November 2016
Tools for Evangelism

Inspired by the Mustard Seed

“If your church closed tomorrow, what difference would it make to your neighborhood?”

That’s the question we asked ourselves 10 years ago at St Thomas Church, Amenia Union, New York. At the time, St Thomas was a parish of 16 members with a history as a mostly weekend congregation for many of its 150 years. Yet this group of 16 people had called me as their full time vicar because they wanted to make a go at becoming a full time church with a real mission. I said yes and off we started on this most amazing journey.

I remember so clearly how much these 16 original parishioners wanted something to happen at their church. They loved this place dearly, but hadn’t a clue as to where to begin. Everything they thought of seemed overwhelming. We decided to begin with prayer – to intentionally pray for guidance and see where God led us. For inspiration, we chose the symbol of the Mustard Seed, deciding to believe Jesus when he said all God needs is the littlest seed of faith to do great things. Well, we had that! So we decided to trust that little seed, and trust that God would provide the rest.

Over the past 10 years we have discovered a few things. First we discovered before you can do anything you need to know your call. We thought of our call as our great joy meeting our neighborhood’s great need. We realized that, even as a very small congregation, we were great at hospitality and really good with food. And we discovered, much to our surprise, that hunger was an everyday reality for many of our neighbors. We decided to focus on those two gifts of this little congregation to try and meet that great need. We started doing small things, like building three little raised beds on the church lawn to grow fresh vegetables for a food pantry 20 miles away. We started collecting nonperishable food for them as well. We provided Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for a local family in need. Little by little, our mission, and the people who wanted to join us in that mission, grew. Today our mission statement says we are a Christ-centered community of Radical Hospitality. We take that mission very seriously!

We also discovered that if you are faithful to your call, what you need to live out that call and mission will show up. We have experienced this over and over again at St. Thomas! People who had the skills we needed found their way to our pews. Grant writers, fundraisers, chefs, communication professionals, art historians who knew exactly what was needed for a church restoration. Even a stonemason showed up! We often did not know what our next step would be until we met someone who had an idea or a skill and was interested in helping us.

Our mission happened organically. We lived through many starts and stops. Some things worked, others not so much. But we trusted that what we needed would show up, and if what we needed was not showing up, we trusted enough to let go of our idea and wait on the Spirit. We kept on keeping on.

We discovered that the life of our church is rarely found within the four walls of our church building. Location is not our strong suit. Our church is tucked away in a bucolic rural community, far from a main thoroughfare. We first thought of our location as a hindrance to our mission. How will they find us? It turns out our location was our saving grace because it forced us to venture out of our buildings and into the marketplace to let people know we were here and ready to serve our neighbors. For most of my first five years here, I spent time in coffee shops, with community groups, at town meetings, or just talking to people, getting to know the community, listening to their stories, and telling them ours. Our congregation became part of them, rather than waiting for THEM to become part of US. We still gather in our beautiful church every Sunday for worship. But most of our church’s work is done in the marketplace, talking to our neighbors, sharing a common life, and being of service.

Telling our story is the most important part of church growth, and it’s done in a million different ways. We spend time making sure people know what radical hospitality means and what it looks like. We do that through the old fashioned kind of evangelism, our one-on-one interactions with our neighbors. But we also do it through social media like Facebook; through our electronic newsletter The Mustard Seed; through writing newspaper articles and speaking on local radio shows; through our website and creating our own video for our food pantry; through mass mailings and public speaking. We use whatever avenues we have to tell the story of St. Thomas and Radical Hospitality.

Today, we are a congregation of about 96 members, with a core group of 55 who attend services regularly (monthly or bi monthly). Our budget has more than doubled, growing from approximately $90,000 to $237,000. We recently completed a $500,000 church restoration. We have our own food pantry that provides food for an average of 150 people per week and gives out over 1300 meals weekly. We have a large community garden where we grow fresh produce to distribute to our neighbors through the food pantry. And we have a global mission called “Change the Babies” that collects $1500 a year in loose change to help feed the children at the Mampong Babies Home in Ghana.

We are still a small church, and expect we will always be small. We have decided to be what we are – a small church with a big mission. Our reach has expanded by joining with other churches in our area, with schools, businesses, local groups such as the Lions Club, Rotary Clubs, Scout troops. Our mission of Radical Hospitality and feeding people who are hungry has caught the imagination of hundreds of people beyond our pews. By joining with them, St. Thomas has become vital to the life of our neighborhood. If St. Thomas ceased to exist tomorrow, it would have a huge impact on hundreds of people in our community. And it all started with just a mustard seed worth of faith, and the abundance of the Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth (Betsy) Fisher was called as vicar of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in February 2007. Previously, Betsy worked as assistant priest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Bedford, New York, and as a seminary intern at the Church of the Messiah in Rhinebeck, New York.

Betsy served as hospice chaplain at Dutchess County Hospice from 2004-2005, and as oncology chaplain at Westchester Medical Center from 1997-2000. She also worked for three years as a school counselor for deaf teenagers at Mill Neck Manor Lutheran School for the Deaf in Mill Neck, NY, gaining experience in crisis intervention and counseling.

Betsy received her masters of divinity from Yale Divinity School in 2004 and was ordained to the priesthood in September of that year. Previously, she completed her internship and residency in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Westchester Medical Center in 1999, training as a hospital chaplain specializing in oncology and death and dying. She earned a Certification in Spiritual Direction from the Guild for Spiritual Guidance in 1993. Betsy also holds a masters of professional studies (MPS) in counseling from the New York Institute of Technology, 1986. She completed her undergraduate education at American University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in communications.

Try This

Has your vestry or other committee or commission explored this question: “If your church closed tomorrow, what difference would it make to your neighborhood?”
What were your responses?


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This article is part of the November 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Tools for Evangelism