Last February the diocese released a manual to help congregations examine their future vitality and sustainability, but Good Shepherd in Barre was already ahead of the game. The parish had begun considering such an examination before the pandemic, and Bishop Shannon’s request that parishes “consider your current ways of life as God’s gathered people in your local communities” re-energized the initiative.
The Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, Good Shepherd’s rector, said the congregation has gone from asking “what does God want us to do, to doing what God wants.”
After the vestry put together a discernment team, Linda Webster, the parish’s senior warden distilled the diocese’s discernment manual into a 15-page document specific to the needs of Good Shepherd, including others in reviewing her work. Next the discernment team—three members each from vestry and congregation—joined Bishop Shannon in an inaugural leaders’ retreat held on March 18.
The parish’s pre-pandemic deliberations had focused on existing needs in the community and the congregation, the region’s struggles with food services, clothing, and support for the local homeless shelter, but each of these issues had to be revisited in 2022. “We wanted to clearly identify the needs and how to build on what was already in place as the needs evolved,” Webster said.
The team met for seven or eight months, systematically gathering a better demographic understanding of the community and the church, the physical plant, and the congregation’s financial well-being. The congregation provided input during a series of in person and Zoom meetings, and the discernment team then shaped a plan and returned it to the congregation for validation.
The process “generated a lot of energy and excitement, along with a stronger sense of ownership,” Webster said. Discernment documents, including meeting minutes, live on the congregation’s website provide access to what was happening.
“We wanted to document the process of how we came to some of the conclusions,” said Webster, noting that the team provided weekly updates from the pulpit, in the newsletter, and on the website.
Finally, the parish’s plan went to vestry and to the diocese for its blessing.
What emerged from the intensely collaborative process was a plan that created six teams of four or five members to oversee discrete areas of congregational life: growth, clergy, and finances; music, worship, and organ events; programming for families; caring for each other, fellowship & support; community: communication, church image & activities; and mission outreach. A team of ‘floating’ individuals will serve as extra hands when the need arises.
The parish is now planning a retreat to build a common understanding across teams. Webster likened the process to modular furniture: “We can move [the teams and their members] in all sorts of ways to fit the current need, being flexible in how we support one another across the teams.”
Webster and Kooperkamp are also excited by the opportunity, provided by the diocese, for parishes to work with TryTank, an initiative of Virginia and General Theological Seminaries that aspires to offer innovative approaches to the challenges facing the church. Coaching and consultation with TryTank begins this month for Good Shepherd and will include the opportunity to connect with churches across the country.
“We didn’t want this to be a little group working by themselves to determine the fate of the church because the church belongs to everyone and everyone needed to have a say in that,” Webster said. “Early discussions were important, knowing that if we’re going to come back and ask people to help implement, they needed to have had some say in the process to feel that they had contributed.
“It was wonderful to see how the excitement moved beyond one group or another to encompass the whole congregation. The creativity we saw wasn’t just ‘we want to get younger folks into church’ but blossomed into brainstorming thirty new ideas of how to do that.”
“Becoming Beloved Community” is the theme of the parish’s discernment implementation efforts, and Kooperkamp has preached on the topic frequently in advance of a formal kickoff of the project on April 30, Good Shepherd Sunday. “We will formally commission the [project’s] leaders and add a prayer to our weekly worship asking for God’s guidance as we embark on these new endeavors,” Webster said.
The parish is also talking St. Mary’s, Northfield and Christ Church, Montpelier about partnering in some spiritual formation or mission outreach together.
Kooperkamp said it seemed appropriate for the parish to undertake its new work in the season of Easter at a time when the church contemplates what it means to “not be afraid.”
“We may hit difficult stuff, but the Spirit will lead us from insurmountable problems to specific issues we can address,” he said.
Image: Bishop Shannon speaks with the discernment committee on March 18