It’s already summer, but it’s not too late to plan for the upcoming parish year. Urban and suburban churches tend to slow down considerably during the season, as parishioners go to their cottages, take vacations or travel on weekends. This gives clergy, staff and parish leaders some much-needed reflection time to evaluate the past year and plan for the coming one.
By the Sunday after Labour Day, a parish should ideally be all revved up for the 2012-13 year- its programs planned, ministries in place and calendar filled with events and activities.
There are seven key areas of parish planning. Five of these come from the Episcopal Church in the United States of America and are known by the acronym SWEEP. I’ve added two additional areas that are especially appropriate for the Canadian context, thereby expanding the acronym to SWEEPSS. The letters of the acronym prompt us to ask hard questions about our church.
SERVICE. The church that lives for itself dies by itself. How is our church reaching out beyond itself with need-meeting ministries in the community, nation and world? How are we challenging unjust social structures and advocating for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable? How are we sufficiently supportive of mission at home and abroad? Holding a mission fair, in which outreach and service ministries are presented to a congregation, is a good way to get people involved in some kind of project. The best time for a mission fair is mid-September through mid-October.
WORSHIP. For Anglicans, worship defines who we are and what we do. How is our worship connecting people with God, transforming lives, building community, attracting seekers and making disciples of Jesus? How might our church be able to offer a variety of liturgical styles and music to reach different segments of the population? In doing liturgical planning, parishes should take into account the secular calendar. Thanksgiving Sunday, Remembrance Day Sunday and Christmas Eve, for example, should always be celebrated in ways that connect with the surrounding community in culturally relevant ways.
EVANGELISM. Evangelism is sharing the good news of God’s love in Jesus, so that all persons come to know him as Saviour, follow him as Lord and become his disciples as active members of the church. How well are we doing in our ministry to seekers, meeting people at their points of need and understanding, offering the good news in terms and forms that relate to their situations, speaking to them in their language and cultural styles, addressing their existential questions and connecting them with parishioners? How can we strengthen our parish life in promoting connection, conversation and community? Evangelism is the big void in most Anglican parishes today.
Church leaders need to think seriously about how to engage with the culture and build bridges that will connect the secular spiritual world with the world of the church. There are many ways to foster faith, fellowship and fun in church: holding a Christmas Eve jazz mass, for example; offering Jazz vespers, spirituality and meditation circles, caring and support groups, holistic health programs, a coffeehouse ministry, political and social forums, and a centre for music and other arts. We must think how to engage secular but spiritual people, then reach out and go for it.
EDUCATION. Christian education entails more than the provision of information. It is formation leading to transformation. How well does our parish develop people of all ages in Christian faith and practice as disciples of Jesus making disciples of Jesus? How can we make our parish a learning community, where people are willing to explore their faith and ask the hard questions without insisting on easy answers? And what about our facilities for children and teens? Do we have bright, spacious, clean and attractive spaces that say children and teens are integral members of the parish? Does our budget for children and youth ministry reflect our values about its importance?
Here is some good news: the demographic group in Canada that is most open to attending church is young families with children. These families, however, insist on two things: excellent programs and facilities for their children and help and support in being a family today.
PASTORAL CARE. Quality pastoral-care ministries offer a loving and grace-filled response to the joys and pains of being human through the changing stages of life. How effective are our ministries in caring for the elderly, the homebound and the crisis-torn? How might we be better able to incorporate those seeking baptism and marriage into the church without appearing heavy-handed or controlling? And very important: Is our church sufficiently utilizing the spiritual gifts of members or do we expect only the clergy to do the ministry?
Growing churches have moved beyond the old model of one paid professional minister to a model where members minister to members with the clergy person equipping the ministry. In this new paradigm small groups led by laypersons are particularly effective in providing pastoral support in a nurturing and non-threatening environment.
STEWARDSHIP. The new life in Christ leads to the new lifestyle in Christ. If we are growing in God, we should be growing in our giving. How well do our parishioners manage their resources as joyful stewards of God’s unlimited, unfailing abundance-growing in the grace of giving to the mission of God through the local church in response to all that God has given them? Year-round stewardship education is a vital component in any healthy, growing church. It should include an annual stewardship campaign that focuses on our need to give because we are created in the image and likeness of our giving God.
Such a campaign would also teach members how to give-whether in the form of a biblical tithe (ten per cent of income) or the modern tithe (five per cent of income and five hours of ministry each week), or as proportionate giving (some appropriate percentage of income rather than a set figure). The best time to hold a stewardship campaign is between Thanksgiving and Christ the King Sunday, although some churches have had success holding campaigns between January and April.
SPIRITUALITY. We live in an experiential culture in which to experience something is to know it as real. How does our church help people experience God and to know God as real? Are members growing in faith, utilizing their spiritual gifts and developing the courage to live in a changing world where the future will not be like the past? Are they coming to know, love and serve God in deeper ways through specific rituals, practices and behaviours such as prayer, Bible study and reflection groups? Are they being empowered for ministry in the church and mission in the world? If a church does not offer an authentic experience of God, then it may as well close. To put it somewhat crassly: churches are in the God business and people who come to church expect an encounter with God.
As your church grapples with each of these seven areas of parish planning, I suggest you ask three questions: What is going well? What is not going well? What needs to be done next?
Remember: every church is a work in progress. We can do our best but then do better. The point is to move out of our comfort zones, stretch our boundaries and re-imagine how to do church in a world where the present is not like the past and the future will not be like the present. Effective parish planning requires the courage to face reality, no matter how difficult or unpleasant, but also the faith to trust in God, so that come what may, the church will prevail and the best is yet to come.