In his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20).
Before his ascension, Jesus promises those gathered, “[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
What if you thought of your congregation’s vocation in terms of ambassadors, or witnesses, sent to share the good news of God in Christ with our neighbors? Doing so shifts the focus of your congregation’s mission from the people inside the church toward who’s outside the walls of the church, that is, your neighbors.
For some congregations, this is a significant shift in orientation. But, as the people of God, our ministry is primarily to represent Christ in the world (Book of Common Prayer, 855). We gather on Sundays not for our sake only, but for the sake of the world. We are unique in this way. As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The Church is the only society that does not exist for its members.”
How do good ambassadors begin their work? By getting to know the people in the place where they reside, by listening to their neighborhoods. How well do you know your neighborhood?
Given the high rate of mobility in our society today and the demographic shifts in Washington, DC and the surrounding region, it is likely that your neighborhood has experienced significant changes over the past few decades. Some neighborhoods have become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. Some have grown younger. Some older. Your long-time members may have noticed these changes while your new members may not. Either way, thriving congregations attend closely to the demographic and social changes in their area and understand the distinctiveness of their community– both of who they are and who they are becoming.
You might begin getting reacquainted with your neighbors might by gathering demographic data. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington offers its congregations access to MissionInsite, a program that offers in-depth demographic data, including religious beliefs and concerns of demographic groupings in the area surrounding your church. If you’d like to receive a MissionInsite report for your congregation, reach out to the Rev. Jenifer Gamber.
To really get to know your neighbors, to really listen to them, however, requires being on the ground, building face-to-face relationships. Through listening, you can become attentive to your neighbor’s needs, interests, and desires.
To help you and your leadership practice getting out in your neighborhood, the School for Christian Faith and Leadership will be hosting a workshop at Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring MD on Saturday, July 30th called Connecting with Your Community.
Consider attending – and bring your team!
We are pleased to announce that the following 12 congregations have accepted the invitation to join the first of three cohorts in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s Tending Our Soil Thriving Congregations Initiative, a five-year initiative funded in part by Lilly Endowment Inc. to help congregations strengthen their ministries and thrive so they can better help people deepen their relationships with God, enhance their connections with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of their communities and the world.
- Christ Episcopal Church, Durham – Nanjemoy, MD
- Church of the Ascension – Gaithersburg, MD
- Epiphany Episcopal Church – Forestville, MD
- Grace Episcopal Church – Silver Spring, MD
- Our Saviour Episcopal Church – Hillandale, MD
- St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Damascus, MD
- St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown – Washington, DC
- St. Luke’s Brighton Episcopal Church – Brookeville, MD
- St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Fairland – Silver Spring, MD
- St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill – Washington, DC
- St. Monica and St. James, Capitol Hill – Washington, DC
- St. Peter’s Episcopal Church – Poolesville, MD
These congregations join the 12 congregations who are completing their first year in the initiative. Each congregation commits to a three-year journey to listen to God in their congregations and their neighborhoods to discern where God is calling them and adapt existing ministries or launch a new ministry for a rapidly changing world. Please join us in praying for all 24 congregations as we grow together toward greater vitality.
Ultimately, Tending Our Soil will engage up to 36 congregations with 12 more joining in 2023. If your congregation is interested in participating in the future, please look at this promotional flyer or invite the Rev. Jenifer Gamber to give a presentation to your vestry.
Christ Episcopal Church, Durham – Nanjemoy, MD
Christ Church, Durham Parish is a small Episcopal church founded in the late 17th century in a rural corner of Charles County, Maryland. The parish’s long history is very important to its members. The parish’s 2015 profile notes: “The long history of “Old Durham” is a source of both pride and strength to us all. We are dedicated to maintaining and preserving the church, both its structure and tradition, for generations to come.” While Charles County is a fast-growing county, the parish is located well within an agricultural reserve where development is limited and outdoor recreation opportunities are abundant. The area’s traditions “are deeply rooted in farming, logging, and fishing, and are accompanied by a strong sense of family loyalty, social conservatism, self-reliance, and political independence. These attitudes still prevail, but more and more are being intermixed with those of urban sophistication and an acceptance and appreciation for more moderate and progressive viewpoints” (parish profile, 2015). The parish has been served by part-time and supply clergy since 2011. The Rev. Catharine Gibson, the current Rector, has served part-time since 2017, and The Rev. Susan Fritz has served as Deacon since 2018. At present, approximately 25-30 people worship each Sunday morning at Durham Parish. Most parishioners are in their 60s or 70s, and almost all share actively in the work and life of the church. Parish members consider each other close friends and greet each other accordingly. As public health restrictions gradually ease, music, fellowship, and formation activities are being resumed, but are not yet at a pre-pandemic level. The parish’s main service ministry, Joe’s Place Food Pantry, has continued to operate throughout the pandemic.
Church of the Ascension – Gaithersburg, MD
Church of the Ascension, Gaithersburg (Ascension) began in 1880 as a chapel built by Christ Church, Rockville. In March of 1955, Ascension ended its relationship with Christ Church, Rockville to become a mission of the Diocese of Washington. Ascension became a full-fledged parish on June 1, 1965. The Reverend Javier Garcia Ocampo was installed as the fifth rector of Ascension on May 16, 2021. Ascension is a multicultural, warm, welcoming community of approximately 200 parishioners. We have three worship services on Sundays; two in English at 8 and 10 am, and one in Spanish at 12 pm. Pre-pandemic, on the fifth Sunday of any month we held “One Ascension Sunday”. On such Sundays, we have a bilingual service followed by lunch. We continue to have bilingual services and plan to return to the lunches as soon as possible (one is scheduled for June 19th). Ascension is a very adaptable community. We began live streaming our 10 am and 12 pm services on Zoom the first Sunday after the stay home orders in March 2020 and haven’t missed a Sunday. We have re-opened for in-person services but continue to Zoom all three services. This allows people from other states and countries to continue worshiping and fellowshipping with us. We are a multicultural community. We celebrate our diversity with different events throughout the year including Día de los Muertos and Juneteenth. There are several ways that people can get involved in the Ascension community. We have a fantastic music program. There are opportunities for spiritual growth for ages through children’s Christian formation, Youth group, Young Adult group, Spanish bible study, Wednesday book club, Education for Ministry, and Compline twice a week. We have several active committees including Equity and Justice, Outreach, Worship, Parish Life, and Pastoral Care.
Epiphany Episcopal Church – Forestville, MD
As a church with its roots stretching over one-hundred and fifty years, Epiphany Episcopal Church is focused on a future that embraces diversity and service to God. Rich in diversity, we celebrate our heritage as we lift up a contemporary understanding of community and love, by embracing an array of cultural, racial and ethnic identities. We are a church family that exists to worship God, grow into the image of Christ, while ministering to the people of God.
Throughout the pandemic, our church has continued to come together electronically when physical closeness was not possible. As the world is coming out again, we are slowly rejoining physical church but many members enjoy the online church. In some ways, the need for electronic services has been a good thing. It has allowed new attendees who are not able to leave their homes to experience the closeness of a church family and being able to pray with others.
Our church works to serve the community with past actions and continues to look for new methods. We have had members of our church walk the neighborhood handing out flyers and invited the community to our parish hall for free community breakfast. We hold yard sale events which are open for others to come share their wares with their neighbors. It is our hope that we can continue to invite the neighborhood and show the love of Christ through our actions. We have a very active women’s group and our men’s group is always ready to cook for our events. There are annual tea parties, Lenten events, and Christmas events. Our crab feast is well known and fish fry events also looked forward to by many.
It is our prayerful goal at Epiphany to spread God’s love in the world and invite others to know the peace, comfort and joy that can only be found in the love of God.
Grace Episcopal Church – Silver Spring, MD
Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, Maryland feels called to be that “city on a hill” where people of all races and cultures come to build their relationship with God and others. Grace Church is diverse, inclusive, progressive, multi-generational, and bustling with activity. Our ministry centers on offering: a wide range of vibrant worship opportunities, solid program offerings especially focused on Christian formation for all ages, and outreach centered on social and racial justice. We seek to cultivate a new generation of Christians to dismantle the racial hierarchies that pervade our society so that we may become the Beloved Community where toddlers and elders explore their faith together, where youth plan and lead justice ministries, and all formative adults care for the children and youth of the church.
Our Savior Episcopal Church – Hillandale, MD
Our Saviour Hillandale is a church representing multitudes – people from over 48 different countries worship here each Sunday, predominantly from West Africa and the Caribbean. Our roots are with our mother parish, Our Saviour Parish, Brookland (which started in 1892 as a mission of Rock Creek Parish). We were one of the first churches planted outside the Beltway as the Diocese of Washington began to expand in the 1940s and 1950s. Our cornerstone was laid in 1958, and we have been welcoming all at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and Powder Mill Road ever since. Even with the challenges of Covid, we are blessed with the continued support of our community, where we celebrate with approximately 250 members of the COS family every Sunday. From a period of financial difficulty, we have emerged even stronger, buoyed by the love and support of our members. Much grace has been shown us, and we are grateful!
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Damascus, MD
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Damascus, Maryland is the northernmost parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Washginton. The church’s mission, “To bring others to Christ through Worship, Witness and Love, for one another, and our neighbor,” is lived out in inclusive hospitality, Christ-centered worship, biblically grounded formation, and community based service and outreach. Organized in the late 1950s, through the singular efforts of the dedicated lay couple Mr. and Mrs. Herbert and Elizabeth (Lib) Cain, St. Anne’s held its first service on February 21, 1960 in the music room of Damascus High School. In the subsequent decades, the parish became an integral part of the Damascus community and often found itself at the forefront of community-based action. In the 1960s, the parish started Damascus HELP to aid in emergency food assistance and transportation needs. In the late 1980s, the church saved a historic house in downtown Damascus by relocating it to the church property, and in February 1990 the home became the Bishop John Thomas Walker House, a transitional housing facility for community members in need. At present, St. Anne’s proximity to the I270 Clarksburg corridor, which is the fastest growing geographic region in the state, presents new challenges and opportunities. Additionally, St. Anne’s broke ground this year on a 76 unit affordable housing project for seniors in Montgomery County, and through this project and the rapidly diversifying communities around the region, the parish looks forward to a future of robust intergenerational and intercultural growth and formation.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown – Washington, DC
St. John’s is historic (the first of 3 Episcopal churches in Georgetown) but we have been doing ancient things in fresh, new ways – like virtual worship (before it was a thing), theme Sundays, and podcasting. We also think of ourselves as traditional but not stuffy, revealing not only our style of worship, but the lightheartedness with which we take ourselves. We are a medium-sized congregation (with approximately 70 pledging units) but continue to “punch above our weight” because of our entrepreneurial side, which lets us invest in a music program (genuinely among the best in the city) and other resources that make us vibrant and distinguish us from the pack. Our concert series and House Tour reach well beyond the city, bringing hundreds and hundreds of folks into our space each year for hospitality and shared experiences that connect us deeply to each other. We also serve as a de facto community center, giving our space away to groups serving the elderly, musical groups, after school programs, 12-step programs, and community leaders. There is no question that if St. John’s were to disappear, the entire neighborhood would notice! Historically, our reliance on charismatic clergy to do most of the planning, decision-making, and formation left us with a dis-empowered laity. We have been working on changing that with some success (especially with financial management), and are hopeful we can build a lasting culture of collaborative visioning and leadership that will be a fruitful legacy for the next decades of parish life. Covid has energized us for new social and racial justice work, and we continue to see growth in the numbers of young adults who come to St. John’s, including college and graduate students. A recent large bequest has made investment in these areas possible and we are excited!
St. Luke’s Brighton Episcopal Church – Brookeville, MD
St. Luke’s is a family size congregation located in Northern Montgomery County, MD. Originally there was only one large parish, St. John’s, Olney, MD, with one rector who would travel to St. Luke’s and St. Bartholomew’s parishes (or send his sermon to be read by lay leaders) on a rotating basis. In 1870, St. Luke’s was established as a stand-alone parish – with its own rector and vestry. Since 1960, St. Luke’s has been known in the surrounding community for its Fall Festival held every year on the first weekend in October. Much of our time during the year is spent planning for, organizing, and holding our two outreach events – the Fall Festival and Summer Yard Sale. Whether it’s in worship on Sundays or other celebrations during the church year, particularly when food is involved, we cherish our time together both as a parish and as a part of our community. St. Luke’s is financially stable, but also an aging parish. While our parish directory contains 93 members, those who participate on a regular basis number 40 members, including two young families. Where we would like to focus our energies in the Tending Our Soil program is in learning new ways to increase our presence within the surrounding community, particularly through intergenerational ministries where we can be seen as a place where one can come share Christ’s message of love and acceptance, because we have experienced the power of his love ourselves.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Fairland – Silver Spring, MD
St. Mark’s, Fairland is an Episcopal Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. We are a diverse, multicultural, multi-generational community with a passion for serving Christ and our community through Faith, Evangelism, Outreach, Fellowship and Worship. Outreach involves both larger-scale programs and smaller ad-hoc opportunities. Examples include operating our Thrift Shop, supporting the Diocesan Hunger Fund, making lunches for Elizabeth’s House residents, and collecting food for local food banks. Our Angel Giving Tree provides Christmas gifts and new clothing for local families and seniors in need. Each summer we hold a Backpack and School Supply drive to benefit local elementary students. Ad-hoc opportunities include a Coat-and-Clothing Drive for Afghan immigrants and refugees, and providing clothing and household goods for a family whose home burned down. We are caring, generous, and diverse. We are life-long Episcopalians, Anglicans from across the Communion, wounded survivors of toxic faith communities, and seekers who find haven in the Episcopal Church. Our worship and programming address all their needs. We welcome people of any ethnicity, race, gender expression, age, family status, or differing ability. Our worship and fellowship spaces are up-to-date, accessible, serving not only our parishioners, but the wider community. Several years ago, St Mark’s raised funds to build an expanded Parish Hall, and sold adjacent land to enable the development of an affordable housing complex for senior citizens. Our Parish Hall is used for church and community needs, and also serves as home for Vietnamese American Services (VAS). VAS provides a full range of social services and referrals focused on Vietnamese speakers in our area, as well as an Adult Day Care for seniors. We also provide worship space for a Telugu Seventh-Day Adventist Congregation and an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. We’ve faced our challenges over the years, but continue to celebrate our blessings.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill – Washington, DC
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is a progressive Christian community. We embrace our Episcopal heritage and value our ties with the Diocese and the larger church. We honor the Anglican appreciation of the centrality of communion and of common worship in our life together.
We are open to people of all faiths or none. We are committed to inclusiveness, radical hospitality, Christian Education, spiritual development, and social justice. We value our community as a place that helps us to live these values, learn, care for each other and the wider world, as well as worship together and experience fellowship. We like to think of ourselves as a place for those seeking a spiritual home that is different from traditional churches.
St. Mark’s was established in 1867 as a mission church on historic Capitol Hill. Our proximity to the nation’s capitol has always provided a unique perspective to God in action. In the late 1950’s, on the verge of being closed, St. Mark’s was transformed by Rev. William Baxter into an active, inviting community full of life and creativity. The pews were taken out and “church in the round” was introduced. This continues today and provides a versatile nave space used for dance, drama, and music outside of three worship services each Sunday.
We are a “destination church” with members from Maryland and Virginia as well as DC. Currently our membership is approximately 550. We have engaged in live streaming in the past two years and find that technology has enhanced opportunities for members and those seeking community. We are a member of the Washington Interfaith Network invested in social justice in DC.
Structured currently through Pillars of Worship, Christian Education, Outreach, The Arts, and Parish Life, our community has a myriad of opportunities for enrichment, devotion, and service. Our active Sunday School uses the curriculum, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for our younger grades, which is Montessori based. Our adult Christian Ed program is extensive.
St. Monica and St. James, Capitol Hill – Washington, DC
Located on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, we are a church community that works for social justice and a worship-centered faith, to make the Incarnate Word real to a 21st century world.
Our congregation consists of families and individuals; young and old; city folk and suburbanites; white and people of color; people of all sexual and gender identities. All of God’s children are accepted and loved at St Monica and St James. We take pride in our diversity as people and our oneness in the Holy Spirit.
Our diverse backgrounds remind us to make no peace with oppression but to see God’s image in each other. We are committed to compassion and justice in our society. In our worship, the Mass, celebrated with timeless word and tradition, binds us to God and to one another. Our spiritual community constantly seeks new ways to deepen worship and liturgy and to invoke its power for transforming lives, in our individual action, collective ministries and worldwide engagement.
We seek to worship God and proclaim Jesus Christ’s love through our traditions, our diversity and inclusiveness, our individual and collective ministries, and the world’s communities.
We strive to continue the Gospel’s call to love others as God first loved us.
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church – Poolesville, MD
St. Peter’s, Poolesville is a vibrant and growing congregation in the middle of the Montgomery County Agricultural Preserve. Being situated in Poolesville, we enjoy the quiet and beauty of these lands, while remaining a part of the energy and vitality of the Washington metropolitan region. Founded in 1792, as St. Peter’s looks back on a long and fruitful history, we find ourselves eager to see what God has in store for the future. St. Peter’s is a warm and gracious community whose reach stretches beyond our church walls. We are not only a house of prayer but a de facto community center for our small town. A busy hub of activity, Boy Scouts, Lion’s Club, Rummage Ladies and preschoolers can be found scattered throughout the building on any given weekday. Our worship style can best be described as eclectic and ranges from traditional Rite 1 Eucharist to an interactive intergenerational service affectionately known as Waffle Church. Throughout it all, we strive to bear a faithful prophetic witness to this little corner of Montgomery county. Our members are a delightful mix of folks from diverse backgrounds. Some of us have been in this area for generations while others are new to the area, coming from all over the world. We have farmers, artists, educators, professionals, stay-at-home parents and more. What we all have in common is our love of Jesus and a desire to fulfill the mission and ministry he left the Church; to make God’s love known. Whether you are just beginning an exploration of faith or are further along the path, we are an open and affirming Church where all are welcome.
In 2020 the Diocese of Washington launched the Tending Our Soil Thriving Congregations initiative. We have been working with 12 congregations since September and learning more and more about the practices of thriving congregations. We are not alone in such an endeavor. More than 80 institutions across the United States are leading thriving congregations initiatives. Among them is Vibrant Faith, based in Minnesota.
After working with 28 congregations across the country, they have identified these six practices of thriving congregations:
Practice 1: Presence Matters—Thriving follows an increased capacity to be present to God, to one another, and to the world. What is your church already doing to fuel presence in these three targets? What can you subtract from what you’re doing so you can add more presence-practices into your mix?
Practice 2: Look to the Early Church—Yes, our context is completely different. But Churches in the early centuries grew and spread throughout the world because Christians:
- Loved Jesus above all else,
- Loved one another well (took care of conflict and took care of the poor), and
- Made their relationship with God central to their daily lives.
The power of those things hasn’t changed. How can your church focus on intentional relationships even more than you do now?
Practice 3: Listen—We asked our Thriving Congregations churches to listen before they planned. They listened in their community, to the people of their congregation, and online. They asked questions about people’s longings and losses. They used what they heard to plan a faith-formation experiment. What can you do to make listening a regular practice in your ministry?
Practice 4: Focus on Formation—What is shaping the lives and concerns of your people? How can you use those shaping influences as ways to connect people to an everyday relationship with the God who loves them?
Practice 5: Re-Invent—Many of our “ways of doing things” have lost their meaning. Or it might be that what has been meaningful to us is no longer meaningful for others. Often, we get overwhelmed by these realities and think we must come up with whole new ways of being Christian and practicing our faith. In reality, we just need to do what Christians have always done—re-invent ways that will meet the needs of people in today’s world. To use an obvious example, Christians have always practiced hospitality. What does it look like to practice hospitality online?
Practice 6: Experiment—Try one re-invention for four months. Evaluate and tweak. Decide whether to keep at it or give it up for another re-invention that might be more promising. Don’t think of any re-inventions as permanent changes… yet.
Note: These six practices and their description are reprinted from an April 26th, 2022 Vibrant Faith article by Dr. Nancy Going, Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. If you want to learn more about these 6 practices, consider purchasing the recording of the Vibrant Faith Master Class that explores them here.
The School for Chrisitain Faith and Leadership is proud to offer a host of courses, both live and on-demand, to help your congregation thrive. Take a look and join us!
The Rev. Jenifer Gamber
Director of the School for Christian Faith and Leadership and Tending Our Soil Thriving Congregations
Starting in February 2022 the School for Christian Faith and Leadership will be offering a two-part series called Discover-Embrace for individuals across congregations to name and reclaim the spiritual treasures of their lives–and through that experience strengthen their spiritual life.
In Reclaiming Christianity: A Practical Model for Spiritual Growth and Evangelism, Claude Payne, former bishop of the Diocese of Texas shares an experience of delivering Easter flowers as a teen to a fellow parishioner who was no longer able to leave her home. At the time, the delivery was just a transaction–delivering flowers. Many years later, with the tools and opportunity to reflect on life with the eyes of Christ, he understood the exchange as more than a delivery. It was a divine encounter.
Bishop Payne explains: “I didn’t understand, at the time of my floral delivery, what had happened….Because I didn’t have language to make sense of the experience–because I didn’t know to name it as a moment of holy exchange–the event was privatized and remained isolated within me, out of reach of even my inner vocabulary.” Through study and reflection, a routine encounter was transformed into a spiritual treasure.
Our lives are filled with spiritual treasures. Created in the image of God, our souls seek to express those treasures, but need the language and opportunity to do so. The first of the two-part Discover-Embrace series, six weeks of Discover, focuses on telling spiritual stories and reading Scripture together to discover the spiritual treasures of our lives. The second part, six weeks of Embrace, will explore Episcopal history, practices, and beliefs and will serve as an open forum to ask questions and deepen relationships with others on a journey into the life of the church.
Our hope for this two-part series led by trained facilitators in the diocese is that participants will uncover the spiritual treasures of their lives and serve as a source of renewal.
- Individuals – uncover the spiritual treasures of your life and learn how these treasures can help with congregational renewal.
- Rectors – use this series to prepare members for confirmation or reception at the Diocesan confirmation liturgy on May 14, 2021 or for baptism, confirmation, reception, and the renewal of baptismal promises at your congregation. Consider registering as a group from your congregation.
For more information, please contact the Rev. Jenifer Gamber, or register directly using this link for Discover and this link for Embrace.