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Planting A Rainbow
4 June 2000
You have to like a big goal. Doubling the size of the Episcopal Church by 2020the so-called "20/20 Initiative"is a big goal. Or as some have begun to say around the church, "a Big Hairy Audacious Goal."
Hopefully, General Convention will pass it. Many dioceses have begun to implement the programs that the B.H.A.G. will require in order for it to happen. At the top of everyone's list is church planting. We need a lot of new congregations if we are to have a prayer of doubling the church in twenty years.
One question is, how many of those will be planted in African-American communities?
A number of dioceses are actively pursuing Latino ministries, in the hopes of launching Latino parishes. While the church's commitment as a whole to Latino ministry has wavered dramatically over the years, it seems that people are finally getting serious about Latinos. Some dioceses now require all their clergy to be able at least to celebrate La Santa Eucharistia in passable Spanish. There are a few new Latino missions sprinkled around the country. May God bless these initiatives, and add many more.
But to this writer's knowledge, no new African-American mission church has been planted in a very long time. Among black Episcopalians, the issue is the survival of existing parishes, at the very least, halting the decline in the numbers of black Episcopalians. Starting new missions does not seem to be on the table.
One program that is essential is the Absalom Jones Initiative, which seeks to recruit young African-American men and women for the ordained ministry. Many parishes cannot find clergy at all. Every effort should be made to help the Absalom Jones Initiative succeed.
But what of new African-American parishes? The way to grow a diocese is to plant churches. This not only adds quickly to its numbers, but also invigorates the existing parishes. As dioceses around the country marshal resources and people for the work of church building, we cannot ignore African-Americans, any more than we can ignore Latinos.
So why isn't anyone trying to plant new churches in the black communities of our nation?
One obvious answeralmost too obviousis racism. This pops up in attitudes that affirm that African-American folk just aren't interested in being Episcopalians. We are supposedly too staid, too white, too tied to books. Of course, this attitude belittles the wonderful, vibrant black parishes of our church. Another idea that surfaces sometimes is that we should be creating blended parishes, communities that eschew the tendency of "birds of a feather" to stick together. The problem with this is that it leaves out the black communities in favor of the suburbs. (We tend to ignore the entire urban environment.)
An unstated fear, perhaps, is that if a diocese were to start a mission in a black community, it would never outgrow its financial dependence on the parent body. Episcopal parishes cost moneyeducated clergy, buildings, programs, etc.more money than one finds in black communities. Or so we think...
Another issue is that, even with all the best will in the world, no one knows how to start such missions. This makes sense, since our black parishes tend to be at least three decades old or more. There is little "corporate memory" of how it was done. In any event, African-Americans have changed significantly in the past two generations. Furthermore, Episcopalians overall do not have a recent strong track record in starting new churches. So where to begin?
First of all, every diocese should be planning new churches. That has to be understood first of all. Then we need to examine our plans for building new parishes and ask ourselves, are we trying to plant new churches in our black communities? Why or why not? Answering this question as a diocese will open up a significant discussion, in which the existing African-American parishes will have a lot to say. They themselves may fear that any emphasis on new starts might distract the diocese from their plight. That is, however, the fear all existing parishes experience when they hear that new parishes are being planned...near them. But the central issue is addressing the tacit racist attitudes that asking this question brings to light.
It should be obvious that a lot of Episcopal dioceses have substantial African-American communities, and that we need to include them in planning new parishes. The question then is how to do it.
The present writer has headed up a successful mission plant. The Church of the Nativity, Port St. Lucie, Florida, started with a diverse group of Anglos, Latinos, and African-Americans. At present it is at about 100 average attendance. While Nativity has retained its diversity, the newest members tend to be Anglos. This reflects the demographics of the city. It started as a congregational mission of St. Andrew's, Fort Pierce, and then received funding through the Diocese of Central Florida. It should become financially self-sufficient by 2002.
There are a few basic rules about starting congregations, which apply to African-American, Latino, Asian or Anglo communities. These are:
This Anglo admits to ignorance about how to start an African-American church. Interviews with several black pastors who have done so reveal some pointers, however. All have launched churches in black communities that have become strong and vibrant. Two belong to the Church of God in Christ, two are Missionary Baptist pastors, and one is affiliated with Deliverance Ministries (a small denomination found only in Florida).
First, all the pastors interviewed confirmed that the basic rules listed above applied to their efforts. In terms of financing, however, they all had to do it by the bootstraps, as none of the denominations had large amounts of funds for them. The Church of God in Christ provided a little funding of the church planters' salaries, the others did not.
They all started with Bible studies in their homes, which they led at first. As the group got larger, some trained others to lead studies in their homes. One pastor emphasized the importance of teaching. "We know how to worship. That's not the problem. What's needed for us is solid teaching that emphasizes taking responsibility." Others went directly from their home to renting a storefront and holding worship services. Eventually all but one went into storefronts and then into their own buildings. The fifth is planning a new building at this time of writing.
The five pastors all emphasized right away a discipline of giving to the church, as well as daily prayer and Bible study. They set the example. As one pastor said, "I wasn't worried about worship. I was concerned that we not become a begging church. Too many black churches, all they do is beg for money all the time."
Another common theme is solid musical leadership. As soon as they got into the storefront, they began looking for people to lead music. Yet another common trait was an insistence on doing some form of outreach, especially to the young. One church is heavily into foster parenting. Another hosts a program for youth suspended from school. Yet another works closely with the juvenile prison.
If these churches have a weakness, it is that they may not survive the departure of the founding pastor. But at this point, all are flourishing.
A general outline for planting an Episcopal mission in a black community might therefore look like this:
Once the diocesan leadership believes it can and should proceed, the first step is to find the planting team. These will be people highly motivated to work in the community where the mission is to be located. They may come from an existing black parish, but may well belong to a blended church. Their congregations and clergy need to be enlisted immediately for regular prayer and other support.
The team should be given extensive training for leadership. During this time, one or more may be licensed as Pastoral Leaders, what used to be called a Licensed Layreader. The team should have a great deal of input in selecting the Pastoral Leader.
The leadership team will work with the diocese for demographic studies and training, and with one or more congregations for the "shoe leather" phase. Then the first home worship services can begin, as members of the community learn about and are invited to join in starting a new church. The home services would include prayer, Bible study, and singing. At some point early on the group should take on a feasible outreach project, to get some community recognition.
As the group grows, there will come a decision point when to introduce the Eucharist. Supply priests will be introducing the liturgy into the order of worship already established in the home church. The new mission should begin contributing to the cost of the clergy from the very beginning. A prayerful search will begin for a member of the new church who has a call to the priesthood.
When the new church has outgrown the home, it can move to a storefront and begin holding services and advertising its presence. The new congregation should choose an appropriate name. The style of worship should come primarily from within, as well. The diocese and participating congregations will help the new mission pay for the supply priests and the store rent.
As the congregation grows, it will establish some form of outreach that suits its gifts and the surrounding needs. The members will participate in the raising up of its clergy, both priests and deacons, to be ordained under Canon III.9. A lot of effort will be focused on developing the musical life of the church. The Pastoral Leader will still lead worship, with help from supply clergy (unless he or she becomes ordained). The leadership of both mission and diocese will keep constantly in front of the mission the need to move into permanent quarters. A team from both the mission and the diocese will be looking for an appropriate location.
Finally, as the mission matures, it will move into its permanent home. The building could very well be transformed from an existing building, like a shuttered supermarket. This will be a good opportunity for the diocese to invest money in the neighborhood, but the bulk of the funds for the church building needs to be raised by the congregation.
The end result should be an Episcopal parish that has a recognizable Anglican "shape of the liturgy," without being necessarily wed to opening the Prayer Book to page 355 every Sunday. The worship will have great freedom and joy. The building itself and financial structure of the parish will probably look different as well. Nevertheless, the diocese will be able to rejoice in the vibrant presence of an Episcopal parish in the heart of a black community. For their part, the communicants of the new church will be proud, independent people who eventually will inspire all manner of folk throughout the diocese and beyond.
Planting such a parish will require vision from the bishop and other leaders, good communications with interested congregations, the ability to train people well, the wisdom to delegate to the mission leaders, a solid support team beyond the mission of clergy and advisors, and some funds available. It will require patience and a willingness to fail and try again, as necessary.
But this great adventure starts by asking, "Why isn't anyone trying to plant new churches in the black communities of our nation? Why isn't our diocese?"
Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay. You can write
to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.