By Peggy Eastman

Participants in the Missional Voices National Gathering heard challenges to risk everything and explore transformative new ways of ministry to share Jesus’ love. The conference met for its second year at Virginia Theological Seminary on April 21-22.

The gathering drew about 225 clergy, seminarians, and lay people to VTS; about one-third were seminarians. This was the second Missional Voices conference, following last spring’s student-organized event.

The Rev. Alan Bentrup, cofounder of Missional Voices, was a VTS student when he helped organize that first meeting. He told TLC the purpose of this year’s gathering was to continue the conversation within the Episcopal Church on innovative ministries and missional communities. Bentrup is now a curate at St. Mary’s Church in Cypress, Texas.

The gathering met in partnership with VTS, the Diocese of Texas, the Diocese of Washington, Bexley Seabury, the Episcopal Evangelism Society, Evangelism Initiatives, and Genesis. The aim: to create an annual event that empowers congregations to develop new forms of church that reach an increasingly diverse society. Plans are to hold the 2018 Missional Voices gathering April 19-21 in Indianapolis, said Bentrup.

VTS Dean and President the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham said he is personally committed to the work of Missional Voices because the gathering can create a network of people who are doing innovative work within the Church. “The network will make a difference to the future of our tradition,” said Markham. He added that the “single greatest threat to the Episcopal Church is our paralysis.”

The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, keynote speaker and bishop of Texas, stressed the need to look beyond the institutional church in finding new forms of ministry. “Everything is about supporting a structure in which we are imprisoned,” he said. “We have made the church a professional business.” This structured church is “an organization that Jesus did not imagine,” he said. Doyle noted that all of Jesus’s disciples turned into apostles and were sent out into the wider world. The bishop said of the current church structure, “If we’re going to have it, it has to work for the gospel.”

Doyle cited the biblical story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) to illustrate the concept that Christians need to think of everyone as their neighbors, not just those who are like-minded. Referring to “the uncomfortable invitation of the gospel,” he said followers of Jesus are called to “step fearlessly outside what our culture has sanctified.”

The Texas bishop added, “I think we completely underestimate what Jesus expects of us as individuals and as a church.” He said, “There is a deep sacrificial act that is required of us…. This is not about being nice people.” Asked by TLC what advice he would give to congregations, given the church’s institutional structure, he said, “You have to be good stewards of what you have.” But he also said parishioners need to be urged to go out and take ministry into surrounding neighborhoods. “You have to walk outside your doors and meet your neighbors,” he said.

The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation and a faculty member at General Theological Seminary, cited Luke 10: 1-12, in which Jesus calls 70 of his disciples and gives them instructions for taking the risk of going out into the world. He tells them to travel from town to town carrying no purse, bag, or sandals, preaching the kingdom of God. That passage, she said, embraces Jesus’s values of what it means to be church. Spellers said traits important in missional ministry include humility, curiosity, compassion, a sense of playfulness and joy, and resilience.

The Rev. Tim Baer and the Rev. Kirsten Baer, 2011 VTS graduates and Missional Voices speakers who are married, took a risk when they accepted a call in July 2013 from the Rt. Rev. Edward K. Konieczny, bishop of Oklahoma, to provide a new vision for ministry in Yukon, a growing suburb of Oklahoma City. They faced hard decisions when they took over as co-vicars of the small Church of the Savior, whose membership had shrunk to about 25.

“It was really a prime location to start a new church,” said Tim Baer, but “it was a hard restart.” Kirsten Baer said the church was cluttered and badly in need of repairs. So the Baers decided to shut down the church for a while and meet with parishioners in their living room to discuss a new vision for the church, also bringing in new people. They talked about what a church of 200-300 might look like. “It’s a pretty extreme option,” said Tim Baer of closing a struggling church for a time. But, he told TLC, “Maybe more churches should try it.”

Kirsten Baer said the couple took as their inspiration pruning, which Jesus talks about extensively (see John 15:1-5). “We threw out a lot, we cleaned, we renovated,” she said. “We also pruned old ideas.” But, she emphasized, “We did not prune people.” She said the couple knew they were on the right track when a 14-year-old said, “I will do anything to help this church grow.” Grow it did, doubling even before its new launch in January 2014 with its new name, Grace Church. It has grown 30 to 40 percent year by year and now has about 275 active parishioners.

Tim Baer said their story is “just one example of restarts in the Episcopal Church.” But unfortunately, he said, “The Episcopal Church is closing more churches than we are starting.” Both Tim and Kirsten Baer emphasized the importance of having the trust, support, and courage of their bishop. They said he provided a step-down grant of $500,000 for the restart. It takes “spiritual venture capitalists” to invest in the mission of the church, emphasized Tim Baer, saying “It takes money to do ministry…. We can’t be afraid to ask for that.”

Addressing the seminarians at the gathering directly, Tim Baer said that when called to take a risk, “Focus on your spiritual life, focus on your roots…. The Spirit is moving; let’s get pruning.” Above all, he told them, they need to spend time in prayer, noting that he and his wife had never prayed so fervently as when they were sent to Yukon.

The Rev. Nancy Frausto took a risk when she became pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, which she described as a “scrappy” church preaching the gospel on the wrong side of the tracks in Hollywood — far from the glamor pictured in movie magazines. Frausto is the Diocese of Los Angeles’ first Latina leader to have grown up in a Spanish-speaking Episcopal Church who went on to pursue ordination. “Scrappy church ministry is not for the weak,” she said. “I love scrappy church ministry because it’s full of scrappy people….I have learned that good things are worth fighting for.” She described scrappy ministry as “ugly and dirty and heartbreaking” — a product of the “benign neglect of the higher leadership of the mainstream church.” She said, “It’s all about love; scrappy church love calls you to be authentic.”

Frausto, who recently left Trinity and said that scrappy church may have to close, recounted the story of a former parishioner who had become homeless and lived on the streets. On Maundy Thursday, the man, who had been at the back of the church, came forward during the service to have his feet washed. Frausto, wondering if anyone would rise to wash his feet, was moved when everyone came forward, even the children. “It took six of us to remove his shoes and socks,” she said. They were encrusted with a mixture of sweat, dirt and blood. A parishioner offered the man clean socks and shoes to replace what came off his feet.

“Real ministry that is out in the street will break your heart, and it’s worth it,” said Frausto. “Take up your cross and risk it all, just like Jesus.” She added that while scrappy ministry may not have successes as the world defines them, “Success and faithfulness are not synonymous.”

The Rev. Becca Stevens, founder and president of Nashville’s Thistle Farms and the Magdalen House recovery program — a healing ministry for women who have a history of substance abuse and prostitution — also said she had to learn that success and faithfulness are not the same thing. “I spent years trying to hide it when someone relapsed in our program,” said Stevens, who has served as chaplain of St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt University.

But, she said, she has learned as a risk taker that “if you are faithful to what you’re doing … people can weep with you. People will hope with you, people will long with you.” Thistle Farms, whose motto is “Love Heals Every Body,” is the largest U.S. social enterprise run by survivors of violence, trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. It makes handcrafted natural body and home products such as soaps, healing oils, and candles, funneling the profits from sales back to the women who make the products.

Stevens’s healing ministry also has an international outreach. She described a new Thistle Farms weaving project with Syrian refugee women in the Rilsona Greek refugee camp; the women are learning to weave bright material from the life vests they wore during their harrowing escape from Syria by boat into colorful welcome door mats. “You heal the women, you heal the village … let new dreams come,” said Stevens, who in 2011 was named a Champion of Change by the White House for her work against domestic violence. Stevens said, “We are walking toward wholeness and healing together…. This is old-school stuff; it’s called community.” She said, “It’s a privilege to do the missional work of the church.”

Like Stevens and Frausto, all the speakers emphasized the spiritual rewards of missional ministry, since although it is “scrappy” it gives much back to the giver. Indeed, people who are the recipients of missional ministry need to be allowed the opportunity to give back, stressed the Rev. Canon Angela S. Ifill, retired missioner in the Office of Black Ministries for the Episcopal Church.

“Even in our most generous moments we talk about ‘doing for,’” agreed Spellers. What is needed, said Spellers, is to “look for what people know” instead of going into a neighborhood “wondering how you can fix them.”

Photo: The Rev. Becca Stevens and Bishop Andy Doyle discuss missional church with moderator Jason Evans. Missional Voices/Facebook

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