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The Travail of Planting New Churches:
The first column of this series presented some thoughts on evangelism, the first big challenge to the 20/20 Vision, the goal of the 2000 General Convention to double the Episcopal Church by the year 2020.
The next big challenge is planting new churches, lots of them. Doubling our membership of 2.4 million, in units of 300 members (the plateau of new church starts) roughly translates into doubling the number of our congregations within the next 19 years. The enthusiastic leaders of our 20/20 Vision committee are outlining what this will entail. A new emphasis on evangelism across the board. Entrepreneurial clergy trained to lead. And land. Five acres for a new church multiplied by 7,000 new churches, means we will need moneylots of money. They insist it is doable. They are right, so long as there is real sustained enthusiasm for the work shared among the existing parishes and their dioceses.
This writer has had the privilege of leading a church start, which by God's grace and a lot of people's hard work has been successful. Planting it was part of my call as rector of my present cure. We encountered all the difficulties that belong to the work of planting churches. First, gather a group of committed enthusiastic laypeople. Then study the targeted region very closelyin our case, door to door. Invite a lot of people to the first service. Begin to hold worship services and Bible studies in leaders' homes. Develop an ongoing system of welcoming newcomers and bringing them into the circle. Rent a temporary place to worship. Find five acres of land and buy it. Call a full-time vicar with the right entrepreneurial skills. Build the first building.
What a wonderful feeling it was to preach at the consecration of the new building! The congregation and their fine vicar smiled at me throughout, as did the bishop. I saw many familiar faces, but as my oversight of the mission had ended when the vicar came, there were lots of people I did not recognize. They too smiled, however. It was a moment's respite for them after years of hard work, with many years yet to come. The real labor'the travail'for me, however, was to generate and keep up the initial enthusiasm.
First, in my parish there were people who expressed their anxiety that the new mission would 'suck the people out of our pews.' Then there were the people of other parishes who were anxious that the new mission would suck the people out of their pews. Finally there was the anxiety at the diocesan level (that the bishop did not share) that loaning money to us would be risking money on a potential failure, or worse, money used to suck the people out of existing assessment-paying parishes. There was so to speak a lot of enthusiasm to generate, at all three levels, to overcome these fears.
I strongly support the 20/20 Vision. We have great people working hard and smart to figure out what it will require to make it happen. Planting churches is in itself hard work. It means overcoming the inertia of the community in which the church is being launched. It takes a lot of energy to gather people to fulfil God's dream for a new parish. Unless we are willing to travail against the natural survival instincts of our existing parishes as well as these obstacles, we will fail. The canons provide that existing parishes be consulted as to new starts within ten miles of them. Their natural inclination will be to say 'no.' The most energy up front needs to be expended on generating the enthusiasm that this audacious vision should inspire among existing Episcopalians.
As well as all the study and reflection being done by the 20/20 committee, we need to have a coordinated effort to get this vision firmly accepted by the bishops, rectors and lay leaders of our dioceses. The people to cast this vision are first the Presiding Bishop, his staff, the Executive Council and the General Convention 2000 delegates who voted for it. Then the diocesan leaders need to cast it for the parishes. This will entail not only getting across the concept that we need to grow significantly. That is presumably the easy part. The hard part is that while people will assent to starting new churches, they will be tempted to add, 'but not in my back yard.' Then they will add, 'and not with our money'we don't have enough for our own needs.' If the diocese puts together a fund for new churches, there is bound to be a faction demanding that an equal amount be spent in the existing churches.
To counter this, we must emphasize several facts.
First, there is no quicker way to die than to attempt to maintain the status quo. We can shrink to half our size by 2020 without any effort at all.
Second, starting a new church (or contributing some people to a joint start) cannot weaken an existing parishit strengthens it by affirming that the people of this parish take spreading the Good News seriously. That is very attractive to newcomers, especially among the younger set.
Third, new starts should not require a great deal of money up front. The main initial expenditure needs to be time to gather and train the initial group of lay church planters. From day one, the new congregation should be encouraged to meet as many of its own needs as possible, including paying supply clergy. In general, full-time vicars should not be brought in immediately (one exception is starting a mission in a barrio, where the founding priest needs to be the initial member).
Finally, not all mission churches should follow our traditional Anglican village-church model. New wine needs new wineskins, especially for people other than middle-class white folk (see a previous column, Planting A Rainbow).
The diocese has a large role to play, of course. One immediate imperative is to begin a search for as much good land as we can buy, get bequeathed, or gifted to us. As Mark Twain observed, 'they don't make it anymore.' And it will not be any cheaper than it is today. It does not matter whether the land is in targeted areas. It can be swapped or sold and the proceeds used to buy desirable sites. Another imperative is to gather the funds necessary to underwrite the necessary start-up costs of clergy and buildings. The existing congregations who would be able to tap these funds would be 're-starts,' churches that need to start over in their present location. Perhaps building loans could come from a national loan fund, so long as the rate of interestand defaultscould be kept low. A third imperative is to redesign the ordination process to facilitate recruitment of dynamic young clergy leaders. This will require a serious reorientation of rectors (our principal recruiters) as well as commissions on ministry to recruit rather than discourage potential aspirants to the ordained ministry.
We can double the size of the Episcopal Church within two decades. Once under way, the process will feed on itself, correcting itself and building momentum. It will be hard work. Fun work, too. But the whole enterprise will die a-borning if we do not travail against the inertia and anxiety of our institution. The hardest part of pushing a car is to get it rolling. The same holds true for our Vision.
For when the day comes to consecrate each new church, almost no one will remember that anyone ever objected to it.