The June clericus of the Diocese of the Northeast, held annually at the Notre Dame Retreat Center in Alfred Maine, offers an opportunity to discuss some of the business of the diocese. More importantly, it offers a chance for mutual encouragement and fellowship. On the docket for discussion this time was a review of the early stages of a new diocesan Customary. But as important as this was, God was about to change our direction.
Sometimes disappointing news opens doors to new thinking and new opportunities. Such were the events that led to a conversation with Bp. Marsh on the urgency of church growth. So, after a brief discussion on the Customary and after dismissing postulants for a special meeting with Fr. Christian Tutor on formation, Bp. Marsh led an open conversation on Church Growth.
Why is church growth important? While there is often resistance to discussions on church growth for fear that those discussions may turn towards advocating patterns of worship that are not compatible with the received faith, the reality is that parish development and growth are an imperative. So said, Bp Marsh. Church growth, according to Bp. Marsh, must become a priority. If union among the Continuing churches is phase one, phase two, suggested Fr. Mirabile, must include a singular and sustained focus on parish development.
As Bp. Marsh led the conversation on parish development a number of practical things were identified. Practical considerations, like upkeep of the grounds, to signage, to making the parish more visible in the neighborhood were discussed. For example, Bp. Marsh told the story of a parish he had visited as a priest that typically had a low turnout. Prior to the service he walked the grounds and greeted passers by and invited them to church. When the rector returned he asked about the turn out and was surprised to learn that attendance had nearly doubled that Sunday. When he asked Bp. Marsh what he had done he simply explained that he invited people to church! While it seems obvious, getting to know people in the neighborhood and inviting them to church is certainly a good place to start.
Fr. Stephen Rugg spoke about how his parish, Trinity in White River Junction, held Parish Growth Sundays last year. They discussed how the parish could be open to change, breaking out of the pattern of “attracting people like us” and reaching out to people “unlike us”. They discussed strategies for inviting such people. This was a good example of how a pastor can engage the parish in the process of parish development and begin a process that is more outward focused.
Fr. Rob Philp, a curate at Trinity Rochester mentioned the Stone Soup Suppers that were offered there during Lent. Each Tuesday parishioners gathered for a simple bowl of soup and to participate in religious instruction on various topics. Fr. Mirabile, Rector of Trinity Rochester, happily and proudly declared how he did not teach a single one of these events! Glad as he was that there was talent and ability to be expressed by others. On one of those days Fr. Philp gave an excellent presentation on the nature of healthy authoritative communities and how these principles help build cohesion in a parish. Three other laymen presented other topics as well. Fr. Philp remarked how people are craving fellowship and community, and related how members of Trinity looked forward to doing these suppers more regularly, beyond Lent.
Along those lines Bp Marsh mentioned the importance of hospitality - both spiritual and material. For example, offering food and coffee after services is an important act of hospitality that allows people to mingle, develop relationships and it also allows visitors to connect with members of your parish. Michael McKinnon, Jr. Warden and a postulant at Trinity, mentioned how important it is that these occasions of fellowship are marked by a spirit of joy and happiness. We were reminded that visiting a parish is difficult enough, but encountering people that are dour, clingy, or judgmental can drive visitors away, never to return.
Credibility was mentioned several times. Parishes need to be perceived as credible churches in their community. Fr. Philp mentioned Trinity’s involvement in the Rochester Community Kitchen, where volunteers from Trinity serve food once a month at a local soup kitchen. Meaningful and relevant outreach in the community adds to parish credibility, which is attractive to prospective visitors. And without some sort of meaningful and visible outreach the community may not even know that the parish exists. This also adds to credibility. Fr. Gary Drinkwater of Church of the Transfiguration in Mechanics Falls, ME, reiterated this point with a story. He explained how they grew a ministry that makes and distributes quilts in the area because there was a strong interest in quilting in town. They started with two people and it did not take long before others joined them. Now there are nearly twenty quilters and some have even come to attend the church.
Recruiting people is also an obvious but often neglected means of parish development. Fr. Ed Ihde, Rector of St. Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca, NY, explained how they have grown their choir and attendance by inviting college students to sing in their choir. This has worked remarkably well and Father related how these students actually return on other occasions throughout the year as well.
Fr. Mirabile, rector of Trinity in Rochester, NH, added that all of these efforts must become part of a process of attracting, greeting, and transitioning people into membership in the local parish. This is often expressed as increasing a churches “Velcro Factor” - the ability of the church to attract and keep new people. “There must be an intentional process that begins with your website and local presence, continues with your greeters and ushers as visitors come through the door, are guided through their first experience at your services, receive follow up contact from the pastor, and ultimately attend a new members class”. Fr. Mirabile explained that churches that have an undefined process of membership, one with “fuzzy” boundaries, can also lose people easily. Bringing people through a membership process is essential to parish development. Trinity provides a simple “Guide to the Actions of the Mass” to all visitors, asks that they fill out a visitors card, and then continue the process of contact with visitors.
Fr. Ihde also spoke about their intention to reach out to veterans citing the program in place at Trinity - Reboot Combat Recovery. Reboot is a twelve week course focusing on healing the moral and spiritual wounds of combat and Trinity is now preparing their fifth rotation of offering this course. Not only has it gained the parish tremendous credibility in the veteran friendly community, as well as helping veterans recover, it has also translated directly to growth in the parish as some graduates have transitioned to parishioners.
Bp. “Hendy” Webb also mentioned how important it is to recognize the contributions of hard-working parishioners. St. Luke’s gives a yearly award for those parishioners who have made significant contributions to the parish over the last year. People that feel appreciated continue to positively influence the congregation and speak positively about the parish. Anything that can create a positive “buzz” around your church is a good thing.
Of course, it would not be long before the issue of websites would be mentioned. This topic has been brought up before at clericus an synod and can’t be ignored. Having a functioning, up to date, engaging website is absolutely essential. Fr. Mirabile explained he had been contacted by another church in our jurisdiction for some website guidance. One of the things that was pointed out was how the photos on the website were all of the altar, pews, and architecture and there were no photos of people. Having photos of happy people on your website is one of the most important things you can do to drive some affinity for your church. If your website is not driving a continuous flow of visitors get help and tweak it until it does.
After some time it was inevitable that the conversation would turn to troubleshooting problem parishes. One parish had struggled with growth or many years. They had the benefit of a beautiful church building but no congregation to speak of but a handful of souls. We then began to discuss some of the real obstacles to growth. One thing that was learned was that the church would close in cold weather or would not remain open because of heating costs. Such actions are guaranteed to undermine growth. In problem parishes multiple things may need to be fixed in order to move forward. How do we get past stagnation where there are only a handful of parishioners who attend? Fr. Mirabile suggested that such parishes go back to mission status and begin a relaunch process, as if in a new church plant situation.
Fr. Mirabile added, “If you are content with 25 people, no one can change that.” It was suggested that such parishes take a break and use the opportunity to prayerfully ask, “What is God’s mission for this parish? How can we begin to make an impact in the community? How can we put mission first?” Building growth around mission instead of services is the way forward.
It was also pointed out that we (continuing churches) often criticize evangelical churches that use an “attractional model” while we think that if we offer a good liturgy it will “attract people.” We have to be honest and acknowledge that we are using the same attractional assumptions. Rather, what if we built upon a missional model. One that sought to credibly engage the needs and concerns of our community?
At the conclusion Bp. Marsh suggested that we create a Church Growth Committee that could provide coaching and trouble-shooting for parishes that are struggling. Going forward each clericus will continue to focus on growth and parish development.