Congregation of St. George's Anglican Church in Guelph, Ont. The Rev. Canon Ralph Blackman, rector, can be seen near centre in the front row wearing a green stole. Submitted photo

Congregational development: ‘An opportunity for a reformation’

The following is part of an ongoing monthly series on congregational development, which features reflections from Anglicans on how they are responding to the challenges facing churches today.

What is the end goal of congregational development? Some view it as preserving the institution or the business of the church, which often involves bringing in more people to achieve a certain numerical target. Others focus on mission, asking questions about the church’s identity and what it is becoming.

After more than three decades as a priest in both the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church of the United States, the Rev. Canon Ralph Blackman—currently rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in Guelph, Ont.—has found the purpose and mission of the church to be at the very core of congregational development.

Many of the structures and methods of the church, he notes, were developed by earlier generations in a different time and context. Today, with people running their lives in a “far less structured” way, and with differing generational trust in institutions, Blackman says that the church faces the challenge of building a container or vessel that may paradoxically help “hold un-structuredness.”

“When I look out at the lay of the land, I actually see an opportunity for a reformation,” Blackman says. “But that’s where it gets scary, because that’s where it centres more on the mission of the church, and maybe not the business and the institution of the church.”

In its attempt to create new structures, he suggests, the church may find non-traditional shapes, models, forms of gathering and ways of being that it must “embrace, empower, and connect,” so as to create a sense of support and ministry centred on the gospel.

Blackman’s own parish offers a tangible example. Constructed in 1873, St. George’s is a relatively old stone church with all the attendant challenges. The church is currently slated for $1 million worth of repairs and upgrades, primarily a new heating system. Yet the congregation itself is relatively vibrant, with approximately 250 people attending services on an average Sunday.

“The challenges are monumental if we just think about business as usual,” Blackman says. “So one of the things I’ve noticed is stepping back from trying to organize everything in a methodical, structured way has empowered some things.”

He points to outreach ministry as a case in point. While St. George’s no longer has an umbrella group for outreach and social justice ministry, “what we have is much more ministry in those areas happening, because people have centred around things that are important to them.”

Through its outreach efforts, the church has created a greater sense of connectedness within the community by partnering with other groups for community dinners and projects such as refugee ministry, raising more than $30,000 towards sponsoring a family from Syria.

Support for the arts is another significant area of activity. St. George’s has opened up its doors to serve as a concert venue for local musical festivals such as Hillside Inside and the Jazz Festival Guelph, and hosting classical performers such as university choirs and the Guelph Chamber Choir.

Further rethinking the use of its interior spaces, the church recently redeveloped the rectory apartments and part of the parish house as part of a new partnership with an early childhood education centre.

“It’s exciting to see 30 to 40 young children here and their parents coming every day and all the connections that means,” Blackman says. “So it’s also a vital response to the needs of a downtown community that needed to see that type of place here.”

Such community partnerships help build what Blackman refers to as “non-traditional congregations,” which may also include groupings of affinity that cross ecumenical or interfaith lines.

“What we’re finding is all of these people from the community are having a sense of spirit and connectedness to St. George,” Blackman says.

“All of this follows our mission and our ministry,” he adds. “We have to always focus into asking ourselves what is it that God is asking us to do … Remember that we’ve never been asked for success—at least not in world terms—but we’ve been asked for faithfulness. Are we faithfully striving to do the best that we feel we’re called to as communities and as expressions [of faithfulness] in the places that we are?

“That’s really my motivation at the end of the day.”

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