Long Island churches focus on being OF the community, not just IN the community

May 30, 2012
Rebecca Jones

Bob Cottrell, the junior warden at St. James Episcopal Church in Long Beach, N.Y., in the Diocese of Long Island, already had a vision of what his parish might do to better serve the needs of the recovery community, which is quite large in Long Beach. But it certainly never involved sponsoring mental health talks at the local library or hosting smoking cessation classes.

Then he attended the two-day Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) workshop presented by Jubilee Ministry last September for invited parishes in the diocese. And he came away with a new mindset about what is possible and what is desirable.

“It helped us clarify that we need to go out into the community, talk to the community, be with them instead of asking how we can bring people into the church. The library is a good place, because it’s a place where people may be more readily willing to go to than come to a church. Christ went out to be with the people, and he healed them. That clarified for us how we would approach things,” Cottrell said.

Diane DeBlasio, from Christ Church in Babylon, N.Y., had a similar epiphany at the ABCD workshop. “We learned to focus on what we do have, rather than what we don’t have as a community,” DeBlasio said. “We should focus on assets, and on relationship, relationship, relationship between the church and the community.”

Christ Church is a diverse community of about 125 families. When they thought about it, they discovered their church brought lots of assets that they could potentially offer up to the community: lots of classroom space, a kitchen, a handicapped-accessible building, a central location, a large lawn, a parish hall, a labyrinth. “And people realized they themselves are assets,” DeBlasio said. “Everybody has skills and gifts to offer, and they’re willing to offer those.”

Deacon Lorraine Cusick, Jubilee Officer for the Diocese of Long Island, helped organize the two-day event, one of six such workshops around the country in 2011 funded by Jubilee Ministry. The Rev. Chris Johnson, Social and Economic Justice Officer for the Episcopal Church, pinch-hit for an ailing Mike Green, the Denver-based consultant for ABCD in Action, who normally leads these workshops. (Click here to watch a video featuring Green, and here to read a Jubilate story about a workshop he led in Waterloo, Iowa, in 2010.)

“Our bishop has refocused everything,” Cusick said. “He has taken us from a perspective of maintenance to a perspective of mission and ministry. He has said to people, ‘You can’t be the church IN the community, you have to be the church OF the community. Get out in the community, find out what the assets are, then find out how we can help, how we can participate in the common issues.”

Cusick met with diocesan staff and targeted 40 of the 144 parishes in the diocese, and asked them to send two representatives each. “It wasn’t really an invitation. It was more of a quasi-summons,” she said. “We settled on 40 because, space being what it was, we had a pick a number.”

Cusick also made it clear that she expected the laity, not the clergy, to attend. A second workshop, which she hopes to schedule later, will target clergy.

“Our objective was to introduce people to this concept,” she said. “This is not the way church has been in the past. Church has been too self-congratulatory, a mutual admiration society. And for many, too isolated as well. We have some parishes that identify themselves as drive-in churches. People drive there from other communities. That’s a problem for us.”

Cusick said she hoped that of the 40 parishes invited to participate, that perhaps two of them would take the idea and run with it. And that’s exactly what happened.

“Long Beach and Babylon really jumped on this,” she said. “These two churches have really taken off, and that was our hope: That something would catch fire, and somebody would say ‘This is doable.’”

At St. James, the experience hasn’t changed what the church is doing so much as it has changed the way it does them. “Instead of expecting people to come to us, now we know we need to go out to them, reach them where they are,” Cottrell said. He said the congregation is slowly learning about this new way of being church, and it will take time. But he’s optimistic.

At Christ Church, DeBlasio and parish leaders have been methodical about this. They took it back to the vestry, and from there held a “Town Hall meeting ” to discuss what the parishes priorities ought to be. They’ve identified specific goals – short-term and long-term – and identified what groups will work on which goals.

“We wanted to get the low-hanging fruit, find some things that would be easy wins, something tangible,” DeBlasio said. “We identified some things we’ve already started doing, and some things we hadn’t been doing but used to, like reactivating the prayer chain. We asked how we could improve our communications, our Facebook page, our web site. How about getting a sign out on the front lawn? We’re starting with these small projects.”

DeBlasio says she doesn’t believe in having 40 churches make the same mistake. She hopes churches can instead learn from each other’s experiences with asset-based community development. That’s why she’s hoping to share Christ Church’s experiences with all who are interested. The church has compiled a blog site, updated as they go, about the process, what’s worked and what hasn’t. Read it here.

Johnson, who led the workshop for the Long Island congregations, praised their determination. “During this period of historic decline in membership, many of our congregations are easily seduced into believing that if they are just more friendly people will come, stay and join them,” he said. “But the current culture of seeker isn’t really interested in the needs of our cultural institutions; civic or religious. They are spiritually interested and they want their contributions to make a difference.”

Johnson said a focus on Asset-Based Community Development is timely for faith communities. “Our congregations offer ritual and theology capable of linking the inward thirst for spiritual formation with meaningful collaboration directed at strengthening local neighborhood communities,” he said. “The Diocese of Long Island’s experiences at Christ Church and St. James are exciting and most importantly, they are available to any congregation that seeks to make these dynamic links between their love for God and their love for neighbor.”

--The Rev. Rebecca Jones is a deacon in the Diocese of Colorado and serves as its Diocesan Jubilee Officer.

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