By The Very Rev. Daniel P. Richards
Through Christ Jesus you are being built in the Spirit
together with others into a place where God lives. Ephesians 2:22
As we approach my seven year anniversary as rector of Grace, we have come to a time of discernment, again. This is an ongoing part of life for a congregation. We gathered together in eight sessions over tapas (small plates from Spanish culture) to discuss three primary questions and three primary proposals for the near future of Grace.
These conversations were meant to start a process of discernment for the congregation. They were not meant to be an end to the process, but they were useful in measuring interest in a few proposals coming forward through the congregation and to measure them in the context of your feedback and vision of the parish.
The four-part theme of “Welcome, Worship, Study, and Serve” has been the vision and means to run this church deeper, to name areas of ministry to focus our discipleship and to create unity. The Tapas Talks were helpful in defining what you, the church, believe was strengthened through this vision and to name where you want this ship steered.
“Grace is a good ship with a good crew and going in a good direction,” I told a vestry member seven years ago. “My job will be to run it a little deeper in the water.”
I set the course, beginning the work of taking you to deeper waters, and this summary will help you hear what I heard in these talks.
Each Tapas Talk began with asking people to identify where on a map they sat during services. Then the same basic introduction was given each night: The parish is roughly 148 years old, and I have been here for almost seven years. That means that as a priest I have been here 1/21 of the life of the parish. That is an important perspective to keep about clergy. We measure time in decades as well as weeks.
Two numbers concerned me as I got to know the church. The average pledge was low for the area and the denomination, and the majority of the volunteers for our outreach ministries were not members of Grace, nor were they interested in becoming members. Those are signs of a weakened discipleship.
Over the last six years, we have read the Bible through in study several times over, studied the Book of Common Prayer, and emphasized Daily Prayer and hospitality. There have been a variety of classes, book studies, and opportunities to serve. And there have been signs of growth. Though our number of pledges has grown a little, the pledged giving has gone up over 40%. The majority of volunteers attend Grace regularly. As the core of discipleship grows, the congregation is more able to enter discernment as a body, rather than relying on the clergy to discern for the body. With that we turned to the questions of the evening.
The first two questions were given to share and discuss in small groups. They were two versions of the same essential question. What do you love about Grace? If we were to announce massive changes to the church tomorrow, what would you want to preserve? The small groups shared their answers with the larger group and also had recorders to share impressions that may not have come forward.
Then a third question followed the sharing time: What would you add to Grace? Those answers are recorded with the preserved questions.
These questions were meant to open thought and dialogue about what is working at Grace, and what may need work. The majority of the responses centered positively around Welcome and Worship, with a deep desire to celebrate and preserve the hospitality and liturgical basis of the church’s life. There were concerns about making sure that we include all of our members and integrate them into the life of the church and that we maintain the Episcopal identity of the congregation. This was balanced by a couple of comments at three of the sessions about the negatives of joining a denomination, especially the Episcopal church.
Study and Service received far fewer comments. I think that is for two different reasons. Study received fewer comments because fewer people are involved actively in study in the parish or in their lives. This is fairly typical of the Episcopal church currently and this congregation in particular. Service on the other hand was not talked about as much because it is an area of settled success. We identify as a service oriented parish with broad ministries of outreach, which were often listed without further comment. They were some comments about extending them, but there was not a lot of energy there. Where there was energy in service was in extending ministries to our own home bound, elderly, and those with difficulty coming to church. Especially prominent were two concerns: a new elevator and a parish nurse. Both of these will be investigated this fall.
After receiving all of these comments and conversations, we turned to three proposals that I brought forward from various groups based on similar concerns that have been brought forward. It was inspiring to see how consistently these ministries addressed the same concerns about reaching out to our neighbors and being formed as Christians, care for our elderly and those in crisis, and the growth and spiritual energy we are all experiencing in our worship. The three proposals are:
1) Alpha – Alpha is a small group ministry based around video presentations and a meal together. The Rev. Meredith Hunt, retired, brought this ministry to me fresh. She has run it in several forms and forums over her ministry and would be willing to help us explore doing this together as a tool for growth in discipleship, prayer, and a tool for evangelism. We would need to host the small groups for dinners here or in other locations. We would also need to have a coordinator and small group leaders and quiet assistants who would be willing to be trained and help to lead.
2) Stephen Ministries – Stephen Ministry is a local lay ministry of support and listening. Stephen Ministers are usually lay people who are trained and assigned to people who request a minister to meet with them, listen to them, and be present, bringing Christ-light in times of transition, need, or care. We have the opportunity to coordinate with Central United Methodist in their Stephen Ministry training to get us off the ground with solid experience, and then we would like to have people trained locally to be able to do training and run our own ministry out of Grace and eventually be able to offer it to the Diocese.
3) A Shift to the Sunday Morning Schedule – the final proposal was a shift to the Sunday morning schedule that has to do with responding to the limits of the sanctuary space and attendance. While the early service is relatively flat after seven years (actually much longer) the 10 am service has grown considerably, but falls back anytime we venture much over 179. When I first approached a group led by Kathy Will about this, I was met with incredulity about the capacity of the sanctuary, but Barbara Klugh took a measuring tape to the sanctuary to discover that we had 184 prime seats. That means that we are regularly at 75% or so of capacity. At that level of capacity, people feel pinched for space, regulars become less regular and visitors don’t feel like there is enough space for them.
This was the same issue that led to the rebuilding of the sanctuary a decade ago. This time, we are proposing a change to schedule rather than building.
We are proposing moving the 8 am and 10 am services to 9 am and 11 am for a trial between Advent I and Pentecost. The two services will be slightly different in approach musically and liturgically as outlined below. Further we are proposing that the hour between services be dedicated to study for the whole congregation. This will require change from everyone and a commitment to spiritual growth and renewal. Here is the outline for Sunday morning.
These proposals were met with overwhelming support, but not universally. There were and are questions that will need to be answered as we test out this schedule and our commitment to education. There were questions around space, hospitality, and welcome, which were very good. There were also questions about timing, and particularly the work/stress of the presider and rector in a tighter schedule.
We will be forming a small group of Vestry members and other committees to look at the responses from the talks to continue to address the needs and desires raised. I look forward to seeing new ministries brought forward in the fall as we discern together our next direction.
All of the Tapas Talks were very positive and conversational. I am deeply thankful for everyone’s participation and willingness to consider together the next phase of life at Grace Church.