Being at the Edge
Back when I was a theatre major in college, I performed as a dancer in the musical, Evita, which is about the rise to power of Argentinean President Juan Peron and his wife, Eva. Political power in Argentina in the early 20th century was unpredictable and tumultuous. To capture the feeling of uncertainty, the director designed a stage that was slanted at a 35-degree angle. We dancers had to perform complex routines without the benefit of the ground being where we expected it to be, and we took many spills early on! With practice, we got the hang of it, and on opening night our audience sat spellbound as the story unfolded in this slightly off balance way.
As the story of St. John’s Mt. Washington unfolds, over the last year or so most (if not all) of us have felt slightly off balance. Our story is a familiar one: the upkeep on our historic church building was crippling us.
In 2009, the vestry began an intentional process to discern just what it is God is calling us to do and be. We thought the process would take a few months, generate new revenue streams, and entice long-lost folks back to the pews. Instead, the process asked us to examine the deepest desires and fears of our hearts. We had to be brutally honest about what St. John’s has in abundance (a heart for service, love for each other, a quirky can-do attitude) and what we truly lack (a realistic vision for 21st century ministry; the time, talent, and treasure to maintain a 100 year old building). We cried and raged over what seems unfair and we had our hearts broken when some of us decided to turn back from the daunting task before us. And just when we thought we had the next step all figured out, reality or opportunity would step in and lead us down another path. The Holy Spirit has definitely kept us off balance!
After two plus years of discernment, our congregational leaders made the bold decision to completely re-format our response to our baptismal call to discipleship. During our 2012 annual meeting, the vestry invited the congregation to reflect on the ‘Blessings’ and ‘Bummers’ of the previous year – what emerged was a list of blessings related to people and mission while the list of bummers was all building related.
We chose to move out of our beloved church building and into rented space, a decision that improved our financial situation by reducing maintenance and utility expense. In September 2012, after recognizing that finding a tenant for our beloved church building was not a realistic plan and with the approval of the Diocesan Standing Committee, the decision was made to offer our too large, too old, and too resource-intensive building for sale.
For nearly eight months, St. John’s has rented space at Springwell Faith and Fellowship Chapel, less than a mile from our former location and located on the grounds of Springwell Senior Living, a residential community formerly operated by the Methodists. We’ve welcomed new worshippers including residents of Springwell Senior Living, their families, and other neighbors.
Since making the move, we’ve been exploring creative ways of coming together for worship. Some Sundays the congregation gathers at the Blue Sage, a local coffee shop, to say prayers, discuss the day’s Gospel lesson, and share Christian fellowship as we enjoy coffee and pastries, with ‘the first round’ picked up by St. John’s. On Christmas Eve, we gathered at St. John’s Church for ‘Carols and Cocoa’ on the grounds of our former home. We have moved out of our historic building and into the world.
Recently, our feeding ministry has been attracting families with young children who are perfectly suited to the task of sandwich making. We are working on ways to be intentional about including them in the life of St. John’s even if they choose not to participate in worship. Our feeding ministry serves a unique role as a ministry that provides an opportunity for individuals to “give back,” as well as serving as a conduit for entrance into deeper involvement in the worship and fellowship life of St. John’s.
New Challenges and Opportunities
As our vestry discerns the will of the Holy Spirit in the coming year, we are aware that the majority of us are adults who are either single or worship without a partner present. Many are single parents. It seems St. John’s is a place where seekers find a place to belong and relationships of meaning, rooted in Christ, can blossom. We expect to build on this strength, as well as explore ways of serving the elderly among us, even as we are aware they have so much wisdom and years of deep faith to encourage those of us in our middle and younger years.
Funding our ministry will be a challenge into the foreseeable future. We expect lower annual giving this year since many parishioners have chosen not to continue at St. John’s. Pledging is a new concept to many of those who are now active worshippers with us, and might never be appropriate for the elderly residents. The vestry is exploring creative ways to support ministry such as more “fee-for-service” ideas, i.e. asking for donations or charging a fee to support the cost of various ministries. As St. John’s has blazed a trail out of our building and into creative ways of preaching good news, we trust new funding models will emerge and be a model for others as well.
When the church building is sold, we plan to invest most of the proceeds to enable St. John’s to fulfill its mission and pursue ministry projects of compassion and transformation. We also have promised to repay our friends in the Diocese of Maryland the past allocations owed.
This decision has blessed us in ways we could not have imagined. The pressure to raise more and more money to sustain our buildings and our life in it is nearly gone. It’s been replaced with energy and confidence that God has a dream to renew and transform the world – and that our little group of disciples is uniquely qualified to be a vital part of this work. Our hearts are light as we gather to make sandwiches for the hungry and there is always room for more hands that want to serve. Every Sunday we worship with people in our neighborhood who are elderly and infirm; their smiles tell us that our very presence is good news. These elderly friends have amazing wisdom to share, and we gain even more when their family members and others worship with us. Beyond our doors, St. John’s creativity and courage to change are a model and encouragement to the many other struggling Episcopal and other churches in our area.
St. John’s Mt. Washington can attest that letting go of long-held practices produces anxiety and fear, but anxiety and fear are no match for the abundance of blessing that springs up when our hearts and minds are willing to follow where the Holy Spirit leads. After a recent vestry meeting adjourned, every member stayed at the table, throwing out creative ideas for worship, fellowship, and outreach. The energy, clarity of vision, and sense of shared purpose was palpable.
As disciples of Christ we are learning, now more than ever, what it means to trust in God and follow where we may not always want to go. We have a message of good news and strive to share it with those who long to hear. We know there are other faithful communities who are struggling and in need of support and encouragement. We hope to offer it as the Diocese of Maryland has offered it to us. As a retired cleric recently said, “instead of going over the edge, St. John’s is on the cutting edge.” By the grace of God, may it be so.
I suspect the off-balance feeling will continue for some time. There is no biblical (or experiential) evidence that God promises security or stability. God promises to be with us no matter what. Maybe feeling off-balance is just part of the fun…
Lori Hale Babcock has served St. John’s Mt. Washington Episcopal Church since early 2009, and prior to that she served as Priest-in-Charge at Trinity Cathedral in the Diocese of Easton. She serves on the board of the Episcopal Housing Corporation and the Diocese of Maryland Financial Assistance for Congregations ministry team. She formerly worked as marketing director for a transportation-engineering firm. She is married to John, a Navy musician and they have four children and two dogs.
- Can Our Church Live? Redeveloping Congregations in Decline by Alice Mann:
- Congregational Seasons: A resource for transitions
- Dating the Presbyterians
- Cortejados por los Presbiterianos
- Episcopal Church Building Fund
- Five Marks of Mission Facebook group
- Hope and Action: Abundant Small Congregations
- Partners for Sacred Places
- Resurrection Leadership
- Why Our Buildings Just Don’t Matter