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Nurturing a Culture of Abundance
If pledge payments are down and the roof is leaking again, it’s easy for a congregation to fall into the habit of focusing on surviving, rather than thriving. The Rev. Canon Gregory A. Jacobs, Canon to the Ordinary, hopes to combat this tendency through congregational cultural change.
“We’ve latched on firmly to a theology of scarcity,” Jacobs said. Congregations need to refocus on the fact that church “is not about the building, it’s about the ministry.”
In some cases this will require rethinking the basic structure of a church. “A one-priest, one-altar model isn’t going to work everywhere,” he said. Some congregations need to think in new ways about how to do ministry – sharing resources, team ministry, clustering with other nearby congregations.
Jacobs and Bishop Mark Beckwith met with lay and clergy leaders from nearly a dozen congregations in the northern and western sections of the diocese last month to talk about opportunities for shared ministry. The meeting was held at St. Mary’s in Sparta, where the Rev. Carol Gadsden has been Rector since November 2011.
The congregations – none of which committed to any specific plan that day – include St. Mary’s, Belvidere; St. James’, Hackettstown; St. Luke’s, Hope; St. Peter’s, Mount Arlington; Christ Church, Newton; St. Gabriel’s, Oak Ridge; St. Luke’s, Philipsburg; St. Mary’s, Sparta; St. Thomas’, Vernon; Good Shepherd, Wantage; and St. Peter’s, Washington. Separately, the churches in the Oranges have had initial discussions about opportunities for shared ministry.
Conversations are at a very early stage, but Gadsden said she believes some churches in the northwest group will ultimately move toward “something called cluster ministry,” a model she saw used successfully in the Diocese of Massachusetts, where she previously worked.
She envisions a group of perhaps six congregations – some with full-time clergy, some part-time and some served only by supply priests – which agree to enter into a year-long experiment in regional ministry. “For a year they dance together, they date – and at the end of the year, should they decide this is the right decision for them, they sign a covenant to enter ministry together.” Once in covenant, financial resources are pooled, and the combined clergy becomes a staff that serves all of the congregations. Each church maintains its own Vestry, and also is represented on an “uber-Vestry” for the entire cluster. As the congregations live into the covenant, ways to embrace greater cooperation and stewardship are explored and discussed. Over time, the cluster, in conversation with the diocese, may prayerfully make painful but necessary decisions as to the viability of all of the church buildings, and recommend that some be closed.
The Rev. Laurie Matarazzo represents two of the congregations that already have moved to a shared-resources model. For more than a year she has been priest-in-charge of both St. Mary’s, Belvidere and St. Luke’s, Hope, two Warren County congregations about 10 miles apart. The churches share a treasurer and are beginning to share a parish administrator. “We’ve done a lot of partnering, but I think it has to go beyond that,” she said. She noted that the rural nature of the northwest portion of the diocese presents a particular challenge to congregations considering shared ministry.
As the diocese and the congregations move toward new models for ministry, “does that mean some of the old structure has to die? Yes,” Jacobs said. “Does that mean some congregations that have been here over 100 years have to close? Probably.” As wrenching as it is for parishioners to experience the closing of a church where they were baptized, confirmed, married and want to be buried, “it’s just not good stewardship, nor ministry fulfilling” to continue to pour resources into an unsustainable structure.
Jacobs said congregations can benefit from stepping back from “the way things have always been done” and looking at their community and their ministry with new eyes. As an example, he mentioned St. John’s, Boonton, which a few years ago realized that its “white church on the hill” was geographically segregated from the life of the community. The congregation responded by opening “Light on Main,” a storefront in the business district that was turned into a gathering place and a venue for speakers, programs and an internet café. The venture has helped reconnect the congregation to the community, “and it would never have come about if they hadn’t asked themselves” how they could do things in a different way.
To bring about the kind of cultural change he describes, Jacobs recommends that congregations start by discerning answers to these questions: “What do we seek here?” “What brings us together?” and “What is God calling us to be?” This will help congregations live into God’s promise of abundance as communities gathered in Christ, not simply as institutions trying to survive.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
The seventh paragraph has been revised to more accurately reflect the sequence of events for churches considering a regional "cluster" ministry.