In Search of Growth
Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
By Bonnie Nichols Scott
When the Very Rev. Dane Boston returned to Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina, this time as dean in January 2021, he found a very different church than the one he had previously served as canon for adult formation for five years.
“My first Sunday at the cathedral, which seats 700 people, I looked out at 70 because that’s what the pandemic-safe seating permitted,” Boston said. After serving as rector of Christ Church in Cooperstown, New York, he was called back to Trinity. Even as one of the largest Episcopal churches in the area, it was struggling to adapt to the new pandemic reality.
Just as many churches did, Trinity began livestreaming services and adapted to a socially distanced world. While church life was largely diminished as a result, for some parishioners, especially older legacy members of Trinity, this was a blessing that could not have been predicted. “The technology has allowed many to reconnect with the community,” Boston said. “A 90-year-old parishioner told me that she felt more connected with Trinity through the pandemic than she had for a decade.”
In the two years since Boston’s return, and with the ebbing of pandemic restrictions, Trinity has seen remarkable growth. The church has boasted a 29 percent increase in average Sunday attendance, from 779 in 2017 to 1,004 in 2021. The growth rate is especially impressive because the church was starting from much larger than the usual size for Episcopal churches.
“I think as we’ve come back, there is a new sense of how much we all need one another. There’s a real desire to re-establish relationships and share in fellowship with one another,” Boston said.
While previously ministries were somewhat siloed from one another, resulting in uneven participation, Boston says that the congregation has come together in new ways that he could not have predicted.
During the Feast of the Epiphany service this year, 12 new members were inducted into the boys’ choir — a remarkable number compared to past years. Previously at Trinity, there had been an oyster roast after the service, separate and apart from the service and with different participants. This year, everyone spilled from the church onto the lawn together, a clear sign of a newfound fellowship the congregation has been experiencing.
According to Boston, Trinity has seen growth from new parishioners who were not previously connected to the Episcopal Church. This year, this category made up the majority of Trinity’s new confirmands. Trinity has also seen a revitalization of multigenerational families attending services together which, even before the pandemic, had been in slight decline.
And what is drawing people to Trinity? Boston attributes the growth to many factors, some of which are non-replicable. Trinity is the large, downtown cathedral in Columbia, so for many people who are looking for a church, the cathedral is the first stop. It also shares a historical connection with Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, which has served as a pipeline to Trinity for some families connected to the school.
But Boston attributes a significant degree of Trinity’s growth to its popular music program and new investments in ministries for families. While there had been some staff turnover, Trinity recently hired a full-time director of children and family ministries for a position that had historically been part time.
“God has given me people right when we needed it,” Boston said. “The vestry was very supportive of this being the moment to invest in the community, and I think we’re seeing a huge response from the congregation as a result.”
In an age in which technology and social isolation have exacerbated feelings of loneliness and disconnection for many parishioners across congregations, Boston finds opportunities for fellowship critical.
“I think at this time in our culture and in our church, gathering people together doesn’t have to have an agenda or programmatic element,” he said. “Just being together is so important.”
While some may criticize non-programmatic gatherings lacking an emphasis on worship, Boston thinks these events are ripe with the opportunity for formation and a necessary part of a healthy, thriving church community.
“While I take these criticisms seriously, I think even these kinds of social gatherings can ultimately draw people deeper into lives of faith,” he said. “This is a season in which we first have to regather our strength as a community and rebuild those bonds so that we can go deeper theologically and pursue our ministries.”
Boston says Trinity’s growth has not been the result of a carefully executed master plan, but rather has emerged from a talented and faithful staff, helped by a great deal of luck. “We have been blessed at a particular moment and a particular time,” Boston said. “All glory be to God!”