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“Stepping Out of the Boat”: Introducing a Manual for Congregations in Discernment

Last week, Bishop Shannon introduced clergy and lay leaders to a new process for examining the future vitality and sustainability of diocesan congregations. The process is outlined in A Manual for Congregations in Discernment: A Resource for Congregations Facing an Uncertain Future, available for download on the diocesan website.

“As we consider how new models of ministry and new collaborative relationships might offer our diocese new ways in our future, I call upon all of our congregations to enter discernment,” Bishop Shannon wrote. “I ask that you consider your current ways of life as God’s gathered people in your local communities and how—and whether—these ways of life will continue into our future. This process of discernment of vitality and sustainability is a way for you to ask timely and critical questions about the future of your congregations.”

The bishop invites clergy, wardens, vestries and bishop’s committees to determine how best to use the new resource in their congregations,  and asks them to undertake this discernment expeditiously, and to extend the work through the end of this year. “As a diocesan household, we are all involved in discerning the ways that God is calling us to be for our future together as God’s church in Vermont,” she wrote.

The Rev. Susan Ohlidal, canon for missional vitality, described the diocese current situation as “fluid.”

“This is an extraordinary time we’re moving into, both worldwide and in Vermont, related to the pandemic and the impact it has and continues to have on our congregations,” Ohlidal said. “And this invitation from our bishop comes comes out of that. I remember Bishop Shannon’s metaphor of stepping out of the boat and following Jesus across the water. This is water. This is fluid, this is stormy, this is flowing and moving. This is baptismal running water.”

The process outlined in the manual is designed to help congregations discern how they are going to ‘move in this water,’ Ohlidal said, whether they find themselves in a time of crisis, a time of transition, or a time of building on a strong foundation and planning for the future. “I know that for some of our congregations, this listening and reflecting is going to bring forward realities that they have not faced into,” she said. “This is the time now where they must face into them.”

Congregations are not alone in this work. Bishop Shannon has formed a Diocesan Congregational Discernment Committee, convened by Ohlidal. “The committee is made up of lay and ordained leaders from throughout the diocese who are themselves on the ground, doing this work in their own congregations,” Ohlidal said.

“[A]s we embark on this work of building a sustainable future for our diocese, let us answer Jesus’ call to step outside with hope and an openness to all things new,” Bishop Shannon wrote in introducting the manual. “We will surely feel the water undulating under our
feet and the wind blowing in our faces, and we will surely feel unsteady. My prayer is that when this happens, we will reach out and call to Jesus to steady us. His hand is always there, ready to hold us up.”

The following are initial members of the Diocesan Congregational Discernment Committee. The list will grow, and be updated accordingly.

The Rev. Canon Susan Ohlidal | Convener
Phone: 802.748.8755

Wendy Besett | St. John’s, Hardwick
Diocesan Council

Shawn Bryan | Christ Church, Montpelier
Rock Point Commons Board

Sarah Cowan | St. Paul’s, Vergennes
Trustees of the Diocese

The Rev. Kathy Hartman | St. John’s, Randolph
Diocesan Council

Maggie Thompson | Christ Church, Montpelier
Standing Committee

Ex-Officio Members
Tom Little, Diocesan Chancellor
Paul Horn, Diocesan Treasurer

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