By Dylan Thayer
Few priests exude entrepreneurial energy quite like the Rev. Jenifer Gamber. It is a muggy June day when we settle in for brisket tacos and seafood soup at a Mexican restaurant near Washington National Cathedral to discuss Gamber’s work as program director for the Tending Our Soil initiative, a program developed by the Diocese of Washington in conjunction with a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment. But the heat, humidity, and heavy food do not slow her down.
Tending Our Soil, Gamber said, invites us to return to Christ’s basic questions: “Who are we and who are our neighbors?” Gamber laments the lack of outward focus in many Episcopal parishes, and wants Tending Our Soil to challenge that mentality.
“My experience of some Episcopal churches is ‘Let’s round up the troops, circle up the wagons, and settle in for the long decline.’ People don’t say that, but their actions reflect such an inward posture,” she said. “Tending Our Soil is intended to open us up to the world around us.”
Tending Our Soil will last for five years, and will eventually reach 36 parishes in the Diocese of Washington — 12 congregations will begin each of the first three years. Gamber insists all congregations, in the diocese and beyond, can do the hard work of reevaluating their relationship with their neighborhood. (TLC first wrote about Tending Our Soil in June 2021.)
For parishes that say they do not have enough money, time, people, or other resources, she cites the parable of the mustard seed. “Out of little can come much. We do have enough,” she says, her eyes filled with conviction. “Every community has all the gifts it needs to fulfill God’s mission for that community.”
The communities that participated in Tending Our Soil’s first cohort, beginning in September 2021, have shown Gamber’s optimism is not misplaced. The Rev. Shivaun Wilkinson, associate rector at St. John’s, Olney, laughingly labels her inward-focused parish a “church of friends” when considering the successes of Tending Our Soil’s first year.
“The biggest success,” she said, “has been forcing the people in our church to go outside and talk to people.” Tending Our Soil helped St. John’s clarify its years-long struggle to welcome newcomers, and the parish has now formed a new ministry for that purpose.
The Rev. John Kellogg, rector of Christ Church Capitol Hill, faced a similar dynamic in his congregation. Like St. John’s, Christ Church was growing steadily before the pandemic, but wanted to take a closer look at how to improve its organizational structure to support this growth.
In addition, Capitol Hill has faced big demographic changes in the past two decades, with more families and young children moving into the neighborhood. Blending long-timers with newcomers takes work, Kellogg stressed, and Christ Church’s members wanted to think more strategically about how to open their doors to the new members of their neighborhood.
“Tending Our Soil has helped spur some conversations that we’ve known we needed to have,” he said.
The Rev. Kate Heichler, rector of Christ Church, La Plata, and Christ Church, Wayside, knows the feeling well. Both her congregations are participating as one team in Tending Our Soil (it was “natural,” she said, given that they collaborate on so much else). The team appreciated the time spent on each church’s mission and vision statements and strategic plans.
Heichler also noted that both parishes enjoyed high levels of engagement with the initiative, a theme echoed across the diocese. Yet when considering their neighborhood demographics (as with other parishes, the number of young families in Wayside and La Plata is growing), both parishes realized their faith formation programming and engagement with rising generations needs work in the next year.
And Heichler is looking for a big idea, as exemplified in both churches’ new mission statement: “To connect people with the fiercely accepting love of Jesus.”
With a long history of reaching out to the community, the Tending Our Soil team at St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda, did not have any difficulty conceiving of the parish as a fulcrum for service to others, said Karen Edwards, senior warden.
Edwards said much of the team’s work has centered on visibility and welcoming: improving the website, plugging into neighborhood Listservs, or putting up signage on the Capital Crescent Trail, which passes through the parish’s backyard. The challenge, Edwards emphasized, is inviting the entire parish along in the team’s work. “We don’t need to come up with one grand solution. We just need to try things,” she said. “And I think Tending Our Soil has inspired us to try things.”
Perhaps no parish has tried quite so many things as Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring. The Rev. Joan Beilstein, the rector, called Tending Our Soil “one of the best congregational vitality programs in a while.”
In the past year, Church of the Ascension has started hosting Tommy’s Pantry, feeding over 600 people a month. The parish also launched a street ministry and has begun hosting summer camps on the parish grounds. Tending Our Soil has encouraged Church of the Ascension to focus less on attendance and finances, but paradoxically, the church grew robustly in both areas during the past year.
“Tending Our Soil has helped us look outside the box and think about doing church in new ways,” Beilstein said with a beam as she launched into all the things the team is hoping to try in the next year.
What great bushes grow from such tiny seeds (Matt. 13:31-32).
Dylan Thayer is parish coordinator at St. Paul’s, K Street, Washington, D.C.