March 6, 2017

Crossing the Lot Line

Photo: Stuart Shelby, St. Richard's rector
(no, I am not singing to attendees)
On Saturday, I led two workshops for vestry members in the greater Austin area. For non-Episcopalians, a vestry is the committee that assists clergy in leading a congregation. In other traditions this may be called a session, committee, leadership team, church board, elders, etc.

The subject of my workshops was what these volunteer leadership bodies can do to shift the culture of a congregation towards an increasingly missional posture. I'm trying to make these big ideas practical and usable. What follows is a "download" of what I covered. I'd love to know if this kind of stuff is helpful or not. Thanks ahead of time for letting me know...

Establishing Priorities
The first point I tried to drive home was that mission is maintenance. There is not one healthy institution or organization that does not attend to who is not yet a constituent. Mission is not another category for boards and committees to consider separate from maintaining the current demands of a system. It is central to helping an institution remain, or regain, health. It is therefore something that ought to be central to the culture of a congregation. If this is a shift, there is no better place to start than with the leadership.

I encouraged vestry members not to think about "missional" as another program to undertake. Rather, I encouraged them to think about practices, habits. To that end allowing mission to shape the meetings of these leadership bodies, is helpful.

I offered that when a vestry gathers for their regular meetings, they could share brief stories about experiences in the neighborhood. Offer things they notice about the community. Maybe you met a new neighbor, noticed a store front nearby has opened--or closed, or that a street light was out. Whatever it is, take a few minutes to share your collective observations about the surrounding community.

It's also a good practice to semi-regularly study the neighborhood. In this Diocese, we have some robust tools for analyzing the demographics of our communities. But they are not hard to come by elsewhere. This is not something that needs to be every month but possibly ever quarter or twice a year, look at community data and discuss whether this squares with your collective experience and whether this offers data that should change practices or programs within the congregation.

Lastly, I encouraged these leaders to study Scripture together with an effort to change how they think about and engage the surrounding community. A short Bible study at the beginning of a meeting can dramatically shift the tenor and outcome. We have provided a great tool for this but it can also be as simple as asking six questions. About a selected passage: What is God doing? How do God’s people respond? What do we know about the context? And then for application: What is God telling us? How are we to respond? What does this tell us about how we engage our neighbors?

Neighborhood Engagement
Outside of meetings, vestry members can start thinking of opportunities to be present in the community immediately. Maybe it's simply going to a park or cafe with others for lunch after services on Sunday. Maybe it's visiting a Sunday afternoon farmer's market, flea market or festival. Whatever it is, simply show up and observe. Introduce yourself to folks. Let them know you're from the church nearby and watch their responses. You may learn a lot about how folks think about your congregation from simply watching their faces as you tell them that you're a member of the church around the corner. Take these as stories back to your next meeting. Begin considering: Who you need to learn from? Whose story needs to be heard? Who you can partner with right now?

Church committees are notorious for talking great ideas to death. So, I strongly recommend that leadership bodies in congregations that are not yet connected to the surrounding community to commit at least 2-3 times a year which they put on the calendar and plan to get out of the building and connect with the community. These can be dates on the liturgical calendar, such as Ash Wednesday (Ashes-to-Go). National and state holiday celebrations (July 4th) or cultural milestones (Back to school in the fall) work as well. These should be off campus. If they are on campus, you do so with community partnerships. For example, I know of one church that invited a pet store to hand out pet treats and the Humane Society to set up pet adoptions on their church's front lawn on the feast day of St. Francis when many congregations do pet blessings.

When you schedule these neighborhood engagement activities, make sure people have something to hold in their hand. We're all a little less nervous when we have something in our hands. A simple postcard will work. Make sure it is consistent (color, fonts, logo) with your other communication pieces (including your website), clean and simple. List your website, worship times and a map, address or directions. Do not include the church history. Do not include a monthly calendar of events. You are simply ensuring folks know how to find you if they are intrigued.

Speaking of nervousness, you might want to do some role playing of these opportunities before the event. Be willing to laugh at yourselves. Let people practice what it feels like to introduce themselves as members of a congregation. It will also help you sniff out those that might be too verbose or too shy for this kind of engagement.

Budgets and Metrics
Most congregations have a section of their budget called "outreach." All sorts of efforts get dumped in here: evangelism, service, communications/marketing and social justice. None of these are the same thing. It doesn't really matter to me that these are all one budget category but being clear on what distinguishes these efforts from each other is important. How much should be in the outreach budget? I would argue that every church should set a goal for getting to 10% of the budget going towards external ministry. If a congregation is above or beyond this, great! If you are not there yet, try to move a percentage point year by year. Let the congregation know about this. Be transparent.

When it comes to our charitable, service or mercy ministries I am increasingly convinced that measuring how many people are serving, is as important as how many are served. It's a spiritual discipline, which means if your formation, discipleship ministry is not teaching people how to serve it's not doing it's job. It's all connected. Out of your average Sunday attendance (ASA) how many people are serving? If 25% is engaged in serving others outside of your church, set a goal for 50%. Aim high. Share your goals and progress with the congregation.

In addition, as I've mentioned before, there is a difference between mercy and justice. We're called to both. Set goals for seeking justice for those you routinely see needing the same things from your church over and over. As I mentioned in that other post, your leadership community should ask yourselves:
"... are our efforts among the marginalized changing unjust conditions or simply offering temporary alleviation of injustice? If, for example, you work with the poor and some are getting out of poverty than you are contributing to justice."
Again, share your goals and progress with the congregation.

Will new communities spring up as a result of this? Maybe. Maybe not. But the first step is culture changing. This is what these are aimed towards; changing the culture of a congregation towards becoming a community engaged with, and loving, neighbors. If you missed this last Saturday, this is mostly what we covered, along with what questions and ideas those gathered brought to the conversation.