The Episcopal Diocese of  
of Western Massachusetts

Canon Richard M. Simpson 


21st Century Congregations - June 2015

From the Rev. Canon Richard M. Simpson

 My Top Ten List

Two years ago, on June 1, 2013, I began working as one of Bishop Fisher's two Canons to the Ordinary, focused on the congregations in Worcester County. Prior to this work, I'd spent four years in campus ministry in Connecticut and then nearly twenty years as a parish priest, first in Connecticut and then as rector of St. Francis' in Holden. Although I had lots of opinions about diocesan ministry, this was new work for me.


In honor of David Letterman's long career in late night television, below is my "Top Ten" list of what I've been learning over the past two years: some of these are not brand new insights so much as new perspectives on some ideas that have been taking shape over the past twenty-seven years of my ordained life. Here goes:


  1. Context matters. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us; we have beheld God's glory, full of grace and full of truth." This grace and this truth don't float high above the earth, but force us into particular places at particular times with particular people. Church size, whether it's urban or rural or suburban, the building - all of these things matter. What this means in my job is that one size does not, and cannot, fit all. So there is a great need to pay attention and to listen because like people, congregations are different.
  2. Even so, there are discernible patterns. There is much we can learn from each other because so many of the challenges we face are similar ones; and there are way too many missed opportunities to do so. In the past year especially I've been leading joint vestry retreats. All of the congregations in Worcester got together for example, and St. John's in Sutton and St. Andrew's in North Grafton (two remarkably similar congregations with some shared history) also met together. In both of those meetings (as in clergy, warden, and leadership gatherings across our diocese) we discover and rediscover that that mostly we are facing the same challenges in a changing world and there is much for us to learn from each other.
  3. We cannot do this work alone. This is perhaps the greatest new insight that I carry around now with me every day. As a parish priest I was always trying to keep my parish moving forward - and I think often with some measure of success. But I missed too many opportunities to partner with others. As mentioned above, one vestry retreat for two or more vestries is just richer and more fun. One Easter Vigil for four congregations has a critical mass greater than four separate ones and it allows the clergy an opportunity to play together and feel more energized and less exhausted by Holy Week. (This allows more energy for the Momentum to carry us all into the fifty days!) We must continue to find ways to partner with others and to build relationships within the Body of Christ - not only with other Episcopal congregations but across ecumenical lines.
  4. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. It is true that the Church is struggling everywhere. It is true we have much to learn from one another. But sometimes the fact that we're all in the same boat leads some congregations to say, "see, we're no worse off than anyone else... it's bad but it's bad everywhere, right?" But this keeps us from facing the very real challenges that we can address IF we are honest and self-aware. We don't need to raise anxiety but we need to be truthful: the Church is at a crossroads and many of our congregations face serious challenges. How we face these challenges matters. So we don't need to be like Chicken Little, who ran around saying "the sky is falling" - but we do need to be realistic. Some congregations are simply better equipped than others to have these hard conversations; but all of us can improve at it.
  5. We are sent out into the streets to do the work God has given us to do. I love working for Doug Fisher, but perhaps the thing I appreciate the most about the past few years are these pilgrimages up and down the three corridors of our diocese and his challenge that each parish walk twenty minutes in each direction from the building. Together we are more faithfully living into this claim that when we leave the church we enter the mission field, and the service begins. Outdoor ministries, Ashes to Go, Good Friday Stations in the Streets of Springfield and Worcester all reinforce this understanding of ministry. Walking with the diocesan staff and Dean Jim Munroe twenty minutes south of Christ Church Cathedral recently, we ran into a street prophet who turned to us and said, "can't catch fish in the building...if you wanna catch fish you gotta come outside." Indeed.
  6. Health is a more important goal than church growth.  I came to this diocese in 1998, and at least since then we've talked a fair amount in our diocese about our commitment to "healthy, mission-focused congregations." I believe that remains the goal. See this excellent blog post from Laurie Brock on this very subject, which might make for an interesting vestry discussion. Where is the health in your congregation? And where is there healing that needs to happen? When we deal with such questions, growth begins to happen organically.
  7. Adaptive work takes time and a plan, guided by the Holy Spirit. If you don't know the distinction between adaptive and technical work, check out this website. Like following a recipe, some of the work of leadership (ordained and lay) is about making sure that things are working - that the roof isn't leaking, the furnace works for these long New England winters, that we are living within our means for a sustainable and viable future. This is technical work. But some work is adaptive: it is more complex, and it takes more time to sort out, and easy answers elude us. This work requires trust in God and in each other. In my experience too many vestries focus too much on technical work - sometimes in the midst of real crises and sometimes just because they know how to do that. But the really important work that God has given us to do in these early decades of the 21st century is adaptive work. I find that times of clergy transition are ripe opportunities (too often missed) to ask the hard, big questions like "why are we here anyway, and what is God's mission through us?  Instead we are tempted to focus on the technical: how soon can you find us a new priest?
  8. We need to take more risks than we are used to taking. This is a hard one for me, personally. I attended a week-long program in denominational leadership  at Duke Divinity School this past year geared to people like me who had, in the past three years, transitioned from parish ministry to denominational leadership. In that workshop one of the speakers spoke about traditioned innovation: new ideas that are rooted in and grow out of what we already know. I LOVE traditioned innovation. I don't like worshiping the past but I like change that is native to the soil we've been accustomed to. But there was another kind of change presented by Marlon Hall which he calls disruptive innovation - change that disrupts old patterns and invites radical transformation. Truth is that we need both, and mostly congregations (and lay and ordained leaders) get stuck in what is. Many of us agree that change is needed, but inertia and fear (both real and imagined) are very powerful forces that work against us. My friend and colleague Steve Abdow keeps reminding the Executive team that we need to fail early, and then learn from it. He's right of course.
  9. A diocese is bigger than the sum of its parts. While I have many UCC friends, I have never been tempted toward congregational polity. One of my former colleagues in Holden, pastor of an independent congregation called Fellowship Church is fond of saying that his church didn't have a "middle name" (as we Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Baptists do!) But here is the thing: I love our middle name. And even as a parish priest I always tried to find ways to support the larger, diocesan vision - as a member of Diocesan Council, as chair of the Commission on Ministry, and more recently as chair of Search Committee for our ninth bishop. Even so, the past two years have reinforced to me that "the diocese" is more than the people I work with at 37 Chestnut Street and more than the total number of congregations from Milford to Williamstown. In my travels I hear you all praying each week for Doug, our bishop and sometimes even for Rich, our canon. (I love to hear that last part and can use all the prayers I can get!) But we pray for Doug because as the Greek word for bishop (episcopos) from which we take our "middle name" suggests, we are part of something much bigger than a local congregation. God the Holy Spirit binds us together and there is work we can do better together than apart - ways that a diocesan bishop can speak to the issues of our day that parish leaders often cannot. As I prepare for General Convention in Salt Lake City later this month (where I'll be serving as one of our diocesan deputies), I am very keenly aware of, and grateful for, this middle name of ours and what it means to be part of a wider church that is ultimately one part of Christ's holy catholic and apostolic Church.
  10. I have the best job in the Church. Really. When the former bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, came to All Saints Church in Worcester this past year I had a chance to chat briefly with him while also standing with our bishop. Bishop Robinson, who had served as Canon to the Ordinary in New Hampshire for many years prior to his election as Bishop there whispered to me (but loud enough for Doug to hear him) - "you have the best job in the church." I whole-heartedly agree. I get to share in the work of the Bishop's office without having to carry the weight of that office. I get to support both clergy and lay leaders in seasons of transition and in the building up of congregations. I get to walk with congregations that are firing on all four cylinders, and with those who aren't sure where God is leading them next. This past two years has been incredibly fruitful for my soul, and I am ready to begin year three.