Our church, the Church of the Epiphany in Crestview, Florida, has had a dwindling, aging, and somewhat insular population for several years. We needed a lot of assistance learning how to move beyond our functional issues, and wondered how much the newly formed Congregational Enrichment Venture (CEV) program would truly be able to help.
Dennis Jackson, Patricia Jackson, Jerry Kueczynski, Tracy Kueczynski, Pat Shew, Frieda Haley, and I initially came together through the urging of our priest, Father Jim Popham. “It would be a wonderful program for our church, and we don’t have anyone signed up…” he reminded us. The CEV program, a series of workshops held by the diocese, promised to turn our church into a “vital and viable congregation.” Close to the deadline, we each volunteered, unsure what we were signing up for.
The first session of CEV focused on understanding group dynamics and the influence of past church leadership. We were asked to research our church’s history—a simple enough homework assignment, but one that greatly helped us understand how we arrived at our present state. The second session of CEV focused on “knowing our context”—understanding our neighborhood and congregation. This was a more daunting task. We were assigned homework to carry out one-on-one conversations with people who we did not know well, both in and out of our congregation.
Initiating the conversations was the hardest hurdle to get over. “Why are we doing this?” was a question that we deeply reflected on during our homework sessions. How else could we motivate ourselves approach complete strangers, even if they were our neighbors?
Listening, we realized, is what we are called to do as Christians. The Bible itself is the Word of Christ, transmitted to us through the words, ears, and eyes of apostles, writers, scribes, and translators. What better way to bring ourselves closer to God than to understand how His Word was transmitted to us throughout the centuries?
Resolved, we talked to many people who we are now grateful to know, some of whom we now consider friends. There was shopkeeper of a small corner store who once drove over 25 hours straight just to see his family for the Korean New Year. Another was a homeless man who considers himself the preacher of our town’s homeless community. One woman recently turned 102 years old and was full of incredible stories. Yet another was a spouse and caretaker of an advanced Parkinson’s patient, and was simply relieved to have someone besides her husband to talk to. One man was once a religious writer for children but had become a recluse, and needed help with errands.
With the help of our CEV team coach, we also learned a great deal about our own team. Each of us had arrived at the Church of Epiphany through varied, winding paths, and realized that we all knew the feeling of not “being worthy enough” from previous churches or from other Christians. This helped cement for us how we should continually strive to become an open, welcoming church, and how to engage with the wider community.
We found a community of amazing people, with many needs. We are humbled by how far we still have to grow and learn about our neighbors. The Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast CEV program is putting us on the right path, giving us the optimism, guidance, and tools to cultivate a better church.