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STARTING FROM ZERO WITH $0Building Mission-shaped Ministries on a Shoestring
By BECKY GARRISON
Seabury BooksCopyright © 2010 Becky Garrison
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBirthing an Ancient-Future Church: St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church
In the early- to mid-1970s New Haven, Connecticut, was filled with young people who were burned out on church but wanted to give it one more try. As ministers at the Episcopal Church at Yale University, Rick Fabian and Donald Schell built relationships with those disaffected Christians. They gathered around big questions: "Is there a place for God in my life?" "Can I pray with authenticity?" "How can I trust a community of people?" Even as they listened, Rick and Donald began building a community of people who were passionate about liturgy and evangelism and the links between the two.
In 1978, they took that passion and creativity to San Francisco and founded St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. The ministry became a special mission of the Diocese of California, under the direct supervision of the bishop. While finances were not a challenge for them—early on, they were able to support two full-time clergy and to pay assessments to the diocese—that freedom did not make them instantly viable. The fact was that no diocesan authority shared the vision for what they were doing. "Their reaction ranged from bemused tolerance to being upset," Donald says. "Our issue was, we were so far outside the box, we had no credibility whatsoever."
Many of St. Gregory's liturgical innovations such as the use of chairs in lieu of pews, inviting all to receive communion and administering yeast bread and wine in a circle instead of gathering around an altar seem commonplace today. However, the Episcopal Church circa 1980 was still adjusting to a newly revised Prayer Book. Donald recalled, "When the trial use of the prayer books ended, there were a lot of people who wanted to bolt things down quickly and let the new book become the standard of conformity as the 1928 book was." Many Episcopalians of that era had been trained in confirmation class to "read along" in the Prayer book as "our way" of praying. But St. Gregory's chose not to have prayer books out because they wanted people to listen, offer their own prayers or sing using the words that spoke to their heart.
Even though they were technically under the bishop's supervision, St. Gregory's was not seen as part of the diocese's mission strategy. When the Right Reverend William Swing arrived in 1979, he was encouraged to shut St. Gregory's down. Swing demurred. "As near as I can tell they're harmless," Donald recalls Swing saying. "If they're doing something good, I don't want to get in the way." It was far from ringing support, but it was enough room to move.
Despite this initially tepid reception, Donald and Rick refused to take on the role of the cool, nonconformist outsiders. When more and more people started coming to St. Gregory's and asking, "Does the bishop know what you're doing?" Donald got frustrated. He went to the bishop and said, "'I don't want St. Gregory's to be known as rogue, rebel or anything of that kind. Would you write a letter of welcome that we can post on the table as people come in the door?' And he did. In his letter, Swing said: 'One of the great things about San Francisco is it has such a wide spectrum of churches. I'm so glad you're visiting St. Gregory's. You're about to have an extraordinary experience.' We had that letter out on the table for a couple of years and then the question went away."
People before programs
From the beginning, St. Gregory's strove to support people in their personal vocations. "The church is superb at gathering around someone who wants to do a project," Donald notes. Rather than hang a sign on every new ministry to declare, "This is a St. Gregory's project," they explored mobilizing people relationally, sharing their own vision, trusting people's intuitions about what they wanted to do, and encouraging them to move fearlessly toward what they imagined.
At St. Gregory's there was a definite movement away from church as a consumer commodity provided by professionals, and toward church as a community where people share an experience in which they participate actively. According to Donald, this shift away from consumerism led them to explore what they could do together and who they could be in relationship to each other.
Donald captures the essence of relational ministry in the story of Dave Hurlbert, an old gay rights activist. Dave asked if they could get some people to volunteer at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker House of Hospitality. Donald and Rick never said anyone should volunteer, only that they imagined people might like to help. Dave asked for twenty-five turkeys for Thanksgiving Day; they ended up with forty. Then Dave said the St. Martin's staff wanted to do a festive Easter brunch for their homeless guests and to give everyone a hand-dyed Easter egg. So they asked if St. Gregory's could make 1,200 eggs. Rather than say no—he knew the health hazards around refrigerating more than a thousand eggs—Donald told Dave his concern and then released him to go for it. The project worked.
They tried to banish words like "should" and "obligation" from the young congregation's vocabulary. Instead, they asked people, "Is this something you'd like to do?" trusting that somehow, within the group, someone would surface with the desire to do the work that needed to be done. Over the years a number of projects started only to peter out. But certain things clicked and worked. And more importantly, the people stuck around because they knew their gifts mattered.
Current St. Gregory's rector Paul Fromberg says this ethos remains a core value at St. Gregory's today. "We make a concerted effort to spread out responsibility and authority among as many people as we reasonably can. We place a premium on giving work away, letting people do things not because they have to, but because they get to. People feel as if the work of the church is their own, because it is."
Because the congregation felt such a strong investment in the ministries, St. Gregory's had some of the highest giving per capita of any congregation in the diocese. And this in a congregation that was by no means wealthy.
Donald says he learned something in those early years. "When you want to do something and you have limited resources, the obvious question is, 'Who is going to invest what to make it happen?' So does the church have the money to make it happen or are you going to inspire a group of people to invest their time and energy to make it happen?" They chose to get inspired.
That spirit shows up in the way they develop their leaders and the way they welcome new ones. Jay, a former parishioner of St. Gregory's, says worship was interactive and inclusive from the beginning, when only twenty people gathered for the Sunday service. "I remember the first time I went to St. Gregory's there was a response time after the sermon where people spoke and said what affected them. This was a very creative environment where people felt free to speak their minds and be affirmed." Donald says they were determined that anyone who walked into this church would have a voice, whether they were high Anglicans, agnostics, former Catholics, former Mormons, Jews, political conservatives or progressives. Someone could enter the church for first time and be asked to read even if they weren't polished or highly educated. Donald says they were absolutely committed to " welcoming the stranger." With each new face, they would create room and watch to see the gifts God would soon reveal.
Transitioning to the second generation of leadership
After more than two decades of shared ministry at St. Gregory's, Donald and Rick eventually had to ask, "Is there enough energy, commitment and resourcefulness among this next generation to carry it on?" When the answer was "yes," they knew it was time to move on. They trusted that wisdom because of the community's growing financial self-sufficiency. For much of St. Gregory's life, the All Saints Company contributed substantially to the church's operating budget. That percent kept decreasing, and two years ago, All Saints Company completed its funding of St. Gregory's. At this point the church was ready to stand on its own financially, and All Saints Company moved on to other projects.
Paul Fromberg says the transition has included continuing much of the work Rick and Donald loved, even as fresh leaders dedicate energy in new directions. Already, he sees growth as they explore "the necessary link between the liturgy and service in the world; cooperative ministry with communities outside of [St. Gregory's]; the full participation of children in the liturgy; a reflective byzantinization of the liturgy; a commitment to non-eucharistic forms of liturgy."
The salaried staff that facilitates ministry at St. Gregory's now includes a rector (Paul Fromberg), a director of ministry (Sara Miles), a music director, a youth and family minister and a parish administrator. Everyone but Paul is part-time. Two nursery caregivers are paid hourly, and the treasurer is a volunteer. The rest of the membership variously staffs everything else. Paul estimates that about 70 percent of their current funding comes from members' pledges. They also receive income from rentals and financial gifts from visitors.
Launching the Food Pantry and Friday congregation
Many people know St. Gregory's not as a Sunday morning church but as the home of a vibrant community gathered around a food pantry. Sara Miles says she started the pantry as a direct response to her experience of receiving communion, for the first time in her life, at St. Gregory's. As a result, the food pantry has never been a social service program or an "outreach" effort. Rather, as Sara says, "it is a eucharistic community, modeled directly on the way St. Gregory's does Eucharist: we serve everyone, without exception; it is run by the people it serves; and together we work to transform lives. The pantry is set up around the same altar, on the same principles."
The community that has formed around the food pantry has become another congregation of St. Gregory's. The pantry is run entirely by people who came to get food and stayed to help out. Most are poor people who were welcomed and felt empowered, and now find themselves compelled to share what they have received. This Friday congregation is made up of people from different backgrounds, races and religions. "The one thing that holds us together in community is the fact that we are hungry for something," Paul says. "Our physical hunger brings us to get food. The hunger to join in friendship with the people who come for food is another."
Challenges maintaining the ministry
Paul thinks the challenge facing St. Gregory's moving forward is to avoid sliding into "a maintenance model for the church." He notes, "There is an imperative to grow in the work that we share. This is not simply in numeric terms, although those are important, but in terms of our growth in wisdom, insight, experience and love." He hopes that instead of maintaining the ministry they, from time to time, tear up their work and start over again. If they become a professional class of churchgoers instead of genuine amateurs, then, he says, they will have lost the edge that gave them life in the beginning, the movement of God in their community. "When we simply tickle our fancy," he warns, "we lose the commitment to truth to which the Gospel calls us."
For those seeking to launch a similar venture, Paul offers these suggestions: "Don't ask permission, just do it. Don't rely on someone else to do it for you. Make lots of mistakes and be humble about correcting them. Build on the success of others, but don't slavishly imitate their actions. Work hard, all of the time, on what you enjoy and what feeds your soul. Give work away as much as is humanly possible. Look on the periphery of the community to see where the really interesting things are beginning. Tell the truth about who you are and what you are about. Do what you love to do. Be honest about power and money. Don't be afraid. God wants to be known in the world."
These visionaries guided Donald Schell and Rick Fabian in their work to birth St. Gregory's.
Mary Ann Scofield, RSM, Donald's spiritual director for his first ten years at St. Gregory's, is a New Testament scholar and the founder of Spiritual Directors International.
Jean Haldane, Christian educator, church consultant and pioneer in finding the whole people's authority for service. Jean was Dean of the Diocese of California's Lay Academy and made St. Gregory's a beta-test site for her programs training the laity to lead other laypeople in explorations of ministry/work/vocation service.
Mother Assumpta, OSB, a cloistered Benedictine nun at Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, who served as a spiritual director and mentor.
Br. Paul Wessinger, SSJE, who helped to shape All Saints Company and deepened their thinking about community and teamwork in the early 1970s.
Richard Norris (patristic theologian)
Benedict Green (monastic, liturgist and scholar)
Gregory of Nyssa (bishop, theologian and mystic)
Norman Perrin (biblical scholar)
Massey Shepherd (liturgist)
Tavistock Institute, London (theory of group behavior and organizational behavior)
A Dinner Church Related to St. Gregory's: St. Lydia's Community
Emily Scott first connected with St. Gregory of Nyssa while working as a summer intern in the summer of 2005, and continued her relationship with Donald Schell after her internship. They began working together at a conference around the Paperless Music Project when she joked, "Oh Donald, we should just start our own church." He looked straight at her and said, "I think you should." That comment was life-changing. "This was the moment of blessing that gave me the option to think of what it might look like." She began to reflect on her years of interactions with people who were spiritually hungry and noticed how often she ended up as their informal spiritual partner. She began to imagine what church would look like for them. That concept led to the foundation of St. Lydia's, a new congregation in New York City.
Emily was inspired to start a dinner church because she observed the way New Yorkers interact around food. As most people's apartments are quite small, friends often gather in restaurants for a meal. When Emily hosted dinners at her home, everybody was thrilled to be eating a home-cooked meal. She saw a hunger for real food and real communion. That resonated with her own theology, which she says is grounded in the belief that "Christ is present at whatever table we're gathered around."
So she knew food mattered. But the real first step in forming the church was to talk to everyone she could, all over the city, for nine months. Her first core meeting was held at the home of Daniel Simons, who worked at St. Gregory's and All Saints Company before heading to New York to serve at Trinity Episcopal Church–Wall Street. The early crowd at St. Lydia's was heavy on church professionals and Emily's friends. The church professionals eventually peeled off and a core group of people without a church community started to form.
Once they started gathering for meals, it became clear they were going to quickly outgrow the apartment. Some people suggested that they meet at a restaurant. Emily wondered if it was time to go to church.
One day in the spring of 2008, Emily passed Trinity Lutheran Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The church was hosting its soup kitchen. She saw people were eating lunch in the church's garden, and they looked happy, as if they were at home there. "This church looked like they were up to something," she recalls. "I looked at this lovely informal sanctuary and thought it was amazing."
She cold-called Pastor Phil Trzynka and he asked her to send him a proposal. When they met, it was clear they shared a vision. "I was really intentional about working with a host church where we'd have the freedom to explore but to also have a connected relationship," she says, "and Pastor Phil was able to give us this freedom and support."
Excerpted from STARTING FROM ZERO WITH $0 by BECKY GARRISON Copyright © 2010 by Becky Garrison. Excerpted by permission of Seabury Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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