By Matt Gardner
The following is part of an ongoing monthly series on congregational
development, which features reflections from Anglicans on how they are
responding to the challenges facing churches today.
Decades of building congregations in the Anglican
Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church (in the United States) have
left Bishop Melissa Skelton with some expansive views on the subject of
congregational development, including the creation of related training
programs on both sides of the border.
As the bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, Skelton now champions
what she found to be a nearly universal quality of developing
congregations—“the rediscovery of this thing we called an Anglican
ethos, Anglican spirituality, Anglican identity.”
“The loss of confidence that we as a church have had in the goodness of
our own identity sorely grieves me,” Bishop Skelton says. “At the heart
of what I think good congregational development is, is [that] it is
about getting the knowledge, skills, and the ability to put into action
the expression of who we most deeply are—and that we need to trust that,
and we need to help people do it.”
The bishop’s interest in parish and congregational development are
longstanding. After receiving her M. Div. in seminary, Skelton received a
certificate in organizational development from the National Training
Laboratories (NTL) Institute.
Through hands-on ministry including as rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal
Church in Seattle, Washington from 2005 to 2013, and as the canon for
congregational development and leadership in the Diocese of Olympia from
2008 to 2014, Skelton was able to apply lessons learned at the NTL
Institute to work in her diocese.
At the time she arrived in Seattle, St. Paul’s was $70,000 in debt on a
yearly operating basis, with an average Sunday attendance of 89 people
for the day’s two liturgies.
Three years later, the church’s finances were back in the black. By the
end of Skelton’s nine-year tenure as rector, average Sunday attendance
had grown to approximately 275 people over four liturgies (which has
since increased to five).
While acknowledging that congregational development is about more than
numerical growth, Bishop Skelton notes that at St. Paul’s—which is
situated in an urban neighbourhood near the foot of the Space
Needle—there was a clear desire among parishioners that the church
needed to grow.
She credits its growth in subsequent years to a readiness on the part of
the congregation and its leaders to learn to engage newcomers to the
church, along with help from God.
“They were focused on [growth], and together we trusted each other to
wade into water they hadn’t been in forever, because it was a very shy
congregation … just figuring out how to talk to people who visited was a
stretch,” Skelton recalls.
Based on her training and experience in Seattle, Skelton helped create a
training program in the United States called the College for Parish
Development and its Canadian counterpart, the School for Parish
In gauging successful congregational development, Bishop Skelton focuses on five major factors:
- Focusing on the core purpose of the congregation and working towards it in a deeper, more connected way;
- Deepening ecclesial identity, in this
case Anglican identity, so that parishes and congregations reflect more
deeply on who they are;
- Creating congregations that respond to the challenges and opportunities in front of them;
- Working on congruence of multiple
factors in a congregation, such as identity, vision, building,
neighbourhood, finances, ministry, and people;
- Working on the culture of the
congregation to be more transparent, collaborative, forgiving, and to
engage people and offer them greater choice.
as a diocesan bishop, Skelton has a broader systemic perspective from
which to encourage parish development across the Diocese of New
Westminster. A key element in her approach is finding the best possible
clergy leaders, who have demonstrated they can develop congregations and
are willing to learn more.
“That’s at the top of the list, because leadership means everything,” Bishop Skelton says.
Another priority is substantial training in congregational development
for lay and clergy leaders over time, which aims to create a common
language for development within the Diocese of New Westminster.
Other initiatives taken by the diocese include: a consulting network to
provide a framework for third-party consultants and facilitators to
assist congregations in development; establishing modest grants for
parishes wanting to focus on a particular area of development work; and
practitioners’ groups to work on common practice in key areas, such as
membership growth, preaching excellence, and Godly Play.
Clergy leaders must be equipped to engage in congregational development,
the bishop says, due to the relative lack of instruction in the subject
“I think I’m just a real advocate that this is a missing piece of the
praxis of being a clergy leader … It’s also something to do in teams of
people from parishes or faith communities, because that’s how they’ll
figure out how to actually implement it.”