A changing church seeks new flexibility from its clergy
As the church adapts to serve a changing world, the traditional model of a single congregation worshipping in a single building, with a single full-time priest is no longer the norm. More than half of Episcopal congregations do not have a full-time priest, and more clergy are bi-vocational or serve more than one community. In the Diocese of Chicago, these new models are contributing to new, vibrant ministries that are reshaping the way the church exists in the world.
In his role as rector of St. Edward and Christ Episcopal Church in Joliet, the Rev. Richard J. Lundgren leads two worshipping communities, each shaped by the kinds of demographic and economic changes that have required churches to adapt new strategies in pursuing the mission of the gospel.
The original Christ Episcopal Church was established in a large building in downtown Joliet in the 1830s. St. Edward’s was later founded as its chapel, but due to growth on the west side of town, became a parish in its own right in the 1950s. By 2004, the dwindling congregation of Christ Church realized it could no longer afford to maintain its building, and so the two churches reunited.
“They located to the St. Edward’s campus, because it was a more manageable, smaller space,” Lundgren says. “The idea was to use money from the sale of the downtown property to eventually buy another campus.”
The property they bought, was “a little farther west than we had intended,” says Lundgren, who was associate rector at the time of the purchase. “It’s in Kendall County — the first Episcopal Church presence in that county.”
While Kendall County had been one of the fastest growing counties in Illinois, the 2008 financial crisis saw a slowdown in building and population growth. “We decided at that point growth was going to be slow, so we made the decision that campus would also operate as a retreat facility,” Lundgren says. “We get a number of groups each year — a whole variety of different types of groups.”
The property, now known as the Christ Campus, includes an original 1903 Sears Model Home and a barn built in the 1950s. (“It’s got great acoustics, but no longer has animals,” Lundgren says. “Though we have had parishioners ask, ‘Why can’t we get some animals?’”) Parishioners tend an organic vegetable garden and donate the harvest of fruit and vegetables to two food pantries.
Like many church plants or re-plants, the community in Kendall County faced the challenge of developing a worshipping community without a traditional church building. After experimenting with various times and locations, congregants eventually settled on Sunday mornings at 11:00 a.m. in the double-wide trailer they transformed into their chapel.
In the midst of this long season of change, the Rev. Kathryn White, who was then rector, announced in 2016 that she planned to retire. “The parish wasn’t in a position to hire another clergy person,” says Lundgren. “They asked if I would consider being rector.” After a full search process, Lundgren was called as rector, pastoring to both campuses.
“When I walk in, it’s ready to go. I don’t stay until everything’s closed up and locked up — lay leaders take care of that as well. That’s been really helpful. We’ve been empowering a lot of lay folks to do things, and I really appreciate that.”
“So right now on a Sunday morning I’ll be at the 7:30 a.m. and the 9:15 a.m. services at the St. Edward’s campus, and I’ll be able to stay for about 15 minutes of coffee hour before heading to Christ Campus,” Lundgren says. “I’m very fortunate that where I live is equidistant between the campuses, so I make a big triangle each Sunday — about 13 or 14 miles from each place. Some Sundays are a little crazier than others. The weather can be dangerous at Christ Campus — once I got stuck in a snow drift.”
Lundgren has reason to put in the extra miles, as the Christ Campus community is growing. “Just in the last six weeks we’ve grown by four families,” he says. “And we had a baptism — a little two-year-old boy. It’s a newer family, and he’s a plumber who worked on the facility. So it was very cool to have his son be baptized.”
Despite the excitement of a growing worship community, pastoring to a parish with two campuses does have its challenges. “I don’t have children, but I kind of get a little bit of a sense of what it must be like when you have an older kid and a younger kid, and one gets a little jealous,” Lundgren says. “So what I’ve discovered is we have to do something at both campuses — so we paired the renovation of the barn at Christ Campus with the renovation of the parish hall at the St. Edward’s campus.”
The model of clergy serving two campuses relies on dedicated and dependable lay leadership. Lay leaders take care of all the set-up and breakdown at both campuses each Sunday. “When I walk in, it’s ready to go,” Lundgren says. “I don’t stay until everything’s closed up and locked up — lay leaders take care of that as well. That’s been really helpful. We’ve been empowering a lot of lay folks to do things, and I really appreciate that.” Recently, the newly-formed Spirituality and Wellness Team organized an all-parish retreat. “I was able to just be a participant,” Lundgren says. “And I got to be fed.”
Lundgren would like others to find inspiration in this model of a startup campus connected to an established campus sharing a parish identity, but cautions that this kind of work requires patience.
“At times there has been tension with people saying the Christ cam- pus is not growing fast enough, but you have to give it time,” Lundgren explains. “I think we’re not going to see the fullness of the pictures until we’ve been there for about 20 years.”
A BLENDING OF SKILLS & OPPORTUNITY
Spending time in bi-vocational ministry allowed the Rev. Jihan Murray-Smith to gain experience and hone skills she now brings to full-time ministry as deacon and director of youth ministries at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church and chaplain at St. Chrysostom’s Day School.
Before being called to St. Chrysostom’s, Murray-Smith served as deacon at Church of the Atonement and at Messiah St. Bartholomew in addition to managing her own business. Her company, Tea & Crumpets, provides etiquette, job readiness training and public speak- ing skills to young people. “I taught public speaking and job readiness to middle school through college age students,” she says. “And I would get contracts with schools and other organizations. In addition to that, I served as a deacon at two parishes. I really loved serving the two simultaneously.”
Murray-Smith heard about a chaplaincy opening at St. Chrysostom’s from a clergy colleague. “I’ve always had a passion for young people, so I was interested in the day school,” she says. “I think it’s the perfect marriage of all of my interests and skill sets.”
Murray-Smith brings her teaching and professional development skills to her work as pastor to the young professionals group at St. Chrysostom’s. “I love organizing events that either give them information or opportunity for fellowship to talk about these similar experiences that they’re having,” she says. “Once a month I plan an activity for them where I bring in speakers. Last month I invited a woman whose career has been in the corporate world. I had her speak about being a Christian business leader and what it looks like to be a person of faith. Next month, I’ll have a professor come speak with them about how to handle conflict.”
Her diaconal call to bring together the concerns of the wider community and the church also works in tan- dem with Murray-Smith’s event management skills. “I opened the doors of St. Chrysostom’s to the neighborhood when we hosted our winter indoor farmers market last March. They had never done that before,” she says. “I got the church to partner with Faith in Place, whose goal is to help equip us with tools to become better stewards of the earth, and have healthy, vibrant communities. They brought the farmers market to the church and had an indoor planting activity with the little ones.”
“Because of the location of St. Chrysostom’s in such an affluent neighborhood in Chicago, I’ve had a lot of fun bringing in groups which probably wouldn’t ordinarily come to the neighborhood. I’m trying to create those experiences for our children, the youth at the church and our young professionals. It’s all about exposure. That’s a huge part of my business, making sure young people feel comfortable in any and every setting. I would take kids to the Walnut Room at Macy’s for etiquette class, because many of them have never been to downtown Chicago before and I wanted them to understand the entire city of Chicago is their city, not just one neighborhood.”
RESPONDING TO A CHANGING CHURCH
The Rev. Garth Howe lives out a model of bi-vocational ministry as both vocational deacon serving at Grace Episcopal Church in Chicago and assistant vice president, account management for the Church Pension Group (CPG). In his role at CPG, he has insight into the ways in which models of clergy leadership are changing across the church, and the ways in which CPG is responding.
“My vocation revolves around social justice issues,” Howe says. “As a deacon and at CPG, they all know me as the social justice guy. The diaconal call is to be in and with the world. Rather than separating my full-time work with CPG and my part-time work as a deacon at Grace Church, I choose to embrace it as one continuous ministry — expressing my call in both settings. My work with CPG requires me to be out with the church most of the time, but I remain confident that my diaconal ministry is expressed in every life interaction, regardless of the setting.”
Howe first began discerning a call to the diaconate before he moved to Chicago from San Diego in 2012, but he found working diaconal training in with a demanding full-time job challenging. “Because of the defined structure of the requirements, the vocational diaconate had been fairly unavailable,” he says.
Once in Chicago, Howe joined St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, which became his sponsoring parish. “They sponsored me originally for discernment, but I still didn’t know if I could do this,” he says. “My job at CPG is way more than full-time. So, I had this tugging at my heart to do more for the church, but I just didn’t know if I had the capacity. But at the same time the diocese was reimagining their deacon process. It was clear there was an interest in opening up the diaconate to a broader scope of people, people who had full-time jobs and other obligations, but still felt called to this work.”
Howe’s process included online, intensive learning through Bexley Seabury Seminary in Chicago, as well as chaplaincy training at Bishop Anderson House. “It was attainable,” Howe recalls. “And it allowed me to fulfill my call in a way that is tremendously meaningful. I’ve been ordained a year and a half now.”
Howe believes the diaconate has an important role to play in the church as more and more priests become bi-vocational or responsible for more than one congregation.
“There’s so much strain on priests these days — I think the diaconate is needed around the church,” he says. “Priests with limited time and resources may say, ‘okay, let’s make sure that Sunday happens, let’s make sure that the Wednesday night dinner happens, let’s make sure that my flock is being fed.’ And what may be diminishing is the time they can dedicate to church in the world. The diaconal call is identifying those needs in the world, bringing them back to the church, and then actually doing something about it. The action part is so important. Our job as deacons is to bring these things back, and for our congregation to do something.”
In an effort to help his congregation respond to needs with action, Howe led an adult forum series called “Passion before Program.”
“One result of that work was the creation of ‘GraceCares Packs,’” he says. “We collected items like soap, shampoo, socks, quarters for public transportation, and blankets, and assembled them after services. Then we would each take one and pass it on to someone we met out in the world who may have a need for such items.” During the winter season, Grace put together and distributed over 50 GraceCares Packs and repeated the program this summer, replacing winter-related items with summer necessities.
“A lot of my stories are about who I engage with on the Red Line at 6:30 a.m. on my way to Grace every Sunday morning,” Howe says. “There have been enjoyable experiences, and some have absolutely not been enjoyable. I wear clericals because I’m in the diaconate role in the church. I think it’s important for the Christian church to be visible in the world. ‘They will know we are Christians by our love’ only goes so far.”
As a co-coordinator of the Diocese of Chicago participation in Chicago Pride this year, Howe focused on why we take part in this visible public action. “While it is absolutely fun to be in a parade, the reason I believe we march is to be in solidarity with a community which has not always been embraced, and oft times neglected and hurt by the church or religion,” he says. “It is important for the church to be visible as a sign of love, hope and support.” Howe’s sermon on the subject resulted in an increase in participation from the Grace community.
In his role at CPG, Howe has seen firsthand how new models of clergy leadership are developing across the church. “CPG started significant outreach in 2014 with an eye toward making revisions to our pension plans to adapt to the changing needs of the church,” Howe explains.
“My work with CPG requires me to be out with the church most of the time, but … my diaconal ministry is expressed in every life interaction, regardless of the setting.”
Over the course of two years, CPG senior leaders connected with more than 3,000 clients at listening events, focus groups and conferences. “We made a concerted effort to get out into the church and talk to people,” says Howe. “We talked to bi-vocational priests, non-stipendiary priests, part-time, rural, urban and suburban priests. We tried to get as much information as we could around where the church was heading. Financially we know where the church is, but this was more about how to make sure that we’re adapting the way we do business in order to stay current. We also conducted a ‘Voice of the Client’ initiative, where we listened to bishops, diocesan administrators and diocesan councils to better understand what their pain points were and what their joys were. And then we brought it all back with us.”
The result was modifications to the clergy pension plan and related plans, which took effect January 1, 2018. “The modifications make sure that we have an entry point that is attainable by anyone who receives compensation from a church employer,” Howe says. “While they may not have a material income replacement over time, there are other benefits like life insurance that are available to active participants in the clergy pension plan.”
The modifications also offer more flexibility, responding to the needs of bi-vocational priests and acknowledging that there is now generally more time between cures for clergy. “There’s more flexibility now around things that the church is experiencing,” says Howe. “The new model allows someone my age — I’m about to be 63 — to say, ‘You know what? I want to take two years off and do a mission trip. I want to go to Haiti.’ It allows that flexibility, which also is the changing face of what priests are called to do.”
Howe says people often ask him in his capacity at CPG about what the future of the church is going to look like. “We model all sorts of things,” he says. “But it depends on what the church is doing. It is changing, and our job is to stay ahead of the curves as the church continues to evolve.”
(photos by Crystal Plummer and Suzanne Tennant; courtesy of Jihan Murray-Smith)