July 2023
Reimagining Assets

Critical Missions: Stabilizing and Supporting Small Congregations

This summer, the Christopher Nolan film “Oppenheimer” is bringing the story of the Manhattan Project to the screen. It is a story that we in the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande (DRG) know all too well. That’s because our diocese encompasses New Mexico and far west Texas, the same area where the last phases of the Manhattan Project, notably overseen by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, came to fruition.

Many experiments revolved around the idea of “criticality,” the state where a nuclear reaction is self-sustaining. In the case of the Manhattan Project, the goal was to push past that state of equilibrium into “supercriticality,” in which atomic fission or atomic fusion release vast quantities of energy. This is the state where atomically fissile material transforms from a lump of radioactive ore into a potent resource. With the right balance, at that critical point, we can power continents.

A metaphor about powering churches

I’ve tossed around this nuclear metaphor as I drive past these storied parts of our diocese. It strikes me that this is exactly the goal of the remarkable ECF/Lilly Endowment “Bridges to the Future” grants. As we have worked to see how we might best use the grant to help move our missions into a place of sustainability, this idea of how to reach equilibrium, of pushing past it into dangerous and risky places, keeps coming up. Many of our missions, not just in the DRG, but across The Episcopal Church are in a vulnerable place, with a number of unarticulated expectations of what they can and should be. With the right balance, at that critical point, with these grants, we can power missions.

Questions of “criticality”

In the DRG we thought we would be using this grant to build a program aimed at evangelization and growth, and in many ways that is still our goal. What has met us in that process, however, are questions: What does it mean to be a sustainable mission congregation? How involved does the bishop or diocese need to be in these missions? What is the best way to help them not just survive, but thrive?

The place where all these questions meet is criticality. Equilibrium. We have to give some of our hardest working lay folks in our hardest scrabble places the opportunity to feel that there is ground beneath their feet on which to stand, because all too often that seems to not be the case.

Out-sized expectations can compound existing problems

The pattern I often see is this: A mission congregation, which is expected to act like a someday parish, puts all its efforts into the many things a full-fledged parish should have—a full-time rector, an active Sunday school, adult education, and community and diocesan outreach. But lacking both volunteers and finances, this vision is wholly unsustainable beyond the short term. Over time, the workload falls to a smaller and smaller group of volunteers, who become aware that their financial runway has gotten dangerously short. Full-time ministry is unaffordable, and yet the hopes and expectations of the someday-full-time congregation remain. Key lay leaders move away to be closer to children and grandchildren, or they go on to receive their heavenly reward, and those who stay face unrealistic expectations of their professional know-how. Essential tasks remain undone, and urgent issues compound at an overwhelming pace. This is the chain reaction of small-church decline.

Right-sizing expectations and support is key

Where we have seen life and hope, however, is when we dispel the expectation that a mission should be anything other than what God is calling it to be. That discernment is where sustainability, where criticality, can be found.

If the expectation of full-time ministry is untenable, then let’s think creatively about what deployment a congregation can afford, and let’s support lay leadership in the gaps. Maybe that is what that mission is called to. Sometimes not running a deficit budget for the first time in years is enough to create tangible hope. Diocesan structures must be ready to step into providing practical support that goes beyond grants. Every audit that a diocesan team assists with conserves energy to start that dinner ministry or to partner with a local food bank. Every stewardship campaign aided is a step toward sustainability.

Learning what it means to thrive, place by place

Once we know what enough looks like, then we’re in a place to talk about what God is calling a particular mission to do. Without guilt. Without obligation. Without fear. Because there is always enough for what God calls us to. We are beginning to learn that this clear sense of critical witness and Gospel work is what thriving means: chain reactions halted, good work sustained. There are mountains of more questions to be asked, and we in the Diocese of the Rio Grande are grateful for the partners like ECF who help us ask them.

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis currently serves as Canon to the Ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande. Lee’s portfolio includes Congregational Development, Communications, Deployment and Transition, Crisis Response, and Oversight of the Diocesan Borderland Ministries. Since the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande is committed to providing its congregations with all the tools and support necessary to thrive, and is the largest geographic diocese in the continental U.S., Lee spends a lot of time on gorgeous New Mexico and West Texas roads, connecting with the folks who are living out the Gospel in their local, and very often remote, contexts. Lee currently is based out of El Paso, where he lives with his wife, two sons, and two very good dogs.


This article is part of the July 2023 Vestry Papers issue on Reimagining Assets