Take that, Anglican Journal!
Seriously though, I for one am grateful to see the Anglican Journal in its January 2020 issue turn its full attention to the health and sustainability of the Anglican Church at the parish level. This has been my passion as an ordained person in the Church, and I’m glad that people all over the Diocese of New Westminster and within the broader ACC are now talking about their parishes and their ability to attract and form those people whom God has seen fit to bring into their orbit.
So, thank you, Anglican Journal?
Key to any discussion of what we might do to respond to these parish trends is a common understanding of the purpose of a diocese or a territory or any regional judicatory. From where I sit, the purpose of a diocese or a territory is, with God’s help, to foster healthy, faithful, effective communities of faith at the grassroots, local level. Within this understanding of the key purpose of a diocese or a territory, that regional unit can focus on a number of things that can help redevelop parishes or experiment with different forms of communities of faith. Not all of these will speak to all dioceses or territories. While the Diocese of New Westminster is compact geographically and is blessed with financial and human resources, modern and inexpensive technology (Zoom conferencing and other resources) can allow those in dioceses/territories with expansive geography to do some of what is below. The list is offered as a stimulus to anyone who wants to think about how to respond both to the trends and to the Holy Spirit who is forever calling the Church into a new future.
- Prayer: A bishop and any diocesan/territorial staff should pray for parishes and for their redevelopment and should encourage parish leaders and parishes to do likewise. Prayer is fundamental to redevelopment and creating new expressions of communities of faith. Pray openly, boldly, and persistently and in a way that is open to God’s guidance
- Substantial and consistent training: We must consistently offer substantial training for lay and clergy leaders in the basics of congregational development, organization development and faith development. Currently, the Diocese of New Westminster and the Diocese of Ottawa offer the School for Parish Development, a program that continues to grow in Canada and in the US. This kind of training—offering it, offering something like it, or finding a way to connect our leaders to it–is key to a diocese or territory focusing its energy on parish development. The training also builds a common language around development in the broader diocese or territory.
- Practitioner Groups: There is great power and wisdom in convening groups of people who are working on the same thing and supporting and learning from one another in that work. In the Diocese of New Westminster, we have created and are creating practitioner groups. For example: a membership growth practitioner group for clergy and a similar group for clergy and lay teams called GroundWork, a practitioner group for children’s ministry, a practitioner group for those working with youth, an innovative ministry group. These groups reinforce the importance of the area of practice and provide concrete support and wisdom for those who participate.
- Third-party consultation: Redevelopment often needs outside facilitation or hosting skills. Where possible, a diocese or territory can cultivate such a group of consultants/facilitators who are willing to offer themselves to parishes in their redevelopment. If they do this, they must train those consultant facilitators in consultation skills as well as the skills specifically needed by the parish in its work.
- Recruitment and formation of ordained leaders: In my experience the single most powerful thing that can transform a parish or community of faith that believes it may close into a vibrant, magnetic faith community, is the appointment of a clerical leader who both has the will to redevelop a parish and has the skills to do it. We should be recruiting people into the ordained ministry who have the qualities to lead a community of people to a new place and have the skills to engage them in the process. I believe dioceses and territories need to lay out the specific qualities the Church is seeking and assist local faith communities in identifying, encouraging and assisting those very people to enter ordained life.
- Catechesis as an engaging faith development experience: Dioceses and territories should work diligently on restoring catechesis to the parishes. In my experience, the teaching has been mostly absent in some parishes for years. Dioceses and territories need to consider how to enliven teaching at the parish level, not just in the form of “talking heads” either in-person or in a video but in the form of designing learning experiences that bring participants to life in Christ through the study of Scripture, prayer, the sacraments, Christian action and other foundational areas of our faith.
- Anglican ethos and character: Dioceses and territories need to teach parish leaders again and again about the positive and life-giving qualities of an Anglican Christian way. This is not to be done in any self-congratulatory or uncritical way. When done well, it should lay out the full range of qualities associated with an Anglican ethos and allow people to identify what gives them life, what they continue to struggle with, and what they might strengthen at the parish level.
- The “gathering” function: If we believe that assisting God in the gathering of people into communities of faith is part of the core function of a parish (and I do believe this), we need to focus some diocesan or territorial energy on training our parishes to strengthen “gathering” at the parish level. In my experience, every parish can strengthen what they do in this area. A significant piece of the School for Parish Development is about this very thing.
- Modest financial incentives: Redevelopment efforts or experimenting with new forms of being Church can be helped by modest financial grants. This is both about morale and about funding small things that can, in fact, turn out to be big things.
- Communication: Tell the stories about parishes or individuals or other groups trying something and something good coming from it. Tell the stories in enough detail that others can be inspired to do likewise. In the Territory of the People, have a look at what one retired priest did and the Press it got locally (the story was also told throughout the Territory of the People). It’s the story of the Vicar of Woodpecker!
Siblings in Christ, take heart. Share your ideas about what we might do to respond both to the trends and to the ongoing presence of the Spirit among us. I welcome the conversation.