Last weekend we had our second session with the Rev. Professor Michael J. Christensen. This time on Leadership for Church Redevelopment. In preparation for the class he asked us to develop a case study of a church in need……….
St. Swithern’s Episcopal Church (Fictional)
Diocese of San Diego
St. Swithern’s Episcopal Church is located 5 miles north of the US / Mexico border just off the Interstate 5 freeway. It is located in a predominantly working class neighborhood where the majority of residents identify as Mexican. A large percentage of the Mexican population are living illegally in the USA. The unemployment rate in the area is twice the national average and the area has a reputation for gang violence and illegal street crime. The area immediately around St. Swithern’s is a unique enclave of retired middle-class white American’s. This resilient, small and dwindling population form the core of St. Swithern’s congregation. On an average Sunday at the single 10am Holy Eucharist (Rite I) there typically are 40 parishioners in attendance. Seventy-five percent of the regular congregation are made up from the retired white population, twenty percent from the Latino community and five percent travel over 5 miles to worship at St. Swithern’s.
St. Swithern’s has struggled to maintain its parish status over the past few years. Whilst the congregation are faithful givers the dwindling attendance has led to dwindling income. For the past two years the church has had to request a waiver of its parish share payments. Fr. Randy Jones had been the part time rector (half time but he regularly put in almost full time hours) for the last 20 years and was beloved by the congregation. Last year he retired and now lives in Florida with Betty, his wife of 52 years.
The parish calling committee has been formed and have undertaken a survey of their desires for a new rector. The highlights of the findings include the desire for a young energetic priest who will build up the young families and youth program at St. Swithern’s (currently two grandchildren of one of the parishioners are in Sunday school, which is taught by the venerable Mrs. Tibbs). Members of St. Swithern’s are active in the community and regularly partake in ‘knitted quilt’ drives for the homeless. The survey revealed a hope for integrating the local Latino community into the life of the church. Last Pentecost a local mariachi band was invited to provide music at the service (numerous complaints from a certain section of the congregation were received).
Currently the parish is being served by supply priests. The bishop has also talked of sending in one of his deacons to help the parish through this transition.
Fr. Jones had built up good interdenominational relationships with his colleagues in the area. One block away a Catholic church is extremely well attended (1 mass in English, 1 in Spanish and a monthly bilingual service). There is an Assemblies of God within 500 meters, although the relationship with their pastor and the Episcopal Church has never been good. A United Methodist church is less than 1 mile away. The congregation there is slowly growing and is very active in the community. It is with the Methodist’s that St. Swithern’s ‘Knitted Quilt Drive’ is organized.
St. Swithern’s building has lots of space for programs but much of it is never used. In the past five years essential maintenance has been differed in order to save costs. The sexton and part time parish administrator have been replaced with volunteer positions. Mr. Grub, the Sunday sexton, will need to retire his volunteer position next year.
On a positive note, the church is very proud of its 75 year history and its (perceived) status as the cornerstone of the local community. Number may be small but the heart is big. Members of the parish have written to the Bishop telling him of their enthusiasm and confidence in the future and hope for a ‘dangerous love’ grant to re-roof the sanctuary.