February 5, 2013

The Locally Owned Church

Last week, ECF concluded a two-part web conference series on “Becoming Local” presented by Will Scott. Will is the vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a community of faith that has discerned the key to its revitalization is robust neighborhood engagement. Will was awarded an ECF Fellowship in 2012 for the passion and skill that he brings to this work of building up neighborhood partnerships, and of helping churches to become truly local.

In case you missed this web conference series, click the following links for recordings of Part I and Part II.

While Will shared many helpful insights throughout the series, I’d like to highlight his discussion of St. Cyprian’s leadership structure. As you will see below, this structure is comprised of three main parts - a vestry, a neighborhood council, and a kitchen committee - all of which help to make St. Cyprian’s “locally owned.”

  • Bishop’s Committee/Vestry: Like any vestry (or bishop’s committee) in the Episcopal Church, St. Cyprian’s vestry is comprised of “members in good standing” of the congregation. Yet even here, St. Cyprian’s intentionally invites relatively new members into the highest levels of leadership, thus helping the vestry reflect the full diversity of its emerging constituencies. He noted that the new junior warden is relatively new to St. Cyprian’s but was formerly head of the local neighborhood association.
  • Community Center Advisory Council: St. Cyprian’s community center advisory council includes a few vestry members but is primarily comprised of individuals representing different organizations and constituencies from the wider neighborhood. Will made it a point to note that because many of the people on this council aren’t members of St. Cyprian’s church, they help the church remain conscious of the broader needs and potential impact that St. Cyprian’s can be making in the wider community. Perhaps equally important, this council paves the way for significant resource sharing (for example, sharing parking spaces for community events).
  • The Kitchen Committee: Like the community center advisory council, the kitchen committee is comprised of church members and non-church members, including institutional partners and people who have expertise and passion in the culinary arts or the local food movement. While Will did not have time to go into this topic extensively in the web conference, he has written a blog post for ECF Vital Practices detailing how the church kitchen can be a congregation’s front door. “I have a hunch that there are quite a few folks out there for whom the church kitchen door was easier to enter (or re-enter), at least at first, than the one to the sanctuary.”

As you might imagine, this sort of leadership structure is oftentimes messier than one in which decision-making power is concentrated in only one body (i.e. the vestry). Instead, leadership is more like an ongoing conversation between these three groups, a leadership trinity in which the three dialogue partners are distinct yet one. The fourth element in the slide, a leadership summit, has yet to be realized; it’s an event in which the three dialogue partners are intentionally brought together regularly.

One of the major challenges that Episcopal congregations face (or any organization, for that matter) is the tendency to become insular and inward-looking. What I appreciate about St. Cyprian’s structure, and Will’s work overall, is how it has begun to formalize - albeit in a still very porous way - a deliberately outward-looking approach. What do you see as the benefits and challenges of this style of leadership?