As the diocese heads into its Exodus discussions, it is interesting to pause and consider where the journey has led up to this point. The Listening Project consisted of interviews conducted from 2015 – 2016 across 18 congregations – a diverse sampling of parish demographics and geographic location. From those conversations over 100 individual outreach activities were identified and discussed in greater detail.
Sixty-one percent are efforts that parishes undertake are as the host organization. Twenty-five percent, however, are done as supporting participants, joining to support activities hosted by other groups, primarily other churches, supplying volunteers and/or material support. The remaining 15% are done by participating in larger non-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or the Red Cross. The top five types of activity (highest to lowest) are Serving Meals, Innovative Liturgical Outreach (new category), Homelessness/Housing, Youth, and Healthcare (another new category). Three of those five categories were part of the original “Affinity Groups” defined at recent diocesan conventions. Innovative Liturgical Outreach was added to capture those activities that fall under traditional church activities but are being done in an innovative setting or way to draw in participants not affiliated with the congregation. Healthcare was primarily added in light of recent increased efforts to address problems of addiction.
There were two striking and recurring themes that arose out of the narratives that were collected in the Project. First, the single biggest challenge to these activities by a very wide margin (essentially all) is failure to sustain a leadership team. Most commonly when activities end prematurely, the activity was spearheaded by one or two passionate individuals. Those individuals move, retire or become burnt out, thus creating a vacuum with nobody willing or able to fill the vacancy. Even large parishes are beset with this problem, citing the fact that although they have a thriving membership, people are simply too busy to step into leadership roles. The activities that seem to have the best longevity are those that can be largely supported by short term, limited duration volunteer efforts. However, the problem of identifying and developing community leaders to run these programs remains.
The second striking characteristic is that the collaborative efforts (either hosted by a congregation or joined as a supporting participant) seem to have better longevity. One initiative that is currently underway is a new asset management tool that has been created by the Episcopal Church that the Diocese of Southern Ohio will be rolling out later this year. The data collected from the Listening Project will be incorporated to form an initial set of data. The Listening Project is further hoping to work with the diocese to augment this collected data with demographic characteristics to flesh out a more complete portrait of the wider communities in which these congregations exist. Once the tool is available, all congregations in the diocese will have the opportunity to share their information and access additional information about their own and other congregations.
It is hoped that the tool will become a resource for churches to identify and connect with each other for the sharing of knowledge, experience, and resources. For instance, if a church is looking to begin a new feeding ministry they might want to talk to another similarly situated church that already has a successful one established, or they might want to partner with another nearby congregation with a community garden that wants to share some of their surplus produce, or they might want to find out who is redecorating their church hall and has table chairs to give away. For congregations that are passionate about a particular ministry but are just not quite large enough to launch on their own, the asset tool could help them identify other nearby churches with a similar interest or an existing ministry that they might join in supporting. If a church has limited resources (and how many don’t?) it can use the tool to gain a better opportunity to learn more about their surrounding community and its existing needs so that they can focus their efforts in areas where they are most likely to have the biggest positive impact. They can also look at which types of activities in communities similar to their own have good success rates. The possibilities are endless. Look for more information on the asset management tool here in eConnections later this year.
Perhaps it is no accident that when Jesus sent out his disciples, he did so in pairs…the original ancient and divine approach to succession planning and collaboration.
Jean Cotting is the interim coordinator of the Listening Project committee for the diocese. You can contact Jean at email@example.com.