Bishop Melissa Skelton (front, third from right) attends a stewardship conference with participants from East Vancouver. Submitted photo courtesy of the Diocese of New Westminster Communications Office

Congregational development: On the rediscovery of Anglican identity

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.

Decades of building congregations in the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church (in the United States) have left Bishop Melissa Skelton with some expansive views on the subject of congregational development, including the creation of related training programs on both sides of the border.

As the bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, Skelton now champions what she found to be a nearly universal quality of developing congregations—“the rediscovery of this thing we called an Anglican ethos, Anglican spirituality, Anglican identity.”

“The loss of confidence that we as a church have had in the goodness of our own identity sorely grieves me,” Bishop Skelton says. “At the heart of what I think good congregational development is, is [that] it is about getting the knowledge, skills, and the ability to put into action the expression of who we most deeply are—and that we need to trust that, and we need to help people do it.”

The bishop’s interest in parish and congregational development are longstanding. After receiving her M. Div. in seminary, Skelton received a certificate in organizational development from the National Training Laboratories (NTL) Institute.

Through hands-on ministry including as rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington from 2005 to 2013, and as the canon for congregational development and leadership in the Diocese of Olympia from 2008 to 2014, Skelton was able to apply lessons learned at the NTL Institute to work in her diocese.

At the time she arrived in Seattle, St. Paul’s was $70,000 in debt on a yearly operating basis, with an average Sunday attendance of 89 people for the day’s two liturgies.

Three years later, the church’s finances were back in the black. By the end of Skelton’s nine-year tenure as rector, average Sunday attendance had grown to approximately 275 people over four liturgies (which has since increased to five).

While acknowledging that congregational development is about more than numerical growth, Bishop Skelton notes that at St. Paul’s—which is situated in an urban neighbourhood near the foot of the Space Needle—there was a clear desire among parishioners that the church needed to grow.

She credits its growth in subsequent years to a readiness on the part of the congregation and its leaders to learn to engage newcomers to the church, along with help from God.

“They were focused on [growth], and together we trusted each other to wade into water they hadn’t been in forever, because it was a very shy congregation … just figuring out how to talk to people who visited was a stretch,” Skelton recalls.

Based on her training and experience in Seattle, Skelton helped create a training program in the United States called the College for Parish Development and its Canadian counterpart, the School for Parish Development.

In gauging successful congregational development, Bishop Skelton focuses on five major factors:

  • Focusing on the core purpose of the congregation and working towards it in a deeper, more connected way;
  • Deepening ecclesial identity, in this case Anglican identity, so that parishes and congregations reflect more deeply on who they are;
  • Creating congregations that respond to the challenges and opportunities in front of them;
  • Working on congruence of multiple factors in a congregation, such as identity, vision, building, neighbourhood, finances, ministry, and people;
  • Working on the culture of the congregation to be more transparent, collaborative, forgiving, and to engage people and offer them greater choice.

Today, as a diocesan bishop, Skelton has a broader systemic perspective from which to encourage parish development across the Diocese of New Westminster. A key element in her approach is finding the best possible clergy leaders, who have demonstrated they can develop congregations and are willing to learn more.

“That’s at the top of the list, because leadership means everything,” Bishop Skelton says.

Another priority is substantial training in congregational development for lay and clergy leaders over time, which aims to create a common language for development within the Diocese of New Westminster.

Other initiatives taken by the diocese include: a consulting network to provide a framework for third-party consultants and facilitators to assist congregations in development; establishing modest grants for parishes wanting to focus on a particular area of development work; and practitioners’ groups to work on common practice in key areas, such as membership growth, preaching excellence, and Godly Play.

Clergy leaders must be equipped to engage in congregational development, the bishop says, due to the relative lack of instruction in the subject in seminary.

“I think I’m just a real advocate that this is a missing piece of the praxis of being a clergy leader … It’s also something to do in teams of people from parishes or faith communities, because that’s how they’ll figure out how to actually implement it.”

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