Rectors need to take specific, intentional steps to help their churches grow, said the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde in her first convention address as Bishop of Washington. Budde was a parish priest for 23 years before becoming a bishop.
Speaking at Washington National Cathedral on Jan. 27, Budde said the diocese will emphasize congregational renewal and revitalization. The bishop said she intends to hire a new diocesan staff person responsible for congregational leadership and development.
She also announced a new diocesan initiative to begin in March called People of the Way, which will help congregations enhance their spiritual formation practices. This initiative will draw from Brian McLaren’s Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Thomas Nelson, 2010).
While “the Episcopal Church is a jewel on the spectrum of Christianity,” today its “spiritual muscles” are “a bit out of shape,” Budde said. “The undeniable reality is that our church is not thriving. … I want to turn the trends of decline around.”
She proposed these strategies for rectors to encourage congregational growth:
- Address unresolved relationships within the congregation. The relational dimension of a church — not the facilities, parking or lighting — is what provides satisfaction among parishioners.
- Feed the “presenting hunger” for meaning and hope that church visitors often feel. At this early stage they should be warmly welcomed but not swarmed over or urged to join, pledge or run for leadership positions, such as vestry.
- Set a high bar for formal church membership, and and make joining a rigorous and clear process.
- Promote small-group ministry, which helps parishioners feel a sense of community.
- “Function up,” as though the parish is already twice its size. This helps a church congregation build a new, visionary reality beside the old reality of how things have always been done. Bishop Budde said she was able to do this at her church in Minneapolis, St. John’s, with those who joined after she became rector more than those who called and hired her. With growth, she said, a congregation starts to become a “destination church” (one that people will travel some distance to attend).
- Tend carefully to the 10 percent of parishioners who are visionaries and have new, creative ideas. If eight percent of the congregation adopts a new idea (early adopters) championed by the 10 percent, this 18 percent can move a congregation in a new direction. At St. John’s, Budde said, “the freeing thing for me was that I didn’t have to change everybody.” There she learned that “my job is to tend to the vision” of the minority, which need not come from the rector or the vestry.
- Proceed with transparency, accountability and integrity of process. “People need to know where things are,” the bishop said. “In general, to be transparent with your community is really key.”
- Do not try to do everything, especially as a church grows. Instead, train and foster lay leaders within the congregation to help with pastoral care and spiritual formation. As a parish priest, Budde said, she learned the importance of “getting me out of the center and spreading the ministry among the baptized.”
- Work with other parishes, sharing resources and ideas and pursuing collaborative learning. Small, struggling congregations may have to leave their beloved church buildings behind and merge with others.