An “Experiment”: Small Congregations Try Living a Vision of the Laity as Missionaries by The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab

Hypothesis: A small congregation can begin to move towards centering its life around support of the laity in their daily arenas provided its leaders have that vision and are willing to make the hard decisions to begin to move towards it. Experiment: Small congregations work together to learn how to move towards support of the laity as missionaries. Results so far: A substantial improvement in providing such support. As one priest said, “It is great to have such simple tools that are so powerful.”

THE SETTING

As I drew toward the end of 19 years as the Episcopal Church’s first evangelism officer, I found myself defining evangelism as drawing nonchurch people into the mission of Jesus Christ in the world. It became ever more clear that today’s primary missionaries are the baptized as they seek to bring good news in deed and word to each of the arenas of their daily lives.

Since retirement in November, 1993, my wife and I have been resident members of St. John’s, Essex, NY — where congregations average under 50. When the rector accepted another call in September, 1994, I became the Sunday supply priest. At the profile committee’s open invitation, I sat in on some of their meetings. At my suggestion and with their ready consent, they put in the parish profile this goal: “Focus on living as disciples of Christ and making disciples of others — regular discipleship formation in group study and living our faith in daily life.”

The Rev. Glen F. Michaels read that sentence, identified with it, applied for the call, and began work as rector June 1, 1996. He began to carry out the usual tasks of a rector with the vision of each member as an agent of Christ’s mission. As he went about the usual tasks of leading worship preaching, teaching, baptizing, marrying, and burying, I said to myself, “He really is forming these people as missionaries! He is even using the elements of catechumenal formation that are in the Book of Occasional Services!” I shared this with him as we consulted about how to prepare some parents for the baptism of their newborn. That was one of several moments of discovering how deeply we shared the vision of each member as a missionary of Jesus Christ. More recently, Glen has prepared a history of St. John’s with this inset: “Founded by missionary clergy in the mid-1800’s, St. John’s early on established missions in neighboring towns. In the late 20th century, St. John’s is embarking upon a new missionary effort — this time led by the laity bringing Christ to all arenas of daily life.”

At the same time, I was casting about for some medium for learning to put to work the vision of congregational life centered on each member as a missionary. Imaginative and free use of catechumenal formation seemed to offer a framework for enabling that vision. Glen and I began to collaborate on a plan for small congregations (17 of the 28 churches have an average congregation under 50, 8 average under 100, and 3 are 110-150) to work together through combining regular E-mail with an orientation conference to build a common vision and way to work together on it. In December, 1997, Trinity Church Grants accepted our application for a grant of $51,195 for a year’s work by 28 small churches from New Jersey to Alaska. St. John’s was the sponsor because Trinity make its grants only to congregations. “Missionary Spirituality” became our name for the work. It suggests a spirituality that lives the good news in deed and word in all arenas of daily life and is sustained by individual prayer and meditation, corporate liturgy, and support groups that link the biblical story and our daily lives.

I drew the Rev. Juan Oliver, Canon to the Ordinary in New Jersey, and the Rev. John Robertson, Missioner for Indian Work in Minnesota, into the team with us. Juan worked closely with Glen and myself in planning and leading the orientation session in late January, 1998. We centered it on the skill of group biblical reflection which always ended with “What do I hear God asking me to do, be, or change through this passage?” We followed this pattern enough times to center on each of the missionary arenas — home, work, local community, wider world, leisure, and church. Catechumenal formation was our overall framework. John fed in resources from Minnesota’s Gospel Based Discipleship and agreed to oversee the work of the 14 Indian congregations in Minnesota who were part of the project.

So far, group biblical reflection has been the primary tool used back home in vestry meetings, new member orientation, and Lenten programming. Its end “product” of guidance for one’s daily life now has proved to be the core of its attractiveness and power. Also, defining one’s missions in each of the arenas of one’s daily life and a diagram of a congregation that seeks to live this way (see below) have attracted attention. Becoming computer literate in E-mail on donated used machines has proved more of a problem than anticipated. Email is carried on through an invitation-only series of meetings. “Lurkers” are welcome to a read-only status by request to me at <wayne.schwab@ecunet.org>. MISSIONARY SPIRITUALITY OPEN on Ecunet carries most of what appears on the closed meetings and enables all interested people to share and dialogue with each other. It has about 120 members to date. [Ecunet is free to Episcopalians. For the software, phone Eurith Jackson at the Church Center: 800-334-7626.]</wayne.schwab@ecunet.org>

It is interesting to note the presuppositions on which this project is based.

  1. To move a congregation from is to what might be, have a vision.
  2. Congregations can move towards centering their life around the laity as today’s primary missionaries when the leaders have such a vision, hold it up constantly, and begin to make the day by day decisions that move them toward realizing the vision.
  3. Small congregations can move in this direction when they begin to make the daily life of the members the focus of all the things they are already doing. For example, baptizing an infant can focus on the newborn becoming a responsible church member — notice the focus on the gathered community. Or it can focus on the newborn becoming an agent of the mission of Jesus Christ in daily life — largely, by helping the parents and godparents focus on their present living of the mission. The key is doing what you already do with a new focus — the daily life of the baptized in the world.
  4. The elements of catechumenal formation and reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant in the Book of Occasional Services lend themselves to meaningful adaptation. As a whole, catechumenal formation looks far too demanding for small congregations. When one recalls the heart of it is weekly biblical reflection on Sunday’s gospel and recognition of stages of growth in faith through rites, adapting it to small congregational life is easy. For example, at the Easter Vigil, the Admission of Catechumens can be adapted for parents about to begin preparation sessions for the baptism of their child on Pentecost. Thus, the overall purpose of catechumenal formation to form missionaries for Jesus Christ supports the vision of congregational life centered on support of the laity as today’s primary missionaries.
  5. The clergy and lay leaders need a continuing support group as they carry out the changes needed to implement this vision. E-mail and the telephone go some real distance in offering this support.
  6. The measure of congregational effectiveness is the degree to which its members see it making a difference in the arenas of their daily living — helping them to discern their mission in each arena and draw on the power of God to carry it out. In-depth listening to each member describe their life in each arena is the only way to begin to make such measures.
  7. Small congregations living out the vision of their members as agents of Christ’s mission in each of the arenas of their daily lives just might make a significant contribution to the mission of the church as a whole.
  8. What counts is the vision and the will to live it.

I asked Glen to reflect on what had happened for him as he has lived with this vision. He replied, “You know you’ve been ‘doing the right thing’ as a missionary spirituality pastor when:

–You describe during your sermon at the Rite I service the personal witnessing about mission in daily life that laity did during the earlier Rite II service, and they say, ‘can’t we do that, too?’

–Your warden complains about rearrangement of the church furnishings and gives as her reason: ‘This arrangement doesn’t nurture me on Sunday for my REAL work — spiritually supporting my family the rest of the week.’

–The congregational intercessions during Prayers of the People go on and on and on regarding concerns near and far.

–You wonder at how much more effort it takes to plan for others doing what used to be ‘your’ work.

–After a wedding or funeral several members of the extended family smile and say, ‘I didn’t know that I would have such a big part in the service. Is your church always this participatory?’

–You arrive late for a vestry meeting and they already have their Bibles out for study and prayer.

–Members of the congregation object to your referring to ‘mission of all the baptized’ as a ‘new’ concept, explaining to you that ‘people in our parish have heard that for a long time.'”

The following diagram visualizes a congregation focused on mission as it forms and supports its members for mission in their daily arenas and as a congregation in its community and wider world. The Lord’s table with the story and the bread and the cup, the word and the sacrament, are its center and the source of its power and direction.

A VISION OF A CONGREGATION CENTERED ON MISSIONARY SPIRITUALITY

The congregationm calls, forms, sends, and supports its members as missionaries who bring good news in deed and word to all the arenas of their daily living.

We, ______________________________, covenant to work for this vision to become a reality by 2000 AD and beyond.

REFLECTION ON SCRIPTURE AND DAILY LIFE AS A POINT OF ENTRY

As noted above, group biblical reflection that always ends with “What do I hear God asking me to do, be, or change through this passage?” has proved to be one of the ways that the baptized can begin to grasp their role in daily life as missionaries of Jesus Christ. We have used the following two methods of biblical reflection.

An Oral Tradition Approach

This method and variations on it have been used in many parts of the world. It is a variation on the methods of the base Christian communities of South America. In many places it goes by the name of”African Bible Study” — a misnomer because its reputed source in Africa does not exist. At Stony Point, we found ourselves using the misnomer and that is what you will find in the various reports made on MISSIONARY SPIRITUALITY

  • OPEN.
  • STEP 1 Each person shares his or her experience in the area of prayer from the session before. (If this is a first session, begin with Step 2).
  • STEP 2 Read the passage slowly (one person reads out loud).
  • STEP 3 Recall the word or phrase that catches your attention (one minute).
  • STEP 4 Each person shares the word or phrase with the group.
  • STEP 5 Read the passage again (opposite sex of first reader).
  • STEP 6 Think out/write: “Where does this passage touch my life, my community, our nation, our world today?” Think about all the people you encounter, not just those in your own “circle of friends.” (3-5 minutes).
  • STEP 7 Each person shares the above: “I…”
  • STEP 8 Read the passage out loud again.
  • STEP 9 Think out/write: “From what I have heard and shared, what does God want me to do or be this week? How does God invite me to change?” (3-5 minutes).
  • STEP 10 Each person shares the above: “I …”
  • STEP 11. Each person prays for the person on their right naming what was shared in #10 and prays that prayer daily until the group meets again.

Note: In 3, 7, and 10, be brief. Do not elaborate, explain, or teach. That which is said is offered to the center of the group. Others do not respond to or build on what is said as if they were in a discussion group. (Adapted from In Dialogue With Scripture, p. 75, The Episcopal Church Center, 1992.)

Skeptics’ Bible Study

The oral method above calls for more formed faith than many connecting with the church for the first time bring with them. Glen Michaels has developed the following method for such people.

  • (1) Leader assures folks that skeptical questions are not only welcomed but encouraged; that no one needs to answer any question, and can refrain simply by saying “pass.
  • (2) Read selection (we usually go in rotation, having each participant read 2-4 verses of the reading)
  • (3) Go around circle answering the following question: “What do I like about the reading?”
  • (4) Go around circle answering the following question: “What do I dislike about the reading?”
  • (5) Go around circle answering the following question: “Anything I don’t understand or would like more information on?”
  • (6) Either before or after step 5, read the reading again, in the same manner as in step 2.
  • (7) Go around circle answering the following question: “What is this passage trying to tell us about what God is like?”
  • (8) Time permitting, if the passage has been read before step 5, then read the passage again as in step 2.
  • (9) Go around circle answering the following question: “What is the passage calling us to do?”
  • (10) Go around circle answering the following question: “Is there a word, phrase, or image from the passage that you would like to stay with you throughout the next week?”
  • (11) Concluding ritual: Thank everyone for their participation; offer a next meeting date; if participants seem ready for it, ask if there are needs that can be prayed for and pray for these.

Notes:

  • –Not all participants need to be literate. We regularly do this form of study with a participant who cannot read or write. Like “African Method” Bible study, it does not presuppose literacy.
  • –The central questions of the study are in steps (7), (9) & (10) but the prior questions are necessary icebreakers.
  • –The leader, especially if a clergy person, needs to resist the temptation to answer questions, especially those in response to step (5). At most provide a tidbit of historical/literary context that will help us understand what the passage is saying. Do NOT as leader provide theological interpretation. The goal is for the participants to provide this for themselves — guided by Scripture and Spirit.
  • –The format can be shortened, if need be, by omitting one of the three readings of the Scripture passage and/or question from step(l0).
  • –Scripture passages can be selected in any manner: the upcoming Sunday lection; one of a group of 4-6 relating to Jesus and his ministry; or one of 4-6 exploring a topic of interest to the participants.
  • –This type of Bible Study can work best in private homes rather than in Church. At St. John’s we are able to offer it in the parish hall because this is perceived as a “safe” community venue by those who are suspicious of organized religion.
  • –Praying for one another at the end of the session is a very appropriate way to end but ONLY if the participants seem ready and comfortable with this.

DISCERNING ONE’S MISSIONS IN EACH OF LIFE’S DAILY ARENAS AS A POINT OF ENTRY

It is increasingly critical to provide ways for people — especially for leaders — to discern their current missions in each of the arenas of their daily life. The following method was worked out by Wayne with help from Jim.

A Way to Identify Your Current Missions

Each of us has at least six mission fields — our homes, our work (school for students and volunteer work for retirees), our local community, the wider world, our leisure, and our church. In each one, we are already at work to make things better as best we can. However, we need to take time to put into words just what it is we are trying to do in each place at the moment. Here is a way to do just that in each of our mission fields.

Select the mission field you want to start with. Think through the six questions for that field. Making notes helps. Each field can take a half hour. Or take up to 5 minutes a day for each question and do a field a week and offer it on Sunday.

The questions assume that God’s characteristic work is reconciliation, justice, and love. Identifying what blocks reconciliation, justice and love provides clues to the mission to which God might be calling one in that arena of life. The first three center on finding what mission God might be calling one to there. Since one needs allies in working for change, the fourth question points one to a vision that might entice another to join with you to work for this change. The fifth question, when the circumstances are favorable, helps one to talk so that others can recognize the faith commitment from which one works. The sixth question gives one ways to invite others to share in the same feeding and empowerment by which one lives.

You are building a “missionary spirituality.” Missionary spirituality is being empowered by God to bring good news in deed and word to any of the arenas of daily life. The first four questions concern bringing good news in deeds. The last two concern bringing good news in words.

  1. What conditions inhibit reconciliation, justice, and love there?
  2. What change is needed to increase reconciliation, justice, and love there?
  3. What will I do to achieve this change considering my gifts, limitations, and convictions?
  4. What vision will I use to draw others into working with me for this change?
  5. How will I talk of God while I am sharing my vision or following through on it?
  6. How will I invite others to join me at Christ’s table to be fed and empowered to achieve this vision?

A procedure to work through this discernment process is available for small groups.

This second approach has attracted attention among both the 28 participating churches — and the “lurkers” who tune in on the work via MISSIONARY SPIRITUALITY OPEN. One church will make it the starting point of their bi-weekiy “Formation and Ministry Support Nights.” Once each of the six arenas is worked through, the oral/African Bible study will become the focus for each session. Another church with a candidate for orders will use this method with the candidate and her small advisory group. Each member will discern their current missions in each of their own daily arenas as the candidate does hers, thereby helping the candidate to discern her future role in supporting the baptized in their daily mission fields. A lawyer’s discernment of a current mission in his daily work follows.

A Lawyer Discerns One of His Missions in His Daily Work: By the leader of a Practice Group in a National Law Firm

1. What conditions inhibit reconciliation, justice, and love in my office? I supervise a new practice group in my law firm. A practice group is a team that has a marketing and/or particular legal practice focus, like estate planning or real estate. I have three partners and three associate lawyers under my direction… When a lawyer does not do well, the pattern of the firm is to assign blame and want to determine guilt or innocence. Both of these patterns create anxiety in the lawyers and inhibit their ability to contribute effectively to the group. When one of my lawyers does not live up to expectations, the clients are not getting the quality of service they expect and pay for, so it’s my job to fix the problem.

This pattern of assigning blame and determining guilt or innocence is really destructive when a lawyer has a personality disorder or dysfunction, like throwing temper tantrums or insisting that his or her interests be served above those of others, usually because they are responsible for a lot of business/clients that produce revenue for the firm. In these situations, achieving reconciliation, justice, and love is much harder. In the past, the approach has been to yell at the lawyer, fine him or her or, as a last resort, expel the lawyer. Something has to be done because bad or selfish behavior demoralizes other lawyers. They want reconciliation and justice, too. But the challenge is to correct the bad behavior without sending a message to others either that they are not important enough to matter, or that if they had a similar problem, they would be dealt with summarily, without love.

2. What change is needed to increase reconciliation, justice, and love in my office? I need to break the pattern of blame and determining guilt or innocence. I will try to identify the problem/shortcoming, bring it to the individual lawyer’s attention (its important to make sure they know they did something wrong), and then help them realize what they must do to solve the problem and make sure it does not happen again. I see this as reconciliation. If the client was not served by the lawyer, we will correct the problem without charging the client. In one sense, at least, that will be justice. And, because the focus is on enabling the lawyers to achieve their best through a principled approach to solving problems, I think we will be achieving these things with love.

3. What will I do to achieve this change considering my gifts, limitations, and convictions? When one of my lawyers falls short in performance, I will see it as, in part, a problem in my supervision and training and talk with the lawyer along the lines of “let’s analyze what went wrong to see what can we do better next time.” I will, then, take appropriate action to provide what is missing.

4. What vision will I use to draw others into working with me for this change? “I want this practice group to be a team with the players helping each other. Let’s keep our doors open to each other whenever anyone needs help. When we lose a case, a client, or achieve a result that was not satisfactory, let’s ask, ‘What can we learn and what can we do better next time?'”

5. How will I talk of God while I am sharing my vision or following through on it? “I want to build a team where we develop the God-given gifts of each of us.”

6. How will I invite others to join me at Christ’s table to be fed and empowered to achieve this vision? “Our work is hard. Spiritual help can make a difference. At a recent leadership training conference, one of the speakers, a renowned psychologist, talked about star performers and why they often fail so spectacularly. Among other reasons, he identified a lack of humility — a failure to recognize something greater than oneself. He said it was important for everyone to have a relationship with God and be involved in a place of worship — outside the trophy adorned walls of one’s office. I go for mine to the local Episcopal church. If you want some ideas for finding a faith community, let me know.”

WITNESSING TO MISSION IN DAILY WORK AT SERMON TIME…

Another way to build a sense of being on mission is to use sermon time for the baptized to share their reflections on how they see God at work in one of their daily arenas. On third Sundays at St. John’s in Essex, our priest, Glen, takes a turn as leader of the intermediates in their Liturgy of the Word for children. Since he is not preaching, he calls on one or two of the members to share something of their missions in daily life. Where possible, he asks the sharer to tell how they see God working through the congregation to support them in their mission. In June, he asked Antonia Bullard to tell us where she saw God in her daily work as part of the sermon time. He conferred with her in advance about the sharing and gave me — as temporary presider — some leads as to how it might tie in with the day’s gospel. Antonia is married and the mother of three girls, twins in the 5th grade and a third grader. A summary, not a transcript, of her witness follows. The first person is retained for interest. — AWS

I [Antonia is the speaker] come from a family with a long history of involvement in church life. For all the priests and a bishop in my family tree, no one ever talked to me about work — how we should work and the connection between faith and work. Accordingly I found myself in jobs for the wrong reasons and some work situations that were extremely uncomfortable.

One was for an investment fund. The person I worked for was a pillar of his church. He would tell of Sunday in his church and then go into an oft-repeated tirade about how many jobs could be cut from every company we were involved with. On the wall behind his desk was a man in a shooting jacket, foot on a Rolls Royce, and champagne in his hand with caption, “Poverty sucks.” Clearly, this person and I too had not faced the challenge of how the faith fitted in with our work. That was 15 years ago.

Yesterday, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church was meeting in Burlington, VT. The Presiding Bishop said, historically, church members have been too content to make their faith a private matter which was expressed publicly only within church buildings. He encouraged Episcopalians to redouble their efforts publicly to witness their faith. “Classically, we have tended to sit in our churches taking pride in our perfect liturgy… waiting for the sensible to join us… That kind of arrogance has given way to a sense of service… It needs to more and more.” Everyone my age and older probably grew up in that kind of arrogant atmosphere.

In the last 12-15 years, I have been trying to conform my work life with my faith life. It is not easy. A couple of years ago, I learned it was not as simple as choosing a good cause. I ran an organization for ecologically sustainable development. We had high motives — teaching people in other parts of the world how to build a life that was both sensitive to the environment but also provided economic opportunity and a decent quality of life to people who lived in beautiful places. I learned I was constantly challenged to learn how the demands of love and justice and mercy would be carried out in my work. I learned from Jesus’ teaching that the answer is not always the kindest answer. Sometimes, the answers are quite tough.

We had some deep disputes among the senior staff. Some on the senior staff thought that because their motives were good, they could do almost anything they wanted to do. We operated mostly with tax money. I think they saw tax money as coming from bad people — from General Electric who put PCBs in the Hudson River. Therefore, if they used it even marginally well they were doing a good job because their motives were right and the tax money came from bad people. But I noticed the lowest paid employees in the company thought the tax money came from people — working families and they, themselves, who paid a couple of thousand dollars a year in federal taxes and were deeply upset when things we did were not done well or not done productively or did not seem to carry out our mission or to achieve anything. I lost the battle with the Board of Directors to correct these errors in our work. I believe some thought the way to behave at work was to be kind to the people around you rather than to bring up justice issues in the way I was bringing them up.

Happily, I now work for a woman who has organized a credit union for low income people. She calls it a financial institution with a social mission. It brings together doing things for people lovingly and in ways that can bring about economic justice, but you have to do it efficiently and productively. You have to run the credit union better than others run similar institutions. For example, a divorced woman with three children on welfare and no car found in the credit union a person who showed her her credit report and explained it to her. Up until then, she had been denied credit to buy a much needed car. Now she could point out that all the bad credit was her husband’s and on his social security number. I am proud that I have raised $400,000 for the credit union to lend to people like her.

(After her talk I called attention to these several themes: (1) having the right motives does not mean you are right — be suspicious of your own motives and ready to hear criticism of them; (2) following Jesus’ teaching brings an answer that is not always the kindest answer; (3) the basic responsibility of Christians is to be competent in our daily work; and (4) good intentions and right management must recognize the need for power of the right kind — in the credit union’s story, the power that comes from having sufficient capital is reflected in putting Antonia on the staff as a money raiser. AWS)


Wayne Schwab and Jim Anderson, CLAPHAM 21 Newsletter, Vol. 4, Issue 1, January-June 1998. Address Jim at CompuServe: #70544,2070 or 9556 Chantilly Farm Lane, Chestertown, MD 21620; (410-778-4165).

[The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab; Coordinator of Member Mission Network, Inc., President of Member Mission Press, Chair of the Spiritual Formation Committee for the United Church of Hinesburg, VT, Author, Speaker.and Workshop Leader.]

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