St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Douglassville is one parish, but it is not one congregation.
“The way we think about St. Gabriel’s right now is that we are actually six congregations,” says the Rev. David Green, St. Gabriel’s rector. “We have a Saturday congregation which meets in the chapel. We have two Sunday congregations: one at 8:00 a.m. and one at 10:30 a.m. We have two weekly services at the Villa retirement community, which are becoming their own ecumenical congregations. And then we have Common Ground, which is a recovery service in conjunction with the Lutheran Synod.”
“If you put them all together, you have what you’d call a program-size overall missionary effort,” Green says, referring to a method, developed in the 1980s by an Episcopal priest named Arlin Rothauge, of categorizing congregations as family, pastoral, program, or corporate-sized. “But it’s not that we’re generating the same programs for them all, it’s that the unique mission development of each congregation is the program.”
St. Gabriel’s has come to see itself as a “basecamp” for mission, he says. “We didn’t make that up,” says Green. “It comes from the book ‘Radical Sending,’ by Demi Prentiss and J. Fletcher Lowe. If you are going to climb Mount Everest, you have a basecamp with whatever supplies and support you need, that you are sent out from and that you come back to. So what happens on Sunday morning and throughout the week at St. Gabriel’s is that we tell people that each one of us by virtue of our baptisms are authorized, empowered ministers and missionaries in our everyday life, whatever we’re doing. And we come here to basecamp to get built up, and to be sent out. The most important part of liturgy is when a deacon says, ‘let us go forth in the name of Christ.’”
Lay leadership, a long-established tradition at St. Gabriel’s, is essential to sustaining the parish’s many programs. The late Rev. Calvin Adams, rector of St. Gabriel’s from 1988-2010, laid the foundation.
“Cal left us in a situation where a lot of good leaders had been identified and developed, and were basically running things without a lot of oversight from the rector,” says senior warden Steve Fairbrother. “That positioned us throughout our time of transition and beyond to continue to focus outward on mission and to keep things running.”
“This had been a little country church for most of its history,” says Green. “Cal moved the community from a maintenance model to a mission model, and that was the right fit for me because that was the way I was trained and that is what I’m about.”
Focusing on mission has helped the congregation weather change gracefully, says Green. “Over the years, some of the ministries that were important to the congregation have come to the place where they’re not meeting needs anymore,” says Green. “So this is a place that’s able to look at a thing like our traditional Christmas Bazaar which used to be huge, and say it’s no longer meeting needs. We don’t have the people and the personnel, and the community is not interested in that sort of thing anymore—that’s fine, let’s celebrate it, and then begin to look out and say what is the community interested in.”
“I don’t think most people come here just to put their time in on Sunday morning and feel like they got their batteries recharged, and now they’re good for another week,” Fairbrother says. “The level of participation is pretty amazing.”
Green concurs. “People say, ‘let’s give it a try,’” he says. “And some of the things we’ve tried ended up not working, and we just say, ‘well, that wasn’t meant to be, but at least we gave it a try.’ And then of course, some things do end up working well, which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t tried.”
“This is a group of people that is open to the Holy Spirit—who recognize the only constant in life and in church is change,” he says.
To learn more about what Green calls a mission-centered model of congregational development, he recommends reading “Radical Sending” by Demi Prentiss and J. Fletcher and “Living on the Border of the Holy” by William Countryman. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.