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.
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).
“We spoke to other capital campaign consultants,” comments Father Tom Seitz, Chairman of the Wingmann Board. “None expressed confidence in managing such a far-flung effort. That was when we turned to ECF and were so gratified that they took us on as a client.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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).
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:
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.
Our faith communities are continually concerned about how to raise income or offset expenses especially during the summer months when attendance is lower. There are many wonderful stewardship programs that have been deployed to varying levels of success. I wholeheartedly endorse trying one and staying with it for a few years and where possible customizing for the congregation’s needs. Many stewardship committees simply distribute the pledge forms on Stewardship Sunday and wonder why the same approach yields the same result which is fewer pledge forms being completed and a strained budget.
“Why can’t we just ask people what they want to do?”
Sounds so simple. Logical, even. Why spend months in conversation about history, gifts and values to determine “what God is calling this congregation to do to next” when you could just ask people in one parish meeting for suggestions?
Here’s why. We live in community. Think of your congregation as a microcosm of the Body of Christ, which overall is more diverse than we can imagine. People flow in and out of the microcosm. Let’s think first about those who’ve come. Some have been there a long time – decades perhaps. Others arrived ten years ago, or one year ago, or last month.
In the last three months I've had the opportunity to attend three retreats. The first was a two-day spiritual retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in upstate New York. This was a time for prayer, worship, guided reflections and, most important, silence. All the participants relished the time together to unplug.
The second retreat was a board and conference planning meeting for two groups that meet primarily by conference call. We met at the Maritime Institute in Baltimore, Maryland from noon on Friday to noon on Saturday.
As we begin the New Year 2017, many leaders are planning in earnest the work that needs to be accomplished for the year. For the procrastinators among us now is a good time to start. Within congregations, a Parish Coordinator is essential to ensure that all items planned by the clergy, vestry, and committees are reflected on a master calendar.
Management guru Peter Drucker wrote often about “planned abandonment.” This is the idea that we need to intentionally put to death and bury the activities and thinking that are hindering us from spending time on more fruitful activities. We must put to death the old to make room for the new.
I spend time each year between Christmas and New Year’s Day reflecting on the past year and looking ahead to the next. In my previous career, it was looking at my previous billable hours and workplace accomplishments, and setting goals for the coming year. But it was/is also a time to celebrate what God has been doing in my life and work and ministry, and considering where God seems to be leading me into the future.
Almost like those moments that begin sometime late at night Christmas Eve and continue the next several days, the world begins to hush during Thanksgiving week. People re-connect and spend precious time with their loved ones, and there’s not much noise or commotion. I really like this time of year. I like it for so many reasons – great feasts among them – but I also like this pause, this hush.
A harvest festival, such as what we’re doing this week, does that to us – gives us pause to consider, encourages us to take stock, provides a moment to focus, even strategize about how we can best invest in what really matters. It’s significant that the Thanksgiving holiday and our own stewardship/fundraising practices in the church fall in the same timeframe. For one, they’re both connected to ancient harvest practices. On another level, though, they’re both about healthy practices of looking back and going forward, a dynamic, communal motion that is really one and the same – giving thanks for what God has already provided and, based on God’s good generosity, making sure we’ve put those resources toward where God is leading.
A few weeks ago we gathered in Alexandria, Va., for the Missional Voices Oneday gathering, where we focused on liturgy, music, and the missional church. Dr. Jim Farwell, the liturgy professor at VTS, discussed the intersection of mission and worship. “There is no such thing as a ‘missional liturgy,’” he said. “Because all liturgy is missional.”
What the Church does (or should do) is all missional. But I think too often we forget that.
The leadership of a congregation is responsible for creating a vision, that is, developing a plan that enables the church to respond to the future in a creative manner. Given all the demands of a parish, it takes great discipline to attend to the future but the clergy and vestry need to ask the hard questions such as: What are we called to do in the name of Christ? Who is our neighbor?
Once God’s dream for a church takes shape, the response is naturally to get rather excited and to start making things happen. The leadership will probably share these dreams at a parish meeting and assume the work of communication has been done. There is also a natural assumption that the parish knows about the plans and is ready to get started.
The title of this post may seem contradictory. But I promise you, it’s not. We’ve spent several weeks here talking about ideas. We’ve talked about paying attention to the things that grab your attention, about sharing and building on ideas with others, and about adapting others’ good ideas for our contexts. Like any series, this one must come to an end.
And like any good idea, it actually has to be put into practice for it to mean anything.
The patent for the common mousetrap design was filed in 1899. We’re still using that design more than 110 years later, but everyone keeps trying to build a better mousetrap. The US Patent Office receives more than 400 new mousetrap patents every year, and has granted more than 4400 mousetrap patents since 1899. There’s no shortage of ideas. But fewer than 20 mousetrap designs have led to products that have actually made money. The problem isn’t generating ideas; it is overcoming the obstacles and executing your new idea.