By The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns
When the Diocese of Bethlehem met in Convention in October, the lay and clergy delegates met in small groups to discuss the common ministry of each congregation in the diocese and how members might work and pray across parochial lines to forward the work of God in Northeast Pennsylvania.
In addition to the usual work of electing persons to various diocesan positions, passing resolutions and approving a budget, the bulk of the weekend was spent in small groups. Groups of lay persons and clergy were organized roughly by parish size and geography, allowing people in small churches to listen to members from other small churches, for example, and for people who live in the same parts of the diocese to meet each other and hear each other’s stories.
Groups worked for two 90 minute sessions, one on Friday and one on Saturday. Separate groups were arranged for clergy and laity. The groups grew out of the work of the revitalized Congregation Renewal Committee, formerly known as Congregational Development. The background document, called “From Risks to Opportunities” was included in the convention pre-print, through the diocesan web-site, through clergy at their September retreat, and through articles in Diocesan Life.
Since last January, Congregational Renewal has listened to clergy and members of parishes, some vital and growing, and some stagnant and some that in peril. Instead of proscribing solutions, the group listened to the variety of experiences and asked members what they needed to be vital communities of ministry.
The main purposes of the small group was to listen to each other’s experience, develop networks between congregations, and create an environment of openness so that ordained and lay leaders can draw on their parish’s strengths and the resources of the diocese—especially from the experiences of the other churches from around northeast Pennsylvania.
Bishop Paul set the tone for the small groups during his address. He spoke of our baptismal relationship as one of discipleship. “We have work to do,” he said. “Church is no longer something we attend.” He told the convention that one way we can celebrate what we do well, instead of only fixing what went wrong, is to plan and visualize a goal as successful, imagine what that would look like and how we got there.
The assumption is that God has both blessed us with an abundance of experience and given us a vision for renewed life in Jesus Christ. Understanding that all of the congregations are sharing a common mission is at the heart of From Risks to Opportunities. There are a variety of programs, techniques, and approaches to ministry, and each congregation will find their own way to worship God, disciple follower of Jesus and minister to their communities. The point is not a single, one-size-fits-all program, but a sense of connection and common mission among all members of the diocese.
The response to the small group discussions was very positive.
Father Charles Cesaretti, chair of Congregational Renewal, said that as at the Friday night banquet, “I sat with the delegates from a congregation who told me that for years they had felt alienated and isolated from the diocese. They told me how welcome and included they felt by their group.”
“Thank you one and all for your incredible participation in two days of thoughtful dialogue on the future of your church,” wrote Terry Gangaware, a member of Trinity, Easton, to a group of laity she facilitated. “You enriched my spiritual life with your sharing of ideas and enthusiasm for moving into new areas of enrichment.” This group decided to keep the conversation going by sharing through e-mail and future face-to-face meetings.
The small group format exposed the isolation that some laity and congregations experience. One facilitator said, “One thing I definitely picked up on was that some of these congregations feel isolated and don't even know what kinds of resources are available to them from the Diocese. None of the delegates in my group had heard about the report or read it yet (I've emailed them all a copy).”
The small groups were designed to focus on the strengths and experiences of the members, rather than to focus on problem-areas or to seek quick solutions.
Future plans include the distribution of the observations and ideas that came out of the small groups to the rest of the diocese. In March, members of the Diocese of Bethlehem will have the chance to work with Luther K. Snow, developer of a tool called “Asset Mapping”, at Moravian Seminary. In November, the clergy will gather at the next clergy day and learn about the State of the Diocese Report from the Standing Committee and return to their discussion groups from convention for a “check in”.
The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is Rector of Trinity, Easton, chair of the Evangelism Commission and a member of the Congregational Renewal Committee.