All Saints Episcopal Church’s Assimilation Plan
Roy M. Oswald and Speed B. Less
While we were in the process of writing this paper, long after the data gathering and analysis had been done, one of us was working as consultant to All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. Patrick Thyne and Neil Warren, lay persons in that congregation, had written a paper on the assimilation process they wanted for their parish which they shared with us at the time of that consultation. With their permission we are sharing that paper with you here because it is an excellent summary of how the ideas we have been sharing with you in this paper can fit into a working plan for the incorporation process in a local church.
Not all of these ideas have been tried at All Saints. Some have been tried and didn’t go exactly as planned, others have been “in place” for years, and, of course, some have recently been started and are highly successful as a part of the congregation’s assimilation process.
All Saints is a corporation size church, and some of the ideas that are discussed here are not practically possible for smaller congregations. And some of them may not be practically possible for other larger congregations such as the rector calling every newcomer on the phone once or twice a year but the ideas here are fully congruent with the thesis of this book and the learning derived from our research.
If you are not familiar with Episcopal jargon, there are two words it may help to define. The “vestry” is the governing board of the congregation. The “rector” is the senior pastor.
The rest of this chapter is the text from the All Saints paper.
From the Parking Lot to the Vestry
One Person’s 5-Year Encounter With All Saints Church (Including Divine Interjections)
Katherine Simpson is a 37-year-old woman who lives in Eagle Rock. Her two children, Chris (a 10-year-old boy) and Jenny (an 8 -year old girl) are in the fourth and second grade at Eagle Rock Elementary School.
Katherine has been separated from her husband, Lew, for three years, and their divorce has been final for two. While her parents and an older sister live in Eagle Rock and are highly supportive of her, and while she has two or three close friends, Katherine is a lonely, frustrated, and frightened woman. The last three years have been miserable for her, though not as horrendous as the last three years of the marriage. Lew had a severe drinking problem, and toward the end of the marriage he regularly abused Katherine and the children both physically and emotionally.
One of Katherine’s two or three closest friends, Sally Edwards, has attended All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena since she was a child. Katherine met Sally two years ago when their children were both in kindergarten in Eagle Rock. Sally is well aware of Katherine’s loneliness and frustration, and Sally has on several occasions invited Katherine to special events at All Saints. Sally has been eager for Katherine to get involved in the Church because, having gone through a similar set of family circumstances, Sally has long felt that the programs at All Saints have met her needs.
On this particular Sunday morning Katherine wakes up early. The week has been long and heavy, and Saturday night’s sleep is fitful. Somewhere around three in the morning she decides that something new has to happen in her life. She remembers Sally’s invitation to give All Saints Church a try. Checking Saturday’s Los Angeles Times for the Sunday schedule, she decides to attend the 8:30 a.m. service. She wakes Chris and Jenny, tells them what she has in mind, and combines an invitation with a hard sell designed to get them to accompany her to the Church.
I FIRST SPOKE THESE WORDS TO JEREMIAH, BUT THEY APPLY NOW TO YOU, KATHERINE, AS SURELY AS THEY ONCE DID TO THE PROPHET: “BEFORE I FORMED YOU IN THE WOMB, I KNEW YOU, AND BEFORE YOU WERE BORN I CONSECRATED YOU; I APPOINTED YOU TO BE A WITNESS.” YOU DON’T KNOW IT YET, KATHERINE, BUT YOU SOON WILL: YOUR DESTINY AND MINE ARE INTIMATELY INTERWOVEN.
As Katherine Simpson drives toward Pasadena on that Sunday morning with her two kids in the back seat, she is filled with all kinds of ambivalence. She feels good about the fact that she is finally trying something which may bring some meaning to her life, but she is frankly scared to death at the prospect of “going to church,” being with so many strangers, and trying to seem so put together. It has been years since she attended the Catholic Church of her youth, and she is not at all sure what to expect. All she knows is that her life turned gray a few years ago, and she hasn’t been able to bring it alive again. She hasn’t felt very worthwhile or needed or cared for a long time. And whether she is consciously aware of it or not, that is what she is desperately seeking from this frightening Sunday morning adventure.
There are thousands of persons like Katherine Simpson within a 15-mile radius of All Saints Episcopal Church. They have found life overwhelmingly difficult, and their condition is close to critical when it comes to feeling good about themselves. If each of these persons could somehow sense that she deeply matters, and that there is nothing that can happen to change that fact, perhaps she could discover the security she so desperately seeks.
Unfortunately, most of these persons experience themselves as of limited value in a consistently cold and uncaring world. They often reach out for help from life stories that are filled with emptiness and hopelessness. They are looking for something revolutionary to be loved for no good reason at all, to be cared for without conditions, to be appreciated just for who they are, to be linked up with other people who are trying desperately to find something better and more deeply satisfying.
I suspect that the church’s most critical task involves the early months of encounter with these people welcoming them into a loving fellowship, nurturing them delicately and thoroughly for the first five years, and then calling them to the task of providing a similar kind of experience for others who will wake up one Sunday morning desperately lonely and eager to try something new. If the church can make the first five years of Katherine Simpson’s experience at All Saints Church stimulating, meaningful, and filled with warmth and caring, she may well be motivated to weave her life into our lives and move in concert with us toward a goal fundamentally Christian in nature.
I would like to suggest ten steps in this five-year process of helping persons move from loneliness to leadership.
AND I WOULD LIKE TO SUPPORT, IN THESE BRACKETED IN-MRJECTIONS, WHAT I HAVE IN MIND FOR KATHERINE AND THIS CHURCH AS SHE PROCEEDS THROUGH THIS PROCESS.
(1) Before They Choose To Attend
I believe our goal should be to project a balanced image in our community involving worship, outreach, and caring. I suspect, how-ever, that most persons will be attracted to our church because they think it may be a place in which they can find themselves needed, cared for, and made to feel worthwhile. There are three ways in which we will be able to convey the idea that All Saints has a caring dimension.
I WANT YOU TO BE VERY CAREFUL WITH THIS PART OF THE PROCESS. WHAT YOU’RE DOING HERE IS NOT MARKETING ALL SAINTS CHURCH, BUT BEARING WITNESS ON MY BEHALF. THIS IS NOT ADVERTISING, BUT INVITATION.
A. Our advertisements in the newspaper should adopt some kind of slogan that involves the caring image e.g., “All Saints Where We care For The World’s People. . .Including You.”
B. All of our literature should incorporate the idea that it matters significantly to us that people attend our Church and become involved with us.
C. Perhaps we need to encourage our members to invite their friends “to come and be a part of our caring company,” “to tell them how much we desire their involvement with us,” and to generally let these friends know of our commitment to the idea that all persons are genuinely loveable and worthwhile.
0, GO AHEAD, CALL IT WHAT IT IS: EVANGELISM. WHY HAVE YOU GIVEN THIS TASK TO THE FUNDAMENTALISTS? I HAVE PEOPLE IN MIND LOTS OF KATHERINES WHO ARE WAIT ING FOR A PERSONAL INVITATION TO VISIT ALL SAINTS CHURCH. THAT’S FUNDAMENTAL!
(2) Parking Lot
Many successful Church builders have advanced the idea that the way we treat visitors when they enter our parking lot has a significant impact on their sense of how we feel about them.
PARKING LOTS! I WHO CREATED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH MUST NOW ATTEND TO PARKING LOTS! DOES THAT SURPRISE YOU? ACTUALLY, IT’S NOTHING NEW. REMEMBER THE DETAILS FOR NOAH’S ARK AND THE FIRST TEMPLE? I’VE BEEN ATTENDING TO THE DETAILS FOR MILLENNIA, BECAUSE THE DETAILS MATTER, ESPECIALLY WHEN WE’RE DEALING WITH TENTATIVE PEOPLE WHO, EVEN AS THEY COME TO WARD US, ARE LOOKING FOR REASONS TO STAY AWAY.
It seems to me that our parking lots need to have highly visible signs indicating everything people need to know about parking there. The lines for the spaces need to provide enough room for people to park comfortably, not just for the sake of their car doors but primarily because it is an announcement of how well we have planned for their arrival, and thus a sign about how much we care about their coming.
And I wonder if we don’t need to have persons assigned to the parking lots, as many churches do, whose function is to be helpful by directing people to available spaces, answering their questions, greeting them in a friendly way, making sure that their needs are met, and generally conveying the message that we are a church that cares.
AND HOW ABOUT A SUPPLY OF UMBRELLAS FOR THOSE IN ADVERTENT SUNDAY RAINS, FOR WHICH, IN ADVANCE, I APOLOGIZE.
(3) That First Sunday in Church
If we care enough, we will make sure that from the moment a person reaches the church door until they are driving down the street toward home, their experience is one of feeling cared about.
DIP INTO YOUR MEMORY FOR A MOMENT. WHO DO YOU FIND THERE WHO FIRST TALKED WITH YOU ABOUT ME? ON THE FINGERS OF YOUR LEFT HAND, COUNT FIVE PEOPLE YES, USE YOUR THUMB! WHO FIRST IMPRESSED UPON YOU
THE NOTION THAT THE CHURCH IS A PLACE THAT CARES FOR YOU. THIS ISN’T AN EXERCISE IN NOSTALGIA. THOSE PEOPLE WERE MY ONLY WAY OF GETTING TO YOU. NOW I’VE SENT KATHERINE TO ALL SAINTS, AND SHE’S GOING TO EN COUNTER THERE MEN AND WOMEN AND CHILDREN WHO WILL GIVE HER WHATEVER IMPRESSIONS SHE WILL HAVE OF ME. SO YOU CAN IMAGINE HOW MUCH I HAVE AT STAKE WITH HER ON THIS INITIAL SUNDAY. TREAT HER, PLEASE, WITH GREAT CARE.
I think of three places on that first Sunday where this may happen most effectively:
A. When the ushers pass a program to Katherine as she enters, it would be reassuring if they could emotionally move toward her by greeting her with a smile and a friendly word. It doesn’t much matter whether Katherine is a first-timer or an old-timer, it just feels good to experience a warm welcome. Moreover, if these ushers could have signs pinned on them that say something like “ASK ME IF YOU HAVE A QUESTION,” and if they could answer virtually any reasonable question (e.g., “Where are the classes for Chris age 10 and Jenny age 8?”), they could perform a very valuable service and begin to create a highly caring atmosphere.
B. Perhaps there are ways in which the process of passing the peace could become a more effective means of transmitting caring in the congregation. Maybe the peace could be passed earlier in the service so that newcomers would feel more involved with the people around them during the service. And maybe the peace could include instructions to ask some very innocuous question like, “How long have you attended this church?” And perhaps “old members” could be encouraged to make visitors feel especially welcome and to answer any of the questions they might have about participation in the worship experience.
C. When the pastor makes the announcements, perhaps he could be even more aware that there are 15 or 20 Katherine Simpsons in the audience dying to be cared for, needing to feel needed, desperate for some sense of mattering.
(4) First-Year Periodic Involvement
However impressed Katherine Simpson may be on that first Sunday morning, she probably will not proceed toward membership for a year or so. During that first year in which she attends now and then, the decision about whether she will choose to weave her life into the life of the congregation will likely hang in the balance. If we act coolly toward her, she may well maintain all the anonymity her shyness dictates. And her involvement may remain periodic five years later. But if we pursue the goal of letting her know in every possible way that we exist for the purpose of transmitting a personal and revolutionary Gospel filled with unconditional love, then we will reach out to Katherine as warmly, attractively, and often as we know how.
IN KATHERINE’S LIFE, AS I SEE IT, THIS IS THE YEAR OF THE EUCHARIST. I DON’T CARE IF SHE LEARNS TO SPELL THE WORD, OR EVER HEARS IT; BUT DURING HER FIRST YEAR AT ASC, I WANT HER TO EXPERIENCE WHAT EUCHARIST MEANS. ON HER FIRST SUNDAY, SHE’LL. BE COMPARING IT TO HER CATHOLIC PAST, AND WONDERING WHEN TO STAND AND WHEN TO KNEEL AND WHEN I STOPPED SPEAKING IN LATIN. AS THE YEAR PROGRESSES, I WANT HER TO DISCOVER THAT THE EUCHARIST IS NOT JUST A LITURGY, IT IS A MEAL, FOOD FOR HER SOUL. AND I WANT HER TO FIND THIS MEAL PRE CISELY IN WHAT WE CALL “THE MYSTERY: CHRIST HAS DIED, CHRIST IS RISEN, CHRIST WILL COME AGAIN.” I WANT HER TO LEARN THAT IN HIS DEATH, I LOVE HER WITHOUT CONDI TION OR QUALIFICATION; THAT BECAUSE OF HIS RESURREC TION, SHE CAN TRUST THAT SOMEONE IS IN CHARGE IN THE MIDST OF WHAT SEEMS TO HER NOW TO BE CHAOS, BOTH WITHIN AND AROUND HER; AND THAT THE PROMISE OF HIS COMING AGAIN OPENS THE DOOR TO THE FUTURE AND GIVES HER A LIVELY HOPE. AS YOU WORK WITH HER DURING THIS FIRST YEAR, REMEMBER THAT FOR HER, IT IS THE YEAR OF THE EUCHARIST.
A. Members of the vestry are essentially, if I understand correctly, shepherds of the flock. It would be tremendously helpful if Katherine Simpson were assigned a shepherd or a person from a shepherd’s team to care for her during this year of periodic involvement. If this shepherd could contact Katherine on Sunday morning or by telephone on a regular basis and indicate to her that this church desires to meet her needs, to answer her questions, to reach out and help in every way possible, could she keep from experiencing caring?
B. If the pastor or a member of his staff could call her on the phone once or twice during the year, write her one or two letters on the basis of information received from her shepherd, have his picture taken with her and her kids in the courtyard, even visit in her home, she would feel another source of caring.
C. If the shepherd would make sure that she is placed on the mailing list and if she were invited to all-church events specifically related to her interests, this would be a third way to convince here of our concern.
(5) New Members Class
When Katherine decides that she wants to be a member of the church, this will probably make possible for her an accelerated involvement in the interweaving process.
NOW THAT SHE’S FEEDING ON THE EUCHARIST, IT’S TIME FOR HER BAPTISM. FOR KATHERINE, JOINING ALL SAINTS CHURCH IS HER MOMENT OF BAPTISM: WHETHER SHE’S BEEN BAPTIZED BEFORE, SHE IS ABOUT TO BE IMMERSED NOT IN WATER BUT IN THE LIFE OF THIS CONGREGATION. IN HER NEW MEMBER PROCESS, SHE EXPERIENCES THE SAC RAMENT OF BELONGING, WHICH IS WHAT BAPTISM IS ABOUT. THIS SACRAMENT IS ABOUT DYING AND RISING AGAIN, ABOUT WHAT SHE’S GIVING UP AND WHAT SHE’S TAKING ON. WHAT SHE’S GIVING UP IS A WAY OF LIFE THAT BECAME GRAY DEATH FOR HER; STILL, THE LETTING GO WILL NOT BE EASY. SO WHAT SHE’S TAKING ON WILL HAVE TO BE COMFORTING AND FULL OF PROMISE FOR HER AND HER CHILDREN. AS YOU BAPTIZE HER IN THIS NEW MEMBER PRO CESS, GIVE CAREFUL THOUGHT TO WHAT WILL PROVIDE COMFORT TO HER, AND THE PROMISE OF AN ABUNDANT FUTURE. IMMERSE HER DEEPLY IN THIS SACRAMENT OF BELONGING.
The New Members Class will perhaps be most effective if there is a balanced emphasis on both the didactic and experiential aspects, between the content of the teaching and what happens for people as they are taught. Obviously, the didactic dimension will involve the pastoral staff. But the experiential aspects may be the responsibility of highly-trained lay leadership.
Four objectives should be kept in mind in this regard:
A. Katherine should become a part of a regular small group (6 10 persons), and she should meet, come to know at a deep level, and he known by each of these persons. Highly trained leaders should facilitate this kind of interpersonal mixing.
BY LEARNING TO LAUGH AND CRY WITH PEOPLE SHE CAN TRUST, KATHERINE WILL FIND NOT ONLY PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING, BUT ALSO THE FORGIVENESS FOR HER PAST AND THE ACCEPTANCE OF WHO SHE IS WHICH WILL OPEN THE DOOR OF HER SPIRITUAL JOURNEY.
B. These same leaders should help Katherine explore and process the Christian faith in a distinctly personal way. She should have an opportunity to experience, both affectively and cognitively, God’s enormous caring for her, deep awareness of her, and the importance she has for God.
KATHERINE NEEDS A LANGUAGE WITH WHICH TO TALK ABOUT ME, A LANGUAGE THAT IS TRUE BOTH TO WHO I AM AND TO WHO SHE IS. SHE WILL NEED THOUGHTFUL TEACH ERS IN THIS PROCESS.
C. She should have an opportunity to emphasize the distinctiveness of her beliefs, as well as the doubts she may encounter in herself.
HELP HER TO SPELL EPISCOPALIAN WITH THE ALPHABET OF HER OWN SOUL.
D. And when she has completed the class, she should know each member of the ministerial staff by name, and they should know her name. Moreover, she should feel that at least ten laypersons in the church know her well, care for her deeply, and are fully aware of her unique situation.
REMEMBER, KATHERINE HAS BEEN ALONE. IN THIS EXPERI ENCE OF BAPTISM, HELP HER TO FIND THE FIRST MEMBERS OF HER NEW FAMILY OF FAITH.
(6) First Year After Becoming A Member
I suggest that all persons in new member classes be strongly encouraged to maintain their involvement with each other during a three-year period immediately following their reception into membership.
THROUGH THE YEAR OF THE EUCHARIST AND THE SACRA-MENT OF BELONGING, KATHERINE HAS MOVED FROM THE PARKING LOT INTO THE CHURCH: SHE IS NOW VERY MUCH A PART OF THE ALL SAINTS FAMILY. NICELY DONE, FAITHFUL FRIENDS. DURING THE NEXT FEW YEARS, I WANT YOU TO MINISTER TO HER WITH TWO THOUGHTS IN MIND: TO EN RICH HER LIFE, AND TO EQUIP HER FOR MINISTRY. THE EN RICHING WILL REQUIRE EXCELLENT WORSHIP, A LOVING COMMUNITY, AND HER DEEPENING CONVICTION THAT SHE IS VALUED BY THIS CONGREGATION AND BY ME. TO EQUIP HER, YOU WILL NEED TO TEACH HER THE STORY, AND HELP HER FIND HER OWN GIFTS TO USE IN THE CONTINUING STORY. THE DANGER IS THAT YOU WILL TAKE HER FOR GRANTED: “AFTER ALL, SHE’S ONE OF US NOW.” BUT I HAVE PARTICULAR THINGS IN MIND FOR HER, THINGS TIM’ REQUIRE OF YOU AS MUCH CARE NOW AS YOU GAVE TO HER IN THE BEGINNING.
The curriculum for the first year should be carefully designed to deepen her faith, motivate her outreach, and increase her involvement in the caring community.
The central aspect of this first-year experience should be the sense of togetherness the new members develop as a heterogenous group of Christian people. They should be encouraged to interweave themselves into the lives of as many of these persons as possible even though there are significant differences in socioeconomic class, race, educational background, occupation or profession, and length of involvement in the life of the church.
The formal curriculum for this first year might well include three courses each lasting for 6-10 weeks. These might be:
A. The ten most critical aspects of our faith.
B. Ten programs of outreach to the world from which you may wish to choose one or two.
C. The fundamental qualities in the relationships of persons who are a part of the church of Jesus Christ.
(7) Second Year After Membership
While it will be important to provide multiple opportunities for these persons to be involved with one another, it will also be useful for them to begin to experience involvement with persons outside their own “entering class.” During this second year these persons should he encouraged to be involved in at least one ongoing class each quarter of the year. Five such opportunities might be:
A. A study and prayer group consisting of intense Bible study and opportunity for deep praying about personal matters.
B. Time limited therapy group(s) for 8-10 persons lasting 20 sessions. These groups should be led by professional therapists within the membership, and the group should be structured to permit deep and caring involvement within the time limits set.
C. Three to five special weekend workshops should be held during the year for the treatment of problems and concerns involving family, teenagers, substance abuse, etc.
D. There should be at least one ongoing social group opportunity involving persons of varying marital status.
E. Out of this class there should be several outreach groups which include opportunity for personal relating and shared efforts to serve.
(8) Third Year After Membership
Throughout the first three years after a person becomes a member of the church, certain processes should be handled on a formal basis:
A. Each person should have a shepherd during the entire time.
B. Each person should be strongly encouraged to maintain regular involvement in one or more classes or groups at all times.
C. Each person should be assigned one member of the pastoral staff who contacts this person on a personal basis at least two or three times per year.
D. Each person should be reviewed at least annually by her shepherd and the relevant pastor in regard to how well she is being cared for and how fully she is involved in caring for others.
(9) Fourth Year After Membership
During the fourth year after membership, it may be well to treat these persons as though they were “upper division” in an educational institution. By now they should be ready to:
A. Be trained for special leadership positions in the church.
B. Be ready to assume responsibility for providing a highly personalized caring community for newcomers.
C. Be involved in giving generously and serving actively.
D. Be involved in a regular review of how well their needs for caring are being met on emotional, spiritual, and physical levels.
(10) Proceeding To Leadership
Katherine Simpson has now been involved with All Saints Church for five years. She is well known by scores of people in the church, and her special needs have been carefully assessed and attended to for sixty months. Her children are 15 and 13. Their lives have already been deeply influenced by their participation in classes at the church. Katherine is much more comfortable with her life, and there is no question in her mind about her value as a person and her worthwhileness as a member of her church.
BEFORE I FORMED YOU IN THE WOMB, I KNEW YOU, AND BEFORE YOU WERE BORN I CONSECRATED YOU; I AP-POINTED YOU AS A WITNESS.” DURING THESE FIVE YEARS YOU, KATHERINE, HAVE LISTENED AND RESPONDED TO ME, AND YOU, DEAR CONGREGATION, HAVE PROVIDED FOR KATHERINE EXPERIENCES OF GRACE AND NURTURE. NOW, THIS FAR INTO HER JOURNEY, WE ARE READY FOR THE NEXT STEP: TO CALL YOU, KATHERINE, TO THAT MINISTRY FOR WHICH YOU HAVE BEEN PREPARING, BOTH BEFORE AND SINCE YOUR INTRODUCTION TO ALL SAINTS. YOU HAVE LIS-PI ENED TO AND LOVED YOUR WAY INTO THIS CONGREGATION’S LIFE; YOU HAVE LISTENED TO THE WORLD’S PAIN; AND YOU AND THE CONGREGATION HAVE LISTENED TO YOUR OWN INNER VOICES. OUT OF THIS HAS COME YOUR CALLING, THAT FOR WHICH “I APPOINTED YOU A WITNESS.”
But if she is to further her growth, her continuing needs must be taken very seriously in a highly individualized way. If she has leadership skills, someone must care enough to assess those skills and encourage her to use them. If she has special talents in music and worship, leading Bible studies, reaching out to needy people, encouraging others to be involved in the life of the church, she needs to be trained and motivated to utilize every ounce of that potential.
Katherine Simpson came to All Saints Church because her life was gray. She felt unloved, unneeded, undirected. If she encountered a five-year process like the one described in this paper, the probability of her having become aware of and committed to her own unique gifts seems assured.
Perhaps she is a member of the vestry now a far cry from that Sunday morning when she shook her way from Eagle Rock to Pasadena. She has been caringly woven into the life of a congregation, and her life, the lives of her children and their children, will be significantly richer because of it.
The above article, All Saints Episcopal Church s Assimilation Plan was written by Roy M. Oswald and Speed B. Less. The article was excerpted from the book The Inviting Church.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.