"Empowering Congregations to Move Forward": Leaders Reflect on College for Congregational Development Training

In July, 42 Indianapolis Episcopalians and seven trainers met for a long-awaited occasion—the first in-person College for Congregational Development training at Waycross Camp and Conference Center. During the intensive training, which was postponed from July 2020 due to COVID-19, teams of lay and clergy leaders learned leadership skills and developed projects to carry out in their own church settings.

“I’ve been in this diocese for twelve years and this was something that I’ve seen as one of the healthiest moments in my time as a clergy person in this diocese,” the Very Rev. Dr. Gray Lesesne, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, said. “Lay leaders, diocesan staff, and clergy are not just dreaming about healthy behavior and practices, but actually embodying a plan to take them home.”

Church leaders come to College for Congregational Development to learn and develop projects to take home to their congregations, Lesesne said, but the program is not focused on “fixing.” “None of us who were there represented problems to be solved, but rather, opportunities and possibilities to be delved into.” 

The Rev. Kristin White, canon to the ordinary for congregational development and leadership, oversees the program. “One of the things I really appreciate about the College for Congregational Development theory is it is built on the assumption ‘we have what we need.’ It isn’t about being anything other than who we are,” she said. “We all have the faithful capacity to learn new things – that is what the week was all about. And then taking it all home and using it to strengthen and build up the churches we love, which are themselves the Body of Christ.” 

The team from St. James, Newcastle, decided to dig deeper into their worship service and determine what might be working or not working for those who attend. “We decided to conduct a survey of people’s worship experience both in the Eucharist and in morning prayer,” St. James member Pat Carter said. “So the very first Sunday we came back, we had our survey ready, and people were very willing to give us their feedback. Most people were satisfied, but there is room to grow.” The group plans to implement changes based on the feedback they received later this fall. 

Trinity, Lawrenceburg’s first project helped the congregation think about what they are looking for in their next vicar. “We made charts with a variety of options from no vicar to full-time vicar, and let people write on the chart,” Connie Garza Betts explained. “Everyone wrote out different possible scenarios and shared their feelings and thoughts.” At the end of the session, participants voted by placing a sticker next to their preferred plan. The results were compiled and distributed to the entire congregation as it continued its search process. 

Trinity’s next project will likely focus on children’s ministry. “We don’t know how long it will take until we have another vicar, but we can’t be stagnant during that time,” Betts said. “We collected some data with Jen Phelps, the diocesan transition minister, and it’s very clear there is consensus that we need a children’s ministry program. We don’t feel that we should wait on that.”

Much to the surprise of the Rev. Ed Bird, the Episcopal Campus Ministry at Indiana University team came up with a goal-driven project. “If you had told me a year ago that I would go to a training and think about growing by numbers, I would have told you ‘numbers are important, but such a trap when thinking about building community,’” said Bird, who became the campus ministry’s chaplain earlier this year. “But in our case, it just made sense. Now that we’re quasi coming out of pandemic, people have fallen out of the habit of being around faith community, and a lot of people aren’t going to reappear. So our goal needed to be reachable, countable and achievable. We have 12 people right now who are reliably present—we would like to get that number to 20.” 

The team from St. John’s, Speedway, who moved out of their building into a rental space in 2018, is also focusing on discerning what the congregation’s life will look like post-pandemic. When COVID-19 prevented safe in-person gathering, St. John’s had great success on Zoom, increasing its average Sunday attendance nearly twofold. “No matter what, we always want to do Zoom – we don’t want to leave anyone out,” Becky Douglas, St. John’s senior warden, said. “And we also miss that community connection you get when you’re physically in person.” As part of its project, the St. John’s team is asking how often, when and where the congregation wants to meet in-person. “We aren’t tied to a building and we are okay with change, so we are excited about the possibilities of what could we do,” Douglas said. 

Given the creativity and innovation it inspires, it’s not surprising that the week-long College for Congregational Development training is fast-paced. “It’s called college for a reason,” Douglas said. “It really felt like a college. It’s intense.” Bird described the week as “intense, but fabulously so. It was an amazing amount of material, and I wouldn’t have wanted any less. At the end of the week, we were like ‘yep, we’re exhausted but I see why it’s all in there.’”

The packed schedule includes instruction and small group practice. “The leaders were really intentional in saying, ‘okay we’re going to teach you a model, but now we’re going to have you go into a safe small group and practice it,” said Becca Holbrook, senior warden of St. John’s, Bedford. “And our groups were made up of laity and clergy and after a while, talking to people, it was like ‘wait a minute, this person is clergy?’ It was a leveling-out.’ We were all learning together. It took down some of the intimidation.”

“In our group, the beautiful thing was we had people from very different congregations, but we had so much more in common than we thought. We were also able to learn from each other,” Lesesne said. Holbrook’s small group shared contact information at the end of the week. “We were learning so much and being so vulnerable, we wanted to stay in touch,” she says. “It was just a very moving experience.”

“At CCD we’re able to talk, share ideas, and say, ‘hey, if you ever want to work together on this program, we’re happy to share,’” Douglas said. “Not only did we learn about facilitating meetings and best practices, we also got to collaborate and become better friends in the diocese.” 

Registration is now open for the next College for Congregational Development training, scheduled to take place from July 17 to 23, 2022 at Waycross Camp & Conference Center. 

Lesesne encourages leaders considering attending College for Congregational Development to take the leap. “It’s a deep, deep dive,” he said. “There is a real intentionality around coming together for positive habits in congregational life. The resources you take away with you are amazing. It is not focused on fixing, but on empowering congregations to move forward.”

image: College for Congregational Development participants at Waycross