May 2011
Caring for Each Other

Transforming Churches: Growth to Sustainability

“St. Paul & the Redeemer is growing because we are really clear about what we are about and that is welcoming everybody to this community: orthodox believer or skeptic, gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor, everyone is welcome to eat at God’s table.” Those are the first words out of my mouth in Episcopal Church Center’s video about how St. Paul & the Redeemer grew so dramatically during the 12 years when Jim Steen was rector, growth for which he was the energizing catalyst. Jim, still a friend and off to new adventures, no longer works here. Thankfully he left SPR in great shape. Radical reinvention would be foolish; so would resting on our laurels. My work is to sustain the vitality by strengthening core commitments and taking good risks.

To sustain the vitality of SPR we must continue to strengthen our core commitments: liturgy, children, and music. Great congregations are not made by fantastic innovations but by the momentum gained by pushing strengths day in and day out. SPR is most itself when gathered around God’s table celebrating the Eucharist. Compelling liturgy is the most important welcome we can provide which means our liturgies need constant attention. Let me give a recent example. The 9:15 and 11:15 am liturgies used to be identical. Sometimes the 11:15 felt like “9:15 light.” It needed some punch. Aware of how young people were so intrigued by the ancient practices of the church, [1] we remade the 11:15 am liturgy by adding incense, chant, a chasuble, and a more contemplative spirit. It has given it an identity and we found it attracted new graduate students into the community. Our latest effort is having the clergy memorize more of the Eucharistic prayer to make it feel less rote.

SPR is a place where children and their parents feel at home. We have wonderful programming for children and yet there are many areas for improvement and growth. Let me give a recent example. A few years ago we had a wonderful Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program for preschoolers and needed to figure out how to scale it up to serve elementary school. We learned how difficult it would be to get enough teachers trained, so we changed to Godly Play, also an outstanding program and one that allows us to train teachers more quickly. The commitment of the teachers has increased. The number of children has increased along with their joy and wonder.

SPR worships God with beautiful, diverse, well-done, joyful music. A quick tour through the archives of our local paper makes clear that exceptional music has been a part of every boom in our 150-year history. We are blessed with an outstanding leader of song in Dent Davidson. And still, to expand the welcome we must bring disciplined attention. Attraction isn’t enough; we need to invite people into the music program. Children’s choir must have enough rigor that parents choose it for their children. But most importantly we need joy.

A wonderfully vibrant church has called me to be rector. Sustaining that vitality requires incremental improvements in our core commitments. The centrifugal momentum slowly created will, I hope, ensure that what has driven growth over the last decade will drive it for the next one too.

That won’t be enough. The idea that dramatic growth is followed by stability is a fairy tale. [2] And so the leadership of this parish must take good risks, reinventing before decline.

SPR’s current risk is to put more resources into community engagement (outreach/service/justice). We did this in order to more closely follow our vision of modeling the radical hospitality of Jesus and because it was identified in a parish survey as a need. [3] We hired Ray Massenburg, a priest who had lived and worked and studied urban neighborhoods, to help. He brought the food pantry from the basement to the chapel and welcomed those of us who are hungry not just for food but also for relationship. We joined a community organizing coalition. We threw our energy behind a new neighborhood group formed to support the local school.

This new focus comes with risk. We allocated resources to community engagement that could have gone to liturgy, music, and children. We put energy into outreach when there was also need for building meaningful relational groupings and strengthening young adult programming. Traction has not been immediate. In some ways we overstepped in advocating for structural change in ways that did not fit our core passions nor for which we had the resources to be exceptional. But we are finding new areas of strength. We have redefined our outreach programs in the midst of growth that we might live out more fully the story we feel called to tell about ourselves. I think it will expand the welcome. [4]

All are welcome at SPR. Sustaining that vitality will require a focus on strengthening our core commitments and a few well-considered risks that allow us to redefine and extend the welcome. If all goes well perhaps another video showing our vitality will be made in 2025. I wonder if my successor will be asked to write about it?

The Rev. Peter Lane was called as rector of St. Paul & the Redeemer in 2009 after having served as assistant rector, then associate rector, since 2007. The Church is located in the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd:
Godly Play:
Transforming Churches, Changing the World video series:


[1] See Dorothy C. Bass, ed., Practicing our Faith, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997) or Phyllis Tickle The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008)

[2] See “Congregational Life Cycle” at

[3] The Church Assessment Tool. See:

[4] Diana Butler Bass Christianity for the Rest of Us (New York: Harper Collins, 2006).

This article is part of the May 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Caring for Each Other