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‘Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing’

St. Paul’s, Oakwood, Ohio

When they lived in small, remote towns, Kate Furmanski, her husband, Jevan, and three children hopped in the car and drove an hour to attend church. In 2021, they moved down the street from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, a stroke of good fortune that she said “seemed too good to be true.”

Their first visits were a hit with the family. “We were impressed by the beauty of the liturgy, the high quality of the music program, and the scholarship in the sermon,” she said. “We knew that a congregation that valued those things would be a good fit for us.”

The Furmanskis are partly responsible for the church’s 14 percent growth in its average Sunday attendance from 123 in 2017 to 140 in 2021. But these numbers also reflect the sometime transitory nature of ASA.

Daniel Wade McClain celebrates the Eucharist on Easter Sunday.

The Rev. Dr. Daniel Wade McClain, rector of St. Paul’s, cautioned that this summer’s ASA declined to 80-100. The drop in attendance and collections created a budget deficit.

“There were some ingrained habits that needed to be addressed, which unfortunately resulted in a portion of the church leaving. Some ministries, like our Stephen Ministry, came to an end. Emphases shifted, and that’s been disappointing to some of our longtime members. It was hard, but it needed to happen,” he said.

The century-old church now appears to be finding its mission again.

The leadership engaged a strategic planner who worked with the vestry to craft a roadmap. “As a result of the strategic plan and some healthy changes in the vestry, I see a church that is a lot more focused on mission, on keeping the main thing the main thing, and focused on hospitality,” he said.

Church leadership is also working to address the deficit “through better education around giving, more congregational growth, better use of our facilities, and applying for more grants,” McClain said.

The Furmanskis couldn’t be happier at St. Paul’s. Their children are ages 11 to 17, so youth programming and the presence of other young people wasn’t a large factor in their decision to join St. Paul’s. “For most of their lives, our children have been the only, or very nearly the only, young people in most church services they’ve attended,” Kate Furmanski said.

“We just let them drink from the grown-up Christianity firehose: We always sat in the front row, even when they were toddlers, and lifted them up so they could see and hear well. During and after the service, we explained things to them according to their changing ages,” she said.

Children play during the GROW! Service at St. Paul’s.

Young adults at St. Paul’s have become good friends with the Furmanski children. “That’s been a real blessing for all of us,” she said. “They’re all old enough now to sit in church with their friends, without a parent nearby. I hope that will help them feel comfortable going to church without their parents when they’re in college and beyond.”

McClain, the Furmanski family, and COVID-19 arrived at St. Paul’s about the same time. When he stepped in the door, McClain “didn’t really know what to expect.”

But to his surprise, he learned the vestry was committed to keeping the church open, while following safety practices provided by parishioners in the medical professions, the diocese, and local health organizations. To McClain’s knowledge, St. Paul’s was one of the only parishes in the diocese that remained open during the pandemic.

The church had updated its livestream system in the fall of 2020. McClain also started offering Morning Prayer on Facebook as soon as he arrived. In addition, he said, the church tried to “overcommunicate” with parishioners about Christian formation, children’s formation, music and parish life.

“Adopting a semi-professional livestream system and revamping our website and weekly email were important steps, but didn’t do everything,” he said. “I tried to focus my preaching on core gospel themes, and began to offer a lot of adult education topics that were theological and related to the prayer book. And in summer 2021, we invited a seminarian intern, a first for the parish, who helped with the youth group, preached some, and helped lead Morning Prayer. All that received a lot of helpful comments.”

This fall, St. Paul’s is launching three new ministries: a robust newcomer experience, including the first run of the Being With program from London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a new Sunday evening Eucharist with adult and children’s education, and a Christmas festival for the surrounding community that focuses on sharing Anglican culture and traditions in an accessible and attractive way.

Furmanski said she is grateful for the church’s focus, its devotion to the Book of Common Prayer, and “the model of discipleship that it calls us to grow into.”

“I was raised non-religious and joined the Lutheran church in my late teens, then my husband and I joined the Episcopal Church in our late 20s,” she said. “We were initially drawn by the music program at an Episcopal congregation in another city, but we both fell in love with the Book of Common Prayer. Now I can’t imagine my worship or prayer life without it.”

She said the past year was “exhausting and frustrating for our congregation,” but its reliance on the prayer book has kept the focus on “what we’re really supposed to be doing here: learning to love what God commands and desire what he promises. At St. Paul’s, the loving attention to prayer and worship in the holy and scholarly tradition of the Book of Common Prayer has provided much-needed stability.”

In addition to the focus on faith and worship, Kate Furmanski said, her family was impressed by the congregation “showing us that they believed we had valuable contributions to make. I think it was only about the third time we came to St. Paul’s when one person asked me to be on the altar guild and another person asked my husband to be in the choir.”

“They’ve been very successfully roping us into more and more ministries ever since, and they also listen patiently to my wild ideas about new things the congregation could try.”

She, her children, and other church members took an urban youth trip this summer and “we offered hands-on service to our neighbors and learned about poverty and homelessness.”

They are also involved in assisting on Sundays. “My oldest has helped with the cameras and livestreaming, my middle child enjoys serving as a greeter and is working on a promotion to usher, and my youngest is an avid acolyte and crucifer. They each have their own niche where they serve during worship. They and their friends also helped repaint the parish hall this summer.”

Next she’s turning her attention to rebooting a youth nativity pageant. She’s also a lay Eucharistic minister, a lector, accepted the invitation to the altar guild, and helps with coffee hour and other forms of hospitality. Her husband, in addition to singing in the choir, serves as a lector and vestry member.

Like the Furmanski family, McClain said his congregation values Christian teaching and worship. “They’re looking for community that’s centered around those themes and that spurs the community to service.”

His advice for other churches seeking growth is to “focus on your church community being hospitable before inviting new people in. Make sure your community likes to worship, party, and work together. Get on the same page. Then make all that apparent to the community around you. Help the community see that your church is a place and community in which they can experience that kind of ethos year-round.”

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