Thursday, February 9, 2017

Nativity's Reflection on Bapitsmal Ministry (prepared for the Living Stones Conference February 4-6, 2017

Diocese of California/Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Living Stones Baptismal Ministry Experience and Reflection 2017

BMER Summary
When in 2013-14, it became apparent that the Episcopal Church of the Nativity could no longer support full-time clergy, the longstanding rector left to pursue other career opportunities. Two years into a process of discernment about the future of our congregation, this report represents our efforts at community transformation from estrangement, brokenness, and grief toward healing, hope, and wholeness. Our experience has included exploration of four possible paths:
·       sharing of resources with three neighboring Episcopal churches;
·       creating partnerships whereby our mission is strengthened and nourished by serving communities outside our membership;
·       growing our parish and budget; and
·       right-sizing our church, including the exploration of mission status.

Church of the Nativity
Geographical Area:
Northern Marin County
in the Diocese of California

Some Statistics
·     Area in square miles
o   Marin County: 828
o   94903 Zip Code: 20
·     Number of congregations engaged in BMER: One
·     Total population
o   Marin County: 262,221
o   94903 Zip Code: 30,555
·     Marin Deanery
o   No. Episcopal churches: 11
o   Total ASA: 1,200
·     Church of the Nativity Membership: 181
·     Nativity Expense Budget: $127,203
·     Nativity ASA: 41

M                               Google Map data ©2017                                                              2 mi      

Living Stones Team Members:

Rev. Eric Metoyer
Assoc. for Congregational Ministries
Diocese of California
(415) 869-7810

Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer
Church Divinity School of the Pacific

Team Member:
Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding
Rector, Church of the Nativity
(415) 479-7023
Team Member:
Ms. Susan Pick
Sr. Warden Emerita, Church/Nativity
(415) 847-0377
Team Member:
Ms. Everil Robertson
Senior Warden, Church of the Nativity
(415) 497-9159
Team Member
Ms. Nancy Barnes
Vestry Member, Church of the Nativity
(415) 456-4757

In what concrete life experience is God currently challenging us the most?

The following BMER will outline our process of exploring three of the potential paths for the future of Nativity and reflect on how our discernment (and the outcomes) now offer us new opportunities for ministry, growth as a congregation, and personal transformation for our members. We believe that this discernment process may be a model for other similarly situated congregations, and that some of the lessons we have learned may be applicable to other small churches. We have questions about how to continue to deepen the most fruitful areas of our discernment and how to implement some of the conclusions that we have reached.  (We have not outlined our process for discernment about right-sizing the congregation including mission status, but may talk about this if Cluster Groups have questions).

Our Experience

1)   Sharing Resources
a. Discernment
There are 11 Episcopal Churches in Marin County, with an average Sunday attendance among us of 1200. While one of the congregations in the county is program-sized, all of the others have fallen to either pastoral or family size, with Nativity in the middle range with 100 active families and 41 ASA. The Marin Priests in Charge (PICs) began meeting as a group in 2014, thinking together about the future of the Church in this rapidly aging county where church attendance has declined precipitously among all mainline denominations.
The PICs met weekly throughout 2015 and established seven working assumptions, including a commitment to exploring joint ministry opportunities. While all 11 congregations initially participated in the PIC weekly meeting, the four congregations in Northern Marin (Nativity, Redeemer, St. Paul’s and St. Francis) began experimenting with “area ministry” at the encouragement of the Bishop and Diocese. Led by the priests, but with the full support of the respective vestries (and to a lesser extent the full congregations), we have implemented some experimental programs.

b. Experiments
·    4 congregations created the Marin Episcopal Youth Group, sent teens and jointly hired a youth minister (2013). Now only two (Nativity and St. Paul’s) are contributing youth and budget to maintain the youth minister’s salary. But it continues as a viable group that depends on the shared resources of both congregations.
·    All four congregations advertise their Easter and Christmas services in one print advertisement in the local newspaper.
·    Christian formation activities are opened to all four churches. Currently members are regularly crossing into other congregations to participate in Bible studies, discipleship groups, and “Death Cafes.”
·      Outreach ministries are cross-pollinating with Nativity and St. Paul’s establishing a shared commitment to providing breakfast for a local high school for troubled teens (now in its second year), and three congregations committing to a one-time feeding ministry with “Stop Hunger Now.”
·      In Marin County, four deacons are creating a “Team Deacon” with the long-term goal of strengthening outreach for all Marin congregations.
·      Nativity, St. Paul’s, and Redeemer are offering a 5 p.m. Eucharist every Sunday at Nativity with the three priests and one deacon sharing in liturgical leadership.
·      The four vestries have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding articulating shared ministry including items above and offering particular support to the Church of the Redeemer as they have called a new long-term supply priest (who is also the Marin Episcopal Youth Group minister) and are in a period of discernment about their future.
·      Four vestries have agreed to a 2017 joint vestry retreat.
·      Four priests have agreed to quarterly pulpit swaps.
·      Two congregations are sharing a part-time bookkeeper.

c. Implications
God’s purpose was that the body should not be divided but rather that all of its parts should feel the same concern for each other. If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts share its suffering. If one part is praised, all the others share in its happiness. 1 Corinthians 12:25-26 

The process of developing the seven working assumptions among the Marin County PICs truly transformed the priests’ thinking—moving us from worrying about the health of each congregation to imagining a thriving Church in our county. Building on this base of trust and shared vision, the experiments of sharing resources were possible.
The congregations have embraced this new vision to greater and lesser extents. Nativity’s congregation has had first hand experience of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group and the 5 p.m. joint Eucharist since both of these experiments have happened at Nativity. The Nativity congregation is enthusiastic about the potential for these programs to grow, recognizing that neither would be possible without the participation of other churches.

d. Questions for Cluster Groups
·      Are there other ways to share resources that we haven’t yet explored?
·    Is it possible that these experiments in sharing resources may lead to an amicable “merger” or other new formation of the congregations in Marin County?
·    Could sharing clergy (as we’ve done in the youth group) ultimately create cost savings that would allow two congregations to thrive where neither can afford a full-time priest?
·    Are there examples or suggestions about ways to deepen the congregational commitment to sharing resources?

2)   Creating Community Partnerships
a. Discernment
With the four-fold goals of 1) serving our neighbors, 2) sharing our gifts (of people and place), 3) increasing our rental income, and 4) inviting our community into our church, the Vestry created a Community Partnerships Committee to explore ways to partner with other non-profit community-based groups in our neighborhood.
Nativity is blessed with a unique and beautiful location and building. The street is a cul-de-sac. We have an ample parking lot. Our property includes hiking trails through the woods, and our neighbors use them frequently. In addition to the natural assets we have a playground with a children’s play house, a basketball hoop and a labyrinth. We have a large well-lit sanctuary, featuring redwood paneling and upholstered pews that can be moved. Other spaces include a large kitchen area with room for a meeting table, a smaller room suitable for meetings, a second floor with three rooms that accommodate couches, bean bag chairs, and other comfortable seating.
Our Community Partnerships Committee initially investigated the possibility of renting out our “upper rooms” or sharing our sanctuary on a permanent basis to other faith groups or community partners. After evaluating comparable rentals for non-profits, the Committee recommended against seeking a permanent tenant or tenants because the space would likely produce no more than $12,000 per year and the restrictions on our other potential uses would not warrant the one time and ongoing expense or interference with our activities that a permanent tenant would create. They did recommend seeking community partners who might use our space on a weekly or monthly basis or for one-off events.

b. Experiments
For many years, Nativity has been the meeting place for such groups as Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Adult Children of Alcoholics. In 2015, we hosted two summer day camps for the neighboring Marinwood Community Center. Other local groups use our outdoor space regularly. The Marinwood Fire Department conducts training exercises on our hillside, and the Marin Humane Society holds “scent” classes for dogs in the parking lot. We have also opened our doors to other churches’ vestries for retreats and meetings. One other rector even used our space to record an audiobook. More recently, we have welcomed a Korean drumming class from the local college to practice in our space on a weekly basis.
With the leadership of a volunteer communications director, we have been reaching out to our neighbors via social media with the hope of engaging more with our immediate neighbors (and potentially creating more community partnerships or growing our congregation). Nativity has increased its presence on Facebook and established a profile on Next Door, which is a location-specific social media site. We use Next Door to issue invitations to our worship services, particularly holiday; to fundraising events, such as our Crab Feed; and to “parties” designed for neighborhood families, such as an egg-dyeing party and a pumpkin-carving party. Through these invitations, neighbors who might not otherwise have known about Nativity have found their way to our hilltop.
One new successful community partnership has been with Senior Access—a daytime center for people suffering memory loss. In collaboration with Senior Access’ executive director, we agreed to host a Caregiver Support Group for people caring for elders with memory loss or other health issues. This group is now co-facilitated by our priest and the Senior Access ED and now has 12-15 members coming monthly to Nativity.
At the urging of Senior Access, we also offered a biweekly Senior Fitness Class, with a paid instructor, initiated at the same time. It was marginally attended, but had a few regulars from the congregation. We were unsuccessful in recruiting seniors from the neighborhood to participate. The vestry reevaluated its success in late spring and agreed to suspend the activity.

c. Implications
For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 1 Cor. 3:9-10.

We have not yet had very high attendance at the neighborhood parties we have hosted. Still we believe that advertising them informs the community that Nativity is vital and active. We also like to look at these events as giving our neighbors an avenue to service and community building. As an example, one of our long-standing outreach projects involves collecting school supplies for local students whose families may not be able to provide them. This year, we invited our neighbors to help pack backpacks and make pencil cases to include in each one.
While our Caregiver Support Group is a important ministry partnership and clearly serves our neighbors, it has not resulted in Sunday attendance growth, new income, or active involvement in senior ministry by our congregation.
Our community outreach efforts have increased usage of our property by community groups particularly on weekday evenings. But this increased usage has not yet led to increased supplemental income as most groups offer minimal donations.

d. Questions for Cluster Groups
·      Do others have experience with creating community partnerships?  How did you find partners and how much income did you generate?
·    Should we focus on community partnerships to increase income? Or should we abandon this idea and just focus on sharing the gift of our building and grounds with others who share our commitment to serving the poor?
·    If we focus on increasing rental income, then how do we overcome practical problems like scheduling rentals, clean-up after each use of the building, opening and closing the building, event setup, and additional insurance coverage?

3)   Growing our Parish
a. Discernment
We are a small but loyal congregation with a high percentage of members who have been here since the 1970s or 80s, but we are aging, and many wish to revitalize our congregation with the addition of more congregants and younger families. If children attend services, they are more likely to be grandchildren than the addition of younger family members, although we do have a few. We have tried several ministries described below to serve our senior population (some successful, some not), hosted special family-oriented services and activities geared to attracting families, and we are working toward recognition as a welcoming church to the LGBTQ community.

b. Experiments
·    Pastoral Care Committee: This new “inreach” committee has reinvigorated our congregation as members have a formal support network, providing visits, cards, meals, and other tangible expressions of community support to one another. This has shifted the pastoral care responsibilities from the priest to a large and energetic group of parish members.
·    Family Ministry: The Vestry designated four Sunday services as special family services: Easter, Pentecost, Back to Church Sunday, and Advent/Christmas.
o  In addition to the egg-dying workshop on Saturday, kids participated in the Egg Hunt after church on Easter Sunday. (They found plastic eggs filled with both candy and coins; the coins were donated to San Francisco’s Bay Mission, for the purchase of fresh eggs for their food pantry.)
o  On Pentecost, we wore red, decorated the church with red helium balloons, and ate birthday cake at the coffee hour. Children made red paper hats, and some brave souls even got temporary red hair dye!
o  On the Saturday before Back To School Sunday, we hosted a neighborhood workshop to fill backpacks (donated by parishioners) with school supplies (also donated) for students whose families were unable to provide these necessities. Each backpack included a handmade pencil case decorated by the children with a note expressing encouragement for a successful school year.
o  On Advent I, families stayed after church to make Advent wreaths, and a different craft project was offered each Sunday until Christmas. An intergenerational Christmas Pageant, presented on Advent IV, was scripted and directed by one of our teens; it included a violin solo by another teen and participation by some 15 kids of all ages.
o  As mentioned above, we also hosted some Saturday or after-church activities that were cross-generational, with participation by grandparents and grandkids, adults, teens, and children. For example, the church was listed in the neighborhood map of safe places to go and opened for trick-or-treaters on a rainy Halloween.
·    In fall 2016, Nativity embarked on a process of discernment toward publicly identifying as an LGBTQ-affirming community. Using a welcoming toolkit entitled Building an Inclusive Church, from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources, we have established some benchmarks as to the congregation’s current position on this possibility. We will continue the exploration by means of invited speakers, forums, and other educational opportunities, with the hope of presenting ourselves in local and wider media as LGBTQ-welcoming this year.

c. Implications
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)

Our family ministry activities have not attracted many new families to our congregation, but, they have certainly been well attended and a way for parishioners of various ages to get to know each other better. Without these activities, grandchildren and our few remaining families with children could have felt that the church did not recognize their formation needs or their unique gifts.
Contacting our students away at college or boarding school by sending cookies in a care package has brought some of them back to church when they are home again. Our teens have continued to be sporadically active—serving during Sunday worship on special occasions, running outreach ministries such as the back to school backpack program and a Christmas “adopt a family” program.
Through our social media outreach and ongoing activities younger families are aware that we are an active congregation with family ministries. This awareness is important to our vision of ourselves (as a multi-generational congregation) and to building our community presence.

d. Questions for Cluster Groups
·    Should we continue to expand our “family ministry” outreach given that on most Sundays we have one to three elementary age children in attendance?
·    How might we focus on our “charism for seniors” and encourage more seniors to come to church?
·    Is our “special events” for families approach a new way of being an intergenerational church that accommodates the reality that few families with young children are making an every-Sunday commitment to church attendance?
·    Do others have experience with developing an LGBTQ welcoming process and whether that process has changed the congregation or actually resulted in new members?

Is there a way to measure our success beyond ASA?  How do we communicate our sense that we are thriving even though on Sunday we look small and our budget is not growing significantly? 

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