Buildings & Grounds [& Mission]
Church as Village Green
The village green…the public garden…the town square. Before suburban sprawl became a prominent feature of American life, churches were often placed at the geographic heart of their communities. Today in Virginia, if you drive through a small town, you’ll likely see a historic Episcopal church on the main street, near the courthouse, or in some other prominent public space.
Sadly, many churches have lost that sense of being the hub of community life. But while it is situated in a suburban Richmond neighborhood, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church is demonstrating that it’s still possible to be a “village green.” Parish buildings are not only full throughout the day on Sundays, the buildings and grounds are also alive on weekdays with people participating in small groups or coming for a meeting or a speaker; volunteering in the food pantry or the Episcopal Church Women’s gift shop; shopping in the church bookstore; rehearsing in a choir; or attending Morning Prayer or Evensong.
The most colorful example of St. Stephen’s as a village green, though, happens on Saturday mornings when people (and dogs) of all ages arrive to delicious smells, colorful sights, and live music, thanks to a weekly farmers market. It opens at 8:00 am without fail, rain or shine (although we did close after a blizzard last winter because the walkways weren’t safe, but a few years ago during a tropical storm, we simply moved indoors and had the market anyway.)
Founded in 2009, The Farmers Market @ St. Stephen’s has grown steadily ever since. On a typical Saturday it hosts about 40 vendors for several hundred patrons (the number grows to about 1,000 during peak summer season). Local farmers sell in-season produce, beef, poultry, pork, seafood, eggs, flowers, and bedding plants. Though we began as a “producer-only” market, we’re now a “full-disclosure” market, allowing farmers to bring items grown on other nearby farms as long as they disclose the source. This adjustment allows a wider range of products to be offered.
While farmers form the core of the market, customers also look forward to shopping for bread and other baked goods, freshly brewed coffee and hand-squeezed limeades, and arts and crafts such as jewelry, upcycled clothing, handmade soaps, and more. Food trucks are on hand to provide a pick-up breakfast or lunch for shoppers. Seminars and demonstrations are scheduled from time to time, various nonprofit groups visit, and there are always activities for children.
Customers and vendors tell us that the market’s size is just right. It’s large enough to offer a wide range of high-quality products, but small enough to make shopping and parking easy (it’s also free). Many patrons arrive on foot or on bicycles—and some come in strollers.
The establishment of the Farmers Market @ St. Stephen’s coincided with an increasing interest in our parish in the mind-body connection and its role in spiritual well-being. While the parish was already offering centering prayer and the occasional yoga class, groups expanded as the market took hold. Regular yoga and tai chi courses, contemplative prayer groups, and five-week courses on mindfulness meditation are going strong to this day. Our first market manager led a class on Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules with a parishioner who is a nurse practitioner; the popular class was offered several times.
How we began
During a 2008 visit to the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, parish staff were impressed by their weekly market, and believed St. Stephen’s could initiate something similar. A team consisting of parishioners, staff, and local experts did their homework and prepared a proposal for the vestry. One of our parishioners, an attorney, ensured that all legal requirements were met, and crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s with the city.
While farmers markets at churches were not unheard of in 2009, they were not common, so it wasn’t surprising that some vestry members, parishioners, and neighbors had questions and concerns. After addressing these issues, we were ready to open. We held our first market day in May 2009.
Initially the market was open during spring, summer, and early fall, but demand by customers and vendors led to its expansion to a year-round offering. During the winter, the market moves into the parish hall and continues to operate every Saturday. (When we decided to offer the market in the winter, we initially tried Wednesday evening market hours, but we found that customers had trouble remembering it was open. Making Saturday our year-round market day gave the winter market the push it needed to be successful.)
The market’s start-up was facilitated by the know-how of its founding manager, who had managed another area farmers market. Her relationships with local farmers provided an important jump-start. She worked closely with a full-time member of the parish staff with an MBA and retail experience. When she left to start a small neighborhood grocery store, the parish hired another experienced market manager with a passion for supporting local farmers and educating customers about farming methods (organic, conventional, etc.), Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), and other issues.
Staffing and finances
The part-time market manager is a church employee and the support needed to run the market—from communications to accounting to facilities management—is provided by church staff.
The market sustains itself through application fees and weekly booth fees collected from vendors. These cover such expenses as the part-time manager and sextons’ hours, and paid advertising and promotion. Now that it is well established, the market does not do a great deal of paid advertising, though robust communication is accomplished using the church’s established communications channels, such as our website, email newsletters, printed newsletters, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). We’ve also been able to obtain a healthy amount of free media.
Volunteers are critical to the operation; some are parishioners, and some are market patrons without other connections to the parish. Recruiting a sufficient number of volunteers during the peak market season has been perhaps the greatest challenge for this ministry.
An integral ministry
The market’s relationship to other St. Stephen’s ministries has grown since its founding. Farmers and other food producers at the market donate unsold food to the parish’s pantry at the end of each market Saturday. On Monday, when people in need come to St. Stephen’s for help with groceries, they not only receive canned and boxed food donated by parishioners, but they are invited to select such fresh items as eggs, greens and other produce, meat, and bread. They’ve even been offered freshly cut flowers on occasion.
For the Sunday Community Supper—a meal served between the church’s two Sunday evening services—staff and volunteers use ingredients purchased from market vendors as a way of supporting local farmers while focusing on fresh, healthy foods. The meal is donation-based, since one of its goals is to provide a nutritious meal to those who might not be able to afford one.
The farmers market enjoys a reputation as one of the area’s best, and has brought many people to St. Stephen’s “village green” who later become part of the community, whether as small group participants, attendees at special events, worshipers, even members of the church. The market is a “portal,” one of several at St. Stephen’s, through which people may enter this community of faith. A preschool, a prominent guest speaker, a community event, a worship service geared especially to visitors, all are paths into the rhythm of life at St. Stephen’s. In large part because of its visibility, the farmers market is an especially effective “on ramp.”
What makes all these pathways effective is the hospitality people receive when they come to St. Stephen’s, and the insistence that all are welcome regardless of whether they are (or intend to become) “members.” Our goal is to remove barriers to participation in our common life, and to put out the welcome mat. The Farmers Market @ St. Stephen’s is one of the major ways we do that.Sarah Bartenstein is director of communications at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, where she is responsible for communication within and beyond the parish, through print, web (ststephensRVA.org), social media, and other channels and platforms, with special emphasis on using communication as a form of hospitality. Sarah served as communications director for Commonwealth Public Broadcasting (PBS, NPR, and educational programming) for eight years and for the Diocese of Virginia for 12 years. Her husband is a gardener and landscaper and they, along with their adult daughter and son, are big fans of growing, discovering, buying, preparing and eating fresh, local foods. Sarah is in the final year of her term as president of Episcopal Communicators.
Sarah Bartenstein describes The Farmers Market @ St. Stephen’s as an effective pathway leading people to St. Stephen’s. Contributing to that effectiveness is the way St. Stephen’s continues to cultivate relationships with farmers market customers. Sarah writes,
“A Farmers Market newsletter is emailed every Thursday, after we’ve heard from vendors about what they expect to bring that Saturday. St. Stephen’s sends several targeted email newsletters each week, and the Farmers Market list is the largest one we maintain. Each edition includes information on the upcoming market day, including a list of vendors; the “blessing of the week;” a recipe using market ingredients (notated with the names of vendors who can supply each ingredient); and a thank you to the previous week’s volunteers and donors to the food pantry. Sometimes the newsletter includes a feature on something like what do we mean when we say “organic,” “certified naturally grown,” and “conventional” methods; or what is a CSA and why should you join one? “
Does your church offer programs that regularly attract people from beyond your congregation? Might there be an opportunity to build – or strengthen – relationships by sharing helpful information or resources related to that program? Use Sarah’s example as a starting point for thinking about what you could offer that would be of interest to community members who come to your church for programs or services (i.e. thrift shop, food pantry, lecture series).Resources
- Community Supported Agriculture (Wikipedia)
The Farmers Market @ St. Stephens web site and video
Resources for starting a farmers market
Farmers’ Markets, Mississippi State University
How to Organize and Run a Successful Farmers’ Market, Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs
How to Set Up a Farmers Market, Advocates for Urban Agriculture, Chicago Urban Agriculture
- St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia
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