by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook
Washington County, a rural region in the state of Maine, is the first area in the United States to see the sunrise every morning. The small towns that inhabit the Atlantic coastline were traditionally supported by seasonal industries and the sea, but this way of life is disappearing as the families who have been there for generations grow older and the Maine coast grows more gentrified by people from “away.” Despite the financial means of some of its more recent residents, Washington County remains one of the four poorest counties in the United States. Mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, are struggling to adapt models of church and ministry that respond to the realities of this remote area.
“The people who are here have been in Washington County for generations,” says Linton Studdiford, a diocesan staff member and one of the Diocese of Maine’s two pastoral enrichment coordinators assigned to Washington County. “To respond to the people in the region, we have had to raise up for ministry local people who are an integral part of their larger community.”
Of the three Episcopal congregations in the county—St. Aidan’s, Machias; St. Anne’s, Calais; and Christ Church, Eastport—two are supported by the interwoven ministries of laity and a deacon. The one congregation that has a priest assigned to it has been growing and maintains its presence in the community even though the priest is currently on active duty in Iraq. Rather than duplicating church structures and committee systems more characteristic of larger and more affluent congregations, the heart of the gospel in these historic churches in Washington County lies in enhancing the ministry of all the baptized, and strengthening the role of the church within the larger community.
Affirming the People’s Ministry
“The raising up of local deacons here is not so much a clerical model as a way to affirm the ministry of people who were already central to their congregation,” says Studdiford. Currently, the Diocese of Maine recognizes the importance of affirming local authority by treating all parishes and missions equally, regardless of their size or status.
Nancy Moore, the vicar of three small congregations in central Maine and the diocese’s other pastoral enrichment coordinator, says the congregations she serves need models of decision making that are flexible and include “the whole body” on Sunday morning—models consisting of something other than committee or vestry meetings. “I want people to claim their own authority, which starts by making them aware of it,” Moore says. She contends that the congregations she serves were, to varying degrees, capable of self-governance when she arrived. Her role has been to support the laity in making decisions as a group. “The pattern they had grown up with was that the priest or one or two very strong-willed parishioners made all the decisions. People would want to be in leadership so that they could be decision makers, but they didn’t have a sense of cooperation with each other. We have made great strides…it is very encouraging to see this change in action.”
The Church as People of God
The Pastoral Excellence Program (PEP) of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sees its primary purpose with the three dioceses of northern New England—Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire—as being to strengthen the ministry of the baptized in rural and isolated areas, and to develop differing perspectives on the church and ministry to respond to these contexts. In addition to programs, the project funds four pastoral enrichment coordinators—two in Maine and one each in New Hampshire and Vermont. The assignment of these pastoral enrichment coordinators has been made in an effort to directly respond to the needs of congregations and regions where the church is viewed primarily as the “people of God” rather than as only an institution.
A key emphasis throughout the Pastoral Excellence Program is that the authority for ministry comes with baptism. The program focuses on an image of the church that is always changing and is mission-centered and world-centered rather than focused on preserving a self-centered institution. The congregations and judicatories of the Episcopal Church in northern New England do not have the luxury of surplus seminary-trained clergy, extensive committee structures, or corporate programs, nor could such models of church and ministry be sustained in the region now or in the foreseeable future. Rather, pastoral excellence in northern New England depends on models of church and ministry that support the formation and education of all the baptized as the ministers of God’s saving love in their families and communities. “Early Christian communities were often creative in their accommodation of movement and change,” says Fredrica Harris Thompsett, a member of the Episcopal Divinity School faculty and co-director of the Pastoral Excellence Program. “We cannot do less if we today wish to survive and thrive in challenging settings. If the church, as the people of God, is to thrive and grow, our structures of governance need considerable reshaping to accommodate and value corporate witness.” (See the box on page 19 for a look at the assumptions that frame a church when it is seen as an institution versus the assumptions underlying a church viewed as a community of people of God.)
Countering Consumerist Attitudes
Certainly, changes in our image of the church and ministry must also impact theological education. “For years seminaries have been talking about working more directly on the local level. The question was always how,” says Bishop Steven Charleston, dean and president of the Episcopal Divinity School. “If the role of theological education is to empower ministers to carry out the gospel, and the mission of the church is to embody that gospel in the world, then with programs like PEP we unite these two dynamics. The gospel is both empowered and embodied like never before.”
A collaborative partner with the Episcopal Divinity School, its Pastoral Excellence Program, and the dioceses of northern New England is the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan, a judicatory that has been deliberately engaged in changing perceptions of the church and ministry since the mid-1980s. At that time, the diocese simply could no longer financially sustain conventional judicatory or congregational models. In addition, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, with its renewed emphasis on the ministry of the baptized and the centrality of the Eucharist as the primary expression of the gathered community, evoked a theology that nurtured and sustained a visionary movement within the diocese. Further, diocesan leaders became aware of the negative effects of consumer-oriented culture on the church’s understanding of community.
“We had become people gathered around a minister, with the expectation of paying to receive a divine service,” says Kevin Thew Forrester, canon for ministry development for the Diocese of Northern Michigan. That recognition led to action among diocesan leaders. “We were convinced that the countercultural movement of Jesus invited us into becoming adults gathered into ministering communities.” The primary question became, says Thew Forrester, “How do we set a table in the wilderness, for that is precisely what we are being invited to do.” Specifically, “the question was how do we set the table, and not how does someone else set the table for us.” Thus, new models of the church and ministry in the wilderness go beyond the need to help small, rural, isolated congregations survive; they also offer ways to identify, call forth, and form indigenous leadership. “Economics should not dictate sound theology and way of life,” says Thew Forrester. “Rather, sound theology and ecclesiology invite us to rework our economic structure so that it can support the gifts for ministry with which the Spirit has endowed us.”1
Shifts at the Judicatory Level
In addition to changing perspectives on the church and ministry in northern New England congregations, the Pastoral Excellence Program has also witnessed changes in governance on the judicatory level. Beginning in January 2004, Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire launched an ambitious “re-imagining” of the diocese using Appreciative Inquiry as a tool to discern what ministries are needed in the diocese, as well as who has the skills for those ministries. Importantly, Appreciative Inquiry is a departure from traditional mission studies and judicatory evaluations that focus on past problems or the negative. Rather, the purpose is to recreate and foster the growth of life-giving organizations. As Mark Lau Branson explains inMemories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change, “The thesis of Appreciative Inquiry is that an organization, such as a church [or judicatory], can be recreated by its conversations. And if that new creation is to feature the most life-giving forces and forms possible, then the conversations must be shaped by appreciative questions.”2
The focus of the re-imagining process for the Diocese of New Hampshire is on listening to God’s call and for diocesan leaders and members to begin to embody it in their actions. In a facilitated and collaborative 22-member committee of laity and clergy, members of the diocese were invited to explore the aspects of the church and ministry for which they felt the most passion. This “Dream Process” was one of discovering “What in God’s name is going on here?” and designing the church structures that would best enable dreams to become realities. Through this process, the diocese revealed the importance of furthering connections between people and congregations; building congregational partnerships; and enhancing evangelism, outreach, education, and ministries with young people. It also made concrete recommendations for staffing, support, and structure. Overall, the diocese said in a report on the re-imagining process issued last fall, the use of the Appreciative Inquiry process sparked “fresh fire in the work and ministry” of the diocese, congregations, people, commissions, and schools of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire.3
Supporting Ministry with Teams
John T. LeSueur, the pastoral enrichment coordinator for the Diocese of New Hampshire, has seen a significant increase in the number of congregational discernment groups throughout the diocese, as well as in the depth of theological reflection among participants. A challenge, says LeSueur, is convincing people that accomplishing what is in their hearts can be done at little or no cost. Instead, he says, people often see additional programs as something that will mean “that they will have to spend some of their scarce resources from the parish budget.”
Since 2001, the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont has also developed models of church and ministry that are supportive of the region and its emphasis on the importance of baptismal ministry. When Bishop Thomas C. Ely came to the diocese that year, he put in place a decentralized diocesan staffing model called the Ministry Support Team, which focuses on supporting congregations. Three part-time ministry developers work out of their homes in different parts of the state. The ministry developers have different and complementary gifts and skills, and they minister in different congregations depending on the need, although it is often the case that they are more closely relating to congregations in their proximity. Ely meets with the ministry developers every other week for a full day of team building and conversation related to their mutual ministry in the congregations of the diocese. The canon to the ordinary and the pastoral enrichment coordinator of the diocese are also part of the Ministry Support Team, as are members with specific programmatic responsibilities, such as youth ministry and communication. The members of the Ministry Support Team who work out of the traditional diocesan offices in Burlington are limited to a part-time receptionist, an administrative assistant (whose services are shared by all team members), the financial administrator, and the canon to the ordinary. Ely says that although it has been hard to shake people’s notion of a need for traditional diocesan staff rather than ministry developers focused on supporting congregations, he believes that “gradually people are growing to appreciate the concept of a support team.” The full team meets every six weeks.
“We are definitely organizing around a diocesan-wide, regional, and local plan for ministry,” says Thaddeus Bennett, canon for ministry development and deployment for the Diocese of Vermont and part-time rector of the small, rural congregation of St. Mary’s, Wilmington. “The ‘Episcopal See’ is no longer the center. We are clear that the center is the people of God where they are, and that we diocesan folk need to go where they are. Programs and systems are adapted to meet the needs there. For instance, our deployment process for 23 congregations in the last three years probably used nine different models of working with lay leaders… The exciting work is fitting the ‘basics’ of deployment—which everyone really does need to pay attention to—to the size and circumstances of the congregation.”
Susan Ohlidal, pastoral enrichment coordinator for the Diocese of Vermont, affirms that the new clergy calling process is a sign of a new level of partnership between the diocese and congregations, as opposed to the older “the bishop sent us a clergyperson” model. “I cannot imagine a diocese opening up their clergy search process to this kind of review unless the governance systems and structures within the diocese are authentically and genuinely committed to all the ministries of the baptized: to hearing, valuing, and then implementing the changes brought forth by the wisdom of experience of pastoral leaders in parishes; and to take the risk that ‘the way we have always done this’ may no longer apply nor even be good enough any longer.” A surprising result from the evaluation and review of the new clergy calling process in the Diocese of Vermont was a widened perspective among members of the rural congregations involved, as well as a sense of greater connection with the diocese. “We heard favorable things as well as what we need to do better and what demands continued refinement or total trashing and creating anew,” says Ohlidal. “Hearing others’ stories of their experience with the process led to feeling less isolated in this very rural diocese and as if no one has done it before.” Ohlidal believes the review and revision of the ministry development processes of the diocese will be continuous, “reflecting the changing ministries and needs of the parishes as they, in partnership with the bishop and the diocese, discern and call new clergy leaders.”
Thad Bennett asserts that the keys to nurturing the diocesan structures of the Diocese of Vermont are time and energy. “I’d say the most important things are the intentional team building [Bishop Ely] and we have done with the Ministry Support Team that works the most closely with congregations. We meet every other week for six hours to connect, build our faith community, discuss what we are working on, come up with ways to move forward, etc. That is a lot of time!”
Ely notes that the Diocese of Vermont already has several examples of the Ministry Support Team model operating in congregations, and various conversations going on with other faith communities about how to move in this direction. On the congregational level, the Ministry Support Team works in concert with the vestry, who maintain their canonical responsibilities. The Ministry Support Teams tend to focus on responsibility for pastoral care, liturgy, and education. The concept of a team, rather than an individual, helps foster a deeper sense of community among members of the team, but also among members of the congregation as a whole. The team approach also helps reinforce “the understanding of the variety of gifts present in the community, as well as each person’s participation in the life and well-being of the community,” says Ely.
Ely believes that current Episcopal canons continue to be fairly restrictive in terms of the roles of laity and clergy, and would like to see them open up, allowing for more possibilities in terms of judicatory and congregational structures, including Ministry Support Teams. “I think less restrictive language on organizational models for faith communities might open up some creative thinking about structures for ministry. I think we still need some clarity and structure for congregations, but opening up (canonically) the possibility of other ways might help.” Ely also sees the need for a more expansive vision that would encourage the start of new congregations that might not fit the status quo.
From Committees to Ministries
LeaderResources of Leeds, Massachusetts, is a collaborative partner of the Pastoral Excellence Program of the Episcopal Divinity School and the dioceses of northern New England. Linda L. Grenz, founder and CEO of the organization, has worked with many congregations and judicatories interested in changing perspectives on church and ministry. “My work with congregations has been focused around moving from committees to ministries,” she says. “You need a few—but only a few—committees, such as finance and property. But the rest need to be ministry teams: education, communication, pastoral care, liturgy, etc.” Grenz believes ministry teams address the changing roles between clergy and laity— “a move from the priest or pastor as the primary leader who does all (or most) of the ministry (or at least the most important parts) to a shared ministry with lots of people involved in a fairly quickly changing environment which provides lots of entry points for people entering the community.”
Overall, moving into new perspectives on church and ministry is most renewing in organizations that are flexible and committed to making changes. Grenz believes the congregations and judicatories who most successfully adapt church structures to emergent theology and ministry are those that successfully develop an attitude that says “we’ll try it, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else” instead of “but we’ve always done it this way.” Adopting practices of making decisions fairly quickly, trying things out, and being willing to jettison whatever doesn’t work without blaming or complaining are important qualities, she says. Perhaps most important, at all levels of the church and ministry, is the authenticity of the spiritual life of the organization. “Making God’s presence more obvious and expressing gratitude for all God has given us,” she says, as well as having a “sense of thankfulness for abundance” rather than complaining about what is lacking makes a huge difference!
1. Kevin Thew Forrester, I Have Called You Friends: An Invitation to Ministry (New York: Church Publishing, 2003), 90.
2. Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004), xiii.
3. “Re-Imagining Report, Convention Draft,” Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, October 12, 2004; also, www.dnhdream.org.
Questions for Reflection
As you reflect on your entire experience of your congregation (or judicatory), what do you value the most about this experience? What makes you the most helpful? What are the valuable ways your congregation (or judicatory) contributes to the wider church and/or community?
How would you characterize the relationships among the people of your congregation (or judicatory)? For you, what are the most valuable aspects of your common life? WHen you think about church (or judicatory) governance, what aspects of structures, decision-making processes, the exercise of authority, and communication patterns do you find the healthiest?
Make three wishes for the future of your church (or judicatory). What would it look like if these wishes came true?
Adapted from Mark Lau Branson’s Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004).
Spring 2005, Number 2