The impetus for THRIVE, the task force appointed by Bishop Shannon last summer, was an impending diocesan financial crisis. But in the last few months, the group of lay and clergy leaders has dug deeper than the immediate problem, strategizing about ways that the diocese can help congregations become more vital and connected in their communities.
Much of the conversation is about striking the right balance between tradition and innovation, say two THRIVE leaders.
“When I think broadly about what should and can happen, the Diocese of Vermont isn’t going to be the same as in the 20th century,” said Dr. Ann Guillot of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, who was named a THRIVE co-chair in December, joining Ellen McCulloch-Lovell of Christ Church, Montpelier, and the Rev. Scott Neal of St. Paul’s, White River Junction. Guillot is also serving as interim chair of the sub-group on governance and collaboration.
“If we’re not doing something more than maintaining ritual and buildings, we’re not doing anything,” she said.
Luke Krueger, a playwright and English teacher who is a member of St. Paul’s, Wells, chairs the THRIVE sub-group that is examining missional vitality. His committee is eager to come up with “practical steps” to “get beyond the red doors to the community, not just for visibility, but to grow the church,” he said. “We have a respect for the traditions of the church—there are things that aren’t negotiable—but we can make changes, we can find new things, and people have to be willing to do this.”
The group is mindful of negative responses to past diocesan initiatives for change. “The new ideas came out, and there was real backlash from people who said, ‘That’s fiddling with the tradition,’” he said. “So people are a little gun shy.”
Although Episcopalians are often tempted to believe that the church will be revitalized by young people falling in love with traditional liturgy, both Krueger and Guillot are helping THRIVE avoid that seemingly easy fix.
“We don’t want to fall into the trope that the church will only survive if we bring in young people or mimic the course that the evangelical church is using,” Krueger said.
“I think there is a role for the practice of great liturgy, but I don’t think that the liturgy is God,” Guillot agreed. “We ought to be looking at what we can offer to people that will resonate with people who aren’t attracted to the liturgy of the 19th and 20th century church. Maybe it’s a lot of different ways that churches can be relevant … in the community.”
While much of THRIVE’s work involves considering ways that the diocese can help congregations be more sustainable and connected in their communities, the task force’s work does not extend to examining the viability of individual congregations.
“THRIVE has to be looking at what is the content that should be coming out of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont” Guillot said. “How can the diocese be a source of ideas, and support for ideas, not just money, so that congregations can thrive?
“THRIVE is about diocesan existence—what can we really offer—but not about individual congregational existence,” she added.
Krueger’s sub-group, which meets every other week, is motivated by the urgency of the diocese’s financial situation but wants to avoid a rush to easy answers. He finds himself drawing on a Russian proverb he learned years ago from a mentor in the theatre, where the pressure of performance deadlines can prevent actors from honing their craft carefully.
“We don’t have much time, so we must work slowly.”
Find previous coverage of THRIVE on the website.