April 15, 2014 by Anna Olson

How many times have you been told -- or told someone else, maybe with a slight tone of spiritual superiority -- that the church is not the building?

I know, I know, it’s the people. I do know.

But it is the building.

Your neighbors see a building. They may have even been inside. Often for something other than worship. Often somewhere other than the sanctuary.

The built environment matters. It shapes what we see, where we walk, where we drive, the very textures beneath our feet. Buildings shut out noise, let in light. Doors are open. Or closed.

As church membership declines in many places, sometimes it seems the buildings are all that will be left.

So what if we take these buildings seriously?

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March 3, 2014 by Richelle Thompson

As the list of closures started scrolling across the bottom of the TV, I waited for the commentary from the couch. It didn’t take long.

“I can’t believe all of these churches cancelling services!”

To frame the discussion a bit, my husband (a priest) doesn’t cancel worship services because of bad weather. A vestry meeting? Maybe. But never a worship service. Even if he expects he’ll be the only one there, he still shows up.

Masochistic? Maybe a bit. But mostly he feels like it’s really important to open the doors to the church for regular worship, even when the weather is bad, even when the schools are cancelled. A caveat here is that we live in the Midwest – we’re not in hurricane territory and thankfully haven’t had a major weather disaster. So we’re talking about snow and ice. Of that, we’ve had plenty this year. But come every Sunday morning, the doors are open, and he’s celebrating the Eucharist. 

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September 9, 2013 by Richelle Thompson

Do as I say (and write), not as I do.

I’m teaching Sunday School this fall for the first time at our new-ish church. Our kids are old enough to make their way to the classrooms so I hadn’t spent much time looking at the space.  Yesterday was an eye-opener.

The walls are a mess, with scuffs and marker lines. The whiteboard would be more aptly named gray-with-squiggles board. The shelves are full of tired books probably purchased directly from Gutenberg. And I swear, the pictures on the wall were stolen from my Sunday School classroom three decades ago.

The room looks like we’re a church that doesn’t value our kids.

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September 6, 2013 by Barbara Ballenger

September is National Disaster Preparedness Month. Episcopal Relief & Development’s US Disaster Program equips Episcopal dioceses in the United States to prepare for local disasters, mitigate their impact and help the vulnerable make a full and sustained recovery. This is the first in a series of four posts on parish disaster preparedness planning.

When Janine Ungvarsky and John Major train parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem in how to prepare for and respond to disasters, they begin by explaining how unprepared they were for the one that hit their community two years ago.

On Sept 8, 2011, the Susquehanna River overflowed its banks in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. The flood displaced thousands of people in West Pittston and caused millions of dollars in damage. And, it came within a block of Trinity Episcopal Church where Major is rector and Ungvarsky is missioner for ministries and renewal.

“We did nothing to protect the building,” Ungvarsky recalls. “Had the water come a block farther, our church would have suffered damage that we had done nothing to protect it from.”

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September 5, 2013 by Richelle Thompson

If the Pope can take one, then so can we.

A picture of the Pope in a selfie—a self-portrait taken by a cell phone (more on what a selfie is here)—has been making the rounds on social media. To be fair, the Pope wasn’t taking the picture himself—but he did lean into the frame to appear with several teens.

So I started thinking: maybe this is a good time for churches to take some selfies (the clean kind). First, let me tell you why—and then I’ll talk about how selfies can make this happen.

In order to be outward-focused, we also need to look inward to get ready. There are lots of ways to do this, from Bible study and formation programs about hospitality and service to targeted newcomer ministries and building improvements. And if we stretch this metaphor of the selfie far enough, we could talk about what we see in the behaviors and hearts of our congregation. But I’m going for the soft-pitch for today with a look at our facilities. 

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March 21, 2013 by Brendon Hunter

How about some spring cleaning for your congregation?

With Easter approaching, we again have the opportunity to welcome many more visitors through our church doors. Consider dusting off those corners, sprucing up your narthex, or tidying up the parish website. We hope these articles and resources will provide inspiration to help your parish shine forth with the festivities and beauty of the Resurrection this Easter.

Looking for more helpful resources? Subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive this midmonth digest in your inbox along with our monthly Vestry Papers publication.

Hospitality Matters: Seeing Our Buildings Anew

What people see – or don’t see – when entering your church can make a lasting impression. Priest, architect, and liturgical artist Eliza Linley shares some great ideas, small and large, in Hospitality Matters: Seeing Our Buildings Anew for sprucing up your church. When reading through the article, take note of some smaller projects for Easter and think about some other ideas to work on later this year.

At the End of the Day

Does your congregation have an effective newcomer ministry? Maybe it’s time to polish your welcome to guests? In At the End of the Day, Mary Parmer shares a road map and resources for congregations to use from the Diocese of Texas Newcomer Ministry Project.

Blog Posts

What's Your Sign?: Have you looked at your church sign lately? Can you remember what it says? It might be time to take a look…

What ARE You Saying?: Paying attention to what the experience of visiting a church is like can help avoid confusion for someone visiting your church.

How Not to Win Friends and Impress Visitors: Most churches claim to be welcoming. However, there can be a disconnect between what the members of the congregation think and what the guest experiences.

Tools and Resources

ECF Spring 2013 Web Conferences: Topics include vestry leadership, stewardship, and running meetings. Be sure to reserve your spot and register today!

Adventures in Technology in a Mom and Pop Store: Advertising with social media is easier than you think and very effective at connecting to new people.

Print vs. Digital: Which? When?: Here are some tips to help you choose the right tool for your budget, and the right tool for the job.

Holy Care for Holy Places

Perhaps some spring cleaning shows you really need to get down to business with your buildings and grounds. Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner knows that this can be a daunting, even thankless job. In Holy Care for Holy Places, she breaks down the umbrella of maintaining church buildings into gradual steps to organize and equip your congregation for proactively caring for your buildings and grounds.

January 11, 2013 by Richelle Thompson

We received the keys to our new house last night.

The kids ran from room to empty room, claiming their space and plotting design elements. We brought the champagne to pop open after the old owners left.

But a funny thing happened. Like most moves, it took longer to clean out the last bit of stuff than they anticipated. The previous owners were still loading and sweeping, and by this time, forgoing boxes and instead, throwing their belongings in trash bags to sort out later.

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January 9, 2013 by Richelle Thompson

You’ve probably seen the posts by now about the pay-it-forward movement on Facebook.

“The first five people to comment on this status will receive from me, sometime in the next year, a gift - perhaps a handmade item, some baked goods, a candle or some other surprise. There will be no warning; it will happen when the mood strikes me. Inbox me your address if I don't already have it! The catch is the first five to respond must post this message on their Facebook page and make the same offer.”

Social media is a strange creature, telling us far more sometimes than we want to know (I really don’t care about the color, texture or velocity of a child’s vomit). Sometimes it creates rifts: my husband’s great-uncle recently unfriended both of us. Facebook is not a good medium for him – he comes across spiteful, angry and bigoted, so perhaps the unfriending is a blessing.

But there is also a real power in the way it connects people. Birthday blessings are fun, but it’s also a privilege to offer prayers for the high school friend whose 18-year-old niece died unexpectedly.

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January 7, 2013 by Jeremiah Sierra

I spent a few hours cleaning my apartment this weekend. There’s something satisfying about caring for your own space, and something almost soul-feeding about the work, about moving a broom across the floor or doing dishes.

As I’ve mentioned before, I attend a church called St. Lydia’s that combines dinner with our liturgy. We meet in a rented space. We cook and clean together, setup the tables with candles and decorated napkins. In a sense we make the space sacred with our work.

In the church we spend a lot of time thinking about our space—the purchase of property or construction and upkeep of a church building. Actually, this is true not only of the church, but of human beings. We are physical, incarnate beings, and to ignore our physical place in the world is a mistake.

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October 19, 2012 by Heather Blais

This past weekend I had the chance to visit a parish a lot like the one I currently serve. The property featured a beautiful and inspiring church with a cozy chapel; an enormous rectory, and several buildings that made up the parish house. You can imagine the complex must have been truly grand in its day. Yet inside the church pews are no longer full; and outside the neighborhood is facing the challenges of economic hardship: poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Many of the day-to-day conversations seem to have a recurring theme: the building. How to raise funds to care for the building instead of spending down the endowment? How to get more volunteers to care for the building? How to best utilize the space and bring more of the community into the building? So much of the faith community’s time, energy, and financial resources are poured into their beautiful buildings.

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August 31, 2012 by Joe Duggan

Your local church is a major community asset!

The more common headline is “local church buried in its deficit and had to close.” With church buildings from many denominations being closed, many congregations see their beloved buildings as liabilities rather than assets.

Episcopal congregations are an integral part of their neighborhoods and cities. Churches serve as important outreach partners or the preferred location for civic events or major funerals. Often congregations have not named the ways they partner with their wider community. As mainline church buildings around the country close, the void that closed churches leave behind becomes increasingly apparent within the neighborhood. Often neighbors and city officials are the last to learn of a struggling congregation and are stunned by its sudden closure.

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August 24, 2012 by Joe Duggan

Do you remember the TV show Bewitched

Samantha, a witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery was married to a mere mortal Darrin Stephens, played by Dick York and later Dick Sergeant. Remember the way Samantha would twinkle her nose and all would be well to every embarrassing or uncomfortable situation. Samantha converted magical thinking to produce her desired states through her magical powers. 

Samantha was not a dreamer or visionary. Dreamers and visionaries are active in their communities. Samantha was a magical thinker with her passive hopes magically delivered with no effort but the twinkle of her nose. 

Vital congregations flourish with the contributions of dreamers and visionaries! At the same time magical thinking propels congregations into irreversible decline.

What were the characteristics of Samantha’s magical thinking?

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August 14, 2012 by Joe Duggan
Do you know the spiritually ripe time for your congregation to make its most challenging decisions? 
[Editor's note: think buildings or changing any long held 'tradition'....]
The spiritually ripe time is when a congregation is in sync with its primary purpose to "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). A congregation's capacity for spiritual freedom contributes to spiritually ripe times to make decisions. 
Spiritual freedom occurs when congregations are able to courageously and generously make Spirit led choices that fulfill God's mission. How does a congregation grow in its spiritual freedom?

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August 9, 2012 by Peter Strimer

At one of our Mardi Gras celebrations, a cook set up his fancy digital camera and it shot one frame every five minutes to create a time lapse video of the event, from start up to clean up.

With the program year approaching, I am thinking I might do the same thing to capture a week in the life of St. Andrew’s.

It would take multiple cameras because so many different spaces would be involved. The one in the sanctuary might actually capture the least amount of action. Sunday would be a blur with the altar guild arriving at 7:00 am, followed by the 8:00 o’clock parishioners, then the choir streaming in for practice then segueing into “big church.” A forum might get set up and shut down then a brief period of stillness until the evening worship team came to set up for the 6:00 pm Taize service.

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July 25, 2012 by Richelle Thompson

Forget the yellow-page ad.

With 80 percent of church shoppers turning to the Internet first, spending limited marketing dollars on an outdated tool doesn’t make sense.

Our diocese has been looking at ways for the Internet to help connect seekers to congregations. I’ve talked repeatedly in ECF Vital Practices about the importance of social media and active websites. We started a new program this week that I think may put an updated, fresh twist on the yellow-page experience.

We worked with professional photographers (certified Google trusted) to develop an interactive, 360-degree virtual tour of one of our churches. The photographers built the virtual tour and then integrated it into Google Places.

What does this mean? Well, when you search for St. James Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, you’ll see the website pop up on the left side (as usual). On the right is a Google map (still what you’d expect). But underneath the map is a picture of the church with an invitation to “See inside.” When users click that button, they’re taken to a virtual tour of the church, with navigation guides on the top left corner.

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July 4, 2012 by Joe Duggan

Our churches "should be the heartbeat of mission and service, not the heartache of history and loss."

Today Congregational Seasons celebrates The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) for its passion, vision, and pastoral care of congregations that seek to be both vital and viable!

ECBF, you are the quintessential mustard seed story in The Episcopal Church. You have inspired more congregational work through the efforts of two people than organizations with many more staff and team members.

In ECBF's own words:

"The ECBF has developed a process to help congregations identify their place in the community — to understand their relevance; to build mission and value in the world around them, and to use their real-estate assets to develop financial self-sustainability.

Our church buildings are more than bricks and mortar, they should be the heartbeat of mission and service, not the heartache of history and loss. As congregations find a role in their community, they can also find creative and innovative ways to sustain themselves financially. Most congregations believe their buildings are used regularly, but self-assessments of space repeatedly show that is rarely the case. From parish halls to naves, useable space sits empty, seldom used to its fullest potential."

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May 23, 2012 by Richelle Thompson

Having bad news appear on the front page of a local newspaper is easy.

Getting the attention of a reporter – and editor – for good news is the challenge.

When our bishop closed a local church in 2008, the handful of members took their fight to the press. Even though attendance had dipped to single digits, the church was important to those faithful few.

Our bishop acknowledged this attachment but felt strongly that the church building and facility could make a more meaningful contribution to the surrounding community. Located in a poverty-stricken neighborhood with high crime and few dreams, our bishop envisioned a place that would work with neighbors to transform the community.

Nevertheless the stories in the newspaper were wrenching tales of people losing their faith home. And the interview and subsequent reporting of the bishop’s comments were disappointing and misleading.

It’s easy for bad news to make the paper.

As this former church building began its new ministry, it was much harder to get the attention from the reporter and editors. Every three or four months, I would send an e-mail to the reporter, copied to the editor, telling them about the progress of the ministry. Now called Gabriel’s Place, the church building was being used nearly every day, instead of just Sundays. A dozen of more community partners joined forces, with an initial focus on food.

The urban neighborhood is known as a food desert, a place where healthy and affordable food is hard to attain. The last grocery store closed in 2008.  Today Gabriel’s Place offers garden plots for local residents, a greenhouse, fish hatchery for tilapia, an industrial kitchen and youth cooking classes. This mix of sustainable projects came from direct conversation with residents and leaders about their most pressing needs.

Four years after the initial stories ran – and a dozen or so story pitches, I received an e-mail from the reporter.

“Sorry to have been out of touch. Way too much going on here to stay sane. That said, I was struck and interested in Gabriel's Place when you pitched the idea to me late last summer … I now have a much better understanding of Gabriel's Place and the brilliance of the idea that the bishop and his committee put together.

“I am writing a story for the weekend … and I can't do it justice without a voice from the Episcopal Diocese. In a day and age of mega churches force-feeding their idea of goodwill down a neighborhood's throat, it is so nice to see a religious body listen to a community and work in collaboration to develop a ministry.”


We immediately set up a phone interview with the bishop. I prepped some talking points and at the close of the interview, the bishop asked the reporter about his new book on Haiti. They began to build a relationship.

The interview went well, we thought. But you never know how a story will shake out until it’s printed. So we waited.

Yesterday, patience and persistence paid off. On the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer, above the fold, the headline read, “When Avondale said it needed healthier food and a community center, a church listened and created Gabriel’s Place.”

A How to Help box accompanied the story on the front page, and the jump of the story covered about two-thirds of the page and included a nice picture and great information about the ministry.

Working with the media is an inexact science. What appeals to one editor might be shot down by another. Reporters bear enormous stress to deliver dynamic stories, despite facing diminished news hole, possible lay-offs and competition by bloggers, TV, radio and Internet outlets.

But I learned two important lessons here:

We were really upset with how the initial story was handled. But you can’t break ties with a reporter or newspaper because you don’t like how they covered one story. Sometimes, you’ve got to suck it up and move on, repair the relationship and try again. Keep planting the idea. God’s time (and that of newspapers) is different than ours. You never know when an idea might take root.

I don't know how many of the newspaper's 170,000 subscribers read the story, and we'll see how many respond. But no amount of marketing or advertising could have better shared our mission of who we are as a church and as a people trying to live into God’s call.

“A church listened.”

It was worth the wait.

March 5, 2012 by Jeremiah Sierra
Este artículo esta disponible en español aquí.

There’s a particular scent I associate with Sunday mornings – dust and candle wax, a bit of incense, and aging wood. That was the smell I met every Sunday growing up, at St. Stephen’s, the church in San Antonio where my father was the rector. It is a small, simple building – wood, red carpet, dim light coming in through the stained glass – but it occupies an important place in my spiritual timeline. 
I’ve been thinking about sacred space since St. Lydia’s, the church I currently attend, moved to a new building in Brooklyn a few months ago. St. Lydia’s is in a very different place in its life than my childhood church, which had been around for 50 years. St. Lydia’s is just two years old and without a permanent home; but for several months at least we’ll be meeting at the Brooklyn Zen Center. It has a spacious kitchen and large windows, simple furniture, and it feels clean and welcoming and sacred. The Brooklyn Zen Center has blessed us by letting us use their rooms, and is nurturing our new church (and we are helping them as well with the modest rent we pay). 

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November 2, 2011 by Richelle Thompson

Who would think that cleaning up graffiti and cracking down on jaywalkers could lower crime rates?

This is the main premise of the broken-windows theory, which posits that a cleaner, more orderly neighborhood is less likely to attract criminals. On the flip side, a neighborhood with broken windows, litter, and graffiti creates an atmosphere of lawlessness and invites crime.

In the 1990s, New York’s police chief Bill Bratton put this theory into practice with a zero-tolerance policy, strongly enforcing the law on petty crimes. During his tenure, the crime rate in New York City dropped significantly. I interviewed Chief Bratton in the late 1990s when I was a young cub reporter. I know some critics have dismissed the broken-windows theory and attributed the decline in crime rates to other factors, but I’ve always thought there was merit to the idea. And I’ll always remember his passion for finding long-term solutions instead of reactive band aids. 

Regardless of its worth in crime fighting, I think there are some applicable lessons for churches, particularly when it comes to the upkeep of our facilities. 

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September 8, 2011 by Anne Ditzler

Two nights ago I arrived home to find no power on the property. So much for plugging in the laptop and writing a blog post! But I got the flashlight, managed to warm up some dinner on the gas stove, then went to bed early.

The power outage is a recapitulation of last week when we lost power due to Tropical Storm Irene. Today as I write, driving rain is pouring down for the third straight day, the backyard has become a pond, flash flood warnings are in effect, and we fear the ground is so saturated that more trees will uproot themselves onto surrounding power lines. Hopefully not on the house.

Yet my worries are minor compared to fear and damage in other parts of the country and the world. If you’ve been following the news, you can’t miss the fires, storms, droughts, and human inflicted violence in almost every region. Alongside current news, it’s a time of remembering past disasters of Katrina and 9/11, still trying to find ways through their emotional and physical impacts years later.

In these conditions, I just can’t stop thinking about emergency preparedness. The irony is most of us never want to think about it. We may feel “it won’t happen to us.” Or that we have “more important things to do” today. We may be stuck in fear, preferring to focus on tangible projects in front of us instead of the scary “what ifs.” At least this much is true: planning for a future that may never happen carries little urgency. With so many pressing concerns or joyful activities of congregational life, emergency preparedness almost never makes it to the top of the to-do list.

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