July 29, 2021 by Hunter Ruffin

It’s a familiar narrative in The Episcopal Church these days: the attendance numbers are shrinking, the children are fewer in number, and the people in the parish want to do something (anything!) to reverse the trend. The question that almost always looms large at the start of any such process is simple and, in its own way, profound: Where do we begin?

I entered a narrative similar to this when I accepted the call to serve as the next rector at Church of the Epiphany in Tempe, Arizona. In fifteen years’ time, the parish dwindled from an average Sunday attendance of 353 to an average Sunday attendance of 182 prior to the pandemic. It was clear that things were not going in the direction that any parish wants to see. It was abundantly clear that we needed to do something, but it was less clear what that something was.

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June 30, 2021 by Julia E. Heard

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to examine and adapt our lifestyles across the board- working from home (#WFH) became the new normal, even growing increasingly through new software platforms and new approaches to conducting business. The Church has not been insulated from this, and our reactions have brought forth a great many questions and concerns about the functionality of our place as ministers and shepherds in a landscape so drastically changed. Nearly every single priest friend I have has commented on their personal struggles with how to be a parish priest without a parish present in the pews; how to find meaning in their role as a priest, both in interacting with their parishioners, and in their own personal spiritual nourishment.

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June 1, 2021 by Greg Syler

Depending on where you look, or what news you follow, we’re either wrapping up this pandemic or deeply mired in it. Even with increasing vaccinations, there’s trouble on the international stage – dramatic numbers of caseloads in India, for one. U.S. teenagers are now approved to get vaccines, but scores of Americans are still hesitant or altogether resistant. And some fully vaccinated people simply aren’t returning to what used to be perfectly normal, mundane activities – grocery shopping, eating inside a restaurant, going to church among them.

This is already a challenge for the church. It has been, and it will continue to be. Over the next several years, if not decades, these new emerging patterns will pose an even greater challenge for the institutional church. Nowadays, we operate on dual platforms – meeting gracefully those (fewer) who come in-person as well as reaching those who feel safer at home. No one’s said anything about a comprehensive mission strategy, and there’s even less mention of funding models for this uncertain future.

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April 12, 2021 by Sandy Webb and Jack Nelson

The invitation was simple: “No agenda, just conversation. No pressure, just invitation.”

With these words, the rector and newcomers coordinator at Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis invited the members of St. Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church in nearby Bartlett, Tennessee to a service of Evening Prayer followed by a time of conversation. St. Elisabeth’s was about to close, and Holy Communion was not sure how best to help.

There is plenty of literature about how two congregations can start journeying together, but our story is not grounded in any particular theory. We just listened to each other, and we built a model that worked for us. Other churches in other places could easily do the same.

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April 8, 2021 by Greg Syler

At long last, the two congregations I serve as rector are now one church – one church, we say, in two locations. Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, MD and St. George’s Church in Valley Lee, MD are now two churches, two campuses of Resurrection Parish: the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s newest parish, indeed the newest parish in our entire Episcopal Church! It’s been a long time coming, not to mention an incredible process; I’ve blogged extensively about our discernment around this initiative on ECF Vital Practices.

To be very technical, we merged two parishes into one parish. That may not seem super groundbreaking unto itself, but let me provide some context. St. George’s in Valley Lee is Maryland’s oldest continuous Anglican / Episcopal worshipping community – dating back to 1638 – and it became the parish church of William & Mary Parish when, in 1692, the colony was subdivided into 30 Church of England parishes (so much for Maryland’s heritage of religious toleration; we, too, got an established church not long after our founding). Church of the Ascension, meanwhile, was planted in a brand-new, post-WWII suburb as a mission chapel in the 1950s – along with so many other Episcopal church buildings and institutions in American cultural life – and it became its own full-fledged parish (Patuxent Parish) in 1968. Thanks, Baby Boom!

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February 19, 2020 by Cathy Hornberger

This month we offer five resources on visioning. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.

1) Have you undertaken a visioning process before and not had much success? In Eight Visioning Mistakes to Avoid, Melissa Rau outlines some common mistakes made by congregations and offers helpful solutions.

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October 21, 2019 by Greg Syler

A few years ago, I wondered aloud about whether, or when, The Episcopal Church would catch up to a growing phenomenon in Christian churches – multisite church planting and multisite church development. It was something I was reading about, especially because I was at the time serving one Episcopal congregation as rector while making plans to take on a second call with our neighbor church. That call developed and, as I’ve also written about, St. George’s, Valley Lee and Ascension, Lexington Park – two courageous congregations in the Diocese of Washington – have moved from conversations with one another to ‘yoking’ (an informal term for sharing everything, just not becoming one church) to merging.

I wondered a few years’ ago whether The Episcopal Church could borrow some multisite thinking. “We tend to see ourselves as one church,” I wrote, “at least theologically and spiritually as set in the landscape of other denominations. …Can this category apply to Episcopal congregations and communities in our church? And, if so, how? If not, why not?”

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July 17, 2019 by Cathy Hornberger

This month we offer five resources on strategic thinking. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.

1. Do you know the difference between your congregation’s mission and vision? In his webinar entitled Strategic Thinking for Congregations, Donald Romanik talks about the ever-increasing pace of change and how strategic thinking can help congregations effectively plan for the future.

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July 16, 2019 by Linda Buskirk

For many years, books about healthy congregations focused on how to do what we’ve always done better, or at least in a more attractive way. One book capturing attention today asserts that what we’ve always done is not likely to work, no matter how well we do it.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership In Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger, takes a frank but hopeful look at the opportunities for adaptive leadership within the church today. The title is a reference to the ways that explorers Lewis and Clark had to adapt to the unexpected reality of the Rocky Mountains as they sought a riverway to the Pacific.

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July 5, 2019 by Joe Merlino

I recently visited a parish that was considering embarking on a capital campaign. During our conversation, members of the committee shared that they had engaged in a series of visioning, clergy search, and strategic planning initiatives over the last several years. The initiatives included one-on-one meetings, group conversations and surveys. In two cases they had hired consultants to facilitate these initiatives, each of which included some form of discernment. However during our conversation it became very apparent that the committee’s level of clarity regarding the processes they used and the practices they engaged in were unclear. So were the outcomes they had hoped to achieve. Given that, there was a general level of frustration as well as a strong desire to bring something tangible to the congregation that showed forward progress. Moreover, there was a reluctance to engage in what they perceived to be another redundant process of discernment. With deference to the best intentions and heart-felt contributions of everyone involved, their collective efforts proved to be less productive than expected. Hope and enthusiasm shifted to frustration and caution, and I felt a genuine feeling of concern for their predicament.

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April 23, 2019 by Greg Syler

I serve as the rector of two churches, and even though both congregations are similar in many ways, today, they didn’t start out that way. One, St. George’s in Valley Lee, is so old that most of our earliest records are housed in our state Archives in Annapolis, MD. The other, Ascension in Lexington Park, was planted as a mission chapel in 1954 and became its own parish in 1968. Ascension has only had a few rectors – I’m number 4 – and I’m especially grateful that its first rector, the founder of the Mission-turned-Parish, spent a great deal of time near the end of his life writing his memories and reflections.

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April 9, 2019 by Kim Hanson

Napoleon is rumored to have reflected on the concept that “geography is destiny” before invading Russia in 1812…and the concept has become ingrained in geopolitical thought ever since.

And it can affect far more than simply politics. Camp Wingmann, a small Episcopal summer camp located in a picturesque setting in the Diocese of Central Florida, faced the daunting task of raising capital funds from across a Diocese spanning 15 counties and comprising nearly 1/3 of Florida’s 65,000 square miles. This Diocese includes small rural areas, such as Camp Wingmann’s Avon Park, as well as densely populated urban areas such as those surrounding Orlando (Disney/Universal) or the Space Coast (Cape Canaveral and Melbourne).

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April 4, 2019 by Greg Syler

Sometimes, when my family and I have a Sunday off but we’re still in town, we pop into a local Presbyterian church for worship. They have great preaching and strong worship. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that very few people there know me or us. We slip in, enjoy worship, and go on with our day.

A traditional brick-and-mortar church, this congregation is known in our community as a strong, thriving church. They have great programs, a well-manicured campus, dynamic pastors, a good website – and it doesn’t hurt that their gym and nursery are top-notch!

But the one thing I really appreciate about them is their approach to Christian formation. They have Sunday morning classes, and youth group in the middle of the week. There’s a college-age group that meets in some kind of lounge space, and they pull together what they call a “Big Gathering” every now and then. But most of what they do in terms of formation and relationship-building happens Monday to Saturday … and not in their brick-and-mortar building.

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December 10, 2018 by Linda Buskirk

Do you have a date set for your next Vestry/leadership retreat?

In our goal-oriented society, it may sound odd, or even dereliction of duty, to replace a monthly decision-making meeting with a retreat to “vision” about “the big picture.” Yet the very difficulty of setting aside pressing issues is what makes a retreat so important. Simply put, if we don’t designate time to think about the big picture, we generally won’t. Here are three ideas for planning a retreat that will help your congregation move forward:

First, set the expectation that an extended annual retreat is important, and all leadership team members should attend. Set the date and far enough in advance for calendar commitment to be made. This expectation should be discussed with potential Senior Wardens and candidates for Vestry.

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October 15, 2018 by Alan Bentrup

For the second time in just over a year, my work has focused on hurricanes. Last year it was helping my parish and the city of Houston navigate life during and after Hurricane Harvey. Earlier this month it was waiting and preparing for Hurricane Florence.

Needless to say, storms and flood waters have consumed much of my thinking.

Maybe that’s why I’m so struck by the picture at the top of this post. Something’s wrong there. Who would build a bridge in the wrong place?

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May 16, 2018 by Melissa Rau

This month we are highlighting five resources to help your vestry or other church groups learn more about strategic visioning and planning. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry, and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.

1. In Why Strategic Planning, Linda Buskirk describes what strategic planning is and why it’s important for churches to engage in strategic thinking. She also shares the necessary steps a church needs to take in order to achieve its vision and provides some thought provoking questions to help your church move forward in strategic ways.

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March 13, 2018 by Janet Lombardo

Congregations often want to be all things to all people, jumping on every new idea without considering whether it supports the congregation’s mission to the community. The ideas may be good individually, but how do they align with the congregation’s mission and ministry? When a congregation fragments its mission, it is a recipe for failure.

Another common pitfall is encountered when a project is continued, simply because “it has always been done.” These projects lack support among the congregation and may even have lost their original purpose and intent, making it difficult to find enthusiastic participants. When a congregation can let go of something that has lost its usefulness, it opens itself up to new ideas and opportunities, giving new life and energy to the congregational system. How do you decide what to let go of and what to keep?

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January 26, 2018 by Linda Buskirk

Here is a creative way to get visionary juices flowing at your next Vestry planning retreat: Start writing your congregation’s 2023 Annual Report. You’ll need sticky flip chart pages and markers, and room to work in small groups.

Step 1 – Determine 3 or 4 topic areas that seem to be the most pressing right now. Examples might be finding Christian Formation teachers, increasing outreach ministry, and - just a wild guess on my part - finances.

Step 2 – Divide into groups – one group per topic. Assign a recorder (to capture the group’s final work in writing, preferably on flip chart pages easily read by all assembled), and a reporter (to verbally report the group’s findings).

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January 5, 2018 by Linda Buskirk

Strategic planner that I am, I love it when a plan starts coming together with results. One of the readings for Epiphany, Ephesians 3: 1-12, reveals some pretty amazing aspects of God’s plan already in the works.

First, there is Jesus’ role: to bring humankind together into one big family where Jews and Gentiles alike are heirs in God’s Kingdom (verse 6. Accomplished).

Verse 10 explains God’s plan also includes an amazing role for the church. I gasped when I read it:

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November 7, 2017 by Annette Buchanan

With the frequency of hurricanes that have recently occurred it begs the question how prepared are our churches for any catastrophe. Whether its fire, flooding or a mass shooting we do need to have a Disaster Preparedness Plan to address the physical and emotional needs of our congregation.

The Church Pension Group in its monthly newsletter points us to the Facilitator’s Guide on the Episcopal Relief and Development website. There we find a number of resources to help introduce this disaster preparedness discipline as part of our normal church life. Their best practices suggests that churches have a focused meeting to assess and provide remedies for any type of disaster including identification of the primary person within the congregation that has the responsibility for preparedness. There are also resources at the diocesan, provincial and national levels to assist with this activity.

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