St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville, MD is proud to participate in the Tending Our Soil (TOS) initiative. Our mission statement reads, “To share God’s love with everyone to bring hope and change lives.” The TOS initiative has challenged us to examine the relevancy and message conveyed by this important statement.
The Unstuck Church assessment helps us to see where St. John’s is situated in the life cycle of the church. The results identified that we have a focused vision and strategy and that we embrace the tension between vision and systems. In this context, systems can be defined as a way to love people better. This includes providing a variety of opportunities for members to enhance their discipleship on their spiritual journey. While we strive to nurture a culture of radical hospitality, the TOS initiative has revealed the need to be more intentional in connecting visitors and new members to the life of the parish.
The TOS initiative affirms our mission to be intentional in sharing the “Good News of Jesus Christ” to a wider community by providing each parish with a demographic report, targeting nonmembers, in a defined area, from the MissionInsite Program. Lab presentations focused on questions of how is God calling us to address cultural shifts in a post-Christian world? Who are our neighbors? Who are we trying to reach?
The TOS initiative includes a trained coach to engage as a creative conversation partner, as we discern concrete actions in implementing our vision. We hope to find creative ways to empower our members to use their leadership skills to support the mission of the church. At this point in our life cycle, we need a way forward that is organic, and the TOS initiative is providing us with the tools to identify concrete actions to fulfill God’s mission and make room for others.
Our TOS Team meets monthly, engaging in prayer, bible study, and sharing our individual spiritual autobiographies. We are learning more about each other and the points of connections in our lives. We are working on our congregational project of Telling the Story of St. John’s using the article, “The Soul of the Congregation.”
As we encounter the community, we look forward to discovering new ways to engage in God’s mission, knowing that the mission of God is Christ “Himself.” We will open the door of our hearts to genuinely extend an invitation to our neighbors, wherever they are in their Christian journey, and however different their journey is from ours.
The Rev. Joseph
Rector, St. John’s, Beltsville
The Tending Our Soil initiative invited every congregation to listen to the soul of the congregation by remembering its history – its birth and journey – together as a community. How do you gather the community for storytelling for a community with multiple communities and at a time when a community is dispersed, as we are during this pandemic? This was the challenge we faced as we planned how to remember the story of St. John’s, Olney.
Still battling the effects of Covid-19, our congregation is regularly at about 50-60% of what we would have considered our normal Sunday attendance from two years ago. Apart from the pandemic, like many congregations, people are engaged at different levels with a core inner circle and an outer circle. Our core has held, even through covid. The expected people participate. Even the ones who still feel uncomfortable coming in person to worship, still make their presence felt virtually, with attendance in zooms, texts about sermons, and regular emails communicating questions and comments. However the much larger outer circle, the people who we want so badly to see more, to participate more, to minister with more frequently, has been even more remote.
The Tending our Soil initiative suggested big group gatherings. This approach didn’t fit our needs. Even in the best of times, the outer circle’s stories may have been lost from the conversation. And with covid such an invitation seemed impossible. We wanted to personally invite the whole parish in to share, to dream, to paint themselves into the past, present, and future stories of St. John’s.
One of our group brainstormed chain letters as a method of physically reaching every member. My own household of elementary-aged kids had recently (and many times over the past years) done something similar called “being boo-ed.” Being boo-ed is an October festive passing of gifts. Once boo-ed with a bag of treats, you are responsible to boo two more households within 48 hours with your own bag of treats, secretly left on their doorstep for them to find and enjoy. These ideas launched into a journal passing invitation, for members to pass a journal, household to household, doorstep to doorstep, with invitations to write stories, draw pictures, collage, quote, invoke scripture and dream what is possible in our community through the church of Christ at St. John’s.
Another member suggested an additional option for those members who may not feel like journalling, who may not have their address in our rolls, or may just not be able to participate given the timeline, to create a Kudoboard, an online bulletin board where people can post their answers to the same questions.
Twelve journals are currently circling Olney, due back for Epiphany for us to celebrate our stories. An online Kudoboard is filling up with pictures and stories of the past, present, and future of St. John’s.
We are hopeful that the physical journal, the ease of an online board, and the invitation to see what church members are also our neighbors might bear good fruit in bringing us all a little closer and all feel a little more personally invited and invested into the vision of what God is and can do in our community through our parish.
The Rev. Shivaun Wilkinson
Chaplain, St. John’s, Olney
Transfiguration Parish is excited to participate in EDOW’s Tending Our Soil (TOS) initiative, an extraordinary opportunity to work together to create a vital, sustainable church. We are particularly excited about the initiative’s focus on “building capacities for adaptive leadership through action and reflection for lasting impact.” Already, with the onset of the pandemic in 2020, we partnered with Good Shepherd in Silver Spring to adapt our worship and offer engaging online services to both our parishes and new worshipers as well.
Now, with the help of MissionInsite, a databank of rich demographic and market data, we are expanding our understanding of our communities. Transfiguration is centrally located within a region that is projected to grow steadily during the next 10 years in every age group and demographic represented. We are learning more about these local and hyperlocal communities – including their cares and concerns, religious beliefs, communication preferences, and household compositions. Our understanding of our neighborhoods is enhanced by our members whose extensive local knowledge adds a crucial perspective. Our members regularly contribute unique, valuable insights into cultural norms and community dynamics that provide crucial support for engaging, welcoming and connecting with God’s people.
We know we are just getting started, yet we are excited about these early steps and our growing sense of the initiative’s potential over time. We are especially encouraged that relationships and learning remain at the heart of the Tending Our Soil initiative. During this pandemic time we have learned so much about ourselves – our church, our members and other constituents, our communities – and we know that ongoing dialogue is fundamental to following Jesus faithfully and effectively.
We believe we have all we need, if we use our gifts and resources wisely. The next three years promise to be an intensive period of innovation and relationship-building. And we hope and pray that it will be a new season of church strengthening and community building as well.
The Rev. Kent Marcoux
Rector, Transfiguration Parish
One morning several weeks ago, I, along with around 20 parishioners from St. Paul’s K Street, embarked on the ancient custom of beating (or perambulating) the bounds. This custom, perhaps peculiar to us, was vital to the future of parishes in an age where property, town, and church bounds were not easily found on paper, but rather had to be remembered by the local people.
The parish boundaries determined important issues, such as where parishioners could graze their livestock to the tithe collected by the parish for the maintenance of the Church and clergy. For these reasons, it was important that parishioners understood the boundaries and passed this knowledge on.
About every seven years, the parish would assemble the congregation, particularly younger members of the parish, and walk around the bounds of the parish’s area tapping the boundary markers (any sort of distinctive landmark ranging from trees, walls, gates, walls, etc.) with sticks or canes as they passed to imprint upon their memory the boundary for the parish for posterity – and for them, too, to pass down to succeeding generations. (Unfortunately for the youth of the parish, the beating of the bounds also tended to involve a whipping when they reached a boundary stone, to ensure that they would remember the boundary stone’s location – and were duly compensated two pence each for their pains.)
Fortunately for us at St. Paul’s, there was no whipping for anyone involved! It may seem odd to follow this ancient tradition in the era where we have modern maps and can see our parish bounds with stunning accuracy. Like many ancient traditions whose original purpose has passed, however, a deeper meaning is found, and the tradition enriches our community.
For many of us, that day was the first time we had seen each other in person since the beginning of the pandemic, reminding us of our old friendships and the great spirit of our parish. Our time together also presented us an excellent opportunity to meet new faces – and to get to know faces we had seen at Coffee Hour in years past but had not yet had the chance to get to know.
For the next few hours (and about 6-7 miles!) we walked around the bounds of our parish, enjoying a communal fellowship we have sorely missed in the pandemic, while also having the opportunity to see our bounds – and more importantly – the community we serve.
During our walk around our bounds, we encountered members of our community from Sec. Pete Buttigieg, a stampede of marathon runners, tourists, a marching band, and locals. We also were reminded of how much work is still needed in our cure, passing the tents of those experiencing homelessness. As we reached the relative quiet of Rock Creek Park, it was impossible not to reflect upon the magnitude of our calling as members of the parish.
Our mission does not end when we hear “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” – rather that is when we are called to go out into our communities and the world to live out the heart of what we believe. Through this quirky ancient ceremony, I experienced an important reminder of this fact in a time where it is easy to feel disconnected from our parish and wider faith community – and I am most grateful for the experience. I encourage all parishes to consider ways that we can look to past traditions and repurpose them for a modern good. Tending our soil is an ongoing mission – and the lessons of the past can help us innovate our future to result in a good harvest for our parishes – with no whipping required.
Parishioner, St. Paul’s K Street
On this spiritual journey of Tending Our Soil (TOS), we have “the opportunity to reconnect with God’s dream for us. We hope to find that our congregations bear great gifts of Jesus’ love to the world.” This theme of the inaugural sermon by the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers resonated with me during the kick-off of the first Learning Lab.
Initially, I did not have a complete sense of how extensive this project was or what a pivotal role coaching could be to the effort’s success. Coaching, however, has provided me with a new skill set for working with leadership teams consisting of one clergy and lay leader per church. On coaching calls, we discuss the challenges and opportunities for building a healthy, spiritual, and vibrant church post-pandemic. These discussions are critical as we look at the current health of our Episcopal churches and the role that church leadership plays.
Each point on the lifecycle for churches comes with challenges. Churches seeking to relaunch face challenges of whether they are up to the task and what to do first. In comparison, churches at the crest of the cycle are challenged with thriving and moving forward. Churches with aging populations and financial resources have the challenge of redefining their mission and themselves amid changing demographics and absent young families.
Each leadership team has different stages of readiness and distinct personalities, but they all share this: They are creative, resourceful, and whole. These leaders are experts in their own lives, capable of walking with the Holy Spirit and their coach to achieve amazing things. One team logs on ready and eager to do the work. They are focused on meeting their commitments and enjoy “big challenges” and probing questions that test their thinking. They are forthright in their worries about whether they and their congregations are up to the task. We have created a safe space where these challenges and fears can be surfaced and examined without fear or judgment. They recognize that they are on a spiritual journey within a “post quarantine church.” In their own words, they are approaching this with “humble and hopeful hearts.”
Another leadership team is working to integrate the TOS Unstuck Survey and Readiness360 Results within the workings of daily church life. They have experience with both coaching and church planting. Their prayer is that God will help them prepare their congregations to be open-minded and willing to go beyond what has been, to establish new traditions that include diverse millennial families and senior leadership alike.
Other leadership teams are hopeful as they begin to work with their congregational TOS team to dig into the data to identify levers to inform and guide their transformation. They are excited about the congregational story to explore their legacy to date and face forward to examine its future legacy.
The coaches have been called “excavators of brilliance in the TOS initiative.” The brilliance resides within our coaching clients. I look forward to the discoveries that will unfold over the next three years.
Deacon Candidate and Tending Our Soil Coach
The Tending Our Soil initiative lends itself to gardening images –and for me as a coach, this year has been an opportunity to visit, explore, admire, and help cultivate three amazing gardens I have never before been privileged to see in depth and up close. What a gift to me as an individual it is to walk alongside the congregational teams and help them with their plans, their successes, their dreams for the years to come! And what a blessing this initiative is to the congregations, all of whom get to see their strengths and challenges set against a national and a regional backdrop, with data to give them perspective and ideas for new approaches that they can discuss with their cohort colleagues!
The three congregations I am blessed to coach — Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring; Christ Church La Plata/Wayside, and Transfiguration, Silver Spring — have spent the last few months assembling their teams, answering surveys, and beginning to absorb a truly prodigious amount of data and statistics about their individual parishes in comparison to national trends in spirituality, missional alignment, dynamic relationships, and cultural openness. Their energy, focus, courage, and commitment are astounding, especially considering that these same congregational leaders are leading their parishes through the liturgical seasons of a chaotic pandemic year. I feel privileged to share in their joy as they hear their parishes’ strengths, and I admire their courage as they plan how to tackle the challenges of growth and mission. My job is to help them discern how to move ahead, and they make every step a joy as we learn together.
Everywhere I hear of new life in our diocese, as churches adapt and adjust to an ever-changing worship environment — Zoom, outdoor services, indoor services, hybrid services — and newcomers continue to find our churches, whether online or in person. And now, as the church begins its New Year with the Advent season, the Tending Our Soil teams will lead their congregations through a parish storytelling exercise to help them see where they have been and where God is calling them to go. I’m excited to hear their stories. I look forward to reflecting with them on the next steps for increasing openness and commitment to mission. And my hope and prayer for them is that these exercises will help newcomers and long-timers alike find inspiration for building on their strengths and issuing the timeless call to welcome the stranger and to spread the Good News.
Parishioner at Grace, Silver Spring and Tending Our Soil Coach