Grassroots Missions at VTS

By Peggy Eastman

Clergy, seminarians, laypeople, and church leaders gathered at Virginia Theological Seminary April 15-16 for Missional Voices, a conference that encouraged innovative missions by the Episcopal Church. About 200 people attended.

Organized by VTS students, the conference attracted missional leaders from across the country, including the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation and a faculty member at General Theological Seminary.

“Anybody watching us should see God’s mission in all that we are and all that we do,” Spellers said. “There’s a reason everyone is talking about a Jesus movement in the Episcopal Church. Do you feel the movement? And are you ready to say yes?”

Spellers, author of The Episcopal Way, stressed that mission may not be across the ocean but across the street. She defined missional ministry as crossing boundaries — of building and place, money, assembly, day of the week, rules and rubrics — to be part of God’s mission to love the world into wholeness.

The conference featured various local missions, including:

  • Southside Abbey in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which meets in borrowed space in an art gallery; two-thirds of its members are homeless
  • LaundryLove, which uses Laundromats in California and other states to help people with financial and logistical hardships wash their clothes and find spiritual and social support
  • Fresh Expressions/Praxis Communities in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, which supports sustainable, supportive networks still connected to the established church
  • The Abbey, a combination coffee shop and church founded as a partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama and St. Luke’s Church in Birmingham

Speakers emphasized that community-embedded ministries deepen their own faith. “We’re trying to make a seamless garment of mission and service,” the Rev. Robert Leopold, missioner of Southside Abbey, told TLC.

He stressed that he learns at least as much from his mission’s members as they learn from him. “They have to depend on God for every meal every time,” he said. “I feel like I’m being formed as I am forming.”

Missional Voices began as a conversation between VTS students Alan Bentrup and Christian Anderson. Their interest in the spiritual power of nontraditional local ministries, along with their wide-ranging discussions on changes in the Episcopal Church, blossomed into Missional Voices. The conference soon followed.

The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, 26th presiding bishop, served as chaplain. Asked what she hopes to see emerge from the conference, Bishop Jefferts Schori said: “That what they’re thinking about and talking about might infect the wider church to the glory of God.”

Conference participants said they were there to learn, grow, and be inspired.

“I’m here to see how the Spirit is moving in the Church and the world,” said Julia Khan, a student at Union Theological Seminary. “I’m here to get energized.”

The conference also included group worship, panels, small-group discussions, and incubator sessions featuring collage, creative writing, painting, yoga, and Zentangle (pen drawings that use calming repetitive lines).

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Photos by Curtis Prather.


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