Becky Douglas and Wendy Curto of St. John’s, Speedway, with the Rev. Dr. Shannon MacVean-Brown at diocesan convention
What happened to St. John’s, Speedway, can happen to almost any small congregation. A few major pledgers die, or move away, or go into nursing care, all in the same year. Suddenly there is a hole in the budget that reserves won’t cover forever, and your cranky old building is still in need of regular maintenance. Then what?
Some churches close. Others, lucky enough to have endowments, spend down their principal trying to stay open. St. John’s made a different choice. On Dec. 2 at 4:30 p.m., the Rev. Dr. Shannon MacVean-Brown will lead the final service in St. John’s current home on West 30th Street in Indianapolis—a liturgy of sending that she is writing herself. On December 9, the congregation, which now numbers about 25, will move into a rented conference room at the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course where it will worship while it continues to minister in the community.
This bold choice earned the parish praise in the convention address Bishop Jennifer Baskerville Burrows delivered earlier this month in Bloomington.
“A congregation with a clear call to serve its community in a mission-critical area of our diocese, they realized that the cost of worship in their building was more than they could handle,” the bishop said. “After months of evaluating finances, experimenting with being a church without walls, and a discernment process led by a consultant in congregational vitality, they have decided to end their time of worshipping on West 30th Street. But they are not leaving their neighborhood.
“Released from the pressures of supporting a building and the infrastructure that goes with it, St. John’s will soon have support from lay leaders gathered from other congregations as they forge their new future. … While St. John’s may change where they worship, what won’t change is our commitment to having a thriving ministry in that community.”
The road to Brickyard Crossing has not been an easy one, as MacVean-Brown, the congregation’s part-time transition priest, Becky Douglas, the parish’s senior warden, and Wendy Curto, a longtime parish leader, explained in a workshop at diocesan convention at the Monroe Convention Center in Bloomington earlier this month.
Last year, the departure of several of the parish’s biggest pledgers worsened an already shaky financial situation, compressing the time in which St. John’s had to make important decisions about its future. “We were in a state of grief as we went through this experience,” Douglas said.
Rumors flourished, Curto said, and some members of the community declared quickly that they would not support a move from the building, even though, financially, there was little choice.
Despite some resistance, MacVean-Brown urged parish leaders to hold six weeks of worship during the summer at rented spaces around Speedway. “It was kind of an experiment brought about by necessity to an extent,” Curto said. “We are so small and so closely connected that the thought of losing our faith community was far worse than the risk of failure.”
The experiment got off to a rocky start. The first facility the parish rented advertised itself as compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It wasn’t, and eight parishioners were not able to get in. Nasty emails circulated speculating about the true intentions of the bishop, MacVean-Brown and parish leaders. “It wasn’t pleasant,” MacVean-Brown said.
The congregation next rented space at Brickyard Crossing, which was not only ADA compliant, but had a welcoming management team that now allows St. John’s to keep the room it rented arranged for worship. Each Sunday after the post-Communion prayer, parishioners filled out a survey, the same one each week, giving parish leaders a way of tracking changing attitudes and levels of comfort with the experiment. As the summer wore on, comfort increased.
The parish was guided through the process of making a decision about its future by Hope Partnership for Missional Vitality. As the process wore on, leaders also began to realize that the process they had undertaken might be relevant to the wider church.
At one of the parish’s workshops at diocesan convention, Douglas asked how many of those in the room were from small churches with potentially precarious futures, and more than 20 of 30 hands went up.
“You aren’t alone,” she said. “This is happening in thousands of churches around the country.”
MacVean-Brown chimed in. The church, she said, is in the grip of “a false narrative.” Episcopalians have a “false image” of the church.
“People think church is a building and an average Sunday attendance of 200,” she said. “But the average church is 50 [people] or under. So we are living a lie really as a church. Part of what we are doing at St. John’s is saying that we need to start telling ourselves the truth. And it is a fierce truth. No one wants to hear it. Because, really, at this point we are going to have to make some major shifts institutionally.”
As the leaders of St. John’s considered their decision, the gospels prescribed for this year were helpful. At the outset of their experiment, MacVean-Brown was able to tell them that while they, like the disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee, might have feared that they would perish, Jesus had other plans for them. And as their last Sunday on West 30th Street approached, she was able to tell them that they, like Lazarus, might need to be patient with themselves as they lived into their new life.
“We believe in resurrection,” she said. “But we want to orchestrate how it happens. And that’s not how it works. For us, it really got down to, ‘Okay, are we going to do this resurrection thing? Because there is some dying involved.’”
When the time came to make a decision about leaving the building, the leaders of St. John’s were fortified by their experience. “Because we did the experiment this summer we aren’t as afraid to do it,” Douglas said. “The fear isn’t the same as it would have been had we not tried that this summer.”
After informing the diocese of their decision to leave the building where the parish has worshiped for 60 years, parish leaders began pondering what belongings to take with them. They decided on the altar, the baptismal font and the gospel book. They considered taking a particular crucifix, but Douglas said it wasn’t necessary.
“We are leaving our possessions and moving on,” she said, a sentiment in keeping with one of the principal themes of the convention, following Jesus lightly into the neighborhood.
Leaving won’t be easy, Curto said. “There are things that will be difficult to let go. We are small but determined, and I believe, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, we are going to be okay.”