Living Local: Joining God
the Diocese of Maine
This final report from the Diocese of Maine is written for the other dioceses and consultants. It is organized in three sections: (1) What did we do?, a review of antecedents and steps and experiences of the Living Local journey; (2) What did we learn and what were the fruits?, a discussion of what we learned and gained along the way; and (3) What next?, a look at how we might move forward. It was prepared by the Point Persons with input from the Bishop, and based on formal and informal reports from Guiding Teams, Clergy, Coaches, and the Diocesan Team.
1. What did we do?
Maine’s Living Local experiment had roots several years earlier in a project Bishop Lane launched, called Walking (or Praying) the Neighborhood. In this process, which grew out of work he did with Alan and Dwight, congregations were invited to send teams to walk, observe, and pray about the lives of their neighborhoods. The learnings from this effort were several; most notably that there was limited uptake, people struggled to understand the purpose or how to go about it, and there was widespread difficulty defining the “neighborhood.” A few congregations took part, and it was clear that there was something worth accomplishing, but what we learned was that much more support was needed.
The Diocese of Connecticut invited us, along with a number of other dioceses, to meet with Alan, Dwight, and Craig Van Gelder to discuss a shared undertaking to help congregations form new relationships with their neighbors: the sort of support we had learned was necessary. We, along with three partner dioceses, accepted this invitation and committed to the journey that came to be called Living Local: Joining God.
We followed the same protocol as our partner dioceses, so it would not be helpful to review all the steps here. But a few things are particularly important by way of background:
● From the beginning, this effort was presented and understood as central to Bishop Lane’s episcopate
● While we identified two staff members to support the process, Canons Michael Ambler and Jane Hartwell, Bishop Lane was directly involved at every step. He attended every one of the seven plenary sessions, from initial invitation through to wrap-up, and helped articulate a theological vision that supported and encouraged participants.
● Congregations were offered an open invitation to participate, regardless of their size or our assessment of their readiness. In hindsight that was a good decision: while we started with a dozen congregations and ended with seven, one of the congregation that had the richest experiences was a tiny one, which we would not have included if we had limited the invitation to those we assessed as having the size to form a viable Guiding Team and take part.
● The plenary gatherings were enriched by the participation of a consultant, each time except at the wrap up. Especially after Alan became our consultant in the summer of 2017, that participation lent an energetic and charismatic presence from outside the system, which was inspiring to participants.
The Living Local Journey
Most of the congregations that attended the initial, invitational gathering decided to participate in the project. In the fall of 2016 congregations identified their guiding teams and we held the Orientation plenary; following which the diocesan staff organized coaches and a diocesan team.
The major stages of the project were these:
Plenary May 21, 2016 – Christ Church Gardiner – General invitation meeting
Plenary October 1, 2016 – Church at 209 Augusta – Orientation
Plenary January 21, 2017 – Christ Church Gardiner – Step 1: Listening to Learn
Clergy Cohort & Dio Team – March 17, 2017 meetings
Plenary May 20, 2017 – Waterville High School – Step 2: Discerning & Reporting
Summer 2017- Switched consultants, from Craig Van Gelder to Alan Roxburgh
Plenary September 30, 2017 – Waterville High School – Listening & Discerning
Diocesan Team Zoom – January 3, 2018
Webinar – January 18, 2018
Roxburgh & Bishop Lane – January 31, 2018
Dio Team Zoom – February 7, 2018
Plenary February 17, 2018 – Waterville High School – Using a Story to Create an Experiment
Diocesan Team – Feb 16
Webinar – March 18
May 2018- Zoom conference with each team
July 2018 – second Zoom with each team
Plenary November 3, 2018 – St. Mark’s Church Waterville – Final Meeting: stories and Eucharist
Each plenary had a different focus, but each time the teams left and did about the same thing. As the project advanced, there was more and more of a push to help people get outside of the walls of their churches, into their neighborhoods. That was challenging for most of the participants; regardless of the proposed steps, teams generally decided to do structured listening within the congregations. Two teams took significant steps to join their neighborhoods; and one other team was involved with community leaders. Two others did a bit outside, after being strongly encouraged. And two stayed inside.
The most significant effect of the process was on the Guiding Teams.
In the early days, teams were unsure what the goal was, and what they were supposed to do. They faithfully carried out the initial interviews, including those in the neighborhoods, but they were not sure to what end. We also learned that they did not really know how to listen, either within or beyond the congregation. And, while this was not as pronounced as during the earlier “Walking the Neighborhood” initiative, they were not sure what the neighborhood was.
Over time, all of the teams developed practice listening, and they found that to be a transformative experience. Guiding Team members from all the congregations reported that they experienced spiritual growth by learning to listen, especially to fellow-members of their congregations. Some of the testimonies were moving, and from individuals who would have seemed unlikely at the outset to have such a deep response.
Guiding Teams also found Dwelling in the Word to be both challenging and rewarding. As one team put it, “Dwelling was a pain in the ass until it wasn’t.” It is not clear how much they heard the Spirit through Dwelling, but they clearly learned to hear one another, and relished that. They were less successful in planting the Dwelling process in other parts of the congregation; perhaps other groups, such as Vestries, had less of a chance to get past the PITA phase.
Two of the teams had substantial experiences in the neighborhood with their neighbors. The smallest of the congregations, St. Aidan’s in Machias, worships in a church building located on the campus of U Maine Machias. The congregation had wished for years for a deeper encounter with students. They had tried giving away goodies at exam time, and found students grateful, but those efforts did not create real connection. As Living Local was nearing its final phase, they were pleased to be asked by administrators whether they would like to be included as a site for student volunteers to do community service work during orientation. After prayer and reflection, the team declined the offer—and said that instead, they wanted to go and work alongside the students. The bemused administration agreed, and the team—which carefully prepared for the encounters they would have—reports a new and revelatory sort of relationship forming with the students they came alongside.
Another congregation had a series of rich experiences, many of which involved using its community garden as a springboard for forming relations with neighbors.
Several other teams, often with a certain amount of urging from coaches and point persons, joined neighbors in conversations at events already taking place in the community. Some of them reported greatly enjoying those encounters, but it is not clear that they had much depth yet or whether they will lead to anything as a next step.
The Diocesan Team
The Diocesan Team listened for implications for the life of the wider diocese. The team struggled to see those implications, and that work does not feel as though it’s complete.
The coaches did excellent work. They struggled with offering support to teams taking a journey that the coaches themselves were discovering along with the teams, but they were effective in helping to keep teams focused and unified. (There was one team who lost their coach during the process.)
The role of the clergy changed over time. We originally tried to have them gather separately and form their own learning cohort, as the process intended. One of the reasons Bishop Lane wanted Maine to be part of this process was to see how it would work in a spread-out, rural diocese with primarily small congregations. Perhaps because of that character, the clergy—while honoring the intention that they not direct the teams—found the separation envisioned by the structure artificial and unhelpful. Ultimately we acceded to the reality on the ground, that clergy were distinct from the guiding teams but joined with them in plenaries. Four of the seven churches have clergy who attended almost every plenary. They bonded with their teams through the shared experiences, learning and long drives on those Saturdays. This was a substantial outlay of time for part time rectors and a deacon.
All of the clergy honestly wanted a lay-led process, and were respectful of the boundaries around the guiding teams. However – as Bishop Lane did for the diocese – the attention they paid to Living Local sent a signal to the congregation that this was important.
At all levels, including diocesan staff, we struggled with the ambition of the project in light of available time and resources. We have not had—and have not requested—the full range of meetings and reports envisioned by the process, because we encountered resistance which made us fear that if we insisted, people would drop out entirely. For example, we did not receive formal final reports from several clergy, who told us that they had shared their reflections in other ways (true) and that they did not have time to write a report. One quarter-time priest was vigorous in saying that her ministry did not provide scope for such work (also true).
This was an exciting and sometimes frustrating project for the Point Persons. Take aways included:
● We were on board with the purpose and goals of the project
● We were often excited and moved by the glimpses of transformation that we saw in the participants, especially members of the Guiding Teams.
● We often wished that we, as well as others, had more time and attention to give to the process. We could have done a better and fuller job, and helped others to go farther, if we had been able to make this a top priority, but we often couldn’t. Steven Covey’s familiar urgent-non urgent/important-unimportant grid came often to mind. Living Local was important but usually not urgent, and too often it took second place to things that were both important and on fire.
● At least one of the Point Persons is convinced that this entire experience has been a first draft, and that it is worth continuing and trying to learn from the successes and failures of this iteration.
2. What Did We Learn? What Were the Fruits?
● Guiding Teams and their coaches were vastly more involved and invested than the Diocesan Team, perhaps because they had things to do and experience directly, rather than derivatively through interviews. Most clergy were very involved, but the nature of their role wasn’t hands-on. The Diocesan Team did everything they were asked but it’s not clear that its members felt closely connected to the process.
● Defining the neighborhood was still an issue, as it had been in the earlier “Walking the Neighborhood” initiative. We learned that rural congregations are not necessarily in geographic neighborhoods with any coherence, and that often those congregations have to choose the neighborhood to affiliate with. So, for example, St. Aidan’s in Machias chose to focus on the local University campus. Not all the congregations made such clear choices, and that may explain in part why some struggled to get out beyond their own walls.
● The biggest fruit was the personal growth and transformation experienced by people on the Guiding Teams: joy, spiritual growth, relationship.
● Directly related: we learned that we did not know how to listen, and were uplifted by learning.
● Also related: it took vastly longer to learn to listen that we ever imagined. And once we did, it was so compelling that there was limited enthusiasm for moving on into other aspects of the journey.
● The definition of “success” changed – from creating identifiable projects in our communities to experiencing a quiet transformation of ourselves that affects relationships. At the beginning, we expected to video our successes. By the end, that seemed like a silly idea.
● Over time, Guiding Teams began to internalize and understand the importance of “doing with” and “being with” instead of “doing for” the community.
● Groups became more open to God’s surprises. They now expect to meet God “out there” as well as in the church.
● In Al’s words, “The Holy Spirit messes with us.”
● Resilience. We know we can listen, try, fail, reflect and try again.
● Coaches were very important. They did great work, and they could have done better work with more support and training. The limitations on support and training were the constraints in staff availability, as reflected above, and also the fact that none of us had made this journey before.
● Change is slow! We knew that it’s near impossible to change culture from above; this process tried to get culture to change from below. But the “above” was important too: the entire idea came from above (the Bishop) and the leadership and process also came from above. The Guiding Teams were motivated by, but were also trying to please, the Bishop.
● This process works best if at least one lay person on the Guiding Team catches the spark and is good at inspiring others.
● Guiding Teams were more effective agents of congregational transformation if at least some of the team members are leaders in other areas of the congregation’s life. As one team put it, Living Local is “caught,” not “taught.” Reporting out to the Vestry had limited effect at best, but where Vestry members were on the Team, there was more opportunity for the purpose and practices to percolate out.
● In a tiny congregation, the clergy is inevitably more involved with the Guiding Team. Paradoxically, clergy in very small congregations are usually half-time at most, and don’t have time for this work.
3. What Next?
There is broad agreement that this first experience is meaningful only if we view it as a step in an action/reflection process. In other words, what we have done so far, and what we have learned, will matter only if they lead to onwards.
The key learning may be how important, exciting, and unfamiliar it is to really listen. To that end, a future Living Local journey should begin with much more focused teaching and practice about listening than we did this time. And we should expect it to take much longer than we did for people to absorb not only the skills, but the spiritual growth, that come from real listening.
We also learned that it was the Guiding Teams that experienced transformation: they are the ones who felt at the end that the work had been worth it, and that God was opening up new possibilities to them. Our focus next time should be on those teams, and we should ask and expect less of others such as clergy and diocesan-level observers.
In addition, getting outside the congregation was even harder for people than we imagined. We offered training, encouragement, ideas, but in many cases those things were not enough to overcome the reluctance. We will need to discern whether more support or more time will make a difference, or how otherwise to help get over that hurdle.
There are many other things we will want to do differently as a result of our “Round 1” learnings. They include:
Purpose and Overview
We spent a lot of time dealing with confusion about what participants were supposed to do, and what the purpose ultimately was. The experience of Round 1 will help us better address that confusion in a second round. We might also ask participants to read Alan’s book that describes the process and its purposes.
Process and Expectations
We asked a lot of participants, especially the vicarious participants such as Diocesan Team and clergy. Those groups were not willing to meet, interview, and report at the level the process asked of them. We should rethink what we ask of people outside the Guiding Teams: ask less, expect them to really do it, and make sure that what we request is doable and important.
More generally, the process was more complicated than will be helpful in a second round. People might be better able to understand what they are doing, and why it matters, if we offered a simpler road map, with each stage of the journey simplified to offer teaching, guided experience, and a chance for simple reflection on the order of “what did we do, what happened, and what did we learn.”
Our process was as successful as it was because of the active, engaged support of a highly-respected bishop. That made it central to the life of the diocese and encouraged people to take the leap of faith that setting out, and persisting, required. We are on the threshold of welcoming a new bishop, and we might want to allow some time for that person to get on board themselves, and develop some relational capital. Or, maybe, the participants in the first Round can inspire others to follow… but that seems like it might be a stretch.
The Point Person is crucial. It should be someone who can make leadership of this process a top priority. That means in practical terms that it should not be someone whose job consists largely of responding to time-sensitive crises in the larger life of the diocese. Perhaps it should be someone whose general work is programatic rather than pastoral, or someone contracted to dedicate specific time to supporting the process.
Coaches will be better equipped for a second round if they are people who participated in the first round. And we should start the process with a training event specifically for coaches.
Some Final Observations to Keep in Mind
● “The larger church and the diocese of Maine in particular, is constituted primarily by smaller congregations. Yet we’ve inherited a set of expectations for how congregations should function based on large church, programmatic models. LLJG gives small congregations a different way of thinking about successful ministry that may or may not include formal programs.” John Neiman
● Coaches: It is imperative that coaches make a strong commitment to regularly attend Guiding Team meetings. The coaches are vital. The mere presence of a coach, who is a lay person from another congregation, signals that this is important work. “Just be there! And coax them not to get too distracted.”
● Dwelling in the Word: Brewer recommends using additional scriptures, not just the two prescribed ones.
● “Living Local can’t be explained. You have to do it, be in it, go in with a sense of energy” – Brunswick
● We don’t have to create programs, just participate in existing ones – Machias
● “Interview questions were too specific. Making them more open-ended would be useful.” Winthrop
● We don’t have to create programs. It takes patience to listen and find out what’s going on in a community.
Members of our “Living Local Joining God” Team are Karen Varian, Steve Colhoun, Dale Miller and Gail Peters
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And Paul had seen the vision immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the leading city of the district of Macedonia and the Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household was, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
- Where did your imagination stop?
- Are there words, phrases, ideas that grasp you?
- How do you think the Spirit of God might be nudging you?
“Living Local Joining God”
The Episcopal Diocese of Maine as well as the Connecticut, Southwest Virginia, and East Tennessee Dioceses are currently enrolled in a national program called Living Local: Joining God. Its emphasis is on listening to God and to each other beyond the walls of our church. It is not another layer of theological programs for the church to enact. It is about getting out of our own building and meeting our neighbors in the fullest sense of that word. God is everywhere. We are learning to look and listen for God and learn more about ourselves and our communities. To learn more details about this project please contact us.
Members of our “Living Local Joining God” Team are Karen Varian, Steve Colhoun, Dale Miller and Gale Peters.
There are several parts of Living Local: Joining God in the Neighborhood. One significant part is Dwelling in the Word. We are asked to turn to Scripture for our inspiration. Our initial verses were from Luke 10:1-12. Each participating parish was asked to use these verses at the beginning of every group meeting. Our new verses are Acts 16:6-15 to be used in the same way.
At St. Aidan’s, we use these verses at each Vestry meeting. The idea is to read the same verses each time you meet and reflect on the meaning then and there through a series of questions. We then turn to a partner and ask for their answers without commenting. Then, they interview us. The group comes back together, and each person reports on what they heard, not what they themselves said. This is often a real challenge. Experiences change, and our reaction to Biblical verses is often colored by where we are in the moment. Click on Luke 10:1-12 or Acts 16:6-15. See how you would respond to the three short questions. Read the same verses in a day or two. Do you dwell on anything differently?
These verses call us to go out into our communities to listen and learn. There we will find God. Our goal is to join God in our neighborhoods and be a witness. Try this experiment. Go out into your daily life and see how you would answer the questions in A Simple Neighborhood Walk or Observation Location. Take a walk around and just listen. How often do any of us listen to others? We are usually too busy projecting our own voice. Give it a try. Go out and listen. We would appreciate hearing back from you!
Living Local: Joining God in the Neighborhood is an on-going process. We will be adding more later. We will share our experiments engaging with others according to their needs and the outcomes.
Dwelling in the Word
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”
- Where did you find yourself stopping or being caught in this text?
- How was your imagination engaged by this text – words, phrases, or ideas?
- Where might the Spirit of God be speaking to you, to us, to our congregation?