Priority: Strengthening Existing Congregations

From the Spring 2014 issue of the Virginia Episcopalian: Staff Q&A with Julie Simonton

In the electronic survey at Annual Council, when asked what poses the greatest challenge to their congregations, 32.7 percent of respondents said it was the changing status of church in society. How can we help our churches face this challenge head-on?

Helping our churches embrace this head-on is a question about being in community – not only being in community with other parishes, with the Diocese, and with churches nationally and internationally, but also about being in community in their communities. It sounds redundant, but it’s not. The first phone call I answered after I arrived at the diocesan offices at Mayo House was from someone at a parish wanting me to connect them with another parish using a program they were considering. And what a brilliant first phone call, because it clearly demonstrated how churches want to be in dialogue outside of themselves.

Regardless of how many helpful resources we post on our website or how many articles we write, the best way to find out practical, clever, inspiring ideas is still to talk with those who surround us. It’s only in conversations with each other and with God that we can discern a way forward together. I don’t expect folks to necessarily use other parishes’ ideas word for word, but I do know that hearing about the abundance of creativity and courage to change that bubbles around our diocese can liberate others to explore and be open to their creativity.

So inviting others into the conversation is essential, and offers the opportunity to use the gifts God gives us to do the work God calls us to do. Rather than sitting in our parishes, looking out and deciding what we think our communities need, invite in the local sheriff, the local police chief, the local school board president and the local social service agent in. Begin conversations with them, and ask how they see the church best integrated into the community.

Even if the trend in folks not attending church on Sundays is true and continues, the trend for how many lives the church touches and embraces every day can multiply like the stars in heaven. And that is the Kingdom!

What resources can your office and the Diocese provide to equip our churches for ministry and help them grow and strengthen?

The primary resources that our office offers are ourselves and each other. We offer conversation. It is my experience with the majority of our phone calls that when someone calls with a specific conversation – for instance, about unpaid pledges for capital campaigns – we wind up spending 15 or 20 minutes talking about the vitality of their parish.

So calling with a very simple, basic question opens a path to congregational growth, creativity and partnership right there in those 15 minutes. And what’s even more fun is visiting with parishes, leading vestry retreats and hosting diocesan workshops. Then the conversations really take off!

We also work daily to read blogs, books, articles and websites; study research out of the National Episcopal Church, Pew, Barna, Lilly and other organizations; keep up to speed on the ministries in Lutheran, Presbyterian and other churches, and listen for the trends in questions we hear from parishes. If we don’t have the resources on our desks, we’ll reach out to find it and pass it along.

What are you excited about in the world of stewardship?

I’m really excited about the collaboration amongst denominations. Just last week, I was researching a particular subject and the resources I received from an Episcopal colleague turned out to be from the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches. Some of the liveliest and most helpful conversations at the recent Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes conference I attended were with Baptists and Presbyterians. And I’ve just learned about a Presbyterian conference where the only two keynote speakers are an Episcopalian and a Methodist. What fun!

We are all children of God and we are all pursuing a vision of the Kingdom. How we understand our calls through our different traditions should not be divisions, but rather catalysts for conversation that faithfully inform and enrich our lives in Christ together.

Another thing that I’m excited about is the focus on getting laity and clergy more comfortable talking about money and faith. In the world of stewardship, even though we see declining numbers in attendance and pledge units, the amount of pledges themselves continue to increase. So even as the numbers decrease, faith is deepening. My coworker, the Rev. Pat Wingo, often quotes a David Wilcox song: “All the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.” Even at our most challenging moments, the faithful become more faithful.

How do you see our approach to strengthening our churches growing and evolving in the years to come? What’s on the horizon?

In the words of my colleague, the Rev. Sven vanBaars, we are intentionally moving from chasing the sunset to turning and facing the sunrise. As a diocese, I see congregations stopping and breathing, taking the time to reconnect with what is intrinsically authentic about their community, and embracing our amazing life in the Kingdom – together!