Saturday, June 30, 2012

Recasting Your Church's Building Assets for Congregational Viability

Congregational Seasons is very grateful for the following essay by Bob Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Spaces, 

Partners for Sacred Spaces New Dollars/New Partners for Your Sacred Space training program provides intensive, hands-on help to one or more parishes in a given diocese, encouraging them to identify their building assets (e.g. excellent acoustics, expansive kitchen, shareable parish hall), develop new partners in the community, and broaden their donor base. Partners have worked with hundreds of parishes nationwide, and with several dioceses in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, South and West.

In an urban setting, St. Martin's, a mission church in Chicago, would face closing without new ways to raise funds and use space effectively.  The parish took part in New Dollars, which helped parishioners organize, map out priorities and space uses and think more about their mission and purpose - within the diocese and the context of a struggling west side neighborhood.  The church is hosting more arts and music activities now, and is thinking about how it can take better advantage of its position on a charming plaza, complete with fountain, in front of the church. Thanks to Partner's encouragement, the parish is placing a church table in the plaza for a community block party this summer, to bring visibility and new visitors to the church.

Recognizing that many rural churches are small and could close without help, the Diocese of Vermont retained Partners to offer New Dollars training to several parishes, among them the Church of Our Saviour in Kilington. The church learned how to map its internal assets, as well as assets in the larger community. Recognizing its super acoustics, the parish is now hosting concerts sponsored by the local library when the weather is inclement.  Given its location in the countryside, it worked with the town government on a scenic byways initiative, bringing more visitors to the church.  These steps have brought new energy and visibility to the parish and have attracted new funding that has underwritten the replacement of the parish house roof.

Parishes that are looking for new funding and support for the repair and effective use of their buildings have an important resource at hand: Partners for Sacred Spaces.  Partners has been working with Episcopal churches (and congregations from all faith traditions) across the nation for 23 years, with a special focus on helping them raise capital funds in new ways and use their space more effectively for ministry.  Partners also works with the Episcopal Church Building Fund.

Note from Joe Duggan: Congregational Seasons will soon celebrate the work and ministry of the Episcopal Church Building Fund, so stay tuned...

For further information, contact:

Bob Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Spaces, 

The Rev. Christopher Griffin
St. Martin's, Chicago
773 378 8111

The Rev. Diane Root
Church of Our Savious, Killington, VT
802 422 9064

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Three Parishes Experience Resurrection Out of Dire Straits

About our contributor: The Rev. Peter E. Bushnell, Rector Holy Trinity Church, Enfield, CT - see parish website,

There were four small churches in the North Central Episcopal Regional Ministry for about 15 years before three of the parishes voted to merge in 2007.  This was accomplished with a great deal of enthusiasm after about two years of intensive discernment and planning.  The fourth church opted to attempt to continue on their own, which they have done, with a fair degree of success. 

The three churches that emerged as Holy Trinity were St. Mary's (the current location of Holy Trinity), Enfield, St. Andrew's Enfield, and Calvary Suffield.  St. Andrew's was about 3 miles west of St. Mary's, and Calvary was another four miles west of that.  I found that it took about 10-15 minutes to drive from any of the locations in the regional ministry to any of the others. 

The merger was a wonderful outcome for the three churches involved.  By 2005, I had to report to the membership of the regional ministry that I had great doubts that God was being glorified in any way by the continued existence of churches in such dire straits.  The energies of nearly fifty people were being devoted, on four Vestries, to a grim struggle merely to keep the lights on and the doors open in four separate locations.  We began to experiment with combining our congregations for major services (Christmas Eve and Easter) to begin to test our strength together.  The experiences were like experiencing a resurrection.  More and more, in a variety of combined undertakings, we began to discover what coming together might hold for our future.

We were very fortunate in being able successfully to sell the surplus properties.  Today, the Calvary buildings house the Suffield Senior Center, and St. Andrew's property was purchased by Enfield Loaves & Fishes, which is a soup kitchen which has operated at St. Andrew's since its beginnings as a ministry of the parish in 1984.  So that was a happy outcome, which has contributed greatly to Holy Trinity's stability.

Holy Trinity, and the regional ministry benefited greatly from the fact that St. Mary's was a fairly large congregation, that I always identified as the "flagship" of NCERM.  With an average attendance of close to 100 most years, they formed a talent pool and resource of support over the years.  St. Andrew's had a moderate endowment, which enabled us to have a reservoir of income to help with the investment needed for the transition. 

Today, with growth of members and giving, we are a parish with an average attendance of about 125 per week, and we are close to balancing our budget each year.  We have taken care of a lot of deferred maintenance in the church building, and are looking to the future with hope and confidence. 

A huge part of our transition was centered in renewal around the Alpha Program.  There were a number of people who were opposed to the merger, and felt that the loss of their church was a breach of trust between themselves and the leaders of their parish and the regional ministry.  Many of them have taken their membership elsewhere since 2007.  A few have begun recently to return.  Others felt that the emphasis on spiritual renewal was not for them, and they either withdrew or transferred out.  Since 2007, Holy Trinity has managed moderate growth, replacing the losses, and becoming larger, in the bargain.  We are a parish focused on mission, in a large variety of ways, as God has inspired individuals and groups to bring needs near and far away to our attention for ministry.

For me, it has been an exciting time, that at moments, has seemed like a wild ride.  Overall, it has been a great experience, and one that I never could have imagined years ago at the beginning of my ministry.  I have been very blessed to have been called by God to lead this group of Christians.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share this story.  Hope it will help another church or churches.


Monday, June 25, 2012

"Coming Together in Faith" - a parish merger story

Post contributed by Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas

"Coming Together in Faith" is the name of the parish's blog for communications about the merger,

Coming Together in Faith and Calvary Episcopal Church also have Facebook pages.

I serve Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers, Massachusetts. We first started to talk about merger over a year ago, when we gathered as a parish in late March of 2011 to have a frank discussion of our financial challenges. We had been running deficits and spending down our limited endowment, and we knew something would have to change within the next few years. I presented a list of options for our future, and after we talked about each one, I asked each member to raise a card of colored paper. Green meant “Yes, let’s explore it,” yellow meant “Maybe,” and red meant “No way.” Cutting staff and clergy time got a lot of yellow cards, and worshiping in a rented space produced a sea of red. I explained that Grace Church in Salem and Saint Paul’s in Peabody were facing similar difficulties and wanted to talk to us about working together. Hands with green and yellow cards went up, and a new chapter in our parish’s life began.

We have learned a lot this year. We began by worshiping together, moving from church to church over the summer of 2011. Our members jumped into the planning: advertising the schedule, making sure we had nametags to wear, volunteering as greeters and offering rides to those who might need one. We had a great turnout from Calvary at both Saint Paul’s and Grace, and our members enthusiastically welcomed our new friends during the weeks of worship at Calvary.

Then, in the fall, we began meeting with our partner churches to discuss ways to work together. Guided by our facilitator Phil Whitbeck, we learned about each other’s ministries and got to know members as individuals. We hosted an All Hallow’s Eve service with the choir from Grace Church. Our crafters invited folks from Grace and Saint Paul’s to have tables at our Fair. I met often to talk and pray with my two sister Rectors, Debbie Phillips of Grace Church and Joyce Caggiano of Saint Paul’s, and gained powerful support and inspiration from them. Step by step, relationship by relationship, we became more comfortable sharing our struggles and our hopes.

On February 12, 2012, the Rev. Canon Libby Berman, Canon for Congregations at the diocese, came to join our meeting. She encouraged all three parishes to think carefully about what we wanted to get out of our new relationships. Did we want to collaborate on a few projects? Or were we ready to seriously consider merging? After careful thought about where God is leading each of our parishes, Grace Church chose to focus on its distinctive ministry to its local community and not enter into a merger. Saint Paul’s and Calvary decided to talk about what it would mean for our two parishes to merge and carry out our ministry together.

Joyce Caggiano and I planned a meeting on March 24, 2012 where we would discuss all the questions we could think of that might be on people’s minds.  It was quite a list. Are we able to form one cohesive fellowship?? Would we have a balanced budget? How would we choose a priest? Which of the two buildings would we use for worship – knowing that the other one would be sold? A parishioner read the list before the meeting and said, “A lot of these questions are sad.” But then when we got into the meeting and started talking, they weren’t sad at all. They were opportunities to find common ground. The room was buzzing with energy and hope. Our closing Eucharist brought us into one circle, perhaps the beginning of being truly one family.

The conversation shifted from “Do we belong together?” to “How can we become one community?” People readily volunteered to start the work of planning a merger: meeting with financial consultants, arranging building audits, communicating with our members, bringing the vestries together for fellowship. We also shared two lovely and meaningful Holy Week services, a Maundy Thursday agape meal in Danvers and a Good Friday way of the cross in Peabody. Together we celebrated Christ’s love for us, his presence with us in the hard times, and his promise that beyond every death we will find new life.

Lay leaders from the merged parish Church of the Holy Spirit in Fall River came on May 6, 2012 to share with us their road map for a successful merger. They lit our hearts with their enthusiasm for coming together and their pride in their new, vital, growing parish.

Calvary’s Vestry met on Sunday, May 20, 2012 to talk about how far we’d come and what we thought needed to happen next. I was expecting the decision process to continue into the fall, but our leaders were very clear: they wanted to take a vote on the merger at their next meeting, and then bring the question before the whole parish. Everything came together quickly.  On June 3, our diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, met with members from both parishes to hear our plans and share with us his hopes and prayers for our future. On June 10, 2012 the Vestry voted to recommend a merger. Then on June 17, 2012 a meeting of over 50 members of the parish voted unanimously to merge with Saint Paul’s.

We’re currently forming an Inter-Parish Council with five members from Calvary and five from Saint Paul’s. The vestries have granted this council the authority to make to make the countless decisions required to turn this idea into a reality, including the choice of buildings, the staffing, and the name of this new parish. We hope to be worshiping together as one parish sometime this fall.
This work has taken a lot of time. We’ve had some bumps along the way, with the rumors and misunderstandings, anxieties and losses that can come up in any community decision, especially a change as large and lasting as a merger. But we’ve stuck together and kept communicating, and the positive energy has just grown and grown.

The new parish will need to choose the right clergy person to lead them on the next part of their journey. I can’t say it’s been easy to give up my job security, but I wouldn’t trade it for everything I’ve learned from this process. I’ve been able to grow in new ways as a leader, and I’ve had an incredible opportunity to witness the honesty, creativity, faithfulness and compassion of our two parishes as they’ve worked to become one.  It has been energizing, spirit-filled work, and it gives me great hope for the future of our church.

Author Notes: Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas is a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School. She was ordained in the Diocese of Massachusetts in 2005 and called as Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers, Massachusetts in September 2007.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Congregational Seasons Community Blog Launch

Passionate with Abundant Hope by Rev. Joe Duggan, Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow and Convener of the Congregational Seasons community blog

There is a time for everything.  A time to be born.  A time to live.  A time to grow.  A time to die. 

Congregational Seasons offers resources to assist congregations navigate from one season to another as they stay rooted in Christ and are led by the Spirit of God into new forms of life-giving ministries.

I am passionate about ministry to the many Episcopalians who are suffering in silence and don’t know which congregational season their parish is in at this time. Should these congregations merge, form partnerships, use their property in alternative ways that draw more people into shared ministry or close with dignity to find new life in another Episcopal congregation? 

Congregational Seasons features and welcomes stories of those who have made some of these difficult transitions and discovered new life and their renewed baptismal commitment. See Rev. Rick Sorensen's post with his account of the closing of St. Stephen's Church in Reno, Nevada.  Congregational Seasons also welcomes stories where mergers and partnerships did not work so that we may all learn. There are many resources available but few know about them or know how to find them.  

As convener of Congregational Seasons my purpose is to initiate and inspire a networked conversation. Congregational Seasons relies on people of churches, priests and bishops to share their stories of transition, what they learned in the process and how their lives have been changed. 

My role with you is to keep the urgency of these challenges front and center for all throughout The Episcopal Church.  Unlike other blogs, I will not comment on posts apart to expand and deepen your networking. I prefer to hear your stories.

Together let us walk in love, as Christ loved us!

Reflections by a priest on the closing of his parish

Sermon preached by Rev. Rick Sorensen for St. John's Glenbrook on May 20, 2012. Rev. Sorensen was called to be a priest by St. Stephen’s Church, Reno, Nevada and was a member of the Vestry when the church decided to close.

The Gospel reading from John we just heard sounds to me like Jesus tying up loose ends with God.  The 17th chapter of John works as a heartfelt expression of Jesus's relationship to God and to his friends; as a benediction of love and blessing for those he will leave behind; and as a telling of the completion, the fulfillment, of the work God gave Jesus to do.
As we are reminded every year during Holy Week, what looks like defeat on Good Friday is actually a door to victory on Easter.  At the previous two Sunday services I've been here with you, I mentioned that I was a priest at St. Stephen's in Reno, which closed its doors a year and a half ago.  When that uncomfortable fact is mentioned, people often avert their eyes or shake their heads sadly and express their condolences.  
What is it like to have to close a church?  It's very much like facing death, with the same stages of searching for alternatives, then denial, anger and sorrow, and -- with God's help -- acceptance and peace. 
We at St. Stephen's shared Holy Week services several years ago with the Lutherans across the street, when their sanctuary was damaged by fire just days before Palm Sunday.  We invited them to one of our last services, after we'd made the decision to close.
I was told by one of our members that, at the conclusion of the service, one Lutheran said to her, "Well, we're not quitters."  That comment reminds me of the line from this morning's Psalm: "Happy are they who have not...sat in the seats of the scornful." 

The reasons for St. Stephen's closing filled about two pages, single-spaced.  Here are a few of the reasons: the Reno-Sparks area doesn't have the necessary critical mass of Episcopalians to support four Episcopal churches.  St. Stephen's was located only two miles from Trinity church in downtown Reno.  My own spiritual energy was being directed to prison ministry. 
We had one young woman pursuing ordination to the priesthood and one in process for the diaconate.  For very valid reasons, they both terminated the process.  Our 20-plus years of Total Ministry living had, to borrow a sports term, exhausted our bench strength. 
One of our most devoted members, Peg McCall, delivered a St. Stephen's farewell at the last Diocesan Convention.  She said, "At a series of parish meetings, we reflected on the joys and celebrations at St. Stephen's and talked about what the loss of our parish building would mean to each of us.  We talked about what had been important to us and what were our most meaningful ministries.
"We learned again that it was 'we, the people' -- the faith and the love that we shared, rather than the building.
"As a group we decided when we would hold our last service...We closed with over $30,000 in the bank because it was time to move on. The bank balance has been contributed to the Diocese, as well as an anticipated $48,000 yearly income from rental of the property.  And we are still here as members of the Diocese."
My message is that we, as an entire parish, came to see this inevitability NOT as a failure, but as a fulfillment, a completion.  Like the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John.  Like Easter.  Our last two Sunday services were meaningful beyond words, and I cried like a baby  at both of them.  Mine were tears of grief, loss, gratitude and love.
NOW.  Let me make it very clear that St. Stephen's story is not intended as a cautionary tale for St. John's, Glenbrook.  Each parish has its own identity, history and destiny.  We do not know what God has in store for us.  We only know that God's plan is more perfect than anything we can come up with.

Church: More Than Keeping The Lights On!

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Joe Duggan at St. John's in the Wilderness in Glenbrook, Nevada on the Second Sunday After Pentecost. Readings: 2Cor 4:13-5:1 and Mark 3: 20-35.  Sermon posted has been slightly modified for this blog. I have posted this sermon as a way to share why I am passionate about the ministry of Congregational Seasons.

I was the priest that led St. Stephen’s Church in Reno, Nevada through a yearlong discernment process that led the vestry and congregation to decide to close.  St. Stephen’s Reno was a grace-filled close.  There was no element of the death of a parish, but rather a true celebration of its life. My ministry with the people of St. Stephen’s was my most exhilarating experience as a priest.  I had the privilege to witness the raw vulnerability, faith, grief, courage and love of the people of St. Stephen’s. I had the privilege to see a congregation discover life in new forms. I hope to have many more opportunities to see the people of at risk congregations discover new life in Christ.

One of St. Stephen’s greatest successes as a total ministry congregation was that their members were involved in many ministries throughout Reno-Sparks, Nevada.  Not a single one of their ministries was dependent on having a church building!  This alone is an extraordinary accomplishment for any congregation. All of St. Stephen’s ministries continue uninterrupted now two years later. 

During the year of discernment with St. Stephen’s we all felt that we were going through it alone. At the time we looked for resources like checklists to make sure we were doing everything we could to make responsible decisions.  We had to create everything ourselves including a statement of congregational dissolution for the Standing Committee.  There were no examples available in the Canons of The Episcopal Church. Nor could we find checklists on the manner in which to handle church furnishings and other assets.  We got through it, but it was a challenge.

After St. Stephen’s closed I discovered that thirty Episcopal parishes had closed that year.   One parish church in Northern California closed the same day that St. Stephen’s closed. Thirty Episcopal congregations had closed each year for five years.  I also discovered that the number of parish closings were likely to double and possibly even triple over the next five years.

In his state of the diocese address this year Bishop Bennison in the Diocese of Pennsylvania said 60 of the 141 churches are soon to become non-traditional parishes; that is, unable to sustain a traditional ministry with a full-time priest, property and program.  Bishop Bennison preached that, “having fewer parish buildings will not diminish, our efforts to fulfill the Gospel, but rather free us up for ministry.”  The Diocese of Pennsylvania is not alone.

My experience with St. Stephen’s gave me a heart for Episcopal congregations in transition.  I particularly have a heart and empathy for the people in congregations that often face these challenges alone with little support from the national church or local dioceses.   

Today it is all too easy for the people and congregations to fall off the radar in dioceses as they struggle alone.  Among the St. Stephen’s members 95% were shepherded to one of three area Episcopal churches due in large part to the generous welcome of these area rectors and their vestries.

The part of the transformational change needed is through neighboring congregations. In Reno-Sparks, Trinity, St. Paul’s and St. Catherine’s churches are each moving away from the dominant Episcopal culture where parishes compete against one another for members.  The rectors of these three Episcopal Churches collegially work together.  People freely attend worship in all three congregations from time to time and participate in the fullness of the three parishes’ offerings and their opportunities to gather.

I am writing a transitions guide for dioceses and at risk congregations of The Episcopal Church because I want Episcopalians to know that they are not alone and that there is abundant hope.  Review drafts will be ready in a few weeks in time for General Convention.  Later this summer I will self-publish the first edition. The idea behind the transitions guide is to offer to congregations at risk resources to help them become more vital and viable. 

In the last few months I have learned so much about congregational vitality and viability.  One of the things I have learned is that there is much fear, shame and denial about at risk congregations.  Who among us is not more pleased to talk about life than death? It is far too easy for us to lean on our Episcopal polity and let congregations make even unhealthy decisions that often lead to churches closing without hope.

I am working to connect vitality to viability to help congregations discover new life in Christ and reenergize their baptismal ministries.  In some cases congregations’ only choice will be to close, but I hope that when and if they do that they will close in the transparent and grace-filled ways that St. St. Stephen’s closed.  St. Stephen’s closing led to new life for all.

Today in the second reading we heard, “We have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  This house referred to in the second reading is the Church.  The church is the people of God.  The church is where two or three are gathered.  All of us have come to more often associate church with place, such as with this beautiful building overlooking Lake Tahoe. 

Looking back over the history of Christ’s public ministry, the church was mobile and fluid.  The church was dispersed and moved from place to place.  So the second reading reminds us to hold our treasure of Episcopal Church buildings more lightly so that our energy and passion is directed to the eternal church that is always vital and viable due to Christ’s gift to us.  We are Christ’s own forever. We are not beloved on a conditional basis while we are members of a vital and viable local church. 

Many Episcopal congregations throughout the nation are discovering their identity as a dispersed church.  Even here in the Diocese of Nevada two congregations meet in other than their own church buildings.  In both these cases these congregations want their own church building.  In other dioceses throughout the country, some congregations that meet in alternate space have absolutely no desire for their own building.  These congregations celebrate the privilege of using their pledge resources exclusively for mission.

In the Gospel we heard, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” In the research I have conducted for the book I am writing I have learned the primary cause for congregations in decline.  The primary cause is not what you might think.  It is not the cause I would have first named.  Of course there are old buildings to maintain.  Some parishes are in decline due to declining pledges not matching operating costs.  Other parishes where fewer people come to church cause it to be in decline.

These are all reasons that contribute to churches in decline, but the primary reason is unresolved conflict in congregations.  Grudges held against one another that are never addressed in ways that lead to deep reconciliation.  Unresolved conflict is the most difficult challenge any congregation faces and often congregations refuse to do the work.  The cost is high, as when conflict is not openly addressed, congregations inevitably close.

We also heard in the Gospel, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Jesus said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." 

These Gospel words invite us to reflect on our identity as an Episcopal congregation before God.  As we reflect on what it means to be the church, the Gospel reminds us to place our focus on the mission of God.  Our primary work is to focus on doing the will of God, the ministries of God.  Remember the words of Micah – Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.  The Good News today is that we the people of God are freed to be church through our lives of Micah-like ministries. 

By freed I mean that there are no liens or prerequisites for being or doing church.  Last week at Yale Divinity School there was a meeting to share some new congregational findings about parishes throughout The Episcopal Church.  The researchers found that the vitality of Episcopal congregations is directly related to the spiritual maturity of its individual members.  

Spiritual maturity begins with a prayer life and participation in the liturgy of the church, but there is more. 

Spiritual maturity is the way we encounter conflict and passionately pursue reconciliation. 

Spiritual maturity is the way we do church and live out our baptismal promises. 

This morning around the nation some Episcopalians are doing church in gem churches such as this one and others are in very nontraditional spaces.  Where we gather really is far less important than what we do between the Sundays we meet.  We are all held together through our faith, baptism, common worship and commitment to be ministers in the world through our day-to-day lives. 
In this way today’s readings return all the congregations of The Episcopal Church’s focus to the fundamentals of being church.  These readings bring welcomed humility and grace to free up Episcopal congregations for the work of God increasingly unburdened by the temporal responsibilities of keeping the lights on. 

The Episcopal Church is alive! 

We need only find our way from anxiously doing all to keep the lights on to passionately serve as ministers of Word and sacrament in our communities every day.