by the Rev. Dr. Kate Heichler
On an Advent Sunday [in 2021], a chunk of the congregation at Christ Church in La Plata gathered for our first parish lunch since the pandemic. Over chili and cornbread, we welcomed first-time visitors and longtime members, all there to share and tell the “Story of Christ Church” as part of the Tending Our Soil thriving congregations initiative. Two longtime parishioners, who came to the church at the ages of 0 and 5, respectively, took us through a timeline of the past 25 years. Then we moved the tables, circled up the chairs – with room for the big screen showing Zoom participants – and began a Story Circle.
Starting with “Once upon a time, in 1683, in Port Tobacco, a group of settlers decided they wanted an Anglican Church…” each person in turn took up the story, adding their part, all prefaced by a time reference: “Roughly 350 years after that, my family and I saw the rainbow-colored wind sock in front of Christ and thought, ‘I’d like to try that church.’” And “About 14 years before that, my wife and I moved to La Plata and found Christ Church, and two years later I was confirmed as an Episcopalian,” and “Two years ago I attended a HeartSongs Open Mic night here and Rev. Kate asked me, “How do you bring light into the world.” (She did? Yikes!)
As we went around the circle, a story emerged of a church in which many have found a welcoming home, sometimes after painful times elsewhere; of a sanctuary and worship in which many feel the presence of the Holy Spirit; of active and creative outreach; and warm fellowship. This exercise is to help us craft a succinct “Story of Christ Church” that people can easily tell others. It is one of the ways Tending Our Soil invites us to turn over our soil and aerate it, letting in light and air, making room for planting seeds that will bear abundant fruit of transformation in our community. The next step will be to learn the “Story of Our Neighborhood” – to better know the fields in which we are called to plant those seeds of gospel life.
Tending Our Soil is a rich opportunity for Christ Church in La Plata and our sister church, Christ Church Wayside, to get our hands dirty in our missional gardens. Over the course of three years it will help us to focus our mission, strengthen our lay leadership and ministry teams, and make a transforming impact in our regions. We are poised for growth, ready to pivot to where the Spirit shows openings.
We are living a story God has been writing since the beginning of time and invites us to add our chapters; a story of sorrow and joy, stuckness and movement, despair and hope. Above all it is a story of Jesus and how we make him known. God has written the end to that story already. We just get to live it out.
by The Rev. Diana V. Gustafson
‘I came to myself, in a dark world, where the direct way was lost.’
Dante, The Divine Comedy
If you have ever taken a personality test, you may have identified personal strengths, such as the ability to organize people or ideas or to express yourself musically, and weaknesses, such as a fear of speaking in public. It can be fun to gain insight into who we are and how we operate in the word. But consider your spiritual gifts and personality. How might tests to identify spiritual gifts give you insight into your relationship with God and your church?
Perhaps no one is more interested in this question than the newcomer to a church and the people dedicated to walking with them on their spiritual journey. Identifying and honoring newcomers’ self-identified talents is vital to guiding them on a path of discipleship.
St. Paul teaches us that:
There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same God; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. ~ 1 Corinthians 12
For the newcomer, understanding their abilities and desires through a spiritual lens is an important first step in their path of discipleship and participating in the life of the congregation. At St. Margaret’s in DC, we invite newcomers into just such a practice of discovery. In our class, “St. Margaret’s Go!,” newcomers journey together, exploring who they are as spiritual beings and the life that God is calling them to. In three one-hour sessions, newcomers identify and explore their spiritual gifts and discern where they are along a pathway of faith. Just as they are learning about the church’s mission, values, and ministry, they discover what this church can offer them and consider how they might participate in and contribute to a community of faith.
The Go! class begins by using pictures of common objects and events, such as crayons in a box or a child crying, to explore the kind of relationship with God they would like to have.
Go! then helps the participants identify where they might start on the threshold of their discipleship paths. Are they “Experiencers,” engaging with God through song, prayer, and fellowship? Or “Searchers,” at a point of questioning Christian theology and investigating concerns about racism or tasting other faiths. Other places along the path are for ‘Belongers,’ who locate themselves in community and corporate worship, and for ‘Owners,’ who regularly pray on their own, and are ready to teach others from their experience and wisdom. Together the class looks at each person’s spiritual gifts, such as “mercy,” “hospitality,” or “wisdom.’” Go! also asks participants about the individuals who have influenced them.
Through such exploration, participants gain a greater understanding of who they are as spiritual beings. They are better equipped for involvement in the life of religious community and worship because they have a stronger sense of self in relation to God. They are ready to self-identify intelligently as disciples.
Discoveries made during St. Margaret’s Go! informs not just participants but leaders as well. Clergy and formation leaders can use participant’s self-identification to plan formation offerings and general forums through the church year. “Experiencers” may be drawn to bible study, for example, while “Searchers” may benefit from classes, such as Sacred Ground, that explore the church’s response to racism. Formation is focused on guiding disciples along their spiritual path toward deeper relationship with Christ. An understanding of spiritual gifts and desires also helps participants and clergy identify ways laypeople can take part in the life of the congregation. The participants may feel a call to join an outreach group, serve as an usher, or attend weekly healing prayer.
You can learn more about the Diocese of Washington’s path of discipleship at www.edow.org/path and learn more about how St. Margaret’s is using that path and spiritual gifts discernment to meet the needs of newcomers at the upcoming course, Spiritual Gifts and the Newcomer noon on November 16. Learn and talk about the needs of the newcomer and how your church can implement a newcomer’s Go! program.
In 2 Timothy, the writer encourages Timothy and his second century Christian community to “guard the good treasures entrusted to you.” Amid increasing religious disaffiliation today, we may do well to consider doing the same.
But, what is this good treasure? Is the good treasure our buildings? The sacred items inside our buildings – tables, basins, and pews? Is it the grounds on which this building stands? The pandemic may have shifted our understanding of the place of these material things in our common life. Is our good treasure what we do as a faith community – praising God, sharing meals, baptizing, proclaiming, celebrating, burying, sharing, serving?
What if, as the writer suggests, the good treasures are the gifts God that has sown within you – a relationship with Jesus that presses you to go out into the world to share the good news of God in Christ? What if the good treasure is a way of life that witnesses the presence of God and God’s love for the people in your neighborhood?
The good treasures entrusted to your care begin with your faith – your relationship with Jesus and the trust you have placed in God.
“Guard the good treasures entrusted to you.”
Twenty-four congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington have now embarked on a three-year journey to guard the good treasures entrusted to them called “Tending Our Soil.” These congregations have been challenged to name, and then steward their good treasures so that they will remain vital bearers of God’s love in this time and place in a rapidly changing world.
The word entrusted suggests two actions: passing down and caring for. Indeed, our faith is a gift from God passed down through the generations. Just as Timothy’s faith first lived in his grandmother Lois and then in his mother Eunice and finally in Timothy, we are inheritors of good treasure(s). We are the inheritors of faith from your own grandparents, parents, and those who built and stewarded this parish over the centuries.
Yet, because faith is transmitted from elders to younger generations, the good news of Christ is always one generation away from extinction.
Today, with declining religious affiliation in the United States, we are acutely aware of this possibility. Every Christian denomination in the United States is now declining. Younger generations in the United States are less and less religious. More than 40 percent of the Gen Z and Millennial generation (those born after 1981) have no religious affiliation compared to 25 percent of Baby Boomers and 20 percent of the Silent Generation.
Yet, we have been entrusted with good treasures – a gift of God that lives within us – that we are called to share.
Gen Z and Millennial generations have not stopped seeking the spiritual. Young people today continue to seek identity, purpose, and meaning beyond what can be seen and touched. They continue to ask questions and they do not need to answer life’s big questions alone.
Tending Our Soil is based on this belief – that local congregations will continue to be the primary form of Christian community… places where Christians gather regularly to worship, teach their religious traditions to their children and youth, extend care to one another, and proclaim love for their neighbors through acts of service and hospitality. Every congregation serves as a foundational building block of Christian community and a central carrier of faith.
Over three years, the congregations participating in Tending Our Soil will explore and understand the rapidly changing social and cultural context around them; gain greater clarity about their values and mission; and draw on Christian practices from the Episcopal tradition and theology to adapt their ministries to the concerns and gifts of their neighbors. The ultimate aim is to strengthen congregations so that 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.
As Episcopalians, we have been entrusted with much to treasure: good news that our neighbors so desperately want to hear – that they are loved, have infinite value, are called to lives of purpose and meaning, and are not alone. God loves them with a love that endures all things. These are the treasures that are meant to be given away.
You can join by taking part of the many courses that School for Christian Faith and Leadership offers every congregation. Some of these courses feature the very same speakers in Tending Our Soil. The course “Pathways of Discipleship” by the Rev. Dr. Douglas Powe is just one live course. A whole suite of on-demand courses are available too, including these short-courses that focus on parish vitality.
Which course this fall will help you guard the good treasure that is entrusted to you?
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!
The Parish Vitality Wheel
As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, we hear parishes asking important questions: Where are we? What’s next? How do we move forward from here?
One helpful lens for assessing where it might be most fruitful to invest parish resources is to engage with the Seven Vital Signs of Parish Health. The Vital Signs identify key markers that indicate the relative health of a parish. When used as a diagnostic tool, the vital signs can quickly show what areas of parish life are well-tended – and those that might need increased care and attention.
To help parishes better engage the Vital Signs, the School for Christian Faith and Leadership has developed an “on demand” course led by the Rev. Dr. Anne-Marie Jeffery – An Introduction to the Vital Signs of Parish Health – that parish leaders can access at any time and complete at their own pace. Each Vital Sign is a stand alone module within the course and provides both a deep dive into the various aspects pertaining to that Vital Sign and how work done to improve one area may benefit other Vital Signs. Each module includes a reading, video, and ideas to try.
Because this is self-paced, there is no need to complete “the whole course” before getting started. Simply choose which Vital Sign the parish feels would be most beneficial to focus on, work through the materials and resources in the module for that Vital Sign and begin.
Need a little more guidance before getting started? Contact the Rev. Dr. Anne-Marie Jeffery, Canon for Congregational Vitality.