Parishes Go Multi-Site for Mission

Founded in 1821, Trinity Parish in downtown St. Augustine is the oldest Protestant church in Florida. The parish plans to open a second campus in a growing area of the community in 2024. Photo courtesy Trinity Parish

By Lauren Anderson-Cripps

Trinity Parish in downtown St. Augustine has maxed out its space. Landlocked, with limited parking, the campus of the oldest Protestant church in Florida is frequently at capacity for worship on Sunday mornings, as is its preschool on weekdays.

Meanwhile, the surrounding St. Johns County is among the fastest-growing counties in the country. A new suburb under development northwest of St. Augustine is anticipated to bring 200,000 additional people to the area in the next decade.

In fall 2022, Trinity purchased a 13-acre plot of land in the burgeoning hotbed, positioned in the middle of a 30-mile circle without a mainline church within reach.

Motivated by its packed space and the opportunity to reach new residents, Trinity Parish plans to open a second campus and day school at the site. For Trinity, the new campus will leverage the culture and staff of the 202-year-old church to share overhead, while the new school is expected to provide an avenue for evangelism and discipleship of new families.

When it launches Trinity North Campus next year, the parish will become one of a number of Episcopal churches to adopt a multisite structure, a vehicle for church growth common among evangelical churches but less often adopted in the Episcopal Church.

Defined as a church that meets in more than one location while maintaining an integrated leadership structure and budget, the multisite model is different from the mother/daughter church dynamic of church-planting, in which an established parish creates another, and from the parish-yoking model, in which two existing, typically smaller, congregations share a pastor.

In its capital campaign materials, Trinity notes the success rate of second campuses (over 80%), compared to the oft-cited, though disputed, 80 percent failure rate among church plants.

The multisite model is considered a cost-efficient tool for growth, with staffing, accounting, communications, and programming being centralized rather than duplicated.

“What we’re saying is the way to grow the church is to, instead of reinventing the wheel and planting a second, separate church, we’re going to share in the administration, the paperwork, share the overhead. … It’s the same clergy, just in multiple locations,” said Matt Marino, rector of Trinity Parish.

Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, launched its second site in 2016 as an extension of a missional community it helped found on the city’s south side.

“From the beginning our whole focus has been connecting all kinds of people to Jesus, and we felt we could do that more effectively if we had two campuses … that were in two parts of town and that had complementary forms of worship,” said the Rev. David Luckenbach, rector of Christ Church. It’s “one rector, one vision, one staff, one vestry, one congregation rowing in the same direction, trying to be faithful to discipling people and connecting people to Jesus. … That has absolutely borne fruit for us.”

Around 2010, the 150-year-old parish — then operating from a single downtown location — began a dedicated effort, led by a former associate rector, the Rev. Matt Boulter, to reach area college students and 20-somethings who were disconnected from church.

“We weren’t thinking initially about a [second] campus or multisite ministry at all. We were just thinking about extending the ministry of our congregation to some unchurched young people,” Luckenbach said.

Members of the new, missional body, dubbed the “Epiphany Community,” gathered for Bible study and fellowship at sites around town. Over time, there was enough critical mass to warrant a dedicated service, and the group began worshiping in the parish’s fourth-floor gym. That service, which featured contemporary music, was added to Christ Church’s existing four services.

By 2014, growth among both the college-aged and Epiphany communities led to space challenges at the parish. The gym, with capacity to seat 100 people, regularly saw up to 80 people for worship. Viability for a second campus typically starts at 75 people, according to cross-denominational research conducted by the Leadership Network.

Luckenbach approached the vestry with two options: purchasing an adjacent property to convert into a contemporary worship space, or launching a second site in the growing area of south Tyler.

Starting from scratch at an entirely new site, Luckenbach said, opened new opportunities for the church, including having more land to host outdoor, congregation-wide events. The idea resonated with parishioners, but it came with risks, Luckenbach said.

“It was such a huge commitment; we’d have to purchase property and do a capital campaign,” he said. “And in many ways, there was an extent to which it could be an existential threat to a congregation that has existed since 1867.”

He added: “If you create a multisite campus, and you really go all in on that, if it doesn’t go well or if you don’t execute it right, it can really affect your ministry.”

A parish task force met for a year to vet the idea and ultimately recommended purchasing a 26-acre tract to develop into Christ Church’s south campus. Plans called for developing the site, located about seven miles south of the downtown campus, into a property fit for outdoor fellowship, including a pavilion, amphitheater, and firepit.

The design of the worship space paid homage to its downtown counterpart while fitting the needs of the worshipers who gather there, Luckenbach said. Prayer books, pews, and stained glass at the original campus were traded for projected liturgies on screens and abundant natural light at the south campus; the downtown campus has an east-facing altar, while the south-campus altar is freestanding.

“We wanted to have a space that would both inspire reverent awe, like our downtown campus does, and clearly be a wholly set-apart space, but at the same time be a space that would be appropriate for worship using contemporary music,” Luckenbach said.

The first service at the south campus was held on the Second Sunday of Advent in 2016; 330 people attended.

“We worked our tails off to get from here to there, and God favored us tremendously with a lot of enthusiasm, not only from the congregation but the whole community, and we were able to not just transition the Epiphany service to the south campus, but really we created a new service that had elements of downtown worship, the fourth-floor service, and some new things,” he said.

A recent Sunday service at Christ Church South drew about 275 people, an increase in attendance from before COVID. The church confirmed 21 adults at the south campus in the fall.

“We’re really in a pretty healthy strong place — it’s growing,” Luckenbach said. “New people are constantly coming, but people have a sense of home.”

When the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, a 75-year-old parish based in Austin’s Tarrytown neighborhood, launched a second campus in 2016, it helped deepen its sense of mission, said the rector, the Rev. Channing Smith.

A $22 million capital campaign in 2013 to renovate Good Shepherd’s existing building also funded the creation of “The Hill,” a new worship site and early childhood education center located six miles south of its original Windsor campus. From the start, an outreach mission was at the center of the new building, Smith said.

“Our Windsor campus is 75 years old, very established in Austin, a well-resourced parish, very much tied to the neighborhood we’re a part of,” Smith said. “It’s easy for this site to get nostalgic, to rest on its laurels. So, what The Hill has taught us is that doing church is really hard; you have to constantly be engaging your community, being welcoming to any visitor that comes through … always thinking of extending yourself beyond your geographic location.”

The Windsor campus, meanwhile, provides stability and support to the younger site, Smith said.

The shift from single-site to multisite poses questions of how to best integrate multiple locations into one worshiping body.

When Smith became rector in 2020, he altered the staff model from having a designated priest assigned to each site to instead rotating six full-time clergy between the campuses and having staff oversee operations at both.

“If you’re in charge of children, you’re in charge of children now in two places,” Smith said. “If you’re doing programming, you’re doing programming in two places. If you’re doing liturgy, you’re doing liturgy in both places.”

“It matters how you set up the relationship, it matters how you talk about it internally,” he added.

As rector of Christ Church in Tyler, Luckenbach also toggles between its campuses, celebrating at the south campus at least once a month. For some special services, including Christmas Eve Eucharist, the congregation gathers exclusively at the downtown campus; others, such as the Easter sunrise service, are held only at Christ Church South.

Christ Church made the intentional decision not to create office space at its south campus; consolidating those operations on one campus communicates an important message, Luckenbach said.

“One of the challenges that can come when you become multisite is that you can unwittingly really create a second church,” he said. “So, one thing we did to mitigate against that is … operationally we have no staff on the south campus. That piece of it is all still based downtown, and downtown alone.”

The two-in-one campus model is not as novel as it may seem among Episcopalians; in practice, many parishes are already doing it, said Marino of Trinity Parish. Larger churches hold multiple services, with distinct groups of people attending them. St. John the Divine in Houston, where Marino was previously an associate rector, holds six liturgies on Sunday mornings across three locations on its one campus.

From its single campus, Trinity already holds three services on Sunday mornings — a said Rite 1, a more contemporary Rite 2, and a traditional, sung Rite 1.

“Those are three pretty different audiences currently,” Marino said. Multisite “is the same thing. What we’re going to do is we’re going to have different campuses where we preach the Bible, we pray the prayer book, and we love the people that show up. We’re just going to do that at two different locations instead of one.”

In the absence of specifically Episcopal resources related to multisite ministry, Luckenbach said, he turned to colleagues from other denominations in Tyler.

“Everything that I’ve learned about multisite churches I’ve learned outside the Episcopal Church,” Luckenbach said. “Up until we birthed the south campus and became a multisite congregation, I had never had a conversation with an Episcopal colleague about being a multisite church.”

Yet the liturgical tradition also has gifts to offer multisite ministry, Smith said. Some multisite churches use satellite locations, broadcasting the sermon to multiple places at once. The centrality of the Eucharist and the value placed on authentic relationships are likely to shield Episcopal churches from that model.

“That’s not the model of the Episcopal Church,” Smith said. “We really value the ministry of all our clergy and parishioners. It doesn’t just come from just one person; it’s not built around the personality of the leader. It’s built around the community itself.”

Trinity, St. Augustine; Christ Church, Tyler; and Good Shepherd, Austin, are all TLC Partner parishes.


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