'Our God tends to be too small--too private, too personal, a God we can control, program, buy,' warned Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett of Episcopal Divinity School in her opening address at an April conference on stewardship and evangelism in Massachusetts. 'We've commodified God,' placing an all-knowing, all-powerful, all loving God beyond our control, she said.
Thompsett argued that 'we are stewards and evangelists of God's care for the world, not only of our personal salvation. The entire created order is to be redeemed.' She said that 'we are ordinary people loved by an extraordinary God' and that the work of the church is done together in common prayer and partnership with God.
In his plenary address the second day, Bishop Gordon Scruton of Western Massachusetts stressed the importance of being a community that knows Christ in order to make Christ known. In exploring the theme, 'How to talk about Jesus without losing your friends,' he said that our talk comes from the love of Christ and our gratitude for that love. Therefore, he said, we need to love to tell the story.
Scruton reminded the 320 participants from the seven dioceses in Province One that God communicates to the broken world through us. The problem, he pointed out, is that we resist our role. That resistance is even part of our Episcopalian culture, a culture that has driven out our understanding of the faith we have been given. Therefore we should 'enter a recovery program from addiction to culture' through prayer and by spending time with those who are willing to talk about Jesus. We need a Sinners Anonymous group where people can come together to tell their stories, as they do in other recovery programs, he said.
Movement of the Spirit
The third plenary session featured four representatives from the congregational ministry team at the Episcopal Church Center in New York--Terry Parsons (stewardship and development), Ben Helmer (rural and small congregations), Dan Caballero (Hispanic ministries), and Charles Fulton (congregational development). Each offered brief descriptions of the New Vision Congregation, suggesting that the church should be open to the movement of the Spirit.
They said that the new church understands how to give money and time and talent; that it knows the neighborhood; that it lives its vocation through stewardship, acknowledging that all things come from God; and that the new church is in relationship with those it serves.
Yet they pointed out that the church of the moment seems to lack the diversity it will need to survive. Fulton said that the average age of Episcopalians is 57.9 while, in the general population, it is 36.4. He said that the Episcopal Church 'is dying in experience and caution.'
'We need to dare to rearrange the furniture,' said Helmer, 'including the physical and emotional.' Yet someone pointed out that small congregations are often unable to respond to the needs of a diverse population and that moving the furniture is not always possible in communities where church members depend on the kind of stability that a traditional setting offers. The constant in our life together is Jesus, not the furniture, added Fulton.
Parsons said that the budget is a way to demonstrate how we use our resources to do God's work. The budget should not be used to impose limits on God's grace, she added. A mission-driven budget involves the whole congregation in making critical decisions and determines how a congregation confronts the culture. If Gospel-based discipleship is a basic part of each event in the life of the parish, if Jesus is explicitly always invited to the table, then members of the congregation can begin to see themselves as followers of Jesus and not followers of an institution, she concluded.
A number of workshops offered participants an opportunity to work together in small groups on topics of practical concern. They included advice on how to reshape a congregation for mission, new church starts, stewardship as conversion not fundraising, legacy stewardship as a way of transforming the lives of others in future generations, profiles of what makes congregations thrive, and developing lay ministry.