TEXAS: St. Alban's, Waco, turns loss into outreach, growth

June 1, 2011

Some six years ago, St. Alban's Church in Waco, Texas, had an average Sunday attendance of about 115 and a school that was struggling to survive – and a new rector, the Rev. Jeff Fisher, who was determined to find solutions for the church's difficulties.

Today St. Alban's has an ASA of about 185 and a thriving outreach ministry. On May 19, retired Bishop of Texas Claude Payne confirmed 19 members, received three, and reaffirmed four more.

Much of the turnaround can be traced to the creation of St. Alban's Outreach Center after the church was forced to close the school

"Jeff is really giving superb leadership," said Bishop Payne. "He inherited a school in deep, deep trouble, which was a sacred cow. He led the parish into realizing the school had to close, and also through a process of what they could do with the vacated space. [This confirmation] represents growth in breadth (outreach) and depth (formation) as well as number."

Built in 1946, St. Alban's Memorial School was the first Protestant parochial school in Waco. But 60 years later, as more parochial schools moved into the area and enrollment declined, it became obvious that the school could not survive. By December 2006, a final school chapel service was held as local television stations filmed, and St. Alban's Church was left with an empty building.

Despite the loss, Fisher and church leaders seized this moment as an opportunity to start something new.

"From the beginning, I challenged the parish to listen to the needs of the community and do something new and significant with the old empty school building," Fisher said. "We listened to every idea; no idea was too small or large."

For months, parishioners thought about potential new uses for the building. They formed a community outreach council to seek discernment, and in the meantime, they moved parish activities like vestry meetings into the old school building.

Eventually, the church figured out what they were good at: worship, music and the arts. Then the old school building received its first new inhabitant: the Central Texas String Academy.

The director of the academy, an Episcopalian from another parish in Waco, needed space to run her program, and St. Alban's welcomed it in. Following the agreement, students have provided full orchestras on occasion for worship services.

Soon after, the Waco Children's Theater asked to move into the building and use the classrooms to teach children drama and dance. The children even acted out the scripture at St. Alban's Easter Vigil.

Today, the outreach center also houses the local branch of Camp Fire USA in addition to Avance Waco, an organization that teaches poor predominately Latino parents how to be teachers and role models for their children.

"These groups interact with each other by sharing their gifts," said Outreach Director Janet Madera. "The struggles are minimal compared to the successes of being partners with four diverse organizations."

As the school building took on a new purpose, the building was renamed the St. Alban's Outreach Center. Fisher also encouraged parishioners to welcome the organizations, appointing parish liaisons for each one and encouraging the use of more friendly language.

"We were calling the organizations in our buildings 'tenants,' which was really not very welcoming," he said. "So we changed our vocabulary and now call the people sharing our buildings 'outreach partners.' I brought a jar into vestry meetings with the word 'tenant' on it and big red X over that word. If any vestry member used the word 'tenant' instead of 'outreach partner,' a dollar was put in the jar."

Last fall, St. Alban's held a joint bilingual bible study with the Avance staff and church staff to increase understanding.

"We are slowly changing our values, continually thinking of others outside the church walls, continually remembering our story of resurrection, the story of St. Alban's Outreach Center emerging from the tomb of St. Alban's School," Fisher said.

Although the loss of St. Alban's Memorial School was traumatic for teachers, students and the parish family, the growth of the Outreach Center has brought new life. Four times as many people in the community are served through the outreach center than were served by the school.

This January, Fisher and the Rev. Jimmy Abbott, assistant rector, started a third-Sunday Eucharist in the outreach center where the school library used to be.

"We want to be enablers of ministry, not gatekeepers, by saying 'go for it' to 99 percent of the ideas," Fisher said. "What's the big deal if it fails?

"Our people have truly experienced resurrection, making us less fearful to try more new things for God."