[Episcopal News Service] I’m excited to be part of a process in the Diocese of Washington focusing on collaboration, looking at Region 6 in our diocese. Locals call the region southern Maryland – 22 parishes in the old tobacco economy of lower Prince George’s, Charles, and St. Mary’s Counties. All but two of the congregations have graveyards, and many date back to the earliest days of the nation. But tobacco is no longer a cash crop so farms are snatched up by developers and new homes are quickly built, making it the fastest growing region in the state. But the churches are losing ground. Average Sunday attendance is 75, and it’s an aging membership. Southern Maryland is a snapshot of the Episcopal Church in America today.
Four years ago, our region started a conversation with our diocese. The point was simple: we need to change the way we do church, or else there won’t be any church left. As smart as we were to see this, we were naïve to think that naming the elephant actually gets it out of the room. Neither the diocese nor the congregations were willing to change the institutional structure, nor was either imaginative or inspired enough by the Holy Spirit to do so.
Over time, the idea of collaboration emerged. “We need to act as one Episcopal Church,” went the rallying cry of a well-attended event one year ago. And so was born the Collaborative Ministries Exploration Group or CMEG, a voluntary coalition of 25 lay and clergy leaders.
The diocese picked up the tab for catering and a consultant, and my co-chair and I determined that CMEG would eat, pray and share our individual stories, then get to work on the nuts-and-bolts of collaboration: research strategies of collaboration and present what we learned. A great idea.
A funny thing happened along the way. We enjoyed praying and sharing our stories, but we barely accomplished half of what we set out to do. We have done something important, though. We’ve built a new community of people, inspired by the Holy Spirit to imagine what the Body of Christ can be.
In so doing, we’ve also realized that collaboration is not enough. At its core, the question of sustainability for the Episcopal Church (and not just in southern Maryland) is really about how God is transforming the residues of conventional Christianity into a robust, mission-minded fellowship who gathers in the name of His Son, Jesus. Without a new community and new vision, collaboration doesn’t sufficiently challenge the (ironically) congregational nature of the way many of us think.
It’s easy to say we need to act like one Episcopal Church. It’s a lot harder to do; changing policy is too big and boring. We can, however, change the way the People of God do church, then expect the institution to change. Our goal is no longer collaboration but, rather, collaborative ministries. We’re setting out to develop the discipleship capacity of our membership, and if we want to do impactful work we’ve got to work together with other congregations, creating ministries that do not yet exist or broadening ministries that someone is doing but not with maximum impact.
The Episcopal Church’s institutional structure is changing, no matter what, so it seems wise our diocesan leadership is willing to run with the structural changes that will necessarily emerge when the people of God start being church together in new and different ways. It will require new disciplines – it’s probably easier, still, for a diocese to communicate with one parish than with one region – and we’ll undoubtedly have to learn new things.
This is where we are as one region in one diocese and, I’d suspect, as the Episcopal Church today. It’s about collaboration, after all, so we’d like to open the conversation and share our early discoveries:
1. You’ve got to have this conversation regularly, even though it may look to some like you’re not doing anything.
2. Collaboration in ministry is a good idea, regardless of church size. If you invite people into the conversation, many of them will come to realize this on their own.
3. Collaborative ministry is not the only strategy. We still need healthy and happy parish churches to provide weekly sustenance. Not everyone will think collaborative ministry is a great idea, nor should they.
4. Collaborative ministry challenges the singular dominance of the one-parish/one-priest model. There are other ways of organizing, and people (including dioceses) will come to realize that.
5. Many church-folks are ready to do meaningful ministry. Equally, they’re tired of talking about decline. More focus on loss won’t move anyone anywhere.
6. There are smart practitioners in the field of congregational development but what works in one situation won’t necessarily translate everywhere.
7. A lot of our best attempts seek to stem the loss of membership, instead of grow the Church.
8. The challenge of our time is to coordinate collaborative efforts on a large-scale. This work is often done in limited contexts and, generally, with churches already in decline. We actually have the human resources now, sitting in our pews.
— The Rev. Greg Syler is rector of St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland, co-chairs the Collaborative Ministries Exploration Group of Region 6 of the Diocese of Washington and is working with others to create a diocesan summer camp.