Lessons learned on the missional journey

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on January 1, 2016

By the Rev. Ruthanne Ward and the Rev. Riscylla Walsh Shaw

We undertook a survey of our congregation at Christ Church, Bolton, that yielded transformational results. We asked: What do you like about your church? What would you like to see more of? What do you hear God calling us to as a faith community? How do we join together in making disciples? The response we heard was that God was calling the congregation to go out into the community – at a grassroots level – to do ministry.

The first step was to work hard in the congregation to shift from an inward-looking focus on traditional ministry to an outward-oriented focus on what God was up to in our neighbourhood, and then to discern how we might engage in that. Here are some of the things we’ve learned in the past year:

At first, most congregants will be excited that you are doing missional ministry. Their first thought will be that you are going to grow the church – meaning, more people will start attending your regular services. Though this may happen, the focus of missional ministry is on developing community beyond the walls and practices of the traditional church. Engaging in missional ministry becomes an acknowledgment that the majority of people are no longer caring for their spiritual well-being through the church, but are still interested and in need of spiritual community.

Only ministry ideas from lay people are pursued. One of the first things we made clear was that our ministry efforts would be from the ground up. The people who live, work and play in our parishes are the ones who know what is going on, where people are at and where to find the intersections of life. They are often (if not always) the best people to discern what the Spirit is up to in our midst and where we are being called to be engaged. We invited congregants to offer any and all suggestions they had for ministry that would engage people beyond our walls and traditions. Within the first few weeks, we had a number of suggestions, one of which was “hiking church,” which we call “The Path.” One Sunday a month during hiking season (May to October), a group of congregants met at a local hiking trail. With the aid of a brochure outlining some spiritual practices, we set off to worship God and experience fellowship along the walk. Though at first it was mainly congregants who attended, it eventually became a place where others in the community felt comfortable exploring their own spiritual journey.

Expect push-back. Inevitably, you will get push-back from congregants because this doesn’t look like anything they’ve experienced before. There will be uncertainty about what the “end product” will look like. Be prepared for this, welcoming and cultivating ongoing conversation and, as a leader, modeling patience, perseverance and faith.

When equipping and empowering lay leaders, anticipate some degree of reluctance. Many parishes are used to the priest being in charge of several events (and certainly those occasions that have a spiritual bent.) For some of our faith communities, this has created a passivity amongst our congregants. It takes time, encouragement and coaching to help them step into their God-given roles as participants in the ministry of the church. Clergy provide training, resources and, perhaps most importantly, the constant reminder that we believe in the gifts and abilities of our lay people – the priesthood of all believers.

Enjoy the blessings of surprise and joy. Church people are accustomed to being asked to volunteer at the bazaar or to hand out bulletins on Sunday morning. But when you start to invite them to move their energies into things like going for a hike with a neighbour, or spending Sunday morning inviting neighbours in for coffee instead of going to church, they discover something about being Christian that they had not fully known before – that God simply wants us to love each other. And the best part is that they discover how much this enriches their own lives. Missional ministry is not another thing to do at church: it is a way of being the people of God in the world – day in and day out – that is life-giving and energy-restoring.

The Rev. Ruthanne Ward, associate priest at Christ Church, Bolton, took on the role of coach, facilitator and mentor as the church became missional. The Rev. Riscylla Walsh Shaw is the incumbent of Christ Church, Bolton.


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