the fastest growing areas of the country. "There are 35,000 people in the two zip codes parallel to the area we're in," said Chappelle, who was ordained a priest July 31, 2006. Of those, "43 percent are unchurched, and 65 percent of those who are unchurched say they prefer a traditional Christian worship environment." With diocesan support, assistance from Trinity and two other Episcopal congregations -- St. Paul's Church in Sparks, and St. Stephen's Church in Reno -- a $20,500 grant from the Domestic Missionary Partnership, her own business savvy and a lot of faith, St. Catherine of Siena became a reality in early Lent. "We began meeting on February 4, which makes this whole conversation feel scarily premature," Chappelle says, adding: "But, we've done all this in faith so, why not?" Shoestring Evangelism and Soft OpeningsThe Diocese of Nevada has long viewed suburban south Reno as prime church planting territory, but start-ups were complicated because of limited resources, said the Rev. Robert Nelson, canon to the ordinary. "The good news is Reno is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. The bad news is, we are not keeping up with the growth of the community, but nothing else is, either," he said. But, he added that, in a diocese "with a shoestring budget where two-thirds of the clergy in our 34 congregations are locally ordained and nonstipendiary," St. Catherine's offers new possibilities. The tri-parish coalition contributed financially, and Trinity Church provided secretarial support. St. Paul's treasurer Dick Stufflebeam helped write a grant proposal to the Domestic Missionary Partnership (DMP). The DMP is a group of former mission dioceses which receives yearly funding from the churchwide budget in support of mission projects. The dioceses -- Alaska, Eastern Oregon, Eau Claire, El Camino Real, Idaho, Mississippi, Navajoland, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, and Western Kansas -- pool the funds and redistribute them as grants to support missions like St. Catherine's. Chappelle found worship space for a nominal monthly rental fee at the chapel at Bishop Manogue Roman Catholic High School and February 4 was the target start-up date. "We did what they call in retail, a soft opening, using word of mouth, newsletter articles and had 102 people at the first service," she said. "We realized that a lot of people were there who probably wouldn't be with us every week, but it was a lovely show of support for us." 'No Episcopal Gymnastics, No Book Juggling': No Church-as-UsualWhen Chappelle challenged members of the tri-parish partnership to try something new, Paul Barsalou and his 12-year-old son Denis, members at St. Paul's Church in Sparks, agreed to be loaner parishioners in the new congregation. "It was an interesting opportunity to help grow Christianity, so I volunteered to go," recalls Barsalou, 48, a St. Paul's vestry member. "I'm one of those people who likes to fill gaps. My son Denis said he wanted to lead, instead of to follow. For me, it was getting a chance to help people realize, you can do this." St. Catherine's offers an 11 a.m. traditional Rite II Eucharist on Sundays without prayer books because they couldn't afford them and "there's no place for us to store them," Chappelle said. Everything necessary for worship is contained in the bulletin. "There's no Episcopal gymnastics, no book juggling and we're using recycled paper and are recycling the bulletin in an attempt to at least reduce the impact," Chappelle said. The service is preceded by 10 a.m. adult and youth Christian education. Attendance averages 50 to 60 weekly, enough that Chappelle is considering creating a stewardship team. Eventually, St. Catherine's will transition from worshipping community to parish status and create its own vestry. Dick Stufflebeam, the treasurer-on-loan, believes St. Catherine's is filling a gap. "You can really see the Spirit here," he said. "There was a need and we seem to be touching that. The old model that 'you build it and they'll come' is too capital-intensive. We need to bring worship to places like this in ways like this, where there's not such a huge cost to test the waters and see who's there." Chappelle recalled that St. Catherine's, along with the tri-parish coalition, embarked on an ambitious pre-Easter 10,000-postcard cooperative mass mailing, welcoming local residents to the Episcopal Church and listing service times. The result: two extra Easter services and about "114 attended for Easter. We have about 170 names and addresses on our mailing list already," she said. It gave her an opportunity to apply her expertise as a former IBM marketing representative and software support business owner. It also netted St. Catherine's 17 new members. "We're tracking it, asking them to fill out cards, to say how they get on our mailing list so we can check out how they heard about us," she says. Meanwhile, Chappelle continues to keep tabs on area growth and to cultivate another vision, "to take what we've done and do it again, possibly in the North Valleys with a Hispanic mission."