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Lessons in Empowerment

College for Congregational Development equips laity to lead

The Diocese of Chicago had a specific vision in mind when it instituted its new partnership with the College for Congregational Development (CCD).

“I think CCD has the capacity to really change how our churches approach their futures,” says the Rev. Andrea Mysen, director of ministries. “It is all about creating practitioners on the ground who can lead this work so that we aren’t looking for the outside experts. It is about empowering members of our diocese so they are the ones leading and visioning and understanding what is possible in their communities.”

CCD blends materials from several fields, including congregational and organization development, into a curriculum that participants say gives them new ways of thinking about the purpose, functioning and future of their congregations. The heart of the curriculum is a set of tools that clergy and lay leaders can use to assess congregational health, identify congregational strengths, develop initiatives, resolve conflicts and focus congregational energy.

“It is relevant from the smallest fledgling parishes to the largest program-sized congregations,” says Greg Michaels, a parishioner at St. Michael’s, Barrington, who was part of a six-member team from his parish who attended two intensive weeklong training sessions, the first in July of 2017, the second in June of 2018.

“All of the concepts are spot-on and very practically presented,” Michaels says. “I worked in corporate America for 30 years, and you run into a lot of MBA-speak and jargon in presenting organizational development theory. But this, I thought was, very clear and totally relevant for the issues facing the church.”

The curriculum and teaching methods, which include plenary lectures, case study presentations, development of facilitation skills and small-group conversation, were developed primarily by Archbishop Melissa Skelton of the province of British Columbia and the Yukon in the Anglican Church of Canada when she was canon for congregational development and leadership in the Diocese of Olympia in western Washington.

The training currently requires participation in either two intensive weeklong sessions conducted one year apart, or two series of four weekend sessions. The diocese has also trained a network of consultants skilled in CCD techniques to assist congregations with organizational projects and leadership development opportunities, and to facilitate vestry retreats, special meetings and development projects.

“It was invigorating, challenging, tiring,” says Christine Barrow, junior warden of St. Paul’s Church in Peoria who attended the week- long trainings in the summers of 2016 and 2017. “There was a lot of material. A lot. I went from that initial start of thinking, ‘Oh my gosh what have I gotten myself into,’ to ‘Oh I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.’”

Although the training instills a familiarity with organization dev- elopment materials, it is deeply grounded in Episcopal theology.

“It is intensely practical, but it is steeped in a deep theology of the ministry of all of the baptized,” says the Rev. Jenny Replogle of St. Paul’s in Peoria, a member of the consultants network. “How do we live out being a faithful and healthy church?”

The Rev. Fran Holliday, rector of St. Mary’s Church in Crystal Lake, who first took the training in July 2017 and completed it in June, says participation in the college helps move people from viewing the week-in, week-out work of making church happen as a series of tasks to a series of opportunities for promoting spiritual transformation. “You can help a congregation see where God is already working through them to transform lives and you can help them become more nimble, more flexible and see again or for the first time that God is really up to something and working in all that,” she says.

Luis Garcia-Juarez, chair of the diocesan Taskforce on Hispanic/ Latino Mission and Ministry Sustainability, was, like Replogle, in the first class of people to be commissioned as CCD trainers. He says including a unit on cultural competency in the college’s curriculum was extremely helpful.

“As the taskforce begins the work they are doing and congregations themselves begin to look honestly and frankly at their vitality, we will draw on the resources of this training,” he says. “I think the models are sufficiently flexible and translatable that if we had a handful of bilin- gual and bicultural trainers we could deploy this to the leadership of our local congregations.

The material that is being deployed now is something that Latino leaders can take home.”

THEORY INTO PRACTICE

St. Mary’s in Crystal Lake, a parish with an average Sunday attendance of about 80, adopted the “gather-transform-send” model taught by the college as a way of exploring its newcomers’ ministry.

“We looked at how we were inviting people into our congregation and how we were inviting them to go deeper in to the Christian life and into the life of the parish,” Holliday says. The church had a good welcoming team in place. Newcomers were invited to coffee hour, and a loaf of freshly baked bread was delivered to their doors within 48 hours along with a handwritten note from Holliday.

“You learn a lot about people when you are sitting at a dinner table. I think that is one of the biggest things the church can offer in a world that is very splintered and divided.”

“It’s been pretty effective,” Holliday says. “But you have to invite people to go deeper.” She initiated newcomers’ gatherings and offered orientations to the “particular flavor of the faith,” offered in the Episcopal Church, but she and lay leaders are working on other methods of answering people’s questions and making them feel part of the community.

Another benefit of CCD training is that it helps congregations to think theologically about the sorts of work they are already doing, Holliday says.

Several years ago, St. Mary’s began serving a dinner to all comers on the third Saturday of each month from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“We started publicizing it in the community and getting the word out, and anyone is welcome and we have all kinds of people who come to it,” Holliday says. “Our average attendance right now is about 75 and we are hoping to pump those numbers up a little bit.

Parishioner Tom Koegel, a professional chef, oversees the food preparation and cooking, and his wife, Amy, oversees seating. Their five children sometimes help out, as do other parish volunteers.

“We use white tablecloths and flowers,” Holliday says. “We plate the food and servers bring it to people. It’s a restaurant kind of experience. “What we are finding is seniors on fixed incomes come; we do get

homeless people who come; we do get large families, people with a number of children come. And they are just happy to eat out together. People use it as a meeting place.

“From my perspective, it is important to understand the transformational nature of what is happening,” Holliday says.

“I am very relational. I think everything we do in church is about relationships. We are celebrating the Eucharist and that is a relational meal. How are we living that out … how do we continue to build on that?

“You learn a lot about people when you are sitting at a dinner table.

I think that is one of the biggest things the church can offer in a world that is very splintered and divided.”

MAKING CHANGES

At St. Michael’s, Barrington, a six-member team had the critical mass to bring the college’s insights quickly and directly into the life of the community.

“We came away energized, and then the conversation and focus shifted to ‘What can we practically take back to the vestry and congregation?’” Michaels says. “And then, ‘What are several very tangible changes we can begin to make to feel like there is some result and outtake from this beyond just, ‘Oh, we had a great time bonding?’”

The group defined “several smaller changes as opposed to any radical shift of our core identity,” Michaels says. “And they ranged from whimsical to a little more serious.”

On the whimsical front, the parish decided to include a trivia question in its weekly e-news to spur a little interaction. The intent was to engage parishioners in regularly reading the newsletter for new and events.

Another initiative pertained to re-engaging lapsed congregants. Like St. Mary’s, St. Michael’s used the “gather-transform-send” model but focused on “how good are we at retaining congregants and understand- ing where they are in their journey,” Michaels says.

“We realized that we had a number of quite dedicated congregants we hadn’t seen in a while, so let’s put together a process a little more formal than ‘Oh, I haven’t seen the Smiths.’ ‘Oh, they retired to Florida.’” St. Michael’s developed a simple process for identifying lapsed members and determining whether it was a life-stage change, or something that could be addressed with a pastoral visit.

A second initiative was focused on vestry accessibility and transparency to the congregation. Recognizing the difficulty of each vestry member dealing with a large, diverse congregation and the reluctance of congregants to attend vestry meetings, St. Michaels is experimenting with a “Parish within a Parish” concept. The plan, based loosely on a precinct model of political organizing, asks each vestry member to con- vene periodic small group meetings with a designated group of families simply to keep them updated on what is happening in the church and to get their feedback.

The church also is planning a gardening initiative. “We have a third of an acre, and we want to go from using it just for beauty to using it for beauty and bounty,” Michaels says. “Flowers for the altar, vegetables, herbs. We are asking, ‘What can we do with our resources?’ We want to connect our deep gladness to the world’s deep hunger. What can we do? What do we like to do? Where is the benefit?’”

A CULTURE SHIFT

While St. Michael’s quickly undertook a series of small projects — as CCD participants are urged to do — St. Paul’s Church in Peoria, once the cathedral of the former Diocese of Quincy, felt called to do some work on its culture and governing structure as well.

The CCD curriculum is designed to empower the ministry of all baptized people, a mission Replogle says was not fully embraced by the leaders of the former diocese. “There were a lot of capable people here, but they hadn’t been encouraged to do things and take charge,” she says. “This is a massive culture change and when people haven’t been doing it, there are all kinds of habits in place that need to change.”

St. Paul’s has helped facilitate this process by revamping committees in which many people gave advice, but only the vestry and clergy had authority, into ministry teams with specific charges and tasks. The teams meet quarterly, all on the same night, to review their progress, and dinner and child care are provided.

“I do think CCD has been really helpful in answering ‘How do we make lay leadership happen? How do we train up lay leaders?’” Replogle says. “As a church, it’s something we want to do, but we don’t really know how.”

In determining its next steps — what sort of ministries to pursue, which ones to let lapse — the congregation made use of a CCD tool called Sources of Transformation.

“Transformation happens naturally in a community in all sorts of areas at all times,” Replogle says. “This model pulls out the areas that are transformative — prayer and worship, life in community, action, study and learning — and takes a close look at them.

“We gave everyone sticky notes and asked them to write down a time that was transformative for them and then to post it on a large model so we could see where transformation was happening.”

“We have … churches that don’t have a permanent priest and probably aren’t going to have one. I can think of no greater gift to give those churches than lay leaders who are empowered to lead those congregations.”

While CCD emphasizes organization-wide change, participants say it can also have a profound personal effect.

“I think what interested me most, in the beginning, was the sense that this would be focusing on what St. Paul’s needed the most, which was addressing some of the brokenness and healing,” said Barrow, referring to the lingering effects of the dispute over the legitimacy of same-sex relationships that led a majority of the laity and clergy of the former Diocese of Quincy to leave the Episcopal Church. “Beginning a real healing process is something we really hadn’t done.”

Barrow has been a member of the altar guild and the choir, a convention delegate and chair of the worship team, but she recently became junior warden, a position that, at St. Paul’s, leads to one becoming senior warden.

“I would not have had those roles without having gone to the CCD to learn more about myself, to find out what God’s plans might be for me in the healing process,” she says. “CCD helped me to more clearly define what leadership looks like for a lay person and gave me the confidence that I might be able to handle this.”

As one of her projects, Barrow offered a lay-led service of morning prayer on Fridays for 18 months, eventually discontinuing the practice due to lack of attendance.

“I thought it was a huge success,” Replogle says. “There had never been a lay-led consistent worship service at this church. We are learning to try things and be okay when they don’t work out, or when things run a season and they are good and then let them go.”

Kathy Leson, the other member of St. Paul’s who participated in CCD, decided to establish a legacy society at the church as her first project. Her efforts led not only to the establishment of the Hartman Legacy Society, but to a presentation that discussed all issues of aging and death from retirement to senior housing to health care, estate planning and hospice. She is currently doing research on initiating a partner parish program, perhaps with a congregation in Puerto Rico.

Barrow says she can feel a transformation taking place. “We really are moving from brokenness to health, and that in any organization is going to be slow, but I feel within myself that we are moving. This feels really good, and it feels really right.”

SPREADING THE WORD

Mysen is pleased with the early results of the CCD program and is eager to make it more widely available. “I am trying to get saturation, name recognition,” she says. “We’ve had steady participation, but I’d like to bump it up.”

The intensive weeklong training program is effective, she says, but not every congregation can find members whose lives permit taking a week away from work or family responsibilities. The diocese has begun offering the course in several parts over selected weekends, and while that has reached a broader audience, most participants live within an easy drive of diocesan headquarters.

“How to take CCD on the road to make this info accessible and useful in central Illinois, in western Illinois? That’s the creative piece I am wrestling with right now.”

She says the program is especially important as the church faces a future in which lay people, increasingly, will need to exercise greater leadership. “We have groups of churches that don’t have a permanent priest and probably aren’t going to have one,” she says. “I can think of no greater gift to give those churches than lay leaders who are empowered to lead those congregations.”

(photos by Michael Schmidt and David Zalaznik)