Death and Resurrection
Recently, I met a friend who had just wrapped up hosting a public policy conference on health care. She looked exhausted. “There’s too much siloed thinking,” she sighed, “and not enough collaboration.” Similarly, an Episcopal diocese currently in search of their next bishop is finding that “one challenge is to move beyond the walls of our congregations and buildings to find more collaborative regional missional strategies.”
Collaboration has about as much buzz as any buzzword seems to buzz these days. I’m excited to be part of a collaborative process in the Diocese of Washington looking at Region 6 in our diocese. Locals call it southern Maryland – 22 parishes in the old tobacco economy of lower Prince George’s, Charles, and St. Mary’s Counties. All but two of the congregations have graveyards and many date back to the earliest days of the nation. With the ability to commute easily into Washington, DC and a significant military base presence in the lower part of the peninsula, however, the region has changed dramatically since the latter half of the 20 century, making it the fastest growing region in the state and one of the wealthiest in the nation. But the Episcopal Church, while enjoying the wave of the Baby Boom years, didn’t take into account the ways in which neighborhood lifestyles were shifting. Tobacco hasn’t been a cash crop for decades. People drive miles to go to their favorite restaurant (or church), but the mainline Christian churches act as if it's 1955 all over again. Average Sunday attendance in southern Maryland is 75 and it’s an aging membership.
After years of talking about decline and change, our region started a conversation with our diocese. The point was simple: we need to change the way we do church or else there won’t be any church left. As smart as we were to see this, we were naïve to think that naming the elephant actually gets it out of the room. Neither the diocese nor the congregations were willing to change the institutional structure, nor were they imaginative enough to do so.
The idea of collaboration emerged. “We need to act as one Episcopal Church,” went the rallying cry of a well-attended event one year ago. And so was born the Collaborative Ministries Exploration Group, a voluntary coalition of 25 lay and clergy leaders. We met often, shared table fellowship and our individual stories, and, over time, built a new community of people, most of whom are generally frustrated by talking about decline and inspired by the Holy Spirit to imagine what the Body of Christ can be.
That’s when we realized how much this conversation has changed and how much the Holy Spirit is changing us. For too long our focus has been on sustainability: how can we cut costs, retain membership, and/or increase giving to ensure that our congregation continues to exist as we’ve known it? When we gathered as a new, intentional, regional community and shared the stories of our personal faith and calls to ministry we realized that what was keeping us from growing was unquestioned allegiance to the (ironically congregational) Episcopal system that keeps clergy, lay leaders, and congregations separate and independent.
From the perspectives of a public policy analyst, a diocese imagining new leadership and, now, a group of folks in southern Maryland, collaboration is about breaking through to the new. It isn't about keeping up the structures we’ve inherited. At its core, what’s really happening in the Episcopal Church is that we’re witnessing the hand of God transforming the residues of conventional Christianity into a robust, mission-minded fellowship who gathers in the name of His Son, Jesus. We should put a warning label on the word “collaboration”: talking about collaboration without questioning the model which places ministry in the hands of the ordained and keeps neighbor congregations separate is an ineffective band-aid and, in the end, won’t get anyone any closer to the Body of Christ in the 21 century.
It’s easy to say we need to act like one Episcopal Church. It’s a lot harder to do: changing policy is too big and boring. We can, however, change the way the People of God do church, then expect the institution to change. In southern Maryland, we’re setting out to develop the discipleship capacity of our membership, and if we want to do impactful work we’ve got to work together with other congregations. For too long, the Episcopal Church has allowed our gifts to depend entirely on local, neighborhood-based operations. The truth is we have a unique way of understanding God and seeing Christ’s hand at work in the world. We haven’t shared that experience with our wider communities because we haven’t figured out how to be church together, beyond the false dichotomy of ordained/lay, beyond the one-priest/one-parish model of deployment and pastoral care.
The Episcopal Church’s institutional structure is changing, no matter what, and we’re attempting to bring about positive structural changes by doing church together in new and different ways. Here’s a 10-point starter kit:
- Have an honest conversation with the vestry, clergy, and lay leaders of your congregation. Don’t try to solve issues; just name them. Often, people avoid this because they feel either (a) they need to have an answer or (b) it won’t go anywhere. Talk anyway.
- Talk to your neighbor clergy and lay leaders, fellow Episcopalians and/or other neighbor congregations. Foster open relationships and have a frank conversation, together. They’re probably feeling just as confused and anxious and excited as you are.
- Invite your diocese to partner with you. Don’t tell them what you want fixed and how they should fix it. Let your diocesan leadership "listen in."
- Stop buying books and looking for the next great consultant, bishop, rector, or senior warden. Listen to what God is calling you into, and what God is saying to your gathering. People are ready to do creative ministry, together.
- Imagine what might exist beyond the one-parish / one-priest model. How can you ensure that present levels of ministry are continued? How might working as part of a team help grow ministry and your own awareness of God’s redeeming hand at work in your community?
- Do ministry together. Identify two or three areas of focus that, if you do them, will positively impact your community (your church community and wider community) in the Name of Christ. This could mean broadening a ministry that one congregation is doing but with insufficient impact, or creating ministries that do not yet exist.
- Resist false dichotomies. Most of our current membership is, by and large, satisfied. Serving them with the Gospel should not stand in the way of serving those not-yet touched by Christ.
- Talk about “the Episcopal Church in so-and-so region/county/city”, and market your ministries accordingly. Be on guard against one congregation “inviting” its neighbors to participate in their functions. While you’re at it, use the phrase “our diocese”, not “the diocese”.
- Affirm that weekly corporate worship in the local parish church is essential to the Body of Christ. This upholds a foundational Anglican principle, not only the importance of corporate worship but also the relevance of having a local clergyperson who is embedded in the culture of the parish(es).
- Have fun. Seek the abundant life of which Jesus speaks (John 10:10). Find ministries that inspire, feed, and invigorate, not only those served but those serving.
The Rev. Greg Syler is rector of St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland. He co-chairs the Collaborative Ministries Exploration Group of Region 6 of the Diocese of Washington and is working with others to create a diocesan summer camp.
- Church Collaboration: http://churchcollaboration.com/default.html
- Cooperating Congregations: Portraits of Mission Strategies by Gilson A.C. Waldkoenig and William O. Avery: http://www.alban.org/bookdetails.aspx?id=546
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