Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz is well-known in organizational development circles for identifying two types of challenges that confront organizations. “Technical challenges” can be solved through the application of existing expertise. “Adaptive challenges” require organizations to change, to experiment, evaluate and experiment some more.
This is a story about what “adaptive change” looks like when it goes to church.
More than seven years ago, Bishop Sean Rowe of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania recognized that he had three parishes in the southwestern corner of his diocese that were becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Church of the Redeemer in Hermitage, Trinity Church in New Castle and St. Clement’s Church in Greenville were all struggling.
As it happened, the Rev. Denny Blauser, one of the longest-serving and most respected priests in the diocese, had grown up in Greenville and been rector in Hermitage and New Castle. “We thought maybe we could get these places to work together,” Rowe says. “Denny had a love for all three.”
The diocese had studied models of “yoked” ministry, in which parishes share a priest, and “cluster” ministry, in which they share clergy and also plan parts of their common life together. “We looked at what made those fail in the past and tried to control for them,” Rowe says. “We took into account those factors and designed it in a way that we thought would alleviate some of the stressors.”
The new church, which occupied the old Redeemer building, was called St. Jude’s, and it included the people of Redeemer, which had closed, as well as Trinity and St. Clement’s, both of which remained open but with fewer services and reduced staff on site.
Some longtime members of the three parishes resisted the move, but St. Jude’s showed definite signs of life. “We did the Easter Vigil with even St. John’s, Sharon, and together we’d get anywhere from 150-200 people where when we did it on our own, we’d get 35-65,” Blauser says.
Blauser’ daughter the Rev. Johanna Baker led the Christian education and formation effort, and it prospered. “We had excellent Lenten and Advent programs that we did together,” Blauser says. “We’d get 50 into the 70s on a mid-week thing. Also, Sunday adult Christian education participation increased. I’d say we upped our game in all three congregations significantly.”
And yet, St. Jude’s faltered. “We had three different cultures and three different churches and to bring them on board with the same excitement the planning team had was very challenging,” says Jeff Mills, a longtime parishioner at Redeemer who was a member of the team.
Blauser says he will always wonder if St. Jude’s could have made it if it hung on for five more years, but in the end the diocese decided that parishioners’ feeling of a loss of identity was too much to overcome.
“The attendance and the giving went down,” Rowe says. “We just wore people out.” In 2015, Rowe decided to close St. Jude’s and assign a full-time priest to Trinity, New Castle and a part-time priest to the smaller St. Clement’s.
Evaluate and adapt
It’s common to hear people talk of building on success. But in the case of St. Jude’s, the diocese decided to build on what some considered a failure because, although the congregation didn’t endure, its lessons did.
“There certainly are some people who appreciated that St. Jude’s brought people from other churches together so they were able to build relationships with Episcopalians in different towns that they wouldn’t have met,” says the Rev. Erin Betz Shank, who is now the vicar at Trinity, New Castle. “They were able to see what kind of things you can do together in a greater setting rather than just on your own.”
“The fact it got the churches out of their comfort zones was a positive,” says the Rev. Jason Shank, Erin’s husband, who would soon play a major role in responding to the lessons of St. Jude’s. “It also allowed people to experience different kinds of worship. And then, also, people had to think about what leadership looks like if you don’t have a rector or a vicar on site all the time.”
In early 2016, the diocese announced that it was planting a new church, to be called Resurrection Church, in Hermitage with Shank as its leader. “Our churches in Hermitage had underperformed since the 1960s,” Rowe said. “We thought it was worth starting over there. We had a diocesan strategy that involved a church plant and had been saving for a decade to get the million dollars that you need so that you don’t have to rush the process.”
From the beginning, the new church faced one unexpected adaptation after another.
The first phase of planting a church does not, to outward appearance, seem to have much to do with church. “I spent the whole first month I was here having coffee or lunch or dinner with prospective members of the launch team,” Shank said. “The next step was for me to get into the community, to join organizations, to meet as many people as a I could. See what makes them tick, what they were excited about. To learn the community and to build up the launch team. The organizations I joined were the Chamber of Commerce, the Hermitage Rotary Club and the United Way.”
A “launch team” is the group of lay people who would serve as the parish’s leadership, and, at least at first, most of its congregation. From the outset there were unexpected setbacks. “Three very strong people died,” Rowe said. “And the one person I was really counting on declined. She said church planting just wasn’t going to be her thing.”
Then Rowe and Shank approached Jeff Mills, a veteran of the St. Jude’s planning team.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh. Are you kidding me? I am not sure I am ready for something like this,’ Mills said. “We did a lot of praying, discerning about it, my wife and I, and finally we said, ‘We are all in.’ The bishop has our back. We trust him wholeheartedly. He has never let us down. And he told us at beginning things are going to come up that we can’t perceive and we will deal with them when they come.”
Resurrection Church worshipped in local parks, started a pub talk in a steak house, hosted a fall festival at a VFW, had game nights and movie nights in a newly opened restaurant, and all the while they were looking for a place to hold Sunday worship.
“We were turned down by 16 places to worship,” Shank said.
“It’s like the only place in the world that we couldn’t find a school to worship in,” Rowe said.
For a while, an ambulance company let Resurrection use its headquarters, but it eventually pushed them out.
The original Redeemer Church, headquarters of the St. Jude’s experiment, was available, but Resurrection had not planned to move back into that building for three years, during which it hoped the congregation would be larger, have more resources and be more cohesive. Rowe and Shank finally concluded, however, that they had no choice but to move sooner.
“We gutted the sanctuary,” Shank said. “We took down beloved mosaics. We took out the pews and brought in a sound system and a projector. And people have been great with it every step of the way. They know that if we are going to reach new people we have to do new things.
“The only pushback has come from people from outside the congregation who wanted their memories preserved.”
While renovations were underway, Resurrection worshipped in its social hall. Then, on February 25, the community moved into the sanctuary with 31 people in attendance.
“As we moved into the new sanctuary, there was a sense of excitement, energy and anticipation,” Shank said. “Excitement about this next phase of our journey, energy in the worship and the community that is forming, and a sense of anticipation of what we are going to do for the kingdom of God in that new space.”
Resurrection’s journey continues (Stephanie Wilson, the church’s new music minister started on March 11.) but people involved in the project that began with the founding of St. Jude’s and has undergone numerous adaptations are already evaluating their progress and discerning lessons.
“One of things I didn’t know as well as I do now is how much adapting has to be part of the process. We came in with steps X, Y and Z to get us there and none of those ended up being what we did,” Shank said. “We’ve had to retool this plan three times since we conceived it. Being able to adapt to your culture your community and your people is key.”
“I think now people can better understand what it means to have a strategy about growth where it isn’t just the priest’s responsibility to grow the church,” Betz Shank said. “They were able to hear what I was saying about connecting with the community.”
It all depends on “the willingness to experiment and to evaluate honestly and critically what we’ve done and then as a result of those learnings, do something different,” Rowe said. “In some ways that’s obvious, but I don’t know if it happens too often in the church.”
“I am in accounting,” said Mills. “Things are black and white: Give me a plan and let’s move toward that goal. But this is more complicated than that, and I didn’t see it at first.”
He sees it now. A few weeks before the first service in the sanctuary he said: “I can’t wait until we say, ‘Okay, public. Here we come.’”