Lessons from New Congregations

By Clay Lein

It’s not often that you find four new Episcopal congregations planted less than five miles apart. Yet here in north Texas, the Diocese of Dallas has begun four new churches in 11 years:

  • In 2002 the diocese planted St. Philip’s in Frisco. It has grown to 700 in attendance at weekend services and is building a 21,000-square-foot addition.
  • In 2005 the diocese planted St. Andrew’s in McKinney, which has grown to 300 average Sunday attendance and opened its first building in 2012.
  • In 2008 the diocese planted St. Paul’s in Prosper. This mission meets in a school cafeteria, draws an average Sunday attendance of 150 and will launch its first building campaign this spring.
  • In 2011 the diocese planted Church of The Savior (COTS) in Allen, which has an average Sunday attendance of 52.

Each congregation represents a different stage in the church life cycle, from newly formed to firmly established, from meeting in a cafeteria to settling into a first building. Each congregation has its own identity and uses different language, but all share five key contributors to success.

Diocesan Support
The first key to the success of these churches has been the full support of the Diocese of Dallas. In 2001 the diocese finished a strategic planning process and began to plant my mission, St. Philip’s. It made an initial investment of almost $1 million to buy land in Frisco. I asked Bishop James Stanton what the diocese was going to do for their next one and his reply sobered me: “We don’t have a plan for the next one. We’re spending all that we’ve got on St. Philip’s.” Clearly the diocese was all in. That commitment continued as God provided funds for three more church starts.

Support strengthened when the Rev. Canon Victoria R.T. Heard joined the diocese as a canon missioner for church planting. She has worked tirelessly to find church planters and keep the call to new works always before the diocese.

External Focus
A second shared characteristic is that each congregation has set its sights outward. The mission is to serve others. Reaching the community is the primary factor in decisions. That shows up in how these congregations define their mission, allocate their budget, and structure their staff. It even shows up in how they describe their attendance. “Our ASA is 1 percent of the population of our mission field,” said the Rev. Michael Gilton of St. Paul’s. Comments like that reveal an intentionality to know the mission field and to see at least one criterion of success as reaching the people around us.

Much of this mindset was formed in the early days of each plant. Meeting in a school cafeteria or a YMCA expands the vision of church and opens new possibilities for expressing ancient traditions. For example, without a building COTS was freed to see the church as the whole community. In 2012 COTS held its first Ash Wednesday service in a pub. The service was featured on the local NBC affiliate. “Jesus went out to where people lived and ate and worked and played,” said the Rev. Joel Allen Prather. “Coming to a pub is just us following his example.”

Life Transformation
A third shared value is a commitment to life transformation. This is much more than hospitality or welcome. It’s about empowering people to see changes in their daily lives. Call it discipleship or catechism or adult education, but at its core the emphasis is on seeing the lives of children, youth, and adults changed by Jesus.

All four churches challenge people to engage the Scriptures and then call everyone to live more like Jesus. This happens in preaching grounded in the Bible and connected to daily life. It happens in marriage classes, parenting seminars, Financial Peace University courses, and many other teaching venues. It is the focus of all children’s programming and youth ministries.

Most important is the discipleship that occurs in small groups. Each congregation encourages members to participate in ways that increase faith. COTS has five small groups meeting in multiple neighborhoods with over 65 percent of the congregation participating. St. Philip’s has more than 35 small groups, most using studies connected to the Sunday sermons. St. Paul’s offers similar groups but adds a more intimate element by connecting people with Life Transformation Groups of two or three. St. Andrew’s hosts multiple groups for all ages in its new space during the week. All of it is designed to bolster faith and change lives.

Active Compassion
All four congregations are committed to helping people serve their community in tangible ways.

At St. Paul’s 82 percent of current adult members are active in ministry. “We believe disciples are made in action,” Fr. Gilton said. And it’s not just inspiring church members to serve at the church. St. Andrew’s began a ministry that helped other community organizations to serve. It works with Head Start, the local school district, and the County Committee on Aging to care for those in need. Even a small mission like COTS has raised more than $21,000 to serve others.

At the heart is a passion to serve all the people God has put into a congregation’s mission field. Our parish isn’t just the four walls of our building or the boundaries of our property. Our parish is the whole of our community. God invites us to serve all people.

Active compassion not only serves the community but expands the church. The people of a new church serving in the community without an agenda offers the best public relations any church will ever enjoy.

Innovative Strategies
All these churches do the things that other churches do. They are grounded in the Gospel. They worship, teach the Scriptures, serve their communities, care for their members, and build buildings. Yet all four are constantly rethinking how they do those things in order to be more effective in reaching people. There are few sacred cows and all share an openness to doing things in new ways.

Sometimes that happens in how clergy spend their time. Fr. Gilton has served as a crossing guard for a neighborhood school and chaplain for the local police department. Each role helped the people of Prosper see St. Paul’s as their church. At other times it is seen in new ministries begun. St. Andrews built community awareness by founding a “Believe” 10K run to benefit local schools. It has since grown to more than 1,000 runners.

Innovation can also occur on a macro scale. When St. Philip’s completed its first buildings it launched a preschool with a three-day program that served fewer than 50 kids. Today the five-day preschool has grown to over 200 students. Only 20 percent of the parents and students are officially church members but all are considered part of the St. Philip’s family. St. Paul’s has taken that one step further by building a school to serve the children of the community and then to provide a multipurpose space that can be used for the church’s Sunday worship.

God has done an amazing work in these four new churches. There is not one right way to begin a new congregation but there are key ingredients to make one thrive. There is not a best style of worship, or a right location, or a particular church planter. But these essential principles can help new congregations be successful. This list of principles is by no means complete, but it is a beginning. New works begun in every diocese around the country in the years ahead will reveal even more lessons for growing God’s Church in our modern context. And these churches will change the world.

The Rev. Clay Lein is rector of St. Philip’s Church, Frisco, Texas.

Image courtesy of St. Phlip’s Church, Frisco.

Lessons New Congregations


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