[Episcopal News Service] Seven months after hundreds of Episcopalians participated in “It’s All About Love,” a churchwide festival of learning, fellowship and worship held in Baltimore, Maryland, the church continues to provide learning opportunities through its free monthly Festival Thursdays webinars, held every second Thursday of the month at 3 p.m. Eastern.
The latest webinar, “Revival in Rural America,” took place Feb. 8 via Zoom. About 75 people participated.
“We are defining, discovering, dreaming, designing our way into our church that looks more like the love of Jesus,” said the Rev. Melanie Mullen, director of reconciliation, justice and creation care for The Episcopal Church, who hosted the webinar and moderated the Q&A discussion.
The Rev. Andrew Terry, the Diocese of Texas’ area missioner, presented how lay leaders from 14 congregations used a collaborative approach similar to Asset-Based Community Development to develop a “learning” community that launched four new missional initiatives and three new missional communities in the last two years.
“Area mission vitalizes congregations and their local communities by helping them build relationships and partnerships with their neighbors,” Terry said during the webinar. “Partnerships are organization to organization, like a church partnering with a public school.”
In The Episcopal Church, an area mission is a geographical location designated by a diocese for evangelization, congregational development and ministry development. Area missions sometimes can be established outside the boundaries of a diocese.
One of the partnerships Terry described was the rainbow room at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Navasota, a city with a population of about 8,000 an hour northwest of Houston. In Texas, rainbow rooms serve as statewide emergency resource for children and their families by providing necessities, such as clothing, baby formula, diapers, school supplies, hygiene items, cleaning supplies and nonperishable food. Child Protective Services caseworkers have unrestricted access to St. Paul’s rainbow room, where they can collect new items for children who’ve been removed from their homes. Most rainbow rooms are housed in government buildings and operated by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. However, St. Paul’s rainbow room is the only one in Grimes County due to a lack of space in the county’s government buildings. Before St. Paul’s opened its rainbow room, caseworkers had to drive to the nearest rainbow rooms in neighboring Brazos and Washington counties.
“We weren’t starting anything new, on our own. We were listening to partner agencies and responding to what they expressed as a need,” Terry said. “I think what has emerged through this work is the congregation is beginning to think creatively about how they can build on this commitment to children and young people here locally in our area.”
Terry said the diocese’s mission amplification team helps churches “live fully into the body of Christ by forming individuals into the image of Christ.” It developed a five-step process to help congregations reimagine their approaches to serving local communities:
Define: Acquire a clear picture of the community in question.
Discover: Share your story and observe what the local community needs. Consider issues within a local context.
Dream: Consider what God is calling you to do.
Design: Use your assets and strengths to maximize impact.
Deploy: Act and measure results.
Participants were divided into breakout rooms for a few minutes to practice using some of the processes to descriptively share when they witnessed an Episcopal congregation at its best when connecting with a local community. Listeners took notes and listed the theme of the stories, as well as any keywords or phrases that encapsulated the overall subject matter. When they returned from the breakout rooms, participants shared the keywords and phrases they wrote down and looked for themes across all the stories. “Need,” “service” and “community” were common keywords. Terry then recited 2 Timothy 1:3-7 and asked participants to write down keywords and phrases, as well as to reflect on how that portion of scripture relates to the revival in rural America theme.
“I want you to listen with that theme of reviving a rekindling in a congregation. … Where we found revival happening in rural America — in rural Texas — is where two or three lay leaders, to use Jesus’s phrase, ‘gather around a single spark of possibility,’” Terry said. “The way that we get there is by discerning.”
The webinar concluded with Terry answering questions, and comments from participants. Several people brainstormed how they can best apply the five-step process to address the immediate concerns of their congregations, from providing a grief group to providing transportation in rural communities, to finding ways to help elderly parishioners remain active in their church communities. Terry mentioned as an example that St. Paul’s established a gardeners’ guild for retired parishioners who are master gardeners to teach gardening skills to younger people.
“We’re trying to help congregations discover their unique spiritual charism and, in my opinion, God has placed spiritual gifts into every congregation specifically for their context,” Terry said. “I believe that charism carries over time, carries even over generations. But it doesn’t mean that we do the same activities across generations. The charism remains in continuity, but the practices and activities change with context.”
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.