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The Episcopal Church mission program nears end of first triennium

Posted on: June 22, 2015 1:09 PM
The Rev. Meredyth Wessman Ward entertains a young boy in a waiting room while his mother and her baby visit a doctor in Worcester, Massachusetts. As urban missioner in the South Main area of the city, Ward practices a ministry of presence, spending time in the neighborhood and meeting people’s needs as they arise.
Photo Credit: Jane Griesbach

By Mary Frances Schjonberg for Episcopal News Service

Over the life of The Episcopal Church its institutional structures have responded often to the actions of many members inspired by the movement of the Holy Spirit.

The latest example of this response may well be the Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church Starts initiatives funded during the last meeting of General Convention through the 2013-2015 Five Marks of Mission triennial budget.

The initiatives were the result of widespread, if somewhat isolated, conversations across the church for years about “trying to figure out how do you walk a church with our historical roots and traditions as resources into a new paradigm,” according to the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, who with Ora Houston co-chaired the church’s Standing Commission on the Mission and Evangelism of The Episcopal Church during the 2010-2012 triennium.

A new model was needed, these Episcopalians thought, if the church is to spread the Gospel in a post-Christendom world. A big question facing the effort was how to bring the richness of the Episcopal traditions into a lively conversation with the changing contexts of ministry today. “What we were clear on is nobody knows the answer, but we as Episcopalians have to start to create some structures where we can at least start to discern a number of answers to that question,” Spellers told Episcopal News Service recently.

The Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life reported last month that the Christian share of the U.S. population is sharply declining, dropping 8 percentage points between 2007 and 2014, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. This trend is especially pronounced among young adults, but cuts across all demographic lines, the Pew story said.

Among those who were talking about the need for innovation, Spellers said, were “church planters and other people who were dreamers” individually, at seminaries and in groups such as the Episcopal Evangelism Network and a group of lay and ordained people called The Acts 8 Moment.

“We are called to become evangelists who walk into our communities, passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ and passionate about hearing how the Spirit has already been moving in these locations,” the standing commission wrote in its report to the77th General Convention in 2012 (beginning on page 497 here). “We need to birth fresh expressions of Anglican tradition built on these deep relationships with neighbors in our rapidly changing local settings.”

Diocese of Western Massachusetts Bishop Douglas Fisher told ENS that God is speaking to the church in the midst of the loss of its privileged standing in American society. “I think we are past the era in which people thought, and which they did for a long time, that if we just make the Sunday School a little bit better; that the parish will come alive again,” he said. “We’re past that time. It’s the recognition that the church really does have to go out” into the world.

“The church itself is a launching point, not an end point,” he said.

Fisher believes that the church must “go to places where the Holy Spirit is already active and doing good things, and try to give those places resources so that the Holy Spirit might work even more powerfully, but in a way that not only impacts that particular parish, but also the surrounding parishes.” Thus he has at times assigned priests to a ministry in a geographic area rather than simply to a parish.

The diocese says congregations ought to be drawing extra from their endowments to pay “for the sake of mission initiative” rather than for building repairs or to cover staff salaries, and Fisher said and the diocese has put its money where its mouth is. It began the Fan the Flame initiative, pledging $1 million over three years from an extra 1 percent draw on its investments to help pay for such new initiatives. Western Massachusetts’ Worcester Urban Mission Strategy and Lawrence House Service Corps received grants from the General Convention budget allocation.

Spellers told ENS that the standing commission listened to people all over the church and realized that these sentiments were bubbling up everywhere, “which is part of how you know the spirit is up to something bigger than any one of your groups.”

“The piece that just got clearer and clearer in those conversations was that for so many years, people had been trying to make room and to build our church’s capacity to take risks and to fail and try to again, and to see the Spirit in that work of trying, learning, trying again,” she said.

The effort to make space for innovation in a tradition-bound church was not always easy. Spellers posed the question this way: “What shape could these ministries take and still be identifiable as Episcopal communities of some kind – because, for us, those kinds of structures matter and they matter to bishops, they matter to standing committees.”

It is like creating a research and development office for the church, Spellers said. Few people in the church today remember the last time The Episcopal Church undertook a major church-planting effort. Thus, sometimes these calls for the church to be in new places sound strange “even though it is exactly like what somebody had to do once upon a time to for most of the churches we are sitting in today to even be here,” she said. It was in the 1950s when Episcopalians planted churches in the suburbs because that is where the baby boom was booming.

Playing within the boundaries

Part of what the Episcopal Church does well, Spellers said, is to “create some boundaries and then we play within those boundaries and find what the Spirit is up to within boundaries.”

In 2012, the General Convention agreed to let dioceses experiment with flexible structures and agreed to help pay for some of that risking and failing and learning, and trying again. The bishops and deputies allotted $2 million to help dioceses establish Mission Enterprise Zones and support new church starts as part of The Episcopal Church’s commitment to the first of the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission: to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.

General Convention 2015 Resolution A012 proposes a continuation of that funding for 2016-2018. And the budget the church’s Executive Council proposed to the convention’s budget committee increases the triennial seed money available to $3 million (line 27 here).

The zones were defined in their establishing resolution (A073) as “a geographic area, as a group of congregations or as an entire diocese committed to mission and evangelism that engages under-represented groups, including youth and young adults, people of color, poor and working-class people, people with a high-school diploma or less, and/or people with little or no church background or involvement.” The zones were to have strategic plans with leaders trained in anti-racism, cross-cultural community development, ministry development and evangelism. Bishops and other parts of the diocesan leadership would be expected to grant the zones “greater freedom” in terms of their congregation status, leadership formation and the sorts of liturgical texts that could be used.

Grants were available for up to $20,000 for a Mission Enterprise Zone and up to $100,000 for new church starts. Dioceses had to have an equal amount of money on hand and ready to match the grants. 

In all, 40 grants were made, ranging from a range of Latino ministries to Warriors for the Dream, a community-enrichment project in Harlem, from Kairos West Community Center, a community center in West Asheville, North Carolina, to the Abbey in Birmingham, Alabama, where the motto is “Sinners. Saints. Coffee.”

A new way of making grants

The Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Local Mission and Ministry Committee considered proposals and recommended to council which ought to be approved.

From the beginning of those considerations, the committee found it was not only looking at innovative ministries, it was developing a new stance about standing at the gateway to funding. What emerged, according to LMM chair Anne Watkins, was not a “top-down encouragement” of local ministry while policing the expenditure of money, but, instead, a commitment to “paying attention to what folks are seeing God doing where they live and us responding to what they are responding to, in partnership.”

Working from that perspective took hours, including hours spent looking at proposals outside of the Executive Council’s meeting times, Watkins said. All during that time, the Rev. Tom Brackett, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for church planting and ministry redevelopment, told ENS that Watkins, in her role on the committee, “kept pointing to the need for us to affirm and bless the energy that was emerging locally.”

(The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission.)

The committee, and the council, had to be willing to fund experiments that might fail, or might yield results different from the expected ones, Watkins and Brackett said.

“What we think of as success – who knows what that is,” Watkins said. “Success might be failing enormously by some standards and learning a great deal. So there’s a tension within each of us, and particularly among us in leadership, you know – we’re charged with being fiscally responsible with this budget.”

It meant that the committee had to, at times, “dial ourselves back,” she said, to ask “is it about sustainability and the continuation of this or is it about responding to what God is doing, in good faith, and seeing what God does with it, then learning from that in whatever way?”

The stance that the churchwide budget would be supporting work ready to be undertaken at the local level was a different one for some, including diocesan leaders. Brackett said he had to tell people many times “it’s your initiative, your money and we’re matching your funds.” That money came “with the caveat that we expected them to demonstrate how they were responsibility using the funds that they were given,” he added.

Creating a community of learners

Part of the hope for the grant programs is that they will not only result in new kinds of ministries serving underserved populations across the church, but also that the people involved would share their experiences and learning with the rest of the church. The reflection ideally begins at the diocesan level, Spellers and Brackett said, as the diocesan leadership and members discern how to follow the Spirit’s inspiring movement.

Now the church has the “stories of leaders who fell in love with what God was doing in the world around them, and that’s really the launching place,” Brackett said.

Based on the knowledge gained from the first round of grants, the hope is that the church can begin to learn to “adjust our local practices and flex our structures as needed” to grant people leading both new and old ministries greater freedom “in not just growing the church or reversing decline or engaging those historically under-represented, but tracking what the Spirit’s up to out in the world around us,” he said.

One of the primary results Resolution A073 hoped for, according to Brackett, was “that we would conduct experiments for the benefit of the whole church [and that] we would share those learnings in such a way that those following wouldn’t have to make the same mistakes or that if they made the same mistakes, we would learn quickly and they wouldn’t cost quite as much.”

Spellers added, “Frankly, let’s get enough money and investment from everyone so that we all have to pay attention to what the answers are.”

This is the first in a series of ENS stories about The Episcopal Church’s pledge at the 77th General Convention to partner with dioceses to begin innovative mission strategies.

Read more on the ENS website.