A Vision of Ministry for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson

The following was presented to at the Vestry retreat in July of 2014 and then to the parish in August.

Thank you for the opportunity to share a vision of where I can see St. Stephen’s in 3 to 5 years.  I would like to begin my presentation talking about the PIG!  A good friend once told me that you have to mind the PIG when talking about change in a church – Preferences (what we can change in order to meet local contextual needs); Identity (who we are as Episcopalian Christians); and God’s Good News through Jesus Christ (this we do not want to change since this is, at our core, what we are about – living out and sharing this Good News).  As you prayerfully consider where God is calling us as a community, I would propose that we have been richly blessed with a past and present way of being community together that deserves to be respected – and our way of being community together can be sorted out as Preferences, Identity, and Gospel.  I am proposing that if we become more aware of our Identity in Christ and as Episcopalians with St. Stephen as our patron saint, we will grow.  The Preferences, then, will be easier to sort out after we know who we are and what we are about (our Identity and Gospel).  In a nutshell, the strategic pillar that I propose is that we make a commitment to live out our baptismal covenant in light of having St. Stephen as our patron saint.  I believe that this commitment will help us continue to grow as a Eucharistic community.  I’ll define what I mean by these three concepts in just a few moments.

Starting Point

Our starting point is where we are today, based upon the way that God has been growing us in Ferguson:  we are an Episcopal community of hospitality.  When I think about the life of our church, I think first of our Sunday and Wednesday worship and fellowship times, but close behind this comes our English Tea, the Chili Cook Off, the men’s barbeque and Valentine’s Day breakfast, the Bazaar, and the Rummage sale.  I’m certain that you will be thinking of additional big events.  When I think of my experience of entering into the parish life here at St. Stephen’s, I experienced hospitality centered around a beautiful, time-tested liturgy and often with great food involved.  We are a people who strive to love each other well, which is the mark of a Eucharistic community.  A sign of our emphasis upon Christian community is that we experience the Eucharist at an altar rail around the Table so that we can see each other at God’s table together.  I propose that if we make a commitment to being more intentional about how we are already living out our baptismal covenant and follow the footsteps of St. Stephen to expand our hospitality to those who are marginalized in our community, we will grow.  We will grow in two ways:  the current members of St. Stephen’s will grow spiritually because we will be stretched to become more fully who we are in Christ – we will become what we are when we are gathered at the Table – the body and blood of Christ given for the sake of the world.  We will grow because we will become a safe place for the marginalized in our community to find what they need to flourish.  As they flourish, some of those we love well will want to hear more about the Good News of the Gospel, they will commit to the Christ they experience through us, and join us in worshiping God, loving each other, and serving others.

A Theological Lens for Discerning a Vision for Change

The vision that I would like to share with you is one that grows out of this starting place and extends our hospitality and sense of community along a direction that is based upon three concepts which serve as a discernment lens:  our baptismal vows, St. Stephen as our patron saint, and being a Eucharistic community.  In other words, what might it look like for us to grow into our baptismal vows, to grow into what it means to have St. Stephen as our patron saint, and to grow into what it means to be a Eucharistic community in order to participate in God’s mission to redeem the world?  What might it look like for us to use these three commitments that we have already made as Episcopalians and as members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church to share what we have as a ministry to the people of Ferguson?

Allow me to quickly describe what I mean by these three commitments so that we are on the same page.  These commitments, in my opinion, form the core of our Identity:

The vows from the Baptismal Covenant (BCP 304-5) are those vows we reaffirm every time someone is baptized in our congregation:

  • “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Being a Eucharistic Community:  we are a people gathered together to be reconciled with God and each other (confess our sins, receive forgiveness, pronounce Christ’s peace to each other), give God our thanks and praise, proclaim the mystery of our faith, and be sanctified by partaking of the feast of Christ our Passover.  Having been fed with this spiritual food, we are sent out into the world to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. One of my professors at SLU described the Eucharistic life as being poured out for the sake of others so that they can experience the grace and love of Christ that we have already experienced.  We are gathered to become what we see on the altar:  the body and blood of Christ poured out for the redemption of the world.

St. Stephen was a man full of faith who was chosen by the apostles to care for the marginalized widows of the early church.  He was filled with the power, grace, and wisdom of the Holy Spirit so that he was able, under persecution, to tell the story of God’s redemption of the world from the beginning of time through to his age – he was able to tell the Gospel under stress.  As he died for his faith in Jesus Christ, he pleaded for Jesus to not hold his death against those who killed him.   Following in St. Stephen’s footsteps is a high calling:  to care for the marginalized, to be able to clearly present God’s story of redemption under even difficult circumstances, and to intercede on behalf of those who persecute us.  But remember, he was able to do these things because of the empowerment by the Holy Spirit.  Let us pray that we will be so empowered to follow in his footsteps in our Ferguson context.

So let’s consider who the Ferguson equivalents to the widows that St. Stephen cared for might be.  St. Stephen and the other deacons were called by the apostles to care for the Hellenist widows of the Jerusalem church who were being neglected in the daily distribution of goods necessary to survive.  These women were foreigners in Jerusalem, and, as widows, they had no advocates.   If someone didn’t step forward to care for them, they would not get what they needed to survive, let alone to thrive in the Christian community.  The people in Ferguson who are marginalized, possibly without advocates, are those who do not have families in the area; they are people who have moved away from their families to live in Ferguson for a variety of reasons.  They are the people who raised their families in Ferguson, but their children and grandchildren have moved away.  These modern day “widows” can be described as first generation Ferguson families, the lonely, the struggling to make it on their own, the homeless.  They are the children who are growing up without aunts and uncles and grandparents down the street or across town who are participating in their daily lives.  They are also the elderly whose children and grandchildren have moved away, leaving them here in Ferguson without a younger generation to care for and to be cared for by.  How can we “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [these] neighbor as our self”?

Following the work of the Pew Research Center, our marginalized neighbors can be grouped into two large categories:  those who are affiliated with a religion and those who are not affiliated with a religion.[1]   Increasingly, those who are unaffiliated with a religion seldom or never attend religious services.[2]   For a variety of reasons, this group of people not affiliated with a religion is growing and is mostly made up of younger people.  However, around 10% of people who are unaffiliated with a religion are actively looking for a religious community.  Then we have those neighbors who are affiliated with a religion.  They are either active in their place of worship, not active and don’t care to be, or are seeking a better fit for their call to ministry and worship style.

Our neighbors will fit into one of these categories:  they will either already be committed to a religion or not.  They still need our love and support, and we need to love them as our neighbors.  How will we offer hospitality to these people who are not looking for a community in which they can “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” with us but they need our hospitality and ministry?  We are called by our baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, [even those who do not want to be religious], loving [these] neighbor as our self.”  What will this look like for us?  How can we stir up their curiosity or longings so that they can overcome their resistance to coming into our building so that we can offer ministry to them?  Part of loving them well will be to not expect them to worship with us.

Now let’s turn to our neighbors who are seeking a place to worship with other Christians.  Those who are seeking a place of worship are in the discernment process and need time and space to find where they will fit in.  For example, the majority of my students at Lindenwood are active in church and seeking to be leaders in churches but were leaving mainline churches and getting involved in one specific non-denominational church movement.  This church movement is focused on forming communities.  These students were seeking mentors who could teach them how to live a distinctly Christian life.  One of my students told me that the reason he was leaving the mainline denomination that he grew up in was that there were no guidelines on how to grow into the Christian man he wanted to become.  However, this fundamentalist type church did offer this type of guidance.  How sad!  As Episcopalians, we have a distinct way of life as Christians that is found in the Book of Common Prayer!  When I mentioned this to Rev. Dan Handschy, he noted that a young couple had come to the Church of the Advent and were asking how to get connected into the community life of the parish.  Getting connected into the community, being mentored, and learning how to be part of a community is not something that is obvious to even those who grew up in a church. Yet, the Episcopal Church is a distinctive way of being Christian – we implicitly have a parish rhythm or Rule of Life that is found in our Prayer Book.  In fact, our Bishop now requires that those seeking ordination into the diaconate be able to articulate a rule of life that is grounded in the Book of Common Prayer.  In consultation with Dan, I have been working with ESM students to explicitly describe their personal rule of life based upon the baptismal covenant.   They have found that this exercise provides clarity to what they are already doing as Episcopalians and helps them see where they can add spiritual disciplines in order to better live into their baptismal vows.  Could a description of how we live together as St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, whether we call it a community Rule of Life or our parish rhythm, that is tied to our baptismal covenant, help those whom we serve better understand us?  I’d like to talk through what this might look like, working backwards from a few of the things we already do as a community …

Vision Casting

You all offered hospitality to Doug and me when we were learning how you all worship and do community at St. Stephen’s.  As a community together, we have been offering hospitality to others on Wednesdays and Sundays.  We are intentional about being welcoming.  But I think that we need to challenge ourselves to think theologically about how we do community, how we worship, and why we offer hospitality.  We need to undertake this challenge because some of the younger generations who have grown up in a world with too many choices, too much freedom, and lack of community gathered around a consistent way of being together are starving for intentional, explicit Christian formation.  If we are able to talk about how we are in community together and how we grow as Christians of the Episcopal flavor, some of these younger Christians might be able to hear how what they experience connects to the Gospel.  I think that we can do this by providing a common language within our parish so that we can consistently offer hospitality to these who are discerning whether we are the community they are called to participate in.  I am proposing that our Identity as defined by our baptismal covenant and the life of St. Stephen can provide us with the framework to guide us into offering hospitality to these seekers so that they experience the Good News of God in Jesus.  This is nothing new to us, it is just becoming more intentional about who we already are.

How can we seek and serve Christ in these people, loving these neighbor as ourselves?  The needs of these people vary, but what if we start by offering what we do well:  hospitality, worship, and good food.  By seeing the people new to the community, the lonely, the hungry, and the homeless as persons made in the image of God who need to be welcomed, offered a place to worship, and given even a small meal, we make our first step in the direction of  “seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourselves].”

Let me give you a few examples:

We enjoy our Sunday morning coffee hour.  What might it look like if we follow the footsteps of St. Stephen and offer a light breakfast before or after Morning Prayer for those who want a little fellowship on their way to work or to run errands?  Some may want to “continue in the prayers” with us.  Will this help us help others understand our St. Stephen way of living out the Good News of God?

We enjoy our pot lucks.  What might it smell like if we follow the footsteps of St. Stephen and periodically offer a pot luck lunch for our neighbors who are at home during the day?  Maybe we could start with Noon Day Prayer before lunch and keep the parish hall open for a while afterward so that those who are lonely or don’t have a safe place to spend a cold or hot afternoon could have a safe place to go and be with people.  Or maybe we could have a Bible Study or Book Club.  Might this be a way for us to offer hospitality to those who are marginalized by our society because they are elderly, homeless, or unemployed so that we can “respect the dignity of every human being”?

We enjoy our English tea.  What might it taste like if we follow the footsteps of St. Stephen and offer a light tea in the late afternoon to those who are on their way home from work or school?  Maybe we could offer Evening Prayer so that those who wanted to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” could do so if they wanted.

We enjoy our Rummage sales.  What might it sound like if we follow the footsteps of St. Stephen and have the Rummage sale more often … maybe offering opportunities for people to barter what they have or do a little work around the church to pay for things that they otherwise couldn’t afford?  Could this be a way of “respect[ing] the dignity of every human being”?

We enjoy our Celtic Eucharist and it is slowly but steadily growing.  What might it feel like if we added a Celtic Compline after the meal?  Might there be people who could come for the discussion and Compline who can’t come to the Eucharist?  Would this be a way of more fully “continu[ing] in the prayers”?

We enjoy our Movie Nights.  What might it be like if our movie nights were a place where our neighbors could gather to watch a free movie on a Friday night, maybe even becoming known as a safe place for teens and especially college students from UMSL to meet with friends for an evening of movie, popcorn and soda, and theological reflection on the movie afterwards if they wanted?  Would this be a way of “respect[ing] the dignity of every human being”?

These are just examples of how we can begin with what we already are being blessed doing, look at these spiritual disciplines and activities through the lens of our baptismal vows and the example of St. Stephen, and provide a way of talking about why we do what we do.  By having a common theological language to describe the purpose behind what we do, we will offer entry points for those who are seeking Christian community to find a place to fit in and a description of the Rule of Life we have as a community for the millennials who so desperately need structure and guidance.  By opening our church building more often with opportunities to eat a little for free, we offer a reason for the unaffiliated to be curious and come see what we are doing.  Maybe if they see how we love each other and that — because we are St. Stephen’s — we don’t want anyone to go hungry or naked, they might want to visit and see for themselves what we are about.  But, more importantly, by thinking theologically about why we do what we do, we will grow in our faith because we will be able to more intentionally live out the Good News of God in Christ.  We will be stretched, poured out for the sake of our neighbors, but isn’t that what the Eucharistic life is all about anyway?

Minding the PIG is hard work.  Following in the footsteps of St. Stephen will not be easy.  But no one promised us that living out our baptismal vows would be easy, either.  However, living this out together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will enable us to grow as Christians and hopefully grow numerically as a community.


[1]According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012 32% of 18-29 year olds, 21% of 30-49 year olds, 15% of 50-64 year olds, and 9% of 65+ are unaffiliated. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ accessed 21 July 2014.

[2]This is growing: in 2007, 38% of those who are religiously unaffiliated and 60% of those who are affiliated seldom or never go to religious services (27% of the population seldom or never go to religious services). In 2012, the numbers increased to 49% for unaffiliated but decreased to 50% for affiliated, with 29% of the total population seldom to never going to a service.   In 2012 70% of the total population go to religious services at least yearly. Ibid.

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