November 2018
Hospitality and Outreach

Taking Church Out into the Community

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.Hebrews 13:2

For generations in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, we existed in silos. Our worshiping communities did not know each other, and we certainly did not know our neighbors. We neglected to show hospitality not only to strangers, but to each other, and failed to recognize the angels walking among us.

When Bishop David Rice joined the diocese in 2014, he began his ministry by asking “who are our neighbors,” and our faces, both clergy and laity, were blank. We did not know the people in our neighborhoods – not the principals in our schools, not our elected officials, let alone anyone who might be considered “invisible.” So he challenged us to go out into the community and meet the people who live there.

What we found as we took up his challenge was a tremendous need for relationship. We met not only the “important folks” in our towns and cities, but also our unhoused brothers and sisters, people who had been sex and labor trafficked up and down the diocese and those without documentation. We discovered homebound parishioners who had been forgotten and children who had never been invited to the altar. We met each other and learned that we could not do this work of ministry alone. The effort was challenging at times, but always Spirit-led.

Shifting the focus to the community

Since then, we have reframed our ministry as a diocese, seeing ourselves as worshiping communities and the beloved people of God. We firmly believe that “Church” happens not only on Sunday, where we come to celebrate, rejuvenate and give thanks, but also in our encounters every day of the week. For this reason, while we still take attendance counts on Sundays, we are shifting our focus away from ASA (Average Sunday Attendance) to AWE (Average Weekly Engagement).

By focusing on Average Weekly Engagement, our ministry has become less about recruiting people to sit in the church, and more about how we can be the hands, feet and heart of Jesus in our neighborhood. By focusing on AWE, our ecclesiology and our stewardship have shifted from scarcity to abundance. Instead of being overwhelmed by thoughts of electric bills and assessments, we rework our budgets to focus on supporting the ministries we engage in, always with those we serve in mind. Average Weekly Engagement is about meeting the stranger who is the angel in our midst. Average Weekly Engagement is about radical hospitality, welcome and service – not about the Sunday headcount. By embracing AWE, we have become liberated to do the work that God has called us to do, which means seeing the face of Christ in each other.

AWE in action

Over the last few years, we have developed six feeding ministries in our diocese that range from partnering with local farmers to provide fresh produce, to homeless meal kits and food boxes designed for seniors. One parish provides a hot meal daily to approximately 50 people who live on the streets or are alone or just in search of fellowship. And when we prepare our local budgets, we ask:

  • How does our physical plant support this ministry?
  • How do our clergy/staff and laity support this ministry?
  • How can we be generous givers in support of this ministry, our buildings and the clergy/staff and laity to sustain this ministry?

We have started a diocesan-wide ministry that provides daily supplies of socks and hygiene items in yellow backpacks to those who are unhoused. In some worshiping communities, the yellow-bag ministry has been taken up by the youth group, Daughters of the King or by the parish as a whole as a way to meet the needs of those in the neighborhood. Prayers are offered, along with the donations of time, talent and resource, to make these bags meaningful and of service.

Through the generosity of parishioners, local non-profits and civic agencies, we have raised approximately $11,500 across the diocese to provide legal defense for those facing deportation and separation from their families, as well more than $70,000 to support our neighborhood agencies that work to free people from the bondage of human trafficking. In every encounter, we strive to see the face of Jesus in the other, and we stand in AWE of the generosity and faithfulness of those in our communities who not only seek justice and to walk humbly and love one another, but who also welcome the strangers among us.

The Rt. Rev. David C. Rice has served in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin since 2014, first as provisional bishop, and as diocesan bishop since 2017. Prior to serving in San Joaquin, Bishop Rice served as the Bishop of Waiapu in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia from 2008-2014.

The Rev. Cn. Anna Carmichael, Ph.D. has served in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin since 2016 as Canon to the Ordinary. Prior to serving in San Joaquin, she was Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Hood River, Oregon.


This article is part of the November 2018 Vestry Papers issue on Hospitality and Outreach