Last year, in 2018, Ascension & St. George’s Vestries took on two significant initiatives, both designed to celebrate the story of our churches as well as build on that story — God’s story, we believe. God has, in our past, created churches that were marked by growth, vibrancy, joy and experimentation — a ‘can do’ attitude, grounded in the Holy Spirit. God will, I trust, re-create his Body in the same form and fasion, inspiring ongoing growth, vibrancy, joy, freedom.
The first initiative was the formal process of merging our two parishes into one — all the while keeping two worshiping communities: Ascension in Lexington Park and St. George’s in Valley Lee. Even a casual attender of worship at Ascension or St. George’s heard plenty about that, and that work is now on a natural glide path toward completion. Just this week, in fact, I was joined by Karol Wolgemuth, Phil Horne, and Eric Delk as we made our Petition for Merger to the Council of the Diocese of Washington. They received our Petition gratefully, and they voted unanimously to recommend it for action at January’s Diocesan Convention. I am really proud of the dedicated work of so many lay leaders among us. With them, and with our congregations, we are truly becoming a resurrected — indeed, Resurrection — Parish.
The second initiative the Vestry took on was Invite Welcome Connect. It’s not a program, but a methodology, an assessment, a tool. Invite Welcome Connect helps us look deeply at our common life, our congregational culture and find ways to be more intentional about inviting, welcoming, and connecting all persons with God and one another in Christ. It’s about evangelism (invitation); hospitality (welcome); and the sacred act of listening (connection).
Admittedly, over the course of the past year, this initiative did not get as much airtime as the first. That was intentional. Each had a linear relationship to the other — changing the business model (=merger) came necessarily first, if only because the healthier, more balanced operational scale it brought about has given us the room to now ask: Where are we going?
But the Vestry, at least among themselves last year, did explore Invite Welcome Connect — something like a practice lap. Each Vestrymember was asked to do two things: first, visit a local church, ideally a thriving church, as a ‘Secret Shopper’; and, second, invite a friend who does not attend your church to come to Ascension or St. George’s as a Secret Shopper. They did, on both counts. We prepared a common assessment tool, and we received some very enlightening responses. Did you know where to park? Did you know where the front entrance was? Did anyone speak to you, say good morning to you? What was the appearance of the church? Did anyone welcome you? Invite you to fellowship? Get to know your name? Would you come back to this church? Why or why not? We learned a great deal from this raw data about our strengths and the areas we need to grow in.
The gift of Invite Welcome Connect is that it also gives us tools to grow, indeed, tools to change the church culture, as they say, “from maintenance to mission.” Careful attention to everyday practices and appearances, scrutiny of behavior many of us take for granted, removing any obstacle that stands in the way of someone entering a relationship with God through our church as well as looking, equally, to put in key positions those who really have the gifts of welcoming and connecting and inviting — that’s what Invite Welcome Connect brings. But, as we know, changing behaviors and attitudes and practices is a whole lot harder than changing a business model, even a parish name.
This is the “so what…?” of this whole exploratory venture Ascension and St. George’s have been on these past several years. So what? …So Jesus will be glorified and people will be restored to unity with one another in His name. …So our churches will grow in faith, in vibrancy, in joy. So we will reverse numerical decline — a sobering reality of The Episcopal Church for far too long, and only getting worse — and grow our congregations by serving boldly, taking risks, and loving God and our neighbors (and neighborhoods) passionately, deeply, and well. …So anyone connected to this place knows without doubt the value added to their lives and this community by following Jesus through membership in Ascension and St. George’s.
Ascension and St. George’s are each having an Invite Welcome Connect kickoff launch party. Ascension’s will be Sunday afternoon, September 15, right after worship, at coffee hour (12:15pm start time). St. George’s gets together Sunday afternoon, Sept. 29 at 4:30pm — potluck dinner and conversation. I would be honored if all members would plan to spend an hour and one-half, or so, in prayer and conversation on those days, at their respective places. These will be opportunities to better understand the why, the “so what...?” of Invite Welcome Connect. This will also be an opportunity for you to hear from me some tangible next steps, and how you can get involved. If you are otherwise unable to join us this Sunday, click here to watch this video from the creator of Invite Welcome Connect, Mary Foster Parmer. (Or if you want a Sunday preview, watch it.)
I’m looking forward to kicking off this new season in our churches — no less than two churches which have the great audacity to call ourselves ‘Resurrection Parish’!