May 2011
Caring for Each Other

Let's Paint the Doors Red

It was January, 2007. My wife and I had moved back to Massachusetts, after serving many years at St. Marks Episcopal Church in St. Albans, West Virginia. My plan was to retire; serving a small, historic, part-time congregation was my way to ease into retirement. 

Nothing is as simple as it first appears. The congregation was in a state of programmatic and physical disrepair. Finances were in freefall. There was no real sense of mission. The church was in steep decline and deeply conflicted. I quickly discovered there was no way to take my “ease” so instead the parish leadership and I took some strong transformational steps.

And today?

The result of our efforts, and the underlying expressions of mutual love, respect, and affection has been nothing less than stunning. Iglesia San Pedro-St. Peter’s Church is now an increasingly viable and vital congregation. The transformation has been astounding. And more than all that, not only is the Spanish congregation growing, so is the Anglo congregation. We are excited and humbled by all this and are delighted to tell our story.

Here’s what we did:

Mission: We gave the church a mission. We knew that Jesus embraced the outcast and the marginalized. So we embraced the teachings of Jesus. We studied the passages about the Cleansing of the Temple and the passage in Isaiah from which the proclamation came (Isaiah 56:7) and we gave the church a simple mission mandate to be “A House of Prayer for ALL People”. We believe that folk are folk whatever race, ethnicity, class, gender, or orientation. The mission statement resonated deeply with the congregation since its history embraced civil rights, and it was among the first congregations to be intentionally inclusive.

Conflict Management: Churches in decline often have a self-destructive streak. As the shrinking community shrivels up and becomes more and more anemic, people look for someone to blame. The music program was becoming a cause of concern; it appeared a staff change was needed. Things came to a head during the 2008 Annual Meeting when there was an explosion of anger and frustration. Several families left.

At a critical vestry meeting we asked each member to articulate where they stood with the church’s leadership. It was not a matter of simply firing an organist. It was more a matter of hiring someone who could engage a diverse congregation. Not only were we racially diverse, the St. Peter’s congregation was increasingly becoming home to former Roman Catholics, divorced folk, members of the LGBT community, and interestingly enough, people who are mentally challenged. We were becoming a “House of Prayer for ALL People” in very surprising ways.

Mass Media: Salem is fortunate to have a daily newspaper. We send them all kinds of stories and “photo ops.” At our 275[1] Anniversary celebration, we invited the Governor of Massachusetts to occupy the Governor’s Pew. To our knowledge, no governor of the Commonwealth had sat there since the American Revolution. The Governor accepted our invitation and the story was on the front page of the paper.

We painted the doors of the church bright red and proclaimed our mission: more photos, more press, and another front-page article!

Vitality and Outreach: Over time, the congregation once again began to take its mission beyond our red doors. We feed people who are homeless; in the winter, we put winter coats on people who couldn’t afford them; and we became a center for gay and lesbian youth, providing space for their annual dinner-dance and fundraiser.

“A House of Prayer for ALL People” comes to mean BILINGUAL too! In 2009, as I entered the third and “final” year of my contract, the Bishop asked us if St. Peter’s would be willing to receive a Spanish speaking congregation. The congregation was housed in a situation that was not quite working out and was looking for a new home. Without thinking too much about it we simply said “yes.” We were truly excited.

Affection, Joy, and Energy: The first meeting of our two congregations was amazing. Take a rather traditional Episcopal Church and add amplified guitar, maracas, drums, and Latin rhythms. Give it a strong Spanish accent, translate the service into both Spanish and English, alternate the readings and read common prayers in both languages simultaneously, and the result is affection, joy, and raw energy. We came to life on the very first Sunday we worshipped together.

Clergy Relationship: If there is stress and strain in this critical relationship, nothing else is possible. If there is affection, joy, and energy in that relationship, everything becomes possible. Padre Daniel and I were instant friends, and established frequent and honest communication. Both of us have a sense of humor and embrace pastoral incongruity with the laughter it deserves. We are both high-energy individuals and divided responsibility easily and intuitively. It is a joy to work with one another.

The Critical Value of a Consultant: As it turns out, our new Organist and Music Director is also a highly skilled, unemployed, middle-management individual who had worked for the phone company. He has an innate sense of what it takes to transition a congregation from what we were to what we were becoming. He had managed hundreds of transitions in his secular job. Now it was time to manage us in this one. We immediately put him to work. He brought our office up-to-date with state of the art technology and networking. He planned and executed an expansion of the office to incorporate the new priest and his staff.

Worship in Three Languages: Parallel Development. With a smile, we proclaim that we worship in three languages. At 8:00 am we worship in Elizabethan English, at 10:00 am in Contemporary English, and at noon in Spanish. Thus we develop along in all three languages in parallel tracks. Those tracks intersect at the Fall Launch, The Annual Meeting, Holy Week, and at the Founder’s Day Picnic with combined worship.

Power Sharing: From the outset the clergy relationship was collegial and not hierarchal. The congregation elected representatives from the Spanish congregation to serve on the vestry at the outset, and continues to extend leadership opportunities to our Hispanic members with the recent election of a junior warden from the Spanish congregation. Membership and leadership in the Altar Guild and all other integral components of church operation are fully shared by all three worship groups within our congregation.

Diocesan Support: None of this expansion would have been possible without the Diocese of Massachusetts. While the St. Peter’s budget included my salary, the Diocese paid Padre Daniel’s. We had a deacon, a Micah intern, and a seminarian all provided to us by the Diocese. During this time, women’s ministry and youth ministry were expanding rapidly. St. Peter’s has become the “place to be” for inner city youth. Teen pregnancy prevention and an after school drop-in center have become enormously successful and supported by funding from local city budgets and private foundations.

The Rev. Paul Bresnahan is co-priest-in-charge at San Pedro-St. Peter’s Church in Salem, Massachusetts and author of Everything You Need To Know about Sex in order to Get to Heaven. A vigorous community activist, Bresnahan believes that spirituality, worship, and the search for justice are all part of the same truth: that there is room in God’s heart for ALL.

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