The Rev. Holly Rankin Zaher knows one piece of the diocese’s numerous congregational vitality programs, and knows it well. For more than three years, she and the people of St. Paul’s, Evansville have been participating in Faithful Innovations in Learning Communities, a program that develops participants’ ability to delve more deeply into their neighborhoods and think more creatively about relating to their neighbors.
Through a series of small experiments, the Faithful Innovations program, offered in three sessions over Zoom, literally gets participants out of their churches and into the streets, shops, buses and walkways of their communities to meet their neighbors and learn more about what God is doing in their neighborhoods.
“The program uses the action-reflection model,” Zaher says. “We listen to the spirit. We do. We reflect. We adjust. We iterate. It has become a lifestyle for us.”
Like other participants in the diocese’s other congregational vitality programs—Church Buildings for Community Partnerships, the College for Congregational Development and the Pathways to Vitality program, which is currently working with its last cohort—Zaher says she sees “so much synergy” among the offerings.
The Rev. Kristin White, canon to the ordinary for congregational development and leadership, says the diocese’s programs were selected so each program might reinforce the other. “We want to create a community of practice in which every congregation has the tools and training it to needs so we can live out our faith in the places where we live and serve,” she says.
The Faithful Innovations program can be an especially useful introduction to the other congregational development offerings because it teaches a methodology rather than particular content, Zaher says. After the second session of the program, participants are encouraged to attempt small, low-risk experiments that will help them learn more about their neighborhoods. In Zaher’s experience these have included riding a local trolley from one end of the line to another, having a drink at a local pub every week at the same time, holding a church coffee hour outdoors and chalking messages on the sidewalks of the riverwalk near her church.
“We were so surprised at how people actually responded,” to the sidewalk messages, Zaher says. “People chalked back requests for prayers and what they were thankful for. People wanted to engage. We’ve been taught Christianity is under fire, that no one wants spirituality. It’s just not true and if we are listening we can respond.”
The emphasis on meeting one’s neighbors and learning about their needs is also an essential component of the Church Buildings for Collaborative Partnerships (CBCP) program, says Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, canon to the ordinary for administration and evangelism.
“In both programs we are being really deliberate about getting to know the various neighborhoods our congregations are in both physically and in terms of where their members live, look at those neighborhoods with the assumption God is already active in our neighborhoods and asking questions about that. What is God doing here?” he says.
The CBCP program focuses particularly on using church property to cultivate relationships and opportunities with community groups. The Faithful Innovations program, O’Sullivan-Hale says, can be a useful precursor to the CBCP program because it gives communities a head-start in learning ways to better understand neighborhood needs.
Some congregations in the CBCP program have excellent relationships with community leaders—an essential step in completing the program successfully—while others do not. “Faithful Innovations can be a way for struggling congregations to address this problem,” O’Sullivan-Hale says. “Who is around? How can we relate to them? Do we have broken relationships? How can we heal them?”
Eventually, every congregation in the diocese will participate in the CBCP program, and congregations that receive diocesan aid or apply for diocesan grants are expected to participate in the College for Congregational Development, a program that has become so popular that the next local session is sold out. (Congregations may contact White to apply for aid to attend an upcoming session in the Diocese of Chicago or other dioceses offering the program.)
Zaher jokes that the diocese has so many compelling congregational development programs that she feels like a college student who can’t fit all of the courses she would like to take into her schedule.
White says the profusion of programs means that every parish can find an offering that is helpful regardless of its size, or its capacity to take on the work.
“The thing at our core as church and diocese is Jesus,” White says. “None of the initiatives … is in and of themselves salvific. Jesus is our gospel, and Jesus is our good news, and these different initiatives give us tools to live more fully into that gospel. They are going to be fruitful for different churches at different times.
“The work we are seeking to do is build a vocabulary and a community that is finding more and more fulsome ways to live out our call as Christian people.”