The Rev. Tammy Hodge didn’t know it then, but the vision for her ministry was planted 20 years ago in a little Anglican parish in Rosette, just outside Annapolis Royal, in Nova Scotia.
Then 16, Hodge always found herself being asked to help out at church services. “Every Sunday they would ask me, ‘Would you read? Would you serve?’ ” she recalls. “I sort of fumbled along, but I’d always say ‘yes’… Although I stumbled in the readings, they always affirmed me.”
That encouragement was important for Hodge who, like most people her age, was trying to figure out who she was. “Church was a huge component in my life. [It] was really a place where I built up my self-confidence, where I was always asked to take on leadership roles, which wasn’t necessarily the case in my regular school experience.”
Today, as parish priest of St. Nicholas Church, which has a vibrant and growing congregation in Westwood Hills, N.S., Hodge, 36, is paying it forward by championing a “ministry of inclusion.” It includes a greeting team, an openness to those with special needs, a take-home food program for harried working parents and a monthly service focused on youth.
This wouldn’t have happened had its congregation not taken “a leap of faith” in the late 1990s, says Hodge.
Consecrated in 1891, the previous church building in Hammonds Plains had about 50 attendees. As the years went by, this number dwindled. A move to the suburb of Westwood Hills and a new outlook on ministry have changed all that. Today, the congregation has an average Sunday attendance of 125 people, a lot of them young working families with children. Its Sunday school attendance averages 50 children.
Parishioners refer to themselves as the “St. Nicholas family” where there’s room for everyone. “The St. Nicholas Church family is a welcoming place for all to worship, share and grow in the love of God,” says a new mission statement adopted by its parish council in February.
St. Nicholas tries to be inviting and engaging to newcomers through its greeting team comprised of 13 people. Key members sit with newcomers “or at least have a chat with them,” says Hodge. It’s also very open to children and people with special needs. “[At] many Anglican churches where I’ve been…if you make a noise, everybody sorts of sneers or turns around to see what’s going on,” she explains. At St. Nicholas “there’s room for little ones to be making noise [and] coming up front.”
Parishioners wanting to expand their spirituality with fellowship thrown in for good measure can join the Friday morning discussion group. “It’s a cutting edge scholarly look at Christian present-day theology,” says Hodge. “They really push one another outside their comfort zones….” The program, run by laity, has attracted a steady group of 10 to 15 people. “We have everybody from contemporary liberal theologians to our more conservative, fundamentalist slant Christians…,” says Hodge. Honest and passionate debates notwithstanding, great friendships have developed.
A popular outreach initiative is the take-out food program, where people can buy home-cooked meals for $8. Since the church is located in the suburbs, parishioners realized there were families with one or two parents working long hours and coming home to tight schedules that revolve around their children’s activities. In asking themselves how they could help, parishioners came up with the idea of offering a healthy, home-cooked meal at a good price.
The take-out food program is backed by a loyal group of 25 volunteers who spend the week prepping, cooking and packing meals. Not surprisingly, they have developed a strong fellowship. “It’s not easy work, but they come together and they make sure everybody sits to a noontime meal and gets to enjoy one another and some of the fruits of their labour,” said Hodge.
Although not meant to be a fundraising initiative, money earned is split evenly between the church’s local and global outreach, including The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), the relief and development agency of the Anglican Church of Canada. St. Nicholas is now looking into sending wheelchairs to Haiti, where a devastating earthquake in January left many survivors disabled.
The parish also has a strong Ladies’ Guild and Men’s Breakfast Group.
“They didn’t have the money, but they had a vision,” says Hodge of the congregation’s move-under the tireless dedication of its then rector, the Rev. Arthur Nash, and with diocesan support-to the suburbs.
Hodge, who became rector of St. Nicholas in October 2009, says she was surprised when she was chosen, since she was a new priest and the young, growing congregation already had attracted a number of ministers.
“They found in me a demographic that they were trying to address…,” notes Hodge. “I’m a single mother. I was young and I had a theology that was inclusive.”
Another surprise: they expected her to come in with fresh ideas and to explore new possibilities. With the help of the congregation, Hodge began a youth-focused service. For one Sunday each month, children stay for the full service instead of being ushered into Sunday school after the opening hymn and short talk.
What sets this service apart is that overhead projectors give everyone easy access to readings. The music is upbeat, and the homily is an interactive skit or a play. “It’s designed to be fun, allow for movement and noise,” says Hodge. During eucharist, the congregation forms a circle along the perimeter of the sanctuary and they hold hands as they sing a contemporary mellow song that children can follow easily. “It’s really a neat experience…,” says Hodge of the service. “We really feel connected as a family.”
Even though she’s young, the congregation has offered her “the respect and the authority that I need to do my job,” she says. In return, Hodge promotes a live-and-let-live culture. “There’s room to make a mistake and giggle about it in the service,” she says, perhaps recalling her own early days of church service. “There’s room for everybody to just offer and discover what their gifts are.” Ω