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A Tale of Two Healthy Churches

A Tale of Two Healthy Churches

March 23, 2017

Whenever I visit a church to preach or speak or consult, I like to ask questions, look around, and "kick the tires" (so to speak). In my travels within the last week I have been blessed to visit two very different Anglican Churches here in North America. Both are full of life and Gospel ministry, even though they differ in missional context, size, leaders, and facilities.

One is in The Episcopal Church, but differentiates itself from the diocesan and national leadership by stating up front and publicly that they are a member of the American Anglican Council. The other has been associated with the American Anglican Council for years, but is now a leading and growing congregation in an ACNA Diocese. One was founded in the 1600's and has all the appearances of an English country parish, with beautiful grounds and a cemetery full of families who go back to the very founding of the church. It is in a very rural-suburban location. The other was founded in 1919 but also has a beautiful, traditional Nave and Chancel with extraordinary facilities for all the ministries it hosts in a suburb of a metropolitan area. One has just one full-time priest for a congregation whose average Sunday morning attendance is less than 100. The other is a large, multi-staff congregation whose rector supervises and delegates to a congregation of well over 500 on a Sunday morning. Both have clergy who are outstanding Biblical preachers and teachers. As I read through their literature, it was clear to me that both clergy are gifted communicators who are able to cast a vision for their respective churches, a vision that features Christ's Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20) prominently.

As I reflect on both churches, it is not their size that matters, nor the number of programs they run. In addition to their commitment to Christ and his Great Commission, their focus on making followers of Jesus Christ who pursue Christ-likeness, and their faithfulness to the Bible, I count three things they share in common:

Long-term, trusted clergy leaders

As I visit churches, I love to speak with the lay leaders and members and ask them, in quiet moments, what they appreciate about their clergy. Usually most people are eager to share. I can pick up a lot from what they say, and what they don't say (body language, etc.) In both places, the people I spoke with expressed great appreciation and love for their clergy. As I watched these clergy leaders interact with their flock, and their flock with them, I saw tremendous mutual affection.

In the smaller church, the Rector has been there 10 years; in the larger, the Rector has been there 22 years. I spoke with both about their longevity. Both have made a conscious decision to avoid the corporate ladder of success within the Church that often keeps clergy restlessly seeking the next best "promotion." Both have chosen to bloom where God has planted them. Both have decided to spend the rest of their ministry in their churches, serving the people and the communities to which God has called them. Both were quite at peace with that decision.

I'm convinced that effective leadership in ministry is a function of the trust we build with others. That takes time. It takes a willingness to settle down and commit to the people God has called you to serve. It takes time to get to know people--their children, their extended family, their hurts, their fears and their dreams. When we give people the gift of our time and commitment, they sense that and give their trust accordingly. As trust grows, so does leadership effectiveness and fruitfulness in ministry.

Children, children everywhere!

In the smaller congregation, I counted about 40 adults and 20 children under the age of 8. In the larger church there were so many kids running around that I lost count. There was an energy and joy that reminded me of the days growing up at St. James Newport Beach where I, too, was free to run around on the coffee breaks, while adults would bless me with a hug and a smile or a greeting when I slowed down. Watching children join their parents in serving at the coffee hour or potluck table also reminded me of how I was welcomed, and my children welcomed in churches where we served, gaining a sense of membership and every-member-ministry and service, regardless of size, age or gifting. The senior saints in both places seemed to celebrate the presence of children - including the noise and sometimes chaos that children bring - rather than discourage them.

Both Rectors recognize the presence of children as a sign of health, Gospel life and discipleship in the congregation. In the smaller congregation where I was able to serve at the altar rail, I watched the Rector stop and kneel before each child and bless each one by name! When I asked him how he kept all their names straight, he told me that in "Godly play" (the Children's Sunday School curriculum that they use), they teach the children from John 6 that "The Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name.."--so he has memorized their names and attends to each one to model that for the children. Watching these children at the altar rail respond to the blessing was a tremendous blessing to me. In ministry, it doesn't get much better than this.

But in a different context I was equally blessed to see the Rector of the larger church stop, lovingly kneel and speak to the kids at the Wednesday night potluck and discipleship gathering. He was acting as the spiritual father of this congregation, and calling each child by name as well. The larger size of the gathering did not in any way diminish the family feel of it. In fact, both churches are marked by that same, multi-generational family warmth and welcome.

They understand their unique missional context

The smaller congregation which dates back to the late 1660's has a history of families who have supported this Church from generation to generation. Once the area was primarily farming. Today it is rural suburban - people with post-graduate degrees working in government and private industry on high tech projects - and all living in those old farmhouses! The Rector sized up the situation, walked through the cemetery and began to compile the stories and histories of those families. In short order he created a family tree of the entire congregation, and how the families intermarried and still carry on to this day, as a key for new members to understand the history and background of this church. In this family friendly area, the leadership has created "Mother's Day away" to build on the draw of their children's ministry. They have reached out to the home-schooling community by hosting monthly "Classic Conversations" to include the spiritual dimension of education - how to know God and "the good." And so the church is attracting those younger families with children.

The larger multi-staff congregation serves a developing suburban community in a large metropolitan area. The Rector and leadership team realized that the renaissance of corporate industry in the metropolitan area would demand highly educated, highly qualified and motivated young people to staff those jobs. So they created an internship program in the church and the metropolitan corporate world which has, over many years, graduated over 140 young men and women to serve in those industries. The focus of the internship has been equipping those young adults to be like Daniel--excellent in every way, having skill and ability to share their faith with others. These interns focus on how to do their work as Christ would if he were in their shoes. As a result, many of them have married, come back to the church, invited their friends and raised their children in the church. Now this congregation is about to plant a church in a nearby suburb.

I'm heading off shortly to visit yet another church, to preach and teach, in yet another setting...and I can't wait to see how the LORD is expressing himself through this church, in this community, at this time!

You see, that's exactly what we teach in our ReVive! Workshops--the key question of God's vision for your church, a God given vision that is unique to your church and your community. How does God want to express himself through your church, in your community, at this time...and in the next 5-10 years?

Stay tuned for more tales... and if you want to know more about the American Anglican Council's ReVive! Workshops or our leadership development programs, just let us know!

Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council

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