Episcopal Diocese of Washington

Engaging a changing world with
an enduring faith in Jesus Christ

News & Features

Reimagining Vacation Bible School

September 12, 2019

Participants having a good time at the St. John's, Olney Vacation Bible School, August 2019

Last fall, I sat down with my newly christened lead volunteers for Vacation Bible School. They were still glowing from the VBS we completed a month earlier, the first St. John’s, Olney had offered in about ten years. 

We had carefully crafted a theologically sound, all-activities-point-to-the-Gospel, week of fun and selected specifically the last week of August--a week often void of kid camps before the start of school--and we were thrilled with our over 70 participants and 30 some volunteers. Energy was high. Conversations rang with remembrances of the good old days of VBS at the height of church attendance, a nostalgic vision of ministry in the collective memory of the parish.

I was a little troubled, however. For one, most of the thanks from the parents echoed a similar refrain of cheap child-care, which of course is a ministry, but of a different sort than we had been looking to provide. For two, upon coming into St. John’s, I had spent my time re-working the Sunday School program to be more reflective of family formation expectations, with Holy Household Toolkits coming home quarterly, Sunday School with a clear objectives trajectory and expectation toward attendance, and across generations prayer partnerships with events featuring prayer tools.

Our VBS, while solid in its teachings, felt out of sync with our formation goals. How were these parents empowered to continue these themes at home? For the amount of resources (time, talent and treasure) involved, did we offer the most positive formation experience possible? So I emailed my two stand-out, supportive volunteers.

Sitting across from their excited, expectant faces, knowing full well that they were expecting to launch into planning next year’s camp, with a Harry Potter theme, I stated my concerns, “So, I’ve prayerfully been thinking, we should offer our VBS at night, as a family-oriented event, with people of all ages being formed and fed, with activities that would reach multiple ages and faith development levels.”

Silence.

“You know we won’t get as many people--it’s a much bigger ask of a family.”

“Yes,” I replied. “But I think it will be better long-term formation.”

Silence again.

“We should feed them dinner.”

From that comment, we launched into planning a week-long program, where parents would be expected to stay and be formed alongside of their kids, where teenagers and parishioners without small kids would be required to form and be formed at the same time, and where we were certain we would drop numbers and have to talk people into coming.

What we found, is on whole, we didn’t have to convince people into coming. People were hungry for the opportunity to talk formation, to have tools to help them teach formation, and to find a path to understanding their family as faithful.

Sorted into Hogwarts Houses, VBS participants work together on a craft project

In keeping with the Harry Potter framework:

  • We served dinner, buffet style, with each family sitting in a larger grouping of their Hogwarts House.
  • We “Owl Mailed” a daily newsletter of the theme, the Harry Potter connections, the bible stories and the “why” of every activity.
  • We did one craft--fitting the theme of Harry Potter and the theme of the day.
  • We did a House challenge, requiring all the members of the House to work together--building a marble run, completing a puzzle in silence, participating in scooter races, unwrapping saran-wrap balls of goodies, and collaborating in a photo scavenger hunt.
  • We watched a daily bible video, created by one of our own parish teenagers.
  • We broke into age-appropriate groups to discuss the Bible story (the only time we divided by age).
  • We took next steps as households to discuss where this theme takes us further in faith--as individuals, as church, as families, etc.
  • We prayed compline, every night, except Friday, when we celebrated the Eucharist together.

At home, the conversations continued. Spouses continued discussing scripture and parents were ready to discuss Harry Potter in the view of the Gospel, the world in the view of the Gospel, their family in the view of the Gospel.

Small group, age-based, Bible discussion 

Over the course of a week, we had over 70 participants, with few who were strictly volunteers and no one not participating.

Our numbers included all ages, from infants through parishioners in their 80s. Our households included young families, empty-nesters, and people without children. Participants left asking for more family formation events, saying that they valued this time of learning and family. They were adding the following year’s VBS week into their phones to hold the dates before vacation could be planned.

We’re already planning next summer’s Lion, Witch and Wardrobe Vacation Bible, with the assumption we will have more people from across the age spectrum participating, with or without kids, but ready, in child-like curiosity, to learn about faith so that they may take it with them to continue their formation long after the experience is over. 

The Rev. Shivaun Wilkinson
Associate Rector, St. John’s, Olney

Laughter and joy during one of the nightly Hogwarts House challenges

Category: News

Manna From Heaven--Food for a Wandering Heart

September 05, 2019

 

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
Augustine of Hippo

I have a wandering heart. It served me well during many years of rich experiences. But in all that wandering, eventually I got lost. Thankfully, God called me back, and set my feet on his path. In my second year at Virginia Theological Seminary, I was lucky enough to go to the Dominican Republic for a month of study. One of the heroes I encountered there was a Gandhi-like priest, Sandino Sanchez. In one of our conversations, I asked him, “Sandino, tell me about the faith of your people. Why is it so strong?” He said, “Sara, in the Dominican Republic, we have so little and life is so hard that we know how much we depend on God; in your country you have so much you think you don’t need God.” I was unmasked. I whispered to my heart, “I need a faith like this.” 

That’s how my path to Latino ministry began. It has never been about what I can give to my congregations; it has been my desire to accompany them through life, recognizing my own need to anchor my heart in Jesus and walk by faith. 

I have been visited by grace upon grace throughout my years of ministry. People have generously shared intimate moments of joy and struggle. Exile, wandering, desert, deliverance--these are not just biblical metaphors in peoples’ lives; they are real life experiences. 

During a collaborative book study discussion between members of Misa Alegria and Church of the Redeemer, Santos, who was describing his journey to the United States, told how God had hidden him in the cleft of a rock until helicopters disappeared from overhead. As he spoke, I simultaneously heard the Psalmists’ words and the old hymn, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” Another time, during a Lenten Bible study, Maria asked, “I’d like to know how it is to cross the desert. Do you suffer from the heat?” Esther replied, “I didn’t suffer. A fine mist fell on my skin the whole time.” Our resident sage, Valentin, seated cross-legged on the floor, said simply, “Manna from heaven.”  

Lately, our shared stories and conversations have explored questions of what it means to be treated as a scapegoat for society’s ills and how it feels to fear Pharaoh’s army. Yet despite such deeply troubling times, I continue to be amazed by an unshakeable, ever faithful witness to God’s presence with us. 

In the Diocese of Washington, diversity is one of our greatest blessings. I am hopeful that, in this new season of our common life, we will be even more willing to reach out, to meet around our sacred stories, and maybe discover a friend in the stranger--and a deep connection in our common humanity. 

By faith, we will all be brought to where our heart is, for we are all journeying home. If we open ourselves to one another, we just might find that our shared stories and dreams are manna from heaven--food for the journey.  

The Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin
Latino Missioner

Category: News

Deacons' Back to School Challenge

September 05, 2019

The Rev. Susan Fritz (Christ Church Durham & St. James' Indian Head) and the Rev. Steve Seely (Christ Church La Plata and Christ Church Wayside), our Charles County deacons.

Most churches do something to help the back-to-school effort. Our two deacons in Charles County, the Rev. Susan Fritz (Christ Church Durham & St. James' Indian Head) and the Rev. Steve Seely (Christ Church La Plata & Christ Church Wayside) put their heads together on some collaboration. 
 
"There are about 700 students in transition (without permanent housing) in the Charles County schools and many more more living below the poverty line," Deacon Steve says. He wondered what could be done to help these students - and the teachers, too. With Deacon Sue, they collaborated to launch The Deacons' Challenge to see whose parishes could come through for the kids. 
 
The three-week campaign focused on four items: spiral/composition notebooks, pens/pencils, crayons/colored pencils, and glue. Deacon Sue's parishes took care of the glue and crayons while Deacon Steve's parishes handled notebooks and pencils.
 
The four parishes came through for the kids in Charles County Public Schools in a big way!
 
1,125 notebooks. 2,500 pencils. 1,900 ink pens. 550 glue sticks. 225 boxes of crayons and colored pencils. 200 packages of filler notebook paper. 
 
Wow. 
 
Who won the Deacons' Challenge? According to Deacon Sue, "The real winners were the students and teachers. We look forward to doing this again next year."
 
 
Category: News

A Space for Grace

August 29, 2019

More than twenty years of working in the corporate arena exposed me to many of the processes used to identify company objectives. Executive management teams batted around various terms--mission, vision, aspirations, values, strengths, challenges--to ultimately craft a strategic plan that would move the company from a space of current complacency to a space of future excitement and growth. 

In this environment, I learned that the crafting of a transformative strategic plan capable of bridging the chasm between these two spaces required yet another space to be incorporated: a space for grace.

As I experienced the discovery sessions of our diocesan strategic planning process, I was touched by the emotional texture of the conversations that shared rather intimate aspects of parish life.  Throughout the conversations, there was an infused space for grace that was rich with authenticity, genuineness, and integrity of spirit. Space for grace created a sense of safety that extended an invitation to share both one’s beauty and one’s brokenness with boldness. Naming and claiming the totality of one’s being is a modeling of boldness that can reap many benefits--healing and growth.

I believe that everyone has a fervent desire to be heard, seen, loved, and connected. I also believe that these fervent desires are typically fervently kept secret because of our need to honor our projected image to others rather than being honest with the reality of who we really are. Intentionally infusing a space for grace into our conversations as we develop healthy relationships with each other enables a realization that whatever situation in which we find ourselves, we’re not in it alone. 

Podcast host Sasza Lohrey reminds us that, “Knowing that you’re not alone--that all humans struggle--is one of the foundations of self-compassion and it’s a game changer.” As we embark upon our strategic plan, we, too, are called to be “game changers” by continuing to infuse a space for grace throughout our work. For in so doing, we not only enable the fulfillment of our strategic plan, but enable personal healing and growth as well.

The Rev. Dr. Robert T. Phillips
Senior Associate for Leadership Development and Congregational Care
Episcopal Diocese of Washington

Category: News

Sankofa: Embracing the Possibilities

August 22, 2019

In the beauty of the liturgy, there is a moment of confession:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 360)

For many, including myself, recalling the sins I have done doesn’t need much reflection. Educing “what we have left undone,” however, requires more intentional thought and often calls up anxiety. What have I not done? Who have I not forgiven? Who have I not loved? For whom did I not act when I had the power to?

This confession teaches us that sin is expressed not only in acts of commission, but in acts of omission--failing to act when possessing the ability, power, and privilege to do so is indicative of spiritual malaise.

This spiritual uneasiness is not isolated to individualistic piety. We have to admit that corporately, as a Christian institution, we are challenged not by what we have done, as much as by what we have left undone. For many parishes, attendance decline is not traced to a dysfunctional clergy person or vestry, something we might label an act of commission. Instead, more often than not, a drop off in membership stems from a lack of strategy for reaching the next generation, whether that’s evangelizing their neighborhoods or serving new digital audiences with the loving, liberating and life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ. This absence of a plan for the future is an act of omission.    

The beauty of strategic planning is that it offers us an opportunity to take stock, not only of what have been areas of growth and decline, but as importantly, of what terrains of the harvest we have yet to explore. Strategic planning allows us to consider the possibilities and potentialities that would inspire every person to grow deeper with Christ: Which communities need strategic investment to propel them into revitalization? Who is serving at the communion table on Sunday mornings--and what races, generations, gender expressions are missing that we need to reach? How can we engage them using digital media and inspired in-person content?*

There is a proverb of the Akan people in Ghana, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translated means: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” I pray we have the courage to go back, remember, and embrace the possibilities.

*For more reading and some answers to some of these questions that were raised, I commend The Great Opportunity Report.

Rev. Daryl Lobban
Missioner for Communications

Category: News

Sharing Faith cards can be printed (double sided) from the document located here: Faith Cards Avery 8387. They are on Avery 8387 postcard stock and need to be cut in half  once printed.

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