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College for Congregational Development Spurs Redevelopment at St. Mark’s, Plainfield

A Lions Club feeding program run by St. Mark’s provides three weekend meals each Friday to children who are eligible for free lunches at the local public schools.

At first, the leaders of St. Mark’s, Plainfield were not excited about the College for Congregational Development (CCD).

“We were like ‘we have to do this to keep getting money, oh—another thing to do,’” recalls the Rev. Kirsteen Wilkinson, the congregation’s rector. St. Mark’s has received direct cash aid from the diocese for many years, although those payments have been gradually reduced since 2017 as part of the diocese’s new budget strategy.

But after attending the week-long program at Waycross in the summer of 2021, Wilkinson and Doug Van Demark, one of the congregation’s wardens, are two of the College for Congregational Development’s biggest advocates.

The CCD program, originally developed in the Diocese of Olympia in Washington State, is a 2-year initiative that equips lay leaders and clergy with practical tools and new approaches to congregational and organizational development. The Diocese of Indianapolis’s first weeklong CCD session took place in 2021 after being postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Congregations are encouraged to send both clergy and lay leaders to take part as a team.

As they were making plans to introduce CCD in the Diocese of Indianapolis back in 2019, Bishop Jennifer and her canons, the Rev. Kristin White and Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, in conversation with Executive Council, decided to require participation for congregations receiving direct cash aid as well as congregations interested in applying for new grants that will be overseen by the Bishop’s Advisory Group on Mission Strategy. An application for the first round of those grants will be released in the next few months.

“The College for Congregational Development is for congregations of all sizes and descriptions, at all stages of their life cycles,” White said. “We all have the capacity to learn new things and share with one another to build up the Body of Christ in our diocese. I hope that over time, every congregation in our diocese will participate in CCD.”

“I didn’t realize how deep the diocesan commitment to CCD and congregations is—until I saw the work they put into it,” said Wilkinson. “I thought, ‘Oh, I see, they are supporting St. Mark’s, they’re not abandoning us. Here it is, we’re here to help you through the steps.’ They want us to stand on our own two feet eventually,” she said.

During a CCD session about the life cycles of congregations, Wilkinson remembers that participants were asked to mark the phase that they believed best represented their congregation’s current situation. Both she and Van Demark marked “decline,” a description that was endorsed by the congregation’s vestry when the pair presented the life cycle model upon their return to Plainfield.

As painful as that realization has been, they say, it has galvanized their commitment to using the tools they learned in CCD.

“Now we’re in the redevelopment stage of our life cycle,” Van Demark said. “The vestry is calling members of the congregation to ask—who are our neighbors, where do we need to connect? That will determine our starting point.”

In addition to undertaking CCD work, Wilkinson and the St. Mark’s vestry are considering what they might request diocesan mission strategy grant funding to do. Although they will have to see the application to know what might be the best fit, they say, they are developing ideas now.

“Can we apply for a grant to have someone help us with a five-year strategic plan?” wonders Van Demark. “Or maybe even more rubber-meets-the-road kind of stuff. We’ve got a pancake supper coming up. Are there ways that we can learn to include the community in events? Can we have a presentation aimed at people who might be newcomers? Otherwise, we might end up with same little cliques sitting in corners of the parish hall.

“We’re trying to gather God’s people,” he said.

“We don’t have a budget for communication or evangelism,” Wilkinson said. “Can we find people to teach us how we go out to our community, to our neighbors. We all know Facebook, but we know it basically. We have the basics: we live stream on Facebook and Zoom our service. We’re looking for someone to come in and say, ‘here are some thoughts, here are methods.’”

The church’s stained glass window of a lion, the traditional symbol of St. Mark

As with many congregations, Plainfield’s leaders are also thinking about how to use their church building more effectively. Although they have not yet participated in the Church Buildings for Collaborative Partnerships program that will eventually include every Episcopal congregation in Indiana, Wilkinson and Van Demark have ideas about how to make Plainfield’s building—which already houses feeding programs, scouting groups, and the Plainfield Youth Association—more welcoming.

“I would like to reach out to LGBTQ people, especially teens, in the Plainfield area,” Wilkinson says. “Maybe teen night at church? Maybe we have a community youth group with a wifi cafe in the parish hall? We have some families whose kids came out in the Roman Catholic church and found their way to us, and we want to be a place where anyone can come.”

“We’ve talked about our place being a sanctuary,” Van Demark said. “What would that mean to a community to have a sanctuary for everyone? To say, ‘If you are in need of a sanctuary, there’s at least one in your area—St. Mark’s.’

“I think we really have to be deliberate about how we move forward,” he said. “We can’t expect things to take care of themselves.”

Wilkinson and the vestry acknowledge the gravity of the congregation’s situation—Wilkinson’s hours were recently cut for the second time in three years, leaving her only 25 hours per week for ministry at St. Mark’s. But with the possibility of diocesan grant funding and the tools they have gained from the College for Congregational development, they are hopeful about the future.

“We’re a fairly close-knit group of people,” Van Demark said. “We have a lot to offer.”

The 2022 session of the College for Congregational Development at Waycross Camp and Conference Center is full and accepting waitlist applications. CCD is also available in other dioceses. To learn more about options for participating in CCD, email Canon Kristin White.

© 2021 Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis