WYOMING: Congregations begin to see results from mission grants

Creative ministries are sown from $552,000 in seed money
March 19, 2009

Saying it wanted to "jumpstart the diocese," the Episcopal Foundation of Wyoming has made a major investment in mission. The Mustard Seed Mission was formally launched on January 6—the Day of Epiphany—as checks for $12,000 were sent to each of the Diocese of Wyoming's 46 congregations. "The intention of this investment is to stimulate imagination for mission and enable us to dream about what God wants us to do" said the Rev. John Smylie, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Casper, and a member of the foundation's board of directors. Smylie proposed the Mustard Seed Mission because he felt that the foundation was getting grant applications that "lacked enthusiasm." "I felt that we needed to do something really bold to energize and gift our diocese," he said. "Our hope through this project is that all of our congregations will see mission as a foundation of life, not just one more thing to do." John Masters, a former chancellor of the Diocese of Wyoming and executive director of the Wyoming Episcopal Foundation, says the potential of the Mustard Seed Mission is enormous. "We have a lot of very small churches—and even our big churches are small by comparison to some dioceses—who struggle to exist. Now they have the opportunity to dream big and seek out what Christ is asking them to do outside their churches." Masters said the Mustard Seed funds were part of a gift that came to the foundation in 2007 in the amount of $24.8 million. Masters and Smylie explained that the funds are a one-time gift and cannot be used for operations or as a savings account for a congregation. The funds will not affect the diocesan assessment. Distributed with the checks was an outline for a group discernment process about how best to use the Mustard Seed Mission funds. The process consists of four steps that can be carried out in four two-hour meetings. In an introduction to the discernment process, Wyoming Bishop Bruce Caldwell said, "the measure of our faith is our response to the needs of those around us." "I imagine a Kingdom tree growing out of this small mustard seed, a Kingdom tree so large that the poor, the lonely, the old, the young, the sick, and the hungry can find within it a place of refuge and peace," said Caldwell. Speaking in a podcasted interview three days after the checks were mailed, Caldwell said he envisioned some "real interesting connections" with the communities surrounding Episcopal congregations in Wyoming and hoped "that people will discover the needs of people around them and that over time they might continue that relationship." Just six weeks into the Mustard Seed Mission, the Bishop's vision is coming to fruition. From small churches, big commitment to the community Receiving the Mustard Seed Mission check was "quite a surprise" for the people of St. George's Church in Lusk, according to Twila Barnette, a member of the vestry and wife of senior warden Andy Barnette. The check was $2,000 more than total giving in the congregation in 2007. "We have always tried to help the community by opening up our church," said Barnette, "but now we have the opportunity to do something really big." Barnette said they had several discussions about how to use the Mustard Seed money in the small congregation. She said that "people all have their own pet projects in the community that they want to assist" so St. George's decided on a plan that will help them all. They will use the Mustard Seed money to upgrade their kitchen and fellowship hall so they can host monthly dinners for the community. The dinners will be free of charge, but donations will be collected for the "charity of the month." Volunteers from charities will join with members of St. George's to serve the dinners. The first community dinner was on Shrove Tuesday and benefitted the outreach fund of St. George's Church. In a town of 1,500 residents, more than 200 persons came to dinner and donated $400. The community dinners will be held on the first Wednesday of each month and will benefit causes such as Job's Daughters, the Niorbrara County Library Association, the Wyoming Child and Family Parent Group, and several school-related activities. Barnette said that already the congregation is feeling the benefit of the project. She said that a church family that is "already very close is now even closer and that people in the community want to be part of the family." St. George's Church, with Sunday attendance between 14 and 20, has already welcomed two new members as a result of the Mustard Seed Mission. Addressing needs of the local community is also the plan at St. Andrew's Church in Atlantic City, which according to the town's welcome sign has a population of "about 57." About ten of those folks worship at St. Andrew's each Sunday and they plan to invest their Mustard Seed funds to create a community center designed to be an alternative gathering place to the local bars. The Rev. Linda Wilson, diocesan ministry developer for the central region of the state, explains that through a grant two years ago, St. Andrew's acquired a pre-manufactured building for use as a fellowship hall and gathering space. Now, said Wilson, they are going to make it a "true community center" where people can come and watch a sporting event on a big-screen television in a non-alcoholic setting, play games and even access the internet through a new wireless system and computers to be installed later this year. The center will also be offered to community and diocesan groups as a venue for retreats. Wilson reported that community service will also be the focus of the Mustard Seed Mission project at nearby St. James Church in Riverton. The congregation plans to expand on an already successful program called "The Play Place," started by retired school music teacher Veronika Schultz, which brings up to 20 children and youth to the church on Tuesday afternoons to learn music, theater and choreography. St. James plans to invest its Mustard Seed funds to upgrade its kitchen and fellowship hall and launch "The Family Place," an ongoing series of "family and game nights" aimed at strengthening family relationships in the community of 9,000. About 230 miles to the east, All Saints Church in Wheatland, also plans to invest in the community by giving half of its Mustard Seed money, $6,000, to the Community Youth Foundation. Created in 2006 through a partnership that included All Saints Church, the foundation provides mentoring programs for youth and is seeking to build a community/recreation center. All Saints' Kathy Hellbaum, speaking in the Diocese of Wyoming's e-Spirit newsletter, said, "All Saints' members are committed to seeing this program succeed and we are willing to ‘put our money where our mouth is,' so to speak." Smylie's congregation, St. Mark's Church, Casper, plans to assist at-risk youth and women through a variety of "cottage ministries," including teaching about food preparation and nutritional issues. As more and more congregations complete the discernment process, both Smylie and Masters anticipate the announcement of more projects aimed at making a big impact on local communities. They also anticipate that congregations will collaborate on regional projects. All 46 congregations in the Diocese of Wyoming are required to report on their projects prior to the diocesan convention in October, at which Caldwell anticipates "a delightful telling of the stories" of the Mustard Seed Mission. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will participate in the convention. "Our experience," said Masters, "even though it's very new, is that people are getting very enthusiastic when they see work going on beyond their churches. It's one thing to worship together, but there is another level of enthusiasm by working together on a project that benefits the community in Christ's name." -- Joe Bjordal is Episcopal Life Media correspondent in the dioceses of Provinces V and VI. He is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.