June 2002
Best Practices of Ministry

Transforming Attitudes about Ministry

Our attitudes often dictate what kind of people we become. Likewise, our attitudes as communities of faith dictate what kinds of congregations we become. Here are two good examples.

While traveling to Uganda via England in the summer of 2000, my wife and I had the good fortune to attend the Sunday Eucharist at St. John the Baptist Church in the Kensington section of London.

The sign in front of the church said, “High Mass: 11:00 a.m.” We showed up about five minutes early and were the only people in church. At 11:00, a few others entered. The bells rang and a few more entered. The clergy and altar party processed. Counting everyone, there were twelve people. The service was fine and the sermon fair, but I came away depressed at seeing only twelve people in a 500-seat church.

A week later we were in Kisoro, Uganda, for the Jubilee Celebration of the Diocese of Muhabura at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in a remote part of east Africa. I was privileged to take part in the Sunday worship. A procession of more than 150 clergy and lay leaders marched from the diocesan offices down the street to the cathedral. At the door of the 800-seat church, a crowd waited for a liturgy which included the blessing of the church by the Archbishop of Uganda. Then the procession marched to an outdoor area where more than 5000 people were waiting. The worship had to be held outside because of the crowd.

Proclaiming the Good News
I was struck by the contrast. The first church we visited said it was dedicated to the “Preservation of Holy Worship.” The second proclaimed, “Jesus is our living hope.”

I do not mean to say that St. John the Baptist is typical of the Church of England, nor do I mean that the beauty of holiness is unimportant. The real issue, however, is this: St. John’s reason for being is to preserve the past. The mission of the Cathedral in Kisoro is to proclaim the good news of God in Christ.

This experience is somewhat of a parable illustrating the changing nature of the church. Some in the church are clinging to the past while others are moving into the future.

Missionary outposts
Congregations that have learned to think beyond their own walls and reach out doing the work of the Body of Christ are growing. The ones that think of themselves as chapels for a chosen few are sadly dwindling away. Bishop Claude Payne of Texas has stated again and again in his book, Reclaiming the Great Commission, that our congregations must think of themselves as missionary outposts in order to be effective.

We are faced with a simple question. What must we do to be relevant and true to our faith to a world seeking a spiritual connection in this new century? The answer is that we must be transformed into disciples willing to take risks and to be bold for Christ. A new attitude must be formed: we must look outward rather than inward, acting as missionaries in our own communities.

I offered this concept in a sermon recently and a woman came up after church and asked quite sincerely, “Does this mean we will not be Episcopalians any more?” I was taken aback, but I understood.

Yes, we will still be Episcopalians. In fact we can offer our tradition to people who are desperately seeking a spiritual home. We offer a unique combination of a liturgical expression of the faith with a reformed theology. We cannot keep this a secret.

Vestry members these days have begun to look at ways to rethink their ministries. Many dioceses have begun to offer programs in congregational development that are reshaping congregations into missionary outposts. The Percept organization offers a program called ReVision, which helps a congregation define where it ought to be in its ministry.

Forming a new attitude
Here are some things a vestry might do to form a new attitude, thus making its congregation more effective:

  • Prayerfully develop an attitude of looking at challenges as opportunities.
  • With a “can-do” attitude, begin the process of focusing ministry efforts beyond your doors. Learn to think of your community before yourselves.
  • Study the demographics of your community and of your congregation.
  • Create an action plan to close the demographic gap, offering new ministries and developing leadership and support for the programs. Communicate to both the members of the congregation and the community. Show others your joy.
  • Begin ministries that will make a difference in people’s lives. Become an active part of your community.
  • Develop a process of evaluation of the programs and make necessary adjustments. When necessary, return to Step One.

An attitude built on faith and directed to discipleship will transform an individual person. Collectively, it will transform a congregation into the living Body of Christ that I encountered in Kisoro, Uganda. An African priest told me, “A positive attitude is an outward sign of one’s faith.” That faithful attitude was evident in Uganda and it can be evident in your congregation as well.

The Rev. Canon Dr. William F. Dopp is the Missioner for Communications and Financial Development for the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego. He leads a program called “The Season of Transformation,” designed for congregational development.

This article is part of the June 2002 Vestry Papers issue on Best Practices of Ministry