Update On St. Jude’s

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 11.57.36 AMDecember 17, ERIE, PA–Bishop Sean Rowe announced on Wednesday that, in keeping with the recommendations of its Vision Committee, St. Jude’s, an Episcopal mission with three centers of ministry that began in January, 2011, will conclude its ministry on December 31.

After that date, two of the ministry centers—Trinity Church in New Castle and St. Clement’s Church in Greenville will continue as missions of the diocese, and the Church of the Redeemer in Hermitage will close. Bishop Rowe will preside and preach at Redeemer’s final service on January 31.

In his letter to St. Jude’s congregants, Rowe acknowledged that the end of St. Jude’s and the closing of Church of the Redeemer is a painful time for many of its members and for him. “But as I said at diocesan convention last month, I believe that God is leading us to a new place in a new time, and this movement is only possible because together we have done the hard work of examining what has worked and what hasn’t, and have trusted one another enough to recognize hard truths,” he wrote.

“Over the past five years we have made many friends from all three ministry centers, we have laughed together and cried together, we have started new ministries and even enhanced current ministries,” said Jeff Mills, a member of Church of the Redeemer and treasurer of St. Jude’s. “But we were not able to grow our church enough to be self-sustaining based on the current setup.”

After the ministry of St. Jude’s concludes, St. Clement’s will continue as a mission under the part-time direction of the Rev. Doug Dayton. Trinity Church will undertake a period of “intentional development,” said Rowe, who has appointed the Rev. Erin Betz Shank as its vicar.

Betz Shank was sponsored for ordination by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, where she grew up. She was educated at Thiel College, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Boston University, and the General Theological Seminary in New York, and was ordained by Rowe in February. She currently serves as assistant rector at Middleham & St. Peter’s Episcopal Parish in California, Maryland.

“There is an old cliché that says as one door closes another door opens,” said Dorothy Perkins, a member of Trinity Church in New Castle who served on the Vision Committee. “It will be an exciting time in our church life as we move forward, worshiping and working together with our new priest, Erin. She is an energetic, spiritual young woman who will work alongside us to reach our goals of having a stronger presence in the community, developing a strong stewardship program and finding ways to serve the needy of our community with a strong outreach program.”

Later in 2016, after what Rowe terms “a time of preparation,” the diocese will plant a new church in Hermitage under the leadership of Jason Shank, a Methodist pastor and experienced church planter who is beginning the process of ordination in the Episcopal Church. He is married to Erin Betz Shank.

Church planting, said Rowe, has long been part of the diocese’s congregational development strategy, and Hermitage’s growing population and economy make it a good candidate to be the location of the diocese’s first new church in 50 years.

“Hermitage is a growing, changing community, and we know that thriving congregations reflect their communities in worship style, outreach, and parish life,” said Bishop Rowe. “As difficult as it is, the Vision Committee and I determined that the people of the Church of the Redeemer were better equipped to embrace a fresh vision for a new generation of Hermitage families and residents than to work within the existing constraints.”

Members of all three congregations are invited to meet with Bishop Rowe on January 3. On that day, he will preach and preside at the 8 a.m. service in New Castle and meet with the congregation afterward, and preach and preside at the 11 a.m. service in Hermitage and meet with the congregations of Church of the Redeemer and St. Clement’s afterward. Members of the St. Jude’s Vision Committee will also attend both meetings.

“Jesus and the Local Church” ECW’s Annual Retreat at Chautauqua

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.41.25 AMThe Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania’s Episcopal Church Women will be hosting their annual retreat at Chautauqua Institution on September 12th from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  The retreat will be led by The Reverand Canon Al Johnson (Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation with the Diocese).  Canon Johnson will speak about “Jesus and the Local Church.”

Stories are at the heart of all we do each and every day and in all our churches each and every Sunday.  During this retreat participants will learn the stories of each other and of Jesus.  They will explore the unique calling of the local parish and then proceed to tell the story of each local parish.  They will explore trends related to the local church in our nation and then look at similar concerns in our local communities. They will discuss what recent statistics about religious institutional life say about our local communities, as well as the struggles and triumphs of the local church.  Finally participants will explore a local church that is living and free by discussing  generativity, fear, resurrection, and abundance.

All are welcome!  Registration is $20 for Saturday and is due by August 28th. Friday, overnight accommodations are available at the Episcopal cottage on a first come first serve basis (Friday and Saturday registration is $30).  Contact Donna Wheeler for information and to register 814-825-5708.

Don’t Forget to Register for the Mission Conference

lightstock_161504_jpg_user_1243317Don’t forget to register for this year’s Mission Conference where we will be talking about the concept of One Church. It will be held on Saturday, May 16, at St. Mark’s, Erie. Registration will open at 9:15 AM and the conference will begin at 9:45 AM. There is no cost to attend and lunch will be provided.

For many years, we have been working toward deeper collaboration between congregations and regions of the diocese for the sake of a robust mission strategy that reaches more people for the gospel. This year’s gathering will focus on this collaboration and have a different format than previous mission conferences.

We will feature a few small presentations about how we might deepen our sense of diocesan community and, more importantly, will provide ample opportunity for conversation about our future. Our goal is to have clergy and parish ‘thought leaders’ gathered together in one place to consider ways we can broaden the understanding of our common life.

We hope you will make this day a priority and plan to attend. Your voice is critical to the future of our diocese and the work of the Kingdom.

Click here to register. Registration will close on Friday, May 8.

Contact Vanessa Butler with any questions at vbutler@dionwpa.org and 814-456-4203.

The Sunday Roller Coaster

Reprinted from ECF Vital Practices www.ecfvp.org

by Anna Olson on March 5, 2015

It was a rough first Sunday of Lent in church. Attendance was low, especially in one of our services. There were some explanations for the absences of our regulars (aren’t there always!). But the bottom line was that we had several new folks who were inspired by our Ash Wednesday outreach, and they came for the first time on a Sunday to find the church feeling awfully empty.

On Monday, I shared with my clergy support group that I felt like things were stuck at church, that we are just having the same problems over and over and making no progress. A colleague shared similar frustration in her context. When someone asked what was making us feel that way, we both realized it really came down to one rough Sunday. I had experienced poor attendance and frustration with the way we welcomed newcomers. My friend had had a hard meeting with church leaders. We had both let one Sunday color our perception of our entire ministry.

Maybe it’s just me and my friends, but I suspect we’re not alone in allowing ourselves to get swept onto the Sunday roller coaster. One good Sunday and we’re in the clouds. Church is growing! We are successful! One bad Sunday, and it’s all over. The church is dying. We are failures.

This roller coaster is not a clergy-only ride. A low Sunday or two, and my parishioners are glum as well. I cheerfully remind people that it’s the long haul that counts, but they often seem as unconvinced as I am.

Even if my denials ring hollow when I’m riding the Sunday roller coaster myself, I’m right that it’s the wrong ride for a faithful congregation. Judging our worth Sunday by Sunday keeps us from focusing on longer term efforts that take time to develop and bear fruit. Elevating what happens on Sunday as the test of our whole ministry models a sort of Sunday-only Christianity that we all should be trying to move away from. Judging good and bad based mostly on attendance reflects our desire to be popular more than our desire to be faithful.

Letting “bad” Sundays get us down also serves to obscure the blessings that God often brings out of experiences that we perceive as failures. Having few regulars in the service where we had visitors last Sunday allowed me to focus on the new families, invite their children to help lead the service. We gathered around the altar for communion. They actually got a pretty good taste of the best of who we are as a small, intimate, pastoral, sacramental church that focuses on finding practical ways to live out Biblical teachings on love of God and neighbor. If they wanted big shiny church, they will look elsewhere. As they should. Even on our “best” Sundays, we’re not that big, and not that shiny. Our strength lies elsewhere.

On Ash Wednesday I preached about being dust, and returning to dust, and how embracing that reality can help lay to rest our obsession with success and failure. I preached on temptation and the things that threaten to make us forget who we are, and who God is. This Lent, I will try to get out of the revolving line for the Sunday roller coaster, and listen to my own sermons.

Do you ride the Sunday roller coaster? Might you find ways invite your fellow church members to join you in getting out of line to ride it again?

Episcopal Congregations: What? Why? How?

This is a reprint from Father Adam’s blog “The Black Giraffe” on Feb. 7, 2015

The Acts 8 Moment Blogforce proposed these two questions:

  • What is the mission of the congregation?
  • How should it be structured to serve its mission?

Before thinking about mission and structure, I realized I needed a working definition of what a congregation in the Episcopal Church is today.  While I’m sure more theologically deep and ecclesiologially sophisticated definitions could be offered, a working definition for most congregations is:

Episcopal Congregation: a group of people who meet in the same place for worship on Sunday.

Of course, exceptions exist.  Some congregations are multi-site.  A few congregations worship at times other than Sunday morning.  Emergent churches and fresh expressions sites are experimenting with different models.  But in the end, our Book-of-Common-Prayer-based church identifies its congregations as the group of folks who gather for worship in a particular place, even if some gather at 8:00am and some at 10:00am.

Given this definition, the de facto mission of most congregations begins with hosting a Sunday morning worship service.  Since the 1979 prayer book, the liturgical movement, and our increasing denominational niche as the liberal catholic church, in many places a congregation’s primary focus is offering a Sunday morning Eucharist.

I might be accused of circular logic here.  If a congregation is defined by their Sunday worship, then their worship would be their primary goal.  The circularity makes my argument no less true, however.  This definition and mission has structural implications that are also observable.  Our congregations are structured to provide Sunday morning worship as effectively as possible.  Budgets focus on ensuring a priest to celebrate mass, a sanctuary, and a musician.  (If you have any questions about this, look at the budget differences in most congregations for the costs associated with worship and the costs associated with almost any other mission priority.)  Lay participation is often associated with liturgical ministries, as well, and the members of the choir, altar guild, acolytes, readers, ushers, etc., often outnumber people involved in other church ministries.

These details are particularly true for smaller congregations that have resources for only one or two priorities.  Larger congregations with greater resources can carry out the first priority of worship effectively and still have money and volunteers to accomplish other goals.

While I agree that worship is important, and is one of the priorities of a congregation — maybe even the first among equals — our current over-focus on the Sunday morning event is killing our churches.  For a congregation to thrive it needs inspiring worship, but it also needs evangelism and loving relationships and small groups and a number of other components (for one useful analysis, see the Natural Church Development materials).  Too often, when things are going badly in the Episcopal Church, we tinker with our worship service rather than increasing our evangelism or starting a new ministry in the community or dealing with the conflict that drives away every visitor who actually talks to anyone at coffee hour.

Instead of making worship services the primary mission of our congregations, we should redefine our mission as creating a healthy, growing community of disciples.  Worship will be one important component, but so will private devotions, fellowship opportunities, personal and corporate evangelism, and any number of other practical ways that we live out loving God, loving our neighbors and baptizing all nations while teaching them everything Jesus commanded.  The mission of our congregations, and the mission of the church at every level, should involve being a community that lives out the Great Commandment and Great Commission.

The structure of congregations, then, should be whatever allows a group of people in a particular place to live into that mission.  Given our traditions in the Episcopal Church, part of the structure of our congregations will involve democratically elected lay governance with appropriate clergy leadership along with financial transparency, administrative competency, connection to the diocese and larger church, and other best practices of non-profit and religious corporations.

As this refocusing of mission is happening, some places are realizing that budget, building and other resources also need to be refocused.  These discussions and changes can all be very positive moves as our congregations worry less about filling our emptying pews and more about being a healthy, growing community of disciples.

Father Adam Trambley, St. John’s Sharon

Do you have what it takes to SURVIVE!?

Do you have what it takes to SURVIVE!? SURVIVE! is a twenty-five hour retreat for young adults, 18-35 years old, at the end ofzombie-156055_1280 May, created by members of the Formation Advisory Board . The retreat includes six talks, given by lay and clergy from our diocese, with discussion following. The topics will include survival, identity, relationships, evil, the Bible, and enjoying life. The retreat will also include challenges around the designated theme to get participants working together. The theme for this year’s SURVIVE! is the Zombie Apocalypse, giving us a fun focus for the content of our challenges. You do not have to be a fan of the popular genre in order to enjoy the event. The goal for SURVIVE! is to provide a venue for young adults to gather for conversation around topics of faith and build community through fellowship. This is going to be a great event, so don’t miss out!

For more information about SURVIVE!, CLICK HERE.

The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Family’ Plan (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of “The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Families’ Plan” from yesterday (Click here to see part 1)

Recently, my wife and I attended a small parish in a major city. The church was a part of our growing in faith and of our courtship. This was our first visit in over 30 years. The welcome was warm and inviting but not overly so. The priest came and introduced himself. Worship was beautiful, simple, and well within the gifts and abilities of that community. We were looking forward to coffee hour as there were people who had been there years ago and connecting would be fun. All went well until the announcement time at the end and out came the words “friends” and “family.” I thought: “uh oh!” Sure enough, twenty minutes later, after what seemed like every member of the family had spoken and given their particular announcement and spoke of their friendliness, my wife and I had long since decided not to stay and headed for the door as soon as we could. No one paid any particular attention to us once the service ended and my worst fears were confirmed: another church that believes they are friendly and a family only to discover they are less inclusive than they wish to think and more segregating than they would ever suspect. What happened? Friends and family as descriptors draw a line around an imaginary center of the parish. If you are in the family and act friendly, you understand both the locus of the center and how you connect to it. Like in families, dangerous assumptions are made about how and what the family communicates. When I celebrate Christmas with my extended family I understand the patterns, communications, and actions. When we have an “outsider” it is very clear that our rituals are mysterious and, without deliberate action to the contrary, make the guests feel as if they are outsiders. Sometimes being so excluded is comfortable and, the more introverted, perhaps the more comfortable. But remember that the research suggests most churches described above are pressed to grow and bring in new people. Most believe that what the casual church shopper wants is to be in a family and treated in a friendly manner. However, that’s not why people are choosing to show up at church these days. People show up because people want to believe and need help with unbelief. People have plenty of circles of friends. As a recovering alcoholic, I attend three meetings a week. Many of these people are also very good friends and work at friendship more deliberately and more deeply than anything that happens in church. Most of also have a family filled with health and challenges and love and conflict and so much more. Perhaps people don’t need another family. More likely what people seek is connection, community, God, hope, belonging, and faith. When a church draws the line around friendly and family, guests are immediately drawn outside the circle, confused and wondering how one enters the family. And, regardless of the words, people experience the environment as basically resistant to newcomers. Resistance is a conscious or unconscious pattern of exclusion in which a guest is repeatedly invited to press up against invisible boundaries in hopes of miraculously finding the crack that allows entry. What do we do? First, change the language. Consider deliberately dropping the use of the words friendly and family. Exchange them with words like hospitable, gracious, open, inclusive (careful here, however, as this is more than about sexual orientation) or inviting instead of friendly. Consciously choose to exchange the word family with a word like community, or connection, or parish.hands-544522_1280 Secondly, reacquaint the community with the two founding values of parish life: service and sacrifice. Both words cannot be spoken without looking outside ourselves. Research for the past four decades unanimously suggests that growing churches are those churches that place a primary focus outside themselves; looking and discovering where and how they are called to serve and in what ways they are being asked to sacrifice. More importantly, our congregations are to be porous; they are to be open to the next person who arrives at any time. That woman or man who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to get up, dress and head to our churches does so in hope of finding something different than the health club, the local coffee shop, the Sunday paper, their family and their current circle of friends; they seek Jesus not a circle of friends and family. They already have that. They seek life and love and faith; spiritual companions on the way. They bring with them a raw understanding of our purpose as a local church, the hope of the world; what will they find? 20 minutes of announcements that point out how they don’t fit? Do they hear words of friendship accompanied by actions of segregation? Descriptions of family which are code for “we have no room for you here”? Or will they find a humble community of faithful people seeking to grow in their Christian faith, to support and guide others on the same journey, and to change the world? It’s up to each and every one of us who sees herself or himself as a member of a parish community to decide. The only “cost” to being in a parish community is ourselves and our brokenness and humility and the cracks within ourselves that provide the opening for God and others to enter in and help us create the space of healing and light that seeks to envelop the next person who walks through the doors of our parish community. Jesus brought these two elements together in himself on the cross. We would see that full Jesus! The Rev. Al Johnson, Canon for Congregational Vitality and InnovationScreen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.41.25 AM

The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Families’ Plan (Part 1)

Several years ago a major cell phone company developed a usage plan called “friends and family.” In early cell phone days, when people grew conscious of how many minutes were used and how much each minute cost, we sought ways to increase minutes and decrease the cost per minute. This company invited us to put a certain number of family and friends on a list and call them for less per minute than other calls. Those outside the circle of “friends and family” cost the user higher rates. team-523245_1280Communication with people in our circle grew; outside the circle stayed the same or decreased.

The challenge of friends and family in Christianity goes back to the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Bargil Pixner, in his book With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel, explores Jesus’ ministry from the perspective of geography and location. He notes that when Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum to expand his circle, the main challenge he faced was with his family and whether he would minister as they wished or as he believed God was leading him.

Pixner goes on to note that Jesus eventually moved on from his family and formed a different community with his disciples. His brother James and others went their way to the Jewish based believers while Jesus himself moved outside that circle into the pagan and gentile world. The reconciliation, according to Pixner, takes place on the cross when Jesus speaks to John and says that Mary is his mother; and says to Mary that John is his son; and the two disparate groups are drawn together.

In the past four years I’ve had the chance to visit several Episcopal congregations around the country. More and more the two words these congregations use to describe themselves are the same as that cell phone package years ago and that challenged Jesus’ very ministry: friends and family.

These words tend to be the mainstay of smaller congregations with a Sunday attendance of less than 75 with anywhere from 10 to 60 families. These congregations are resilient, often having survived threats of extinction, while simultaneously being faithful and, often, hospitable. Their liturgies have become comfortable for them over the years and they appreciate some changes but only gradually introduced ones. They seem to live for four sources of connection each week: the passing of the peace, communion, announcements and coffee hour. These are sources of connection and belonging. Here, also, is where they believe they show how friendly and family-like they are; how they hope that each and every visitor will find a home with them.

Ironically, each of these churches, if surveyed, would also state as their top two goals the desire to bring in new people and to attract young families with children. One look around the worship environment and one experience of Sunday makes clear to the casual and insightful observer why that won’t happen and it’s because of two words: friends and family. These two words, more than any others, often prove to be two profoundly discriminative and painfully segregating words in our church lexicon.

Click here for part 2

The Rev. Al Johnson, Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation