The conservative estimate for what it would have cost for a 16g iPhone in 1991, assuming it could have been built at all, is $620,000. It probably also would have weighed in at more than 100 pounds!

Back in 1991, the year the Episcopal Community Services Foundation (ECSF) was founded in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, in addition to there being no iPhones or any smartphone, there was also no Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, Google, Wikipedia, texting, blogs, podcasts, or crowdfunding. No tablets. No Playstation.

In 1991, Windows was 3.0 and came on something called a floppy disk. A postage stamp was 29 cents. Wi-Fi existed, but very few could use it, and you had to dial in to the Internet with a modem. Napster was the beginning of “streaming.” A “portable” computer weighed more than 8 pounds and cost about $4,000. Cable television had 70 channels. People wrote checks to pay bills and carried cash in their wallets. There were only 116 Starbucks in the U.S.

Consumer and multi-generational marketing recognized only three generations: The Greatest, the Boomers, and GenXer’s. Millennials were just starting middle school and Generation Z was but a twinkle in someone’s eye. It was a time that saw the rapid growth of the mega-church, as well as the rise of the religiously unaffiliated and the “spiritual, but not religious.”

A lot has changed in the world, the Church, and our diocese since ECSF was founded.

Today, both the philanthropic and the congregational ministry landscapes are dealing with the different behaviors and goals of seven generational groups, each with different giving, spiritual, technological and cultural patterns and characteristics. Many churches are struggling to survive in struggling communities. Once-vital ministries that served the “urban poor” have needed to turn their focus to the neighbors-in-need right outside their doors.

We have heard from many of our ministry partners that they are deeply worried about sustaining ministries that are vital to their communities at a time when they are facing an aging congregation, dwindling attendance and resources, as well as flagging energy. There are ministries in our diocese that have ended in the last few years because of “ministry fatigue” and/or an aging congregation with fewer and fewer members to pick up the call to serve, or they couldn’t afford to sustain them financially.

Some of our congregations don’t have phone lines, computers or office equipment. Yet they still are doing all that is possible to serve their neighbors, often with minimal resources or resources not capable of keeping up with demand.

Even our more financially healthy congregations have expressed concerns that the number of parishioners willing or able to volunteer for ministry, especially during the week, has dropped significantly. It’s a national trend with estimates that congregations of all denominations are finding fewer than 20% of their members volunteer for any ministry program at all! Nonprofit ministry organizations, whether parish-based or secular, increasingly are unable to recruit or even sustain the work that needs doing with their current volunteer pool.

What we have heard consistently from our ministry partners is that grants are only part of the resources needed to address their challenges. They need expertise in, and the resources for, connecting better with their communities, community partners, and other diocesan ministries. Most of all we heard the voices of many who want to know they are not alone in their work and have the support of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Just as we can’t be the Church of the 1960s or even the 1990s anymore, so too have nonprofit organizations locally, nationally and globally, had to look at what it means to be effective, impactful and relevant today and for the future.

In 2015, the ECSF Board of Trustees began its own Exodus journey, a time of discernment about ECSF’s history, purpose, relevancy, and impact in our diocese and for our congregations. We began asking questions about what we need to be as the supporting foundation of our diocese moving forward. And, what does that look like in how we work together, the resources we share, and for how we live into our part of the diocesan vision.

Most importantly, we reflected upon the vision that formed ECSF in 1991. In the late 1980s the diocese began exploring a significant change in the way mission and ministry were funded in Southern Ohio. At that time, what we now call the “Mission Share” was two parts: the Diocesan Assessment, a straight percentage assessment for each congregation; and the Parish Pledge, a voluntary stewardship campaign to encourage congregations to give above the assessment level to support congregations and their ministries. ECSF would assume the Parish Pledge campaign and expand it to include individual Episcopalians in our diocese, inspiring a generous spirit in our parishes and parishioners, supporting each other in looking beyond our doors to the needs and work of ministry in our common communities.

Inspire and support each other in the living out of our Baptismal Covenant through active, generous, and committed congregations and their outward-looking ministries. This purpose is just as vital today as it was in 1991.

In fact, our need to inspire, support, and encourage each other is even greater as so many of our congregations face significant challenges. Churches that are passionate and selfless about the people outside their doors, the people God calls us to care about, are healthier. They recognize that our work towards the Kingdom of God is now, not just in the hereafter. And that is why the #1 criteria for ECSF grants has always been, and will continue to be, “How does this congregation actively participate in and provide significant support for this ministry?”

Transformation that is impactful and responsive doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that calls us to discernment, intentionality, innovation and creativity, while respecting the traditions and ethos of our faith. We’re working on it, with God’s help.

We’ve started a collaborative process with the Commission on Congregational Life (COCL) and the Church Foundation to explore a common and simpler application process for congregations, as well as find ways to provide a more holistic approach to building healthy congregations and ministries.

Bishop Breidenthal has repeatedly called for greater connection among us and we’ve started that. Beginning with the 2017 grants process, congregations and major donors contributing to ECSF will be connected as sponsors to a sister congregation and its ministry in prayer, in support, and in hope. They will share together in our common bond, the work and stories of that ministry.

SEE A LIST OF 2017 GRANT RECIPIENTS

We cannot foretell the changes and transformations in technology and culture our society and world will experience in the next year, next decade, or of course the next millennium. Whatever those changes, God’s purpose and call to us will remain unchanging and constant: to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

The Rev. Suzanne LeVesconte serves as president of Episcopal Community Services Foundation.

 

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