© 2018-2019 The Episcopal Church in Vermont

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1. Beyond Our “Stained Glass Windows”

In our listening sessions, some noteworthy tensions surfaced. One of them is best described in several comments that we heard. From a member of Council: “Well, [in these listening sessions], is anyone talking about closing small congregations?” versus a comment from our northernmost parish (one of the smallest): St. Paul’s/Canaan: “We are so glad you came to include us in these conversations. I hope we won’t be forgotten,” versus the BDNC’s own observation: “These small congregations are important because without them, the Episcopal Church loses its footprint in communities around Vermont—sometimes in an entire county. The Episcopal Church influence would just disappear permanently.”  It became clear to the BDNC that we needed to include a section on the different sizes of congregations that one finds in Vermont. Most of our congregations rank as “small” and, against a national standard, many might be labeled “micro-church.” To us, however, all are important regardless of size. The small congregations have a unique vibrancy in the overall picture of The Episcopal Church in Vermont. What follows are our reflections:

SMALL PARISHES (Average Sunday Attendance less than 50)

 

Small means different things, depending on where you live in Vermont. In Chittenden County, small may be a congregation of 50 or more. If you are in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, it could be a church of 14 or, further north, a church of 4. The size of the congregation is not a reliable indicator of its vitality or its witness to the presence of God in our neighborhoods.

 

According to the U.S. Census, Vermont has the second highest percentage of any state of people living in communities with populations less than 2,500. In 2010, 61.1% of Vermonters lived in these small communities. The small churches make an important contribution to the vitality of Vermont’s small towns and villages, as well as weaving important contributions into the special character of Vermont’s culture and way of life.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, in the town of St. Johnsbury, is situated in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.

Many of our small churches have a lively presence in their communities, with parishioners working with Child Protective Services to provide supplies for foster children, contributing to or hosting food shelves, and bringing musical events to their towns. Small congregations host community meals and alternative worship services and are dispersed throughout all the counties of Vermont. Some follow traditional models of clergy-centered leadership, and many explore ways of living into our Baptismal Covenant, trusting that God will provide what we need to be the body of Christ in our communities.

 

Being a people for whom Eucharist is a central sustainer of our spiritual lives, we struggle with the reality that the smallest of us depend on a variable availability of supply clergy. With very limited financial resources comes the regrettable notion that they must “pay” (for a supply priest) if they are to receive Eucharist.

 

There are several congregations that have been living for years with occasional or permanent supply clergy, and one regional Border Ministry (involving Vermont, New Hampshire, and Quebec) that uses non-stipendiary locally trained clergy. Others are in the process of discerning if they are called to this way of being church. Each of our 28 small churches is a significant demonstration of Episcopal presence in their community (as is true for our medium and large parishes), and some of the smallest are the only Episcopal presence in their county. Several have been living for many years with locally raised up candidates for ordination and not itinerant priests. They seek both guidance and freedom to discover new ways of sharing ministry and empowerment to seek what they might become.

 

In our listening sessions there was interest in the next bishop developing a Task Force focused on supporting and nurturing small congregations. There is enthusiasm for this idea across the size spectrum.

 

In a recent article in Christian Century (“Pastors Who Stay,” August 15, 2018), Pastor Brad Roth set out to discover ways that the church can be a beacon of hope in tiny communities. It resonates with our experience here in Vermont. “I talked to pastors and leaders who are proclaiming hope by abiding in place, working for the good of the whole community, and testifying to a God who is greater than their present circumstances. Jesus models the art of abiding. To abide is to remain – with a sense of commitment to all that God is doing in a particular place. It’s seeing ourselves as called to a place by the God who loves the whole creation. Abiding is learning to love a people and a place, and then living that love out through steadfast commitment over time.”

 

We invite our next bishop to abide with us as Jesus teaches and to take a special interest in our small congregations. This is not to suggest that our medium and large congregations should not be held in equally high regard, but small congregations have a reduced manifestation, represent an aggregate large number of Episcopalians, and provide a unique presence in local communities that are far-flung around the state.

MEDIUM-SIZED PARISHES (Average Sunday Attendance 50 to 100)

 

Few of the medium-sized parishes have full-time clergy. Clergy leadership models include full-time rectors, part-time rectors, bi-vocational priests and part-time priests-in-partnership (the Vermont interpretation for priest-in-charge). Several of these parishes have deacons. All have active lay leadership. There is a strong commitment to both “in-reach” – caring for the members of the parish and their families – and outreach. In-reach ministries include Pastoral Care Teams, Meal Ministries, Ride Ministries, Healing Teams, and Holy Hikes, to name a few. Outreach ministries are highly varied depending on the needs in the local community: food banks, weekly soup kitchens, community gardens, hosting community meetings, advocating for low income housing construction (Habitat for Humanity), hosting AA/Al-Anon/Recovery programs, Angel Trees at Christmas, and coordinating collections of school supplies or basic toiletries with local social service agencies (PINS – Partners in Need of Services) are only some of the outreach ministries with which various congregations engage. Most are looking for vital community partners as they discern their mission and ministry in the community. The concept of the Jesus Movement is strengthening congregation-community connections as an enthusiastic interchange beyond the church doors.

In the spirit of "love your neighbor as yourself," St. Stephen's Church, in Middlebury, has devoted much of its outreach activity in recent years to Neighbors Together (http://www.middneighborstogether.org/), an organization formed and hosted by St. Stephen's, bringing together stakeholders in downtown Middlebury to mitigate the effects of a massive bridge and rail construction project that the State of Vermont will be carrying out through 2020, which threatens to destroy what is already a fragile business economy. This is a good example of a medium-sized parish partnering to address a significant issue in this college town. Neighbors Together is one manifestation of our relationship and investment with Partners for Sacred Places who have worked with over a dozen congregations in Vermont.

 

Liturgical involvement among the laity is strong, with active participation in the liturgy itself, including Lay Eucharistic ministers, greeters, lectors, lay preachers, lay worship leaders, choir members, instrumental musicians, and ushers, as well as in planning services and music and in the “backroom” activities of the altar guild and flower committees. Although Rite I and Rite II are the Sunday mainstay of most parishes, some are exploring children’s evening services, Taizé services, Dinner Church and other alternatives. Enriching Our Worship is fully authorized in Vermont and used by several congregations. There are numerous experiments happening with expansive language in our Eucharist as well as experimentation with alternative texts and liturgical styles. Music in our liturgies ranges from traditional hymns, spirituals and more, to other styles from various resources. Tensions can surface in many parishes around the desire to move forward and the desire to remain the same.

In early September 2018, Vermont Governor Phil Scott (wearing tie), met with members of the Middlebury Community at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in partnership with the Neighbors Together Steering Committee. 

Education is often challenging in medium-sized parishes. There are attempts at adult education offerings, some very successful. Most have some kind of Sunday school for the children who are present. Older members remember wistfully the DSP (Diocesan Study Program) and EFM (Education For Ministry) classes open to members of The Episcopal Church in Vermont, but there have not been many such offerings in a number of years. EFM is happening occasionally in some of the medium-sized parishes (St. Paul’s, White River Junction, for instance) and in at least one larger parish, St. Michael’s, Brattleboro.

 

Several of the larger medium-sized parishes host excellent music and choir programs: Christ Church, Montpelier; Trinity Church, Rutland; St. Stephen’s, Middlebury; and St. James, Woodstock.

 

Like parishes of all sizes, medium-sized parishes are struggling to balance their budgets. Some are in the middle of capital campaigns, some are discerning ideas on how to reimagine or even repurpose their building and property. Also, like most parishes of any size, they are noticing decline in numbers, few or no young families, and little growth. They are, however, all spiritually alive and vital assets to their communities.

 

LARGE PARISHES  (Average Sunday Attendance greater than 100)

 

In our three large parishes, a wide array of programming takes place, much of it led by laypeople, such as training for healing ministers and for compassionate pastoral care. Adult formation opportunities include Sunday morning and seasonal forums led by clergy, lay people and invited experts. The Godly Play curriculum for children ages 3-11 and other programs for young people are offered, including active and successful youth programs (for example, St. Paul’s Youth, or SPY at the Cathedral).

Music plays a vital role in the life of these parishes, with vibrant adult choirs singing a wide range of repertoire, from plainsong chant and classical masterpieces to contemporary works by living composers. In southern Vermont, the Choir School at St. Michael’s, Brattleboro, has staged several modern mystery plays. Their adult choir numbers approximately 25. In the Burlington area, the Cathedral has a full-time Director of Music and Canon Precentor who leads accomplished adult and youth choirs, together numbering over 40 people. For youth, this training provides excellent music education, further enhancing what is offered in the public schools. The Cathedral sponsors community arts programs and concert series. The recently completed Urban Cathedral Study Group Report includes a plan to increase this ministry  further.  (https://tinyurl.com/yar77hbs)

The Cathedral Church of St. Paul's Choirs

Our larger parishes offer a wide variety of worship. Sunday morning Eucharist services include Rite I and Rite II, as well as innovative family services. Contemplative and centering prayer, silent meditation, healing services, choral evensong, Taizé services and occasional chanted Daily Office services are offered. At the Cathedral there has been increasing ecumenical collaboration with other faith traditions as well as with Vermont Interfaith Action (www.viavt.org). Bishop Ely has established a collegial relationship with the Roman Catholic Bishop, which has fostered some ecumenical offerings.

 

The larger parishes communicate with their parishioners and the world through their websites, Facebook, online digital media and newsletters and, less often, hard copy print. The Cathedral sermons are available to the public via SoundCloud. Sermons at St. Michael’s are available on podcasts through the church’s website.

 

The largest parishes have one full-time priest. St. Michael’s also has a part-time Minister of Discernment and Discipleship. None have paid assistant or associate priests. Several have vocational deacons and/or non-stipendiary priest associates who contribute a great deal to the ministries of the churches. These parishes are supported by the expertise of part-time parish administrators. Shared administrative support between parishes could be an option to pursue.

 

It should be noted that our largest parishes also budget tightly. They have decreased their numbers of clergy to fit these budgets. While shared ministries are critically important, they recognize that as membership and ministries increase, there may need to be an increase in paid clergy time.

A special note about The Cathedral Church of St. Paul: The Dean of Cathedral recently announced her retirement effective September 2018. This position is currently in transition.

The Cathedral Vestry plans an Interim Rector to be named very soon, to serve for about 18 months, to allow candidates for the Dean and Rector position to know who our next bishop will be, and to allow the next bishop to be a participant in that discernment and search process.  

In parishes of all sizes, The Episcopal Church in Vermont is involved in outreach efforts at the local, national, and international levels, for example:

Locally, with community lunch programs, food shelves, the AIDS Project of Vermont, shelters, Vermont Interfaith Action (www.viavt.org), Vermont Ecumenical Council Network of Christian Cooperation (www.vecncc.org),visits to rehabilitation and nursing centers, and the Joint Urban Ministry Program (JUMP) (www.jumpvt.org );

Nationally, with work trips and other assistance to help rebuild communities following Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and youth group work with Habitat for Humanity (https://vermonthabitat.org/);

Internationally, with support for Foyer Evangélique Orphanage in Haiti,  Jerusalem Peace Builders (https://www.jerusalempeacebuilders.org/), involvement with Kids4Peace (www.k4p.org), and youth work trips to El Salvador with Cristosal (https://cristosal.org). (By virtue of the incorporation of Cristosal in Vermont, the Bishop of Vermont is a member of the Cristosal Board of Directors.)

         

COMMUNICATION AND TECHNOLOGY

In recent years there has been a commitment to more robust technology to enhance the scope of our diocesan communication abilities.  The diocesan website contains a wealth of information. Almost all of our parishes have websites, Facebook pages, and possibly other social media platforms. Many post sermons, parish newsletters, photos, upcoming events, and other timely articles.