Worship, building up the living, and remembering the dead[i] -- that's why we establish these things called parish churches. Parishes are a ministry of stability in the midst of all the chances and changes. There's a relationship that grows among the three elements of members, the property, especially the sacred space, and a vicariously related population of people who are not of the congregation, but are of the parish. There's a dynamic set loose by the interdependence of the three that we can understand and engage through Benedictine spirituality.
One way to look at parish health or parish dysfunction, is by exploring the three elements and the lines connecting them to one another.
The congregation – For the purposes of this article I’m referring to all those who worship together on a regular and frequent basis. These people are generally familiar with one another and known to the clergy. Most make a financial offering to support the parish and the church’s mission. Many help out with the institutional work. For those familiar with the Shape of the Parish model these are the people of Sacramental and Apostolic faith and practice. If you’ve read Martin Thornton it’s those he refers to as the Remnant and those of Incarnation Faith.
Shaping congregational health requires a two-fold pastoral-formation strategy. On the one hand it’s creating a common life that appeals to the majority of members and potential members. This will include the tentative and immature, those ready to experiment and go further, those with a stable if not fully mature life of faith and practice, and those I call people of Apostolic faith and practice[ii]. It’s everyone that is there on a regular and frequent basis plus it takes into account those who may be attracted to that form of common life in the future. In any parish this is the majority of people in the pews on Sunday. I’m sure you see the dilemma in this. What appeals to those currently making up the congregation may not appeal to potential members. All dilemmas have energy and possibilities in them.
There’s a second dilemma. If this is all there is the parish may be happy in a superficial way but will lack spiritual depth and fullness.
So, on the other hand there’s a need to nurture those of a more Apostolic Faith and set loose in the parish an energy that encourages such faith and practice. There’s a need to do this while keeping your feet on the ground and remembering that there will never be a time when the parish doesn’t have this mix of people. It will never be all apostolic. Nor should it be. That would make it a pious club, a kind of sect rather than a microcosm of the Holy Catholic Church with its inclusiveness and fuzzy boundaries. Those who are uncertain and doubting, the cautious and fearful, are as much a part of the parish economy as the most Apostolic among us.
These two parts of the strategy may, in fact, at times will, be in tension with each other.
The vicariously connected – These are people who establish a vicarious relationship with the parish. They don’t attend regular worship though may show up for a funeral. The relationship may be totally unacknowledged on their part or they may see the parish as “their parish” even though they are not on the parish roles. They are connected through geography, an activity, family, or friends. These are people who may be in the building weekly in an AA or yoga group, those who usually show up at a parish dinner with their church-going spouse, and people who are connected with some service or relational ministry of the parish. [iii]
There are parishes where this relationship has become weak or non-existent. The task may new to create a new set of vicarious connections. There are other places where all the vicarious relationships are from among the friends and relatives of older members and not from among groups of people likely to engage the system in ways that create what’s needed for the future.
Parishes have had many ways of connecting to the broader community, and in so doing creating a vicarious group. Many urban churches have summer day camps; others have a labyrinth that is walked daily by people who never attend the Eucharist. When I was on the bishop’s staff in Connecticut I knew of a rural church with a rifle range in the basement and another that sponsored the town horse show. There are parishes that have a regular art exhibit in the worship space or parish hall. Others have developed a relationship with the jazz or theater community. Our approach to pastoral and sacramental matters can be used to develop a vicarious faith relationship with the parish. Family-related liturgies such as baptisms, marriages, burials, and house blessings usually include people with no current connection. These liturgies are opportunities to expose people to the Christian faith as lived in the Episcopal Church.
The building – When you sit, or better still celebrate the Eucharist, in your parish’s liturgical space are you enchanted, do you experience being part of something that has come before you and will exist after you? Does it speak to you of awe and solemn beauty, of delight and wonder? Do you have this strange sense that you have great value and at the same time are called to great humility? Are you somehow most yourself when in this place, especially when engaged in the Eucharist or Office?
This holiness of a space is real because it is a place in which people have been made holy, have found themselves, have laid their lives upon the altar and received in back in the bread and wine. It is holy because it is a place of God’s presence. In this place people are embraced, challenged and receive identity and purpose.
If there is a parish hall make it work for the parish’s social life, its educational offerings, and its meetings for both routine matters and deep discernment. Peter Block[iv] maintains that in arranging meeting space we are trying “to build relatedness, accountability, and commitment.” … “Physical space is more decisive in creating community than we realize. Most meeting spaces are designed for control, negotiation, and persuasion...Community is built when we sit in circles, when there are windows and the walls have signs of life, when every voice can be equally heard.” Block prefers that there be no tables.
So the task is to shape it and then maintain it in good condition – meaning both basic systems and “the beauty of holiness.[v]” Use it effectively and to purposes consistent with our identity – for gatherings of the congregation in discernment, for education and training, and to simply enjoy one another; also some rentals and free use both to support the parish budget but also to provide some useful service in the community.
As you consider your parish – is one of these elements missing or too weak to play its role? Is one present but we don’t “listen” to it? Is one out of whack in some way?
This isn’t just about the elements in themselves. Maybe the most interesting part comes as we begin to see and accept responsibility for the lines between the elements. There is challenge and possibility in the “space” between: congregation and the vicarious, the vicarious and the building and the congregation and the building. There’s a conversation to be had along those lines.
[i] Almighty God, we thank you for making us in your image, to share in the ordering of your world. Receive the work of our hands in this place, now to be set apart for your worship, the building up of the living, and the remembrance of the dead, to the praise and glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. From “The Dedication and Consecration of a Church” p. 567 BCP
[ii] “People with a relatively disciplined, mature, full spiritual life; flexibility with self and others; an experimental and exploratory stance; competent and committed Christians. Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church, Robert Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008.
[iii] The idea of how people relate to a parish church through vicarious faith is explored in more depth in p. 132 and 134 in Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church
[iv] Chapter 14, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block, Berrett- Koehler Publ., San Francisco, 2008.
[v] Psalm 96:9 and BCP p. 115