[Episcopal News Service] Organizers describe it as The Episcopal Church’s biggest annual gathering. It’s about to get even bigger.
The CEEP Network typically gathers hundreds of attendees in a U.S. city for its annual conference, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was forced to move online to present this year’s conference workshops and keynote presentations on March 2-5, which will include a conversation between Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Last year, more than 700 people traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to attend in person. This year, more than 1,200 people are signed up to participate online.
The groundswell of interest in the online conference underscores the CEEP Network’s shift in recent years from providing a one-stop networking opportunity for clergy and lay leaders from well-resourced parishes to imparting information and guidance to all Episcopal leaders year-round through online webinars and ministry groups.
“Our intention was to become a network with a conference, as opposed to a conference with a network,” Joe Swimmer, CEEP’s executive director, told Episcopal News Service by phone late last week as his team was making final preparations for the online conference.
Expanding the organization’s focus beyond the annual conference has been a top priority since Swimmer took the reins in 2018, and during the pandemic, the time was right to double-down on digital offerings. In the past year, the CEEP Network has offered more than 70 webinars on topics ranging from stewardship to parish administration to theology, with registration open to members and nonmembers alike.
“We really are about strengthening leaders for a changed and changing church,” Swimmer said. “We’re proud to be there to support our lay and clergy leaders.”
CEEP was founded in 1985 by a group of Episcopal parishes with sizable endowments, as was reflected in its original name: the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes. Initially, only parishes with endowments were permitted to become members, to enable leaders from those congregations to share ideas with peers who were facing similar challenges and opportunities in developing their ministries.
Now, the network has updated its membership criteria to allow a wider range of congregations supported by different types of resources, such as land, buildings and active congregants, not just endowments. The network still goes by the acronym CEEP, but it no longer refers to itself as the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes. More than 200 parishes, cathedrals and other Episcopal institutions make up the network’s membership.
“What we want to do is harness the best things from within and beyond the church,” Swimmer said. “What we offer is that chance to be in connection with other similar-situationed parishes across the country and, in fact, around the world.”
The CEEP Network’s annual conference is not The Episcopal Church’s biggest gathering overall. That distinction goes to General Convention, the triennial meeting of the church’s governing body, which draws thousands of bishops, deputies, church staff and exhibitors.
But as an annual event that is celebrating its 36th gathering, CEEP is not matched by any other Episcopal conference, Swimmer said.
Last year’s conference, Feb. 19-22, was held in Louisville just as coronavirus cases were beginning to rise in the United States. After the conference, several attendees tested positive for COVID-19. Days later, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the global outbreaks a pandemic.
The pandemic forced suspension of in-person worship across The Episcopal Church and spurred many Episcopal congregations to adopt technological solutions to reach their parishioners, who suddenly could only gather safely online. Those constraints also prompted a rapid transformation at the CEEP Network, which before the pandemic had been looking to bolster its online presence.
“Really the pandemic put us in the position of, we know it’s the time to start this,” Swimmer said.
CEEP held its first digital workshop last year on March 18 to discuss congregations’ responses to the pandemic. The Zoom webinar’s panel featured three rectors: the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr. of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas; the Rev. Noelle York-Simmons of Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia; and the Rev. Doyt Conn Jr. of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington. It was moderated by the Rev. Matt Heyd, rector of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York. Eleanor Bergquist, a public health expert, joined from St. Louis, Missouri.
“Christians are the best when the times are [the] worst,” Conn said during the webinar. “I think about Epiphany as a first responder. We are a first responder for the human soul.”
CEEP continued to offer such webinars throughout the pandemic, and nearly a year later, the network has logged about 12,000 cumulative participants, Swimmer told ENS. “It’s been really gratifying.”
The most popular online workshop was a session on the challenges of congregational singing during the pandemic, led by a British expert. More than 500 people participated, and Swimmer said he was impressed by the diversity of attendees, including many nonmembers.
“You saw in the list of names people from parishes that would never think to be part of the CEEP Network,” he said.
The CEEP Network also has invited member institutions to “dive deeper” into areas of importance to specific groups of congregational leaders. A group of young rectors began connecting online, as one example. In another group, about 50 parish administrators meet virtually every few weeks.
Such efforts to grow the organization’s digital reach are culminating this week in the annual conference. The festivities begin March 2 with an online gathering for female clergy, followed by additional pre-conference sessions in the morning March 3. Then in the afternoon, the full conference gets underway with a keynote conversation featuring Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.
Several workshops are planned in each of the conference’s five topic areas: church financial models, church buildings as community resources, racial reckoning, strategic planning and leadership lessons.
The March 4 keynote will be a conversation between two Church of England priests, the Rev. Sam Wells and the Rev. Azariah France-Williams. On March 5, Curry will be joined in the afternoon by Catherine Meeks, executive director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in the Diocese of Atlanta. That conversation will be followed by Curry’s concluding keynote session with Welby.
All events will be held on Zoom for participants who registered in advance. Although it is too late to register, the CEEP Network plans to post videos of the workshops and keynote sessions online after the conference is over. Anyone interested in receiving updates on future CEEP webinars is encouraged to email email@example.com.
“It’s been a challenging year for everybody, and it’s been great to see how the church has responded universally,” Swimmer said. He is looking forward to the conversations at this year’s online conference, though he also will be happy to resume in-person gatherings when CEEP holds its 2022 conference at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
And like many Episcopal congregations that are making plans to resume in-person worship while maintaining online options for parishioners, CEEP intends to organize future conferences as hybrids, with participants still able to attend online if they choose.
“That’s just the way the world is these days,” Swimmer said. This year’s online conference “is giving us a good testing ground for how we do that and how we do it successfully.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.