In Search of Growth
St. Michael and All Angels, Blanco, Texas
By Mike Patterson
When David and Taylor Smith pushed a baby stroller along the quiet streets of their neighborhood in Blanco, Texas, the walks took them past St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, a couple of blocks away and around the corner from their home along the Blanco River. Friends next door “told us how great the church was” and invited them to attend a service.
“We loved how the members of the church, prior to a service, engaged with one another,” David Smith said. “We loved the idea of a tight-knit church family, so we chose to go to St. Michael’s. We immediately felt at home due to the kindness and sense of community within the body.”
The Smiths are among many new members who have joined St. Michael’s in the last few years. The mission of the church is to make them “feel welcome and wanted,” said the Rev. Bryn Caddell, St. Michael’s vicar. “They are looking for connection, and we’re offering a place for them to connect.”
“The church family has been wonderfully gracious, kind, and inviting of our young family,” Taylor Smith added. “We wanted our children, both under the age of 4, to know that their church family was there to guide them, watch over them, and love on them. We found that at St. Michael’s.”
According to its annual parochial reports, St. Michael’s has seen a 45.9 percent increase in average Sunday attendance between 2017 and 2022. This translates into an increase from 37 people on an average Sunday to 54 in 2022. The Sunday attendance in 2023 is already averaging nearly 26 percent above 2022.
Membership has likewise jumped 32.8 percent, to 89 members from 67, and plate and pledge offerings have risen from $65, 977 in 2017 to $121,045 in 2022 — a whopping 83.4 percent increase in five years.
“Growth did not come as a surprise, but the amount of growth has been surprising,” said Bishop’s Warden Bubba Groos, who married his wife, Carol, at St. Michael’s in 1998. They joined the church in 1997 and are among the longest-attending members.
Founded as a mission of the Diocese of West Texas in 1953, St. Michael’s has throughout much of its history maintained an average attendance of 30 to 40. Its recent spurt of growth places it closer to pastoral-sized churches in the diocese.
“In our diocese of 85 missions and parishes, we are larger than 53 of them,” Caddell said. “We are trying to learn how to transition from being a family-sized church to being a pastoral-sized church. That means that the whole church doesn’t necessarily need to weigh in to decide which shrub to plant or what type of lawnmower to buy, and that is an adjustment. These aren’t downsides at all, but they are growing pains.”
For most of its history, St. Michael’s was served by a vicar whose role was to offer Holy Communion on Sunday and conduct the occasional wedding or funeral. When Caddell graduated from the Seminary of the Southwest during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Bishop David M. Reed assigned her to serve as a part-time deacon at St. Michael’s because it was already experiencing some growth. She was ordained a priest in December 2020.
“The hope was that with a part-time priest, the congregation would continue to grow enough to justify a full-time position,” Caddell said. That goal was achieved in July 2022 with financial support from the diocese.
“Full-time clergy translates into more pastoral care, more interaction with the community, and more programs being offered, which all can help promote growth,” she said. “I certainly hoped that the congregation would grow. In light of the pandemic, the rate of growth has been a surprise.”
Located in a semi-rural area in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, 50 miles north of San Antonio and 54 miles west of Austin, Blanco and neighboring communities are growing at a faster rate than Texas as a whole “due to people moving here upon retirement and, to a lesser extent, the increase in a remote working culture that allows people to work from a more peaceful environment,” Groos said. Some parishioners drive about 30 miles one way to attend services.
“The pandemic taught people that they didn’t necessarily need to live close to an office in a big city,” Caddell said. “Blanco is attractive to people who want to move from the city and enjoy wide open spaces.”
“Our main strategy has simply been to welcome people who visit,” she added. “Folks moving to a small town know that church is a great place to meet people. They are looking to make friends and get involved in the community.”
Those joining St. Michael’s are a mixture of adults from several generations — baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials, Groos said. They include a range of retirees and young families like the Smiths, with children ranging from infants to high school and college-age students. Groos said a substantial part of St. Michael’s growth has been the addition of a couple of intergenerational family clusters.
“It seems that if some people in our community come and like it, they attract more of their family,” he said. “We have other members that are bringing friends to visit.”
Groos credited Caddell with launching “programs that just weren’t feasible without someone having a full-time impact.” For example, she has trained youth for service at the altar and instituted a Youth Sunday when youth serve as acolytes, hosts, Eucharistic ministers, oblation-bearers, and lectors. She has also started midweek and Sunday Bible studies, as well as a weekly fellowship hour for church members over Zoom.
Many of the new members already have an affiliation with the Episcopal Church when they move to the area, Groos said. David Smith was baptized at an Episcopal church in San Antonio but was primarily raised a Baptist. His wife, Taylor, was raised at Christ Church in Plano, north of Dallas, when it was an Episcopal church.
“Certainly, there are the Episcopalians — people who have moved to Blanco and had been active members of Episcopal churches in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and elsewhere,” Caddell said. “They are excited about plugging in and joining our altar guild or becoming lay readers. They also bring with them best practices from other churches and have been helpful in offering suggestions about new things we could try or consider.
“There are also visitors who weren’t Episcopalians before, but simply visited the churches in town and found a home with us.
“Because we are growing, a good percentage of our church have been members for less than five years. I think it feels more comfortable to be new in a place where there are lots of other people who were new not that long ago. They can share experiences and stories about moving, building houses, and making their way in a new community.”
Church volunteers are committed to ensuring the grounds and gardens are well-kept and inviting to members and visitors, a reflection that St. Michael’s is loved and cared for — curb appeal, if you will.
Groos said St. Michael’s makes it a point to offer a “welcoming fellowship” to visitors. “A number of our newer members have mentioned that what attracted them to our church is the fact that they were welcomed so warmly,” he said.
Visitors are given welcome bags and are greeted by many members. Everyone is encouraged to wear nametags to help both new and longtime members get to know each other.
Caddell sends a monthly newsletter and weekly update to keep church members informed. And a new feature called “Meet Our Members” has been added to help introduce parishioners to each other.
Caddell is “keenly attuned to the meeting and greeting” of visitors, Groos said.
It is important to meet with new members and “have a conversation about how they would like to be involved,” Caddell said.
To help make newcomers feel more welcome and part of the church family, St. Michael’s started holding an annual newcomers dinner to invite new members to meet and socialize with the Bishop’s Committee and the vicar. The church is now planning semi-annual dinners to accommodate the growth in membership.
Another way St. Michael’s has introduced visitors and members to the church is by continuing its long tradition of potluck luncheons after services on the first Sunday of each month. “A potluck is an easy way to invite participation,” Caddell said. “Everyone can contribute. And there is nothing better than to have a reason and opportunity to sit down and get to know the people with whom you worship. Once someone feels known, and knows others in return, they tend to stay. They become part of the church because they are in relationship with the people.”
With growth has come “a palpable change in the vibrancy of the fellowship,” Groos said. “There is also the energy and sound of toddlers, which is joyful to most of our members.”
But with growth has come pressing management issues, especially concerning possible solutions to capacity issues, such as the addition of worship services or other overflow solutions. He called this a “fortunate problem.”
The COVID-19 pandemic changed some things immediately, such as initial remote worship requirements, Groos said. “But in addition, it prompted a quick advance of more technological changes that have been beneficial post-pandemic,” he said. “Our worship is available online, along with remote giving via our website. The ability to do this has enabled expansion of in-person worship so that our parish hall can be used for overflow on crowded Sundays.”
“The pandemic has been part of my ordained ministry from the start,” Caddell said. “St. Michael’s was originally livestreaming using Zoom. We transitioned to YouTube and have continued to livestream our services.
“In order to allow for socially distanced seating, we used the adjacent parish hall for overflow space. Fortunately, we already had the technology for that. There was a television in the parish hall that had been used from time to time for large funerals. We haven’t stopped using the parish hall, but now, instead of socially distanced seating, it is regularly used as worship space and includes a children’s area.”
While the church seats about 60, “it is possible to squeeze more in, but people generally self-select to move into the parish hall rather than pack in tight with one another,” Caddell said. As of May 7, the average Sunday attendance was 68, compared to a 2020 pre-pandemic ASA of 46.
“We regularly have people in our overflow area in the parish hall,” she said. “When we have more than 80 people, which has happened a handful of times already, our overflow area starts to fill up as well.”
This has led to conversations about moving from one service on Sunday to two services, perhaps starting as early as this fall.
Asked for his advice on connecting with new people, Groos replied: “Throw out the welcome mat! Encourage your parishioners to make it a point to personally meet visitors and introduce themselves, and make sure your clergy do the same.”
He added: “Broaden methods of communication via inclusion in churchwide email distributions and an online presence where visitors can find your church and know when services and events are being held, and have access remotely to worship to get a ‘feel’ for what your church is like.”
“Engage the Holy Spirit, and come up with a reason to invite people,” Caddell said.
Since St. Michael is one patron saint of first responders and warriors, “we held a St. Michael’s Day celebration in 2021 and invited our neighbors and city officials to participate in a blessing of first responders and veterans. It was a way to let our community know who we are, what we value, and what we do. St. Michael’s Day in 2022 was a bigger event than the first one, and we’re already starting to make plans for 2023.”
David Smith said that “the actions of our church were attractive: a commitment to love their neighbors, show love through kindness and fostered an atmosphere of Christlikeness in how they treat one another as family.”
“The Holy Spirit is at work here,” Caddell said. “People are looking for a connection with the holy, and they are finding it in this community.”
Mike Patterson is a freelance writer based in San Antonio and a member of St. Michael’s.