[Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida] A new model for the venerable Episcopal Church Women was presented at the first-day opener of the new Program Center at DaySpring Episcopal Center. The building, supported by ECW from its inception, is part of $20 million in improvements to the Diocese of Southwest Florida conference and camp center.
“It’s about the possibilities of a new model based on the good that we have done,” said Lisa Towle, president of the Episcopal Church Women. Towle, from the Diocese of North Carolina, spoke to the group of about 180 women for well over an hour on the future of the ECW. The audience listened carefully as she reasserted the need and potential for the ECW, in spite of the difficulty of attracting new members in a time of church decline.
Lana Fitzgerald, president of the Episcopal Church Women in Southwest Florida and a co-chair of the DaySpring Episcopal Center capital campaign to build the center, said that it was fitting that their 46th Annual Meeting was the first in the building and pool, which will be dedicated officially next Sun, Feb 26. “Women get done what needs to get done,” said Fitzgerald, a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Marco Island, Florida.
In Southwest Florida, the ECW represent the women of 77 congregations. It also functions as a support organization for all of the traditionally women’s affiliated ministries of the Diocese, including the venerable Order of Daughters of the King, Church Periodical Club, United Thank Offering, Diocesan Altar Guild and Order of St. Luke. ECW has been a longtime financial supporter of DaySpring, donating everything from capital for buildings to general fund assistance for campers to rocking chairs for the entrance porch pavilion. The week of the meeting, contractors were pouring gunite for a new, A.D.A.-compliant geothermal pool, also supported by $17,000 in ECW funds.
“You are women of the church,” said Towle, at the Nov. 17 meeting. “You are needed. You are valuable.” The role of the national ECW is about offering best practices, ideas and encouragement. “You are doing terrific things. This I know. But we can all do better in our lives.”
Towle was elected at the ECW Triennial in Salt Lake City, which took place during the same meeting of General Convetion that elected Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. The simultaneous election was an accident; the election was the first in years that was actually contested. The ECW position is unpaid, and is expected to be full-time, though she does receive travel expenses. There is no national office overseeing the operation; it is done out of homes.
To describe the potential of ECW, she described a number of anecdotes about welcome, both good and bad. The unfortunate was a Welcome Wagon lady who showed up on Towle’s doorstep after a move. Towle was literally barefoot andpregnant; the lady arrived with a plastic bag full of coupons, and then disappeared. “I have often wondered,” Towle asked, “are we, as ECW, kind of like that Welcome Wagon lady? Do we show up only when we see somebody new?”
Towle got involved with ECW, however, because she found a different sort welcome, where she was immediately connected on the first time she arrived at a church. “All of a sudden, I found out I had people,” said Towle. “And they were connected people.”
ECW, founded in 1871 when the General Convention authorized the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions, needs to reinvent itself, but it’s about individuals changing, not an organization. Often, they don’t want to change. “Change is good for everybody else, but I don’t need it,” said Towle. “There will be no change unless something happens in here.”
Towle has been told she just trying to focus on the young. “Our elders laid too sure a foundation, they worked too hard, they lifted us up in the face of a lot of negativity and at great personal expense. And the anger they faced down from the church that they loved,” said Towle. “Every single person in this room is too valuable to lose.”
The solution is for ECW women to move over a bit, but not to leave the table. For instance, a meeting might be held at Starbucks, and the meeting should end in time for moms to be able to pick up children in the carpool line. “Make room at the table for the new to come over and sit down to talk to us,” said Towle. “You are in it. You will always be in it.”
The white glove, church supper tradition of ECW is a noble one, and has relevance today. “You are part of something that is so big and so grand that women for 150 years fought, I mean fought, to even form,” said Towle. “It took a century for women to get the right to vote in this church.”
Towle said that there was no one perfect model for an ECW Chapter, only that it needs to exist “amidst the goodness of the old.” The call for the ECW is a call for the laity to be missionaries in their own communities; there is no replacement for this role. “If I walk away, nobody is going to do it,” said Towle. “Don’t walk away. Find somebody to help you.”
The DaySpring event was the first Episcopal Church Women meeting for Linda Lynch of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Tampa. She had decided to go at the request of Marcia Allison, the wife of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church rector, The Rev. Roy Allison. Lynch, who grew up Catholic, had never been a part of the ECW before, and had no preconceptions about what ECW was about. Having been a part of groups like Kiwanis, she longed to be a part of something larger, but also appreciated the difficulty that these service organizations face in recruiting new members.
Lynch’s father was involved in the Knights of Columbus and Veterans of Foreign Wars. She knew nothing of the long traditions of the Episcopal Church Women; her mother was involved in a Rosary group, and that was always very inwardly focused. When approached by Allison, the Michigan emigre was eager to participate, as her husband was active on St. Mark’s vestry and she wanted a different role. “I want something different that what he was involved with,” said Lynch.
Towle respectfully disagrees with those who think the ECW is irrelevant, or that women somehow have less time than they used to, though she acknowledges the distractions of things like team sports for families. “We all make time for what is important to us. If ECW is important enough for you, it is important to be there.”
Success for the ECW, with chapters in thousands of Episcopal parishes large and small, means keeping those who are active and bringing in new. “If we keep pushing out, there isn’t going to be anybody to push out anymore,” said Towle. Each ECW Chapter knows individually what the danger point is, the time where they either reinvent themselves, or die.
“If this goes away, who is going to pick it up? Once something happens it is so hard to reverse it,” said Towle. “Once something goes away, it is so hard to bring it back.”
In a Eucharist with the church women, Bishop Dabney Smith told the gathered women that the change needs to be the right change. “If you are adapting, make sure of the change you are adapting to,” said Smith. “All the Lord says is you have to take care of the church. You don’t have to do it forever. But you have to do it now.”
— Garland Pollard is director of communications for the Diocese of Southwest Florida.