One parish’s experience of Area Ministry

Posted on September 24, 2008

St. George's, Antioch, and St. Alban's, Brentwood, celebrate Eucharist together in the park.Last year, the Rev Canon Michael Barlowe invited St George’s, Antioch, to create an Area Ministry team with St Alban’s, Brentwood. St. George’s was established in 1988, when two parishes (St. David’s, Pittsburgh, and St. Barnabus, Antioch) were combined. To complicate matters, Antioch was a rural community that has seen an unprecedented population boom in recent years. Despite the growth around them, attempts to grow St. George’s through traditional methods have not been successful.


In her two years at St. George’s, the Rev. Amber Sturgess has led the parish through a process of healing old wounds and moving forward into Area Ministry. That process, she says, began with the parish working to accept where they are now and contemplate how they cope with transitions and change. Intensive group work moved the parish toward a willingness to change, and they began experimenting with combining services as one way to heal. Eventually they decided to move to a single service, a change that has energized and motivated the parish.


Nevertheless, Sturgess feels that rather than continue to use the traditional models of church growth that don’t seem to be working, it is vital for St. George’s go out into the world and experience the direct presence of God. In January the parish nominated four laypeople to serve on the Area Ministry team with four laypeople from St. Alban’s and clergy and diocesan leadership.


The major question the team focuses on is, What is God calling us to be in east Contra Costa County? The group brainstorms about the kind of church they’d like to be, allowing themselves to daydream about how they might go out into the world and bring church to the people. Letting the group be creative is a significant component of the work. There is inherent risk and uncertainty to the process, but Sturgess says that “letting things flow” helps move people reorient their priorities and let go of their ideas about the way church should be.


Building a relationship with St. Alban’s is also an important part of the process. The two parishes have started inviting each other to church events and even sharing special services together in a nearby park. “It’s a process of getting people to let go of the way they’ve always looked at each other” and “learning to really love one another in a community that is open and accepting of one another, with all our differences,” says Sturgess. She looks forward to a time when they will begin sharing small-group faith formation resources together and further deepen their relationship.


Sturgess acknowledges that Area Ministry is not easy. It will take a great deal of education, discipleship, and careful discernment of spiritual gifts. Also, the east Contra Costa team’s efforts were affected by a change in leadership at St. Alban’s, but with the recruitment and deployment of the Rev. Aris Rivera, the new vicar and area missioner, Sturgess is excited about the shape of things to come. She describes Area Ministry as a “movement from a more hierarchical way of doing ministry to a mutual ministry” that involves “embodying what it means to be the priesthood of all believers.” She says, “It’s a radically different way of thinking about doing ministry … It’s really a transformation in the approach to ministry.”