I just wanted to make sure I left no misunderstandings in my last post, A Few More Drops In The Bucket. In the post, I discussed my various connections with Williamsburg and my quest to attend a worship service at Bruton Parish Church. I mentioned that I missed my first opportunity several years back because I had not yet converted to the Episcopal Church and did not have an Episcopalian card.
There is no Episcopalian card.
My hesitation during that trip was a me thing, not an Episcopalian thing. When I saw the closed door and noticed a sign proclaiming that a service was in process, my own shyness, insecurities, and unworthiness came barreling down, steamrolling my rational judgment. I self-edited. It was not that the Episcopalians did not want me at the service. I told myself I was not welcome there. In fact, later in the day, when we toured the church and I told the tour guide about my experience, she seemed genuinely distressed that I had not come in and joined them in worship. She engaged me in conversation and encouraged me to feel free to attend future services. She was honestly, genuinely welcoming.
So were the other Episcopalians when I did eventually start exploring changing my Roman Catholic affiliation. The rector at my local Episcopal parish spent a whole morning with me, patiently answering my questions. His perspectives were tactful and respectful. I believed he was giving me clear, direct information. He did not pussyfoot around issues and possible points of controversy. He had no wish or wash in his assertions. On the other hand, he had no problem admitting that there are some questions for which we do not have answers and that there can be a great deal of difference between competing viewpoints. Reasonable, prayerful people could and did disagree on matters of theology with no one’s Christianity being put into question.
When I first started attending services, I wanted to be somewhat anonymous. In the five days between the day I spoke with the rector and the day I attended my first Sunday service, my mother had a massive stroke and I was living a nightmare. For the next 13 months, my life and energy revolved around my mother. I did not have the wherewithal to make new connections or involve myself in parish life. I wanted to feel welcome and I wanted to be surrounded by warmth, but I did not want to engage. I came to the service, sat next to a couple who were, in time, to become my very great friends. After the dismissal, I made a beeline for the parking lot and went to see my mother. I did not pass Go. I did not collect my $200. I certainly did not hang out at the coffee hour. Once in awhile, someone suggested that I stay for some refreshment. I found the whole idea of socializing completely beyond my emotional pall. Still, as I worshipped and observed the congregation from a metaphorical distance, I could see genuine openness and warmth. I have never been to a church before where the “sign of peace” involved getting out of your pew and passing goodwill to people all around the church. I panicked the first time and pretended to drop my bulletin so I could fish around for it on the floor, which allowed me to sink out of everyone’s line of sight. Quite soon, though, I noticed that the people were honest, genuine, empathetic, and respectful. I felt welcome, included, but not invaded. This was a congregation that let me grow towards them at my own pace.
When I ultimately decided to convert to the Episcopal Church, I went to Orlando to be received into the church by the bishop. That day truly was one of the most wonderful days in my life. From the moment I entered the building, people greeted me and smiled at me and told me how happy they were that I was there. You can read about that experience in the blog post I wrote at the time, Grace On Robinson Street (Grace On Robinson Street – Terri LaBonte- Reinventing Myself in Retirement). It might have been overwhelming. It might have crippled me with shyness. It might have landed as artificial. However, to me, it felt like I truly was someone that they had been waiting for and were very glad to see. I put that down to the genuinely welcoming hearts of the people involved- and the Holy Spirit.
In my church today, we are working with a ministry called Invite, Welcome, Connect. This ministry was developed by Mary Parmer. Mary worked with our parish and conducted a workshop that served to energize the project. We want to grow our church in numbers and vibrancy. We want other people to have the experience that I had. We want other people to find a home where they can be closer to God and closer to His Church. Numerous task groups are working on projects and programs to share what we have. These projects and programs will launch more effective ways to invite guests to our church. They will make it easier for our guests and parishioners to feel genuinely welcome and accepted into our church. They also foster a richer sense of belonging and ownership by helping connect parishioners with ministries and programs within the church.
It is not all peaches and cream. Growing a church and replicating the feeling of authentic generosity, warmth, and community has challenges. We have been working on some stage of this process or another for a little over a year. Now that we are getting to the “nuts and bolts” of implementing new actions, we are starting to feel a few growing pains. We are also already starting to reap some rewards, which is wonderful… but also challenging in that some things get harder as you go along. For instance, the attendance at our 10:15am Sunday service was usually small enough for me to see and identify everyone who came in, if I paid attention. It was easy to spot a new face and introduce myself. Lately, the congregation has swelled and I love it. It is not so easy to see a new face, though. It takes more intentionality. Also, as we make decisions about what programs to put in place, how to spend money, and who will take responsibility for specific tasks, there are more differences of opinion. The good news is that I believe we all have the same goals in mind- to become more Christlike in worship, outreach, and discipleship. We all, I believe, believe that God calls us to share His message and welcome His people into our hearts, as He has welcomed all of us into His. The only issue is how to best do that with our combined resources and gifts. Growth does mean working through disagreements and becoming stronger through those discussions. As we grow our own hearts, we will be even better equipped to grow the Church with new members.
And we won’t ever be asking anyone for their Episcopalian card!
If you would like more information about Invite, Welcome, Connect, you can find out more at Invite Welcome Connect. If you have any questions about my church, St. James Episcopal at 204 N. Lee Street in Leesburg, Fl, you can reach out to me on email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit our website at St James Episcopal Church (stjames-leesburg.org)
Have a blessed day!
This blog is brought to you today in celebration of Father Tom Trees’ 20th ordination anniversary. Thank you for being such a faithful servant of God.