Unpacking ECMN’s Priority of Vital Congregations

The priorities Bishop Loya has outlined, coming out of the Bishop X search profile and his conversations with Episcopalians all over Minnesota, are these: Discipleship, Justice, Faithful Innovation, and Vital Congregations. Below you’ll find some tools and approaches to dive more deeply into that last priority. Vital congregations share life together deeply — and these key touchpoints can be used by congregations large and small, congregations with full-time clergy and congregations that are lay-led, in service of that goal.

We gather in small groups to support each other’s discipleship.

ECMN’s priority of discipleship emphasizes worship, spiritual practices, and storytelling – things individuals can do as they seek to be transformed by Jesus. And, all those things impact lives more deeply when they are done as part of relationships, over time. I cannot work out my salvation without the love, support, and honesty of people who know me well, who have seen my gifts and my flaws, held in the light of God’s love. That requires proximity to others, courage, boundaries, and care.

Not that it’s a race, but some of our smallest congregations have it easy in this department – they’re already small groups, folks who are highly conscious that they are walking the way of Jesus together. Many of our larger congregations have small-groups-by-any-other-name: the choir, the youth group, book groups, Bible study, the men’s group, etc.

There are myriad ways to ‘run’ a small group for discipleship. The Episcopal Church offers a really good introductory resource on running small gathered communities. We also recommend the approach that Community of Hope International offers – a ministry team (in this case, lay pastoral care volunteers) commit to making their particular ministry a key locus of their spiritual life, and then gather monthly not only for continuing education and administration but for prayer and reflection on where they’ve met God in their pastoral care work.

Contemplative Youth Ministry by Marc Yaconelli advocates a similar approach. The book focuses on the ways adult volunteers for youth ministry gather with each other for prayer, wondering aloud together at the ways they’ve seen God moving in the lives of the young people they are serving. This kind of approach isn’t limited to formation ministry – it could be used with the food pantry volunteers, the buildings and grounds committee or the bishop’s committee or the choir. In this way, a service-based ministry becomes first a spiritual practice, a place of mutually transformative encounters with Jesus.

The Rev. Canon Blair Pogue is introducing an exciting new initiative, Faithful Innovation, in the diocese in the coming months. Faithful Innovation is a process that invites Guiding Teams of 3-8 lay leaders to engage in simple spiritual practices and small experiments to develop deeper relationships with God, fellow faith community members, and your neighbors.

Those relationships at church become some of the most important relationships in our lives.

For this to be true, individuals have to make space in their lives for those relationships: sharing time, opening our homes, making the commute across town on a weeknight, caring for each other in crises, picking up the phone. In a time of epidemic loneliness, busy-ness, and suspicion of belonging, making space for relationship is powerfully countercultural.

There’s a danger, too, in moving too far in this direction: church as social club, finding our emotional needs met in a church community without saying yes to God’s call to share that love outside our circle.

One way to think about this piece might be to consider it as part of our stewardship. How am I called to use my time and energy for relationships? How are my relationships here at St. Swithin’s supportive of abundant life and shalom, for me and others? How am I being called in this season to make space for relationships beyond members of this congregation where the Holy Spirit can move?

We ground our leadership and ministry gatherings in prayer and Scripture.

As I wrote above about small groups for discipleship, all of our congregational leadership and committees are primed to be places grounded in spiritual practice, so that service (in this case, administration, leadership decisions, vestry work) becomes a key place where we work out our discipleship. What that looks like, practically, is doing our best to follow the Spirit’s lead.

Some of the best tools for that are ones we are already familiar with: Gospel-Based Discipleship and Dwelling in the Word. Those practices are simple, accessible to folks who are new to Christian practice, and don’t require a lot of expertise to lead. What they do require is time and attention – not a perfunctory prayer to start a meeting, but a sense of the shift of gravity – a collective willingness to suspend the urgent for a few more minutes for the sake of the important.

This suggested Order of Meeting for vestries, from Randy Ferebee’s Cultivating the Missional Church, grounds the work of the vestry, and the time spent together, in thirty minutes of bible study, and includes time for leadership development as well.

But beyond how we structure our meetings, research in the last decade by Renewalworks points to the reality that the spiritual lives of leaders, both lay and ordained, is a significant indicator of the vitality of the congregation. Lay and ordained leaders grounding their leadership in discipleship matters because it shifts our focus from our own anxieties to curiosity about where the Holy Spirit is leading.

We trust that times of conflict and change are an opportunity to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance in new ways.

Our brains are wired for panic when faced with conflict and change; the culture we swim in, especially in the social media age, only feeds the cortisol rush that keeps us in a zero-sum game. Rather than being hijacked by conflict, we can choose, as a community, to care for each other and to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. There are key tools for managing conflict: the Lombard Mennonite Peace Institute trains people in conflict transformation, and the principles of nonviolent communication are easy to understand. These tools and many others are great for leaders to engage and commit to.

And: addressing conflict is not the most important goal; rather, we want to do everything we can to be with each other when tensions are running high, to be together in discerning what the Holy Spirit is doing. It all comes back to discernment.   

Who might you commission in your lay leadership to be a voice that calls the group back to discernment when anxiety is running high? When there are clergy present, those clergy have often been trained in this module – but there’s just as much power if not more in having a wise lay ‘elder’ call the people back to prayer and discernment. Who might you call into the ministry of calling the vestry or the congregation back to discernment at times of trouble?