Ours is a geographically large, rural diocese. Of the thirty-eight congregations (down from forty-two over the last twenty years), maybe ten are financially strong enough to support full time clergy. Six months ago each congregation was asked to take the summer to engage in conversation about who they are and what they stand for. Guidelines for discussion were offered. Why church? Why the Episcopal Church? Why this congregation? What does it mean to be gathered, transformed and sent? Who is Jesus and what does that mean for the congregation? There was more, but you get the idea.
Each congregation was then asked to craft a very short statement of identity and offer it at the fall diocesan convention. That happened a few days ago. Needless to say, every congregation was friendly and welcoming. Some were even open. I wonder if we could ever get a congregation to admit that they are not all that friendly, not especially welcoming, and closed to doing anything different? One actually did say they were old, tired, and doing what they could to take care of each other. Oh, well, I digress.
The majority of the congregations had something worthwhile to offer. Their leaders, at least, had given serious thought to the questions and their answers. They offered statements that defined purpose rather than programs, actions rather than names of things, and a sense of mission rather than location and buildings. It was a great step away from ministry emotionally limited by scarce resources. It went toward proclaiming the gospel by word and deed with renewed energy using resources at hand to their fullest. Some of the best presentations were from very small congregations who get along with part time unpaid clergy, or no clergy at all.
On the other hand, there were some who identified themselves as the building they inhabit, the history of past generations, and programs named but without much thought about how they modeled Christ or what they were supposed to accomplish. A few offered nothing. Perhaps they didn’t care enough about who they are as members of the body of Christ to take the time or trouble.
I wonder if these latter few recognized how pitiful they looked compared to those who had decided to get serious about imagining a new future for themselves: a missionary future, which, oddly enough is not unlike the missionary past of those who preceded them in another century in the frontier settings of these western towns.