I’ve shared before that I am a lifelong Episcopalian. So it’s worth noting that I have been a member of the same congregation for virtually all of it.
My first memory, or awareness, of church is of Jean MacGregor. Sitting on her lap in the nursery while she read me a story, a relationship was born. Now whether or not that actually occurred, who knows? I was just a toddler. But throughout my 53-ish years as a member of the congregation, this is the image that I carry with me – that to Jean (and others) I wasn’t just a child to be tended to, but a valued member of the community worth getting to know.
Half a century later, Jean is still one of the most welcoming people I have ever met. Anyone who has darkened the door of St. James, Westwood, in the past 60+ years has likely been greeted by Jean. And you don’t get just a cursory hello. You get a heartfelt welcome, followed up by her peppering you with questions about yourself. But it doesn’t stop there. She will then approach other parishioners to ask them if they have met you yet. And she tells them a little something about you that she just learned.
Jean collects stories. But she doesn’t hold on to them, she shares them with others. In that sharing, she shows each person that they have value and they are worth getting to know, and relationships are born. I think this is what has kept me at St. James for so many years, the feeling that, even as a young child, I was shown that I was valued in the community. Jean is the symbol of that to this day.
You never know what another person will take away from a story you tell. I once happened to mention to a friend that my church had a ministry where we provided bus tokens, electric bill assistance and even diapers to people who came to the door looking for help. She told me later that she was so impressed by the church’s acts of kindness. She wasn’t currently attending any church but knew her old church didn’t do anything like that. And she wanted to be a part of a place that did – so she was looking. She didn’t end up at my church, but she did find a church home where she is now a vital part of that community.
By sharing stories about our congregations, we let others know what we value about our community and shared ministry. What stories do we have to tell? What will others take away from our sharing them? That small story about diapers and kindness to strangers may have been for my friend the path back to a relationship with God, or at least a nudge onto the path. What will yours do?
There is much talk these days about the health of congregations and decline in the church as a whole. So I contacted the lay and clergy leadership of a diverse group of the faith communities around the diocese and asked them to tell us a story about what was going on at their church or ministry center. Some of these congregations are growing; others have seen better days. Their stories, told both by clergy and laity, are all over the place in terms of the topics. Some of them mention dwindling numbers or resources. You’ll notice that there is no magic bullet in any of them that explains what makes that congregation vital or healthy. But each has a fresh, relevant story to share.
My take after reading all the stories is that the health of our congregations isn’t measured just in numbers or dollars, but in the value our ministries bring to our communities. So much is to be gained by sharing our stories. Whom might we bring into relationship – not just with ourselves, but also with God?
Connections editor Julie Murray serves as Associate Director of Communications for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Julie Murray with her lifelong friend, Jean MacGregor. Photo by Joan McGannon, St. James, Westwood.