November 2019
Embracing Change

Thanks to Thursdays

Holy Spirit and St Mark’s invitation to the Episcopal Church Foundation’s (ECF) Congregational Leadership Initiative (CLI) found us in a sweet spot of readiness for transformation, innovation and growth. We’re a pair of congregations in the Diocese of New Hampshire that have been growing into closer partnership over the past few years. I arrived in January 2018, called jointly as their rector and vicar. My call followed a period when the two congregations had shared an interim priest and experimented with worshipping together, with uneven results.

In January 2019, Holy Spirit and St Mark’s held one joint annual meeting, which accepted a unified budget and elected a unified slate to a combined vestry/Bishop’s committee. Just a year previously, the congregations had held separate annual meetings, conducted separate stewardship campaigns and been unable to agree on a collaborative budget for 2018.

Now, in late 2019, anxiety continues to ebb. The animosity of the two historical congregations towards each other is functionally gone. The divided identity of early 2018 – two congregations worshipping in two places at two separate times on Sunday morning – has grown into a blended community at Sunday’s principal 9:30 a.m. service. Though not uniformly, those worshipping at 8 a.m. see themselves less as the remnant of one congregation and more as part of an emerging, unified one with two Sunday services and two sites. We are all learning to call ourselves “Holy Spirit & St. Mark’s” (HSSM).

How did this come about?

First, there have been genuine changes of heart, and new connections have been built across old barriers. Second, new members experience one blended church and then reflect back that perception of unity for continuing members. And third, a number of members have left the congregation, some of whom were, at least passively, undermining the movement towards union.

Centrally, there is a genuine willingness among us to really listen to the Holy Spirit, to really believe that we are being called into something new and to follow that call. We have heard Jesus asking, “Do you want to be made well?” And the moment has come when congregational leaders could say with one heart and voice, “Yes, we do.”

Arriving here has meant facing loss. Reducing anxiety about members’ departures called for addressing fears of scarcity. We’ve had to let go of beliefs, spoken or unspoken, like: “We can’t survive without Z’s pledge”; “We won’t have enough volunteers for project Y without them”; “If they leave, who will do X?”

Reducing anxiety also means letting go of worrying about bringing “them” (former members) back to church. Returning to the “good old days,” whether you locate that moment ten years ago or ten months, is a false hope, a false cure.

As with anything Spirit-led, I wouldn’t presume to offer a point by point how-to from HSSM’s experience. But three things, each a part of my Thursday routine, might suggest some worthwhile experiments. Each has an analogue in the Congregational Leadership Initiative and could be adapted by any worshipping community.

Weekly wardens’ time

Every Thursday, I spend an hour with HSSM’s two co-wardens. Elected in January 2019, the two mirror HSSM’s evolution: while each formerly identified with one or the other of the two congregations, both now worship at the blended principal Sunday service.

We always open and close our Thursday meetings with prayer for each other and for the congregation we lead. Wardens must be people of prayer, spiritually mature and still seeking to grow in faith. That’s not to say that their other gifts don’t matter, but those vital skills can be brought to a congregational leadership team in other ways. A congregation will not thrive without lay leaders of spiritual depth.

Weekly words and worship

Every Thursday, I write a brief message for HSSM’s weekly e-news. Sometimes I’ll review or preview an event or issue in the life of the community. Or I’ll share a spiritual resource I’ve found helpful. I might offer a glimpse of Sunday’s sermon. There have been times when I’ve apologized for a mistake or a misstep. No matter what the content, I use these weekly messages to share my own spiritual work-in-progress about what it means to be faithful in that moment, one person’s efforts at thoughtful, heartfelt engagement with scripture and life and church.

A Thursday midday Eucharist with prayers for wholeness and healing has long been an anchor for St. Mark’s. Over the past two years, people with roots at Holy Spirit have joined this deeply faithful group. It’s also a service that’s easy for new folks to drop into. It also attracts the curious and strangers who tell us, “I just felt like I needed to be here today.”

For me, it’s a steady reminder that bringing these congregations together is not merely a technical fix, but a work of healing and reconciliation, full of surprises and unquestionably Spirit-led.

CLI and its application in any congregation

CLI invites a team of two lay leaders and a priest to discern and bring home a roadmap of “next steps” for their congregation. Following the in-person conference, the three-person teams are coached for eight months as they proceed through those next steps.

  • Spiritual leadership is always a shared task in any congregation, one that calls for mutual support. Share the work; pray early; pray often.

CLI is anchored in storytelling, and our team’s pre-work for the conference included gathering materials for a storyboard about the life of our congregation. Telling that story was how we introduced ourselves to our CLI colleagues.

  • Storytelling is valuable in any congregation. Tell your story. Gather it, share it, revise it. Understand that while it shapes you, it does not limit or define you.

CLI participants build community by worshipping together. During our in-person workshop, we attended the daily office at Camp Allen’s chapel as well as the conference’s own worship services.

  • Worship builds community in any congregation. Consider how an other-than-Sunday worship service might bring your community together in new ways or new combinations.

To learn more about CLI, please click here.

The Rev. Kelly Sundberg Seaman serves Holy Spirit & St. Mark’s, congregations of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire that are building a shared future. Passionate about congregational vitality, she’s grateful for the opportunity to be part of ECF’s 2019-20 Congregational Leadership Initiative cohort.


This article is part of the November 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Embracing Change