This article was originally published by the Episcopal Church Foundation as part of the Vestry Papers issue on Facing Leadership Challenges (May 2015).
This is an exciting time in the life of the church. It is a time of hope and promise, of new life, yet it is also a challenging and frightening time to many of us. As leaders, we are charged with leading in this time of transition from the “way it has always been” into, well, we have no idea. But, here’s the thing: In the messiness and chaos of our lives and in the life of the Church, and even when things are unraveling in this transition, the Spirit of God is at work. Where is the Spirit of God at work? Everywhere. And if that is true, the Spirit of God is not only at work among the people in our church community but among the people in our neighborhoods – in the places where we work, play, study, and live.
We have spent a lot of time, energy, and money in the past several years trying to attract people to our churches. While we need to continue to be places of hospitality, we also need to be aware and understand that simply trying to make what we do more attractive will not compel people to come. At the same time, it is not simply about looking outward and adding more outreach. We need to learn how to be with our neighbors –taking care to enter into relationship from a place of vulnerability and availability instead of power. As we are vulnerable to each other and available to God and all God has in store for us, we open ourselves to the Spirit of God. If you think that sounds scary – it is!
This past March, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark held a workshop introducing the diocesan initiative Going Local to a group of congregations and clergy. Going Local is a process that helps congregations and clergy develop new attitudes, habits, practices, and values as they seek and join God’s work in the neighborhood. During one segment, we posted general statements that may characterize many churches. Participants were given five dots and asked to place them on any of the statements that best characterized their congregation. Two statements that received many dots stood out for me as ones vestry and wardens may struggle with on a regular basis:
"Energy is directed inwardly – we are trying to figure out how to attract people.”
“We’re struggling to find people to do what needs to be done.”
Energy is directed inwardly – we are trying to figure out how to attract people.
As part of the Going Local process, lay teams are encouraged to walk in their neighborhoods as a spiritual practice. Guided by a series of questions, they listen with their eyes and ears and pray with their feet. On one occasion, two women from St. David’s Church in Kinnelon, NJ took a walk that altered their lives. As these two women walked, they shared their experience of living in Kinnelon. One of them spoke of how left out and isolated she had felt after moving into the community as a single mom with two children. As she finished the story, they turned a corner and were greeted by neighbors who had gathered to watch a parade and celebrate. The two women were invited to join the celebration. After some time, this woman’s story was shared with the group and they apologized for what happened years before. These two women chose to take a walk that day and found God working in and with their neighbors.
We’re struggling to find people to do what needs to be done.
We also spend much time trying to fill slots and continue to do all those things that “need to be done.” I wonder, in this time of transition, whether we need to rethink what “needs to be done?” Do we need another committee? Or do we need people passionate about God’s mission? Do we need another project? Or do we utilize the time we have and invest it with our neighbors and communities -- dwelling in the places that God has placed us?
One way we are empowering laity to consider this is through the Going Local process. The word “process” is intentional – it is not another program, project, or quick fix for the church, but a way of developing new habits and practices so that we can be the church in a world that is continually changing. Using simple, concrete exercises grounded in listening, we prepare people for seeing their neighborhoods in a new way. And as we prepare—as we practice listening for God in scripture, in one another, and in our neighborhoods, we are surprised by hope found through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Listening is the first step in the five-step process and grounds all that we do. We listen for God in scripture using a particular type of study – Dwelling in the Word – and we dwell in the same text for the entire eighteen-month period. We are always astonished and surprised that the text we have used (Luke 10:1-12) has something to speak into our lives every time. When we dwell in the same text continuously, it becomes part of us and this can be life-giving and empowering.
In addition to listening in scripture, we listen for God in our church community through interviewing each other, and for what God is up to in our neighborhood by walking and observing. In and through all of these exercises, we are practicing and developing the habit of listening.
The next steps in the process are discerning (observations are brought together and we discern through several parish-wide conversations how God might be working in the neighborhood and church community), experimenting (we test out what we think God is up to), evaluating (we tell the stories of what we are learning and experiencing), and living into a new future (we plan for more experiments). The process is supported on many levels, including volunteers who coach the congregations, providing information and encouragement along with them on the journey.
Providing congregational leadership in this process is the work of a team of laity who are curious about what God might be up to in all the places where they work, play, and worship. These teams engage the broader congregation in trying out these practices.
In working through these steps, we are learning new ways of being with each other and being the church, but ultimately, it is not about the church – it is about God. It is about learning how to join God in God’s mission and embrace a hopeful future.
Ginny Dinsmore is the coordinator for missional church strategy for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. She is ordained in The Episcopal Church, and has served congregations in Rhode Island and New Jersey. She was rescued from boredom in 2011 by her Australian Shepherd, Micah.
- Dwelling in the Word as a way to begin vestry meetings or any committee meeting. Dwell in one particular text over a period of time. (A pdf document with steps outlining the process is below in Resources. We sometimes add a question related to the group. For instance, how might the spirit be nudging you in your role as vestry member? )
- Walk your neighborhood at different times of the day. What did you notice? Is there a difference walking at 7am versus 7pm? What surprised you? What are you curious about? Discuss this with at least one other person or find a walking partner and discuss as you walk.
- Share it! Post a street map of your town (or the towns represented by the congregation) and ask people to walk in their neighborhood and highlight the streets they walk. Have a cookout and discuss what you have learned.
- Walking in your church’s neighborhood. Gather a group after worship one Sunday and walk the immediate area around your church. You may need to do this more than one Sunday to get a snapshot of your church’s neighborhood. Come back and share what you observed.
- Do you know your neighbors? Draw you neighborhood with as much detail as possible (houses, school, etc.) as if you were looking from above. What do you notice about your drawing? Write in the names of your neighbors and anything you know about them. Do the same for your church’s neighborhood. [For more info on this exercise see “Moving Back into the Neighborhood” from The Missional Network or The Art of Neighboring (info below)]
Art of Neighboring
Website that complements the book The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon (Baker Books, 2012)
Note: This is not an Episcopal/Anglican resource, but offers some resources and ideas including a template for a block map where people can fill in the names of their eight closest neighbors.
- Going Local is a Five Step Process developed by The Missional Network. You can get more information about The Missional Network by clicking here, as well as, stories, articles and resources. http://themissionalnetwork.com/
- Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan J. Roxburgh (Baker Books, 2011)
- On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz (Scribner, 2013) click here for the book and here for the video
Steps for Dwelling in the Word
The above resource is a pdf from the Church Innovations website.
- The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen (IVP Books, 2014)