Sometimes I get really ticked by those self-styled "congregational development experts," whose only focus seems to be on some sort of business-model "bottom line." We have one of them in my diocese. Many of us refer to him as “The Rev. Used Car Salesman.” He just wants to "make a sale," with little apparent regard for the baptismal covenant, the theology that is supposed to go along with that "sale," or the service that may be required after the "sale." From my perspective, all that seems to matter to him is some magic spreadsheet on which he totals up the “sales.”
But Elizabeth said it much better than I can. Go read her post. She quotes several folks who are wrestling with this issue. Go read her essay. I’ll wait.
OK. Back now? Here are my thoughts.
Here at Grace, our ASA has remained steady around 140 ever since I moved here in 1998.
You need some background.
When I moved here, Harv+ had been a marvelous priest, pastor, and rector for more than 30 years. When he retired in July 2005. we hired Joan+ to serve as interim rector. We knew we would need a long “interim,” after Harv’s long tenure, so we contracted with Joan+ to serve for two years … while we adjusted to our new reality and looked toward hiring a new rector. I served on vestry from the end of Harv’s tenure … through calling Joan … and then through the calling of our current rector [Shariya+], who has been here a little more than two years.
When I came here in 1998, the parish centered on Harv, our rector. I quickly came to love him as priest and friend and spiritual guide. He did it all! Sunday services, of course. Visiting all the sick and old, of course! Once he left, I (and all the vestry) learned there was more that he did: opening the church on Sunday, making coffee, fixing our old furnace with duct tape and bailing wire, cleaning up after/before social events, putting buckets under the roof leaks, and on and on. In short, we discovered that we had paid a priest to be priest and sexton and janitor and social committee chairman and jack-of-all-trades and on and on.
When Harv announced his retirement, the vestry recognized that we should have a very long interim period of discernment … a very long time to determine what we wanted to be, who we wanted to be, and what kind of rector we wanted/needed. We decided to hire an interim rector for two years to allow that to happen.
Joan+ guided us through that period. She was a wonderful interim rector. She helped us discern who we were and who we aspired to be.
When we called Joan, we said we wanted her to be our priest – not our sexton or parish life coordinator, and certainly not our jack-of-all-trades. We had begun to learn how many duties our rector had undertaken, which we laypeople should have assumed. We began to take seriously the “ministry of all the baptized,” and to distinguish our role as lay ministers from the role of the ordained ministry. We stepped up to it, so that we could free our priest for the distinctly priestly work. And Joan mid-wived us through that process of discovery and growth.
I believe we made good use of that “interim” period. I believe that interim period "unloosed" something in our parish. During Joan’s time with us, lay people began to take on more ministry. We began to understand the “ministry of all the baptized.” During that interim, we expanded our ministries within and beyond the church walls. More laypeople accepted leadership. We took responsibility for the life of the parish. We took on more outreach.
Consequently, when we began our search for a rector, we stated that we wanted two things.
We wanted a priest who could help us “grow” our parish. We believe that we have something unique to offer as Episcopalians in this part of the world. And, of course, we wanted more “butts in the pews” and more money in the offering plate.
We also wanted someone who would be a priest and spiritual guide for us ... not a rector-of-all-trades who would also run the stewardship campaign, be responsible for all ministry, and maintain our physical plant. We wanted a priest! – not a sexton and parish coordinator with an M.Div.! We made clear in our profile that we wanted someone who would help us deepen our spiritual lives.
At the end of the search, we came down to two finalists. One was clearly gifted in outreach and "growing" congregations. The other was ... how shall I put this? ... quiet, centered, spiritually deep. In the meeting when the vestry voted on the candidates that the search committee brought to us, we looked longingly at the "congregational development" person, but someone said, "Y'know ... maybe we're not yet ready to grow the congregation [i.e., in ASA & other numbers]. Maybe we need to grow/deepen our own spiritual lives before we’re ready to expand the congregation." I believed then, and I still believe she was correct.
We called Shariya, and she came.
And I believe that’s just what she is doing – “equipping the saints for ministry.” Yes, she is a marvelous priest. Yes, she provides marvelous pastoral care. But, above all, I believe she is “equipping the saints for ministry,” working – sometimes through her sermons, and often one person at a time – to help us discern how we can and should be the Body of Christ in this place.
Every now and then, I offer a priest/preacher the highest compliment I can offer after the service: “You done went from preachin’ into meddling,” I’ll say. Frankly, I want to be meddled with. I want to be challenged. I want my priest to challenge my comfort zone from the pulpit and in our one-on-one conversations. I want the preacher to preach the Gospel and challenge me to see where it may be calling me as an individual and as a member of the Body of Christ.
I sense some great changes in this parish over the past few years.
I sense a tremendous growth in "vitality." Lots more outreach. Lots more lay ministry, including lay "pastoral" care for our members. In addition, I'm hearing more people talk about their prayer life. More people seem to be praying the daily office. A new theological discussion group has formed, in which people are discovering the riches of our liturgy and our Book of Common Prayer.
And I wonder whether this is some indicator: In the first 7 years I was here, we formed one discernment committee, for a man who has since been ordained to the priesthood. In just these last two years, three people have moved into discernment. One's now a candidate for the priesthood. One's a postulant to the vocational diaconate. The third (just last month) got permission to form a discernment committee toward the vocational diaconate. Make of that what you will. I believe it comes from people hearing more clearly the call to ministry. Every one of them was exercising lay ministry, and they’re now hearing a call to ordained ministry. I think that’s a good thing.
Meanwhile, many of our parish members continue to exercise lay ministry. We are doing so in more ways and more varied ways than we ever did before. And I believe that’s because we’re being called to ministry … though not in any way that the parochial reports to TEC will ever capture. It’s not reflected in ASA. But I believe it is a revival. It is vitality. It’s a “renewal” of our vision of what we are called to do as the Body of Christ within our parish and beyond our brick walls.
Of course, none of this will be captured in the statistics that The Episcopal Church will collect and share. None of it will be discussed by the self-proclaimed “congregational growth” experts in our church. Because all those “experts” know is a business model with its measures of success. The Church needs other measures of its vitality. Or so it seems to me.