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Looking for the Spirit at Work: Constellation Ministry Begins in Vermont

Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown arrived in Vermont just a few months before COVID lockdowns began and on the cusp of a churchwide clergy shortage. In 2021, as the diocese’s congregations began to emerge from pandemic lockdowns, she realized that they would need to adapt to the changed world they found by collaborating and innovating.

We cannot keep doing what we’re doing. That is simply no longer an option for the Diocese of Vermont. But we are not stuck here. This is good news!” Bishop Shannon says. “The Holy Spirit is calling us to a time of courage and risk-taking, and she is calling us to a time of collaboration – to unlearn some of our ‘reliance on self-reliance.’”

Today, several congregations, including All Saints, South Burlington and St. Paul’s, Vergennes and St. Peter’s, Bennington and St. James’, Arlington, have formed “constellations,” which is the diocese’s new term for partnerships that involve clergy sharing and mission collaboration. Other congregations are in various stages of discernment about entering a constellation.

The new model, says the Rev. Susan Ohlidal, canon for missional vitality, is different from a merger and from the “yoked parishes” of previous decades. Constellations do not have to share vestries or governance, but instead focus on “opportunities to renew and redevelop the ways in which they follow Jesus.” They do share clergy, thereby creating full-time jobs that can attract experienced clergy to Vermont and retain new clergy who are sponsored for ordination in the diocese. But they also rely on collaboration among lay leaders and members and are supported by training, coaching, and support from the diocese, Ohlidal says.

All Saints, South Burlington and St. Paul’s Vergennes were two of the first congregations to try out the constellation model. Although they are just twenty miles apart, they had not previously considered shared ministry. In early 2020, St. Paul’s hired an interim rector with a two-year term, and just a few weeks later, the pandemic began. As the congregation discerned its post-COVID direction, former senior warden Rebecca Chauvin says a constellation with All Saints that could employ a full-time priest emerged as the best option.

In a recent visit to St. Paul’s, Bishop Shannon explained the constellation strategy to the congregation, Chauvin said. “She is trying to make sure there are good jobs for new priests and priests for the parishes of the diocese. Hearing the bishop speak about why this is the right direction was really helpful; I appreciate the thought she’s put into this. There is a good, sustainable, more vital future in the structure the bishop has envisioned, assisted by the training and support of the diocese.”

For All Saints, the conversation about entering a constellation began when the Rev. David Hamilton, the parish’s longtime rector, retired early last year. As the pandemic lingered, the Rev. Linda Grenz, transition ministry consultant, facilitated the congregation’s discernment, and last August, the Rev. Bram Kanichfeld, a lawyer and former member of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington, began as deacon-in-charge at All Saints and St. Paul’s.

Kanichfeld, who was ordained to the priesthood in December, served as chief of the criminal division of the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and a member of Burlington City Council before attending seminary, has letters of agreement with each parish, but cautions against seeing his work as circuit-riding.

“This is a collaboration between two church communities, finding more ways to cross-pollinate, to share resources, and to build relationships,” he says. “We are starting to understand it as opportunity for churches to lift each other up.”

So far, he says, All Saints and St. Paul’s are collaborating on Christian formation and considering a joint pastoral care committee, building on what he describes as the “robust and nourishing” work of the long-standing committee at All Saints. The two congregations also plan to share Lent and Holy Week services.

Although the willingness to share clergy is a key aspect of constellation ministry, Grenz shares Kranichfeld’s caution against thinking of the arrangement in those limited terms. “Constellations are not about congregations who can’t afford full-time clergy, but to ask of clergy and lay members alike ‘Where is God calling us? How might we be more effective with more hearts and more hands to carry out that mission?’” Grenz says. “There is no cookie-cutter.”

For St. Peter’s, Bennington and St. James’, Arlington, a constellation was a natural extension of previous collaboration. Last September, the two congregations called the Rev. Jeremy Means-Koss, who was ordained a priest in 2020 in the Diocese of Virginia; like Kranichfeld, he has a separate letter of agreement with each parish.

This constellation extends to practical matters as well as ministry and mission, according to Cheryl Jacobs, senior warden at St. Peter’s. The rectory at St. James’ was an advantage in an area where housing is a problem, while the sexton at St. Peter’s is able to provide a few hours of cleaning each week at St. James’. A joint steering committee provides “a regular check in of how things are going, both for the parishes and for the clergy,” Means-Koss says.

He thinks of the relationship with the parishes not as two half-time positions, but one full-time position with two places to serve. “From week to week, one of the parishes may need more pastoral time and attention than the other, but overall, the balance is maintained because of their similarity in size,” he says.

St. James’ and St Peter’s held combined services for Epiphany and Candlemas and are planning a shared Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. The two parishes also collaborating on communications: a common graphic design threads emails and newsletters together, and they share a YouTube channel. Parishioners are encouraged to subscribe to both parish newsletters to stay aware of opportunities to collaborate.

Lay leaders in both constellations find benefits in the flexibility, compromise, and creativity required to form and sustain a constellation.

“No one has been rigid, but willing to compromise for each other’s benefit,” said Chauvin. “It takes courage and curiosity – an openness to the Spirit.”

Christine Draffin, senior warden at St. James’, says, “I don’t think any of us expected it to go without bumps, but we’ve done extremely well. When something comes up, our perspective is ‘we’ll work it out.’”

Ed Darling, now senior warden of St. Paul’s, acknowledges that sharing clergy has “meant a reordering of how we do the tasks that need to be done. We are also learning how not to let ‘practical’ demands overshadow spirituality. Having lay members of our congregation lead our worship two Sundays a month is not a chore, but an opportunity for growth.” Diocesan training for lay worship leaders and lay preachers help constellations “empower and communicate the power of lay ministry,” Means-Koss says.

As she and Grenz seek to help other congregations discern constellations, Ohlidal emphasizes the model’s flexibility. “Constellations may include priests within a peer group each serving individual parishes; some may need and want full-time work, while others may be bivocational priests, partially retired priests or vocational deacons serving alongside a priest. … There isn’t going to be any one way for constellations to form. We are looking for where the Spirit is already active and working.”

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