Editor’s note: This is the first in a continuing series about the reinvention of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. This story was updated Jan. 9 with an explanation of how the Diocese of Fort Worth has calculated its growth statistics.
[Episcopal News Service – Fort Worth, Texas] For Episcopalians who think of “church” as a place to go rather than a thing to be, the continuing Diocese of Fort Worth has some stories to share.
They are stories of more than reorganizing – or even resuscitating – a diocesan and congregational structure after a majority of former clergy and lay leaders voted in November 2008 to leave the Episcopal Church. They are stories of resurrection – of Episcopalians reinventing church and, in the process, themselves.
“We‘re not trying to rebuild an old church,” says Fort Worth Bishop Provisional J. Scott Mayer, who is also the bishop of the Diocese of Northwest Texas. “We are trying to participate in resurrection to become a new body.”
Those people have built new ministries and, in the process, are developing new ways of being the church as they serve their communities.
And, when they “go to church,” some Fort Worth Episcopalians are worshipping in unconventional spaces such as a theater and a strip mall. In one instance, the Wise County Episcopalians are worshipping in a building that began its life as the Episcopal Mission of the Ascension in 1889 and during the intervening years has been a mattress factory and, most recently, a wedding chapel.
Even the bishop’s office is different. While the model of a bishop provisional is being used elsewhere in the Episcopal Church, it is still a relative rarity but one which Mayer thinks illustrates how dioceses could pool their resources.
He notes that Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania Bishop Sean Rowe, who is also the bishop provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem in the eastern part of that state, points out that in the 1960s the Episcopal Church had fewer dioceses but now has more dioceses and fewer people.
“That may not be a sustainable model for all of us,” Mayer said, adding that while he is not necessarily advocating combining dioceses, the Church may need to find new ways to share diocesan resources.
“And, in this case, the resource to share would be the bishop,” he said.
Mayer is Fort Worth’s fourth bishop provisional. The first was then-Bishop of Kentucky Edwin F. “Ted” Gulick Jr. He was followed by retired Northwest Texas Bishop C. Wallis Ohl Jr. and then retired Texas Bishop Suffragan Rayford B. High Jr.
Fort Worth has 17 congregations, including a Lutheran congregation pastored by an Episcopal priest. In the time since the split, the diocese has seen a 19.3 percent increase in communicant members and an 11.9 percent increase in operating revenue. Since reorganizing in 2009, Fort Worth has annually paid the full amount asked of it by the Episcopal Church to support the churchwide triennial budget. It is the only one of six dioceses in the state of Texas to do so.
Fort Worth Communication Director Katie Sherrod told Episcopal News Service that after the reorganization of the diocese in 2009, all its records were in disarray since the former bishop was occupying the diocesan offices and other Episcopal Church property. “We spent 2009 and 2010 locating Episcopalians, reconstructing congregations, finding clergy, and locating places to worship. By 2011/2012, we finally had a realistic assessment of membership in the congregations of the diocese,” she said. “It is those figures on which our assessment of our growth is based.”
Transforming the way the Episcopal Church ministers in the 24 counties of north central Texas comes out of necessity, in part, as the Episcopal Church and the diocese seek to recover property and other assets still controlled those who left. The Texas Court of Appeals is considering the case after hearing oral arguments in the case on April 19, 2016.
“It is anticipated, however, that the decision of this court will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court by whichever party the ruling goes against at the Court of Appeals level,” Sherrod said.
The wider Episcopal Church has supported the diocese’s reinvention. The Executive Council, which has met in the diocese twice since the split, in June offered a combination of a direct grant from the churchwide budget, money raised by the Church’s development office and the presiding bishop, and grants for church planting and mission enterprise zone development through the Resolution 2015-D005 church planting process.
The funding, being matched by the diocese and its congregations, is helping to support clergy who are in charge of fast-growing faith communities.
The 4 Saints Food Pantry, an effort to respond to the needs of and to build relationships with hungry people in a food desert on the east side of Fort Worth, has received a $20,000 Mission Enterprise Zone grant. The ministry will use the money to begin buying equipment required for a licensed food pantry. The pantry will operate out of St. Luke’s in the Meadow Episcopal Church, Fort Worth. Eventually, it will formally partner with the Tarrant Area Food Bank. St. Luke’s; St. Martin’s, Keller-Southlake; St. Stephen’s, Hurst; and St. Alban’s (worshiping in Theatre Arlington), are the four “saints” partnering in the ministry.
Other grant requests, including one to plant a church on the fast-growing west side of Fort Worth, are in process, in an effort to claim additional funds related to D005, Sherrod said.
In the coming days, Episcopal News Service will feature four of the Diocese of Fort Worth’s resurrection stories.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.