SNXL: A Field Project Promoting Reconciliation
By The Rev. Patricia C. Cashman
Called as priest in charge two years earlier, I had come to redevelop this urban parish with a three year contract supported by the Diocese. I had come brimming with passion and ready to transform the congregation into becoming a leader in the neighborhood. The property was on a corner of prime urban real estate and sported a massive bell tower alongside an even larger tree; its multiple classrooms and parking lots sent visions of jubilee ministry dancing in my head.
Across the street and two blocks down, they were imploding blocks of buildings owned by a former corporate behemoth. Dark skinned people from African nations, Nepal, and Burma subgroups were moving into former mansions, traipsing down the main street with flocks of children, the adults wrapped up in exotic garments. The church was in a neighborhood undergoing massive change and I hoped our congregation would follow my vision to welcome and care for our new neighbors.
Of course, I needed to find people to share my vision and become leaders with me. Through a worship experience I developed, I began to see results. We called the service “Saturday Night Xtra Live” (SNXL) and its recipe for spiritual growth, fellowship, and adventures into the neighborhood to try new ministries began to call forth and equip new leaders. But the vestry was not on board. Conflict erupted and a consultant was called in. We spent hours and hours trying to reconcile the Old Guard and SNXL.
Then, things took a turn for the worst and, just like the buildings across the street, my ministry was demolished in a blink of an eye. As part of my severance package I asked that tuition for IMN training be included.Within a few months, I completed both courses and it was time to do a field project. Since I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and searching for a new job, coming up with a project was like facing an insurmountable wall. However, my instructor disagreed with me. He believed there was something for me to do. His lack of doubt and his quiet, kind words gave me hope.I began to think about SNXL. They – about 20 people – had left the congregation when I had. Previously, they had begun to feel themselves a new congregation and had gone to the bishop to ask for help to start a new church with me as their priest. But now, they were angry, bitter and isolated. Some were even breathing threats to go to the newspaper to spread the scandal or join with other disgruntled people to find some way to hurt the bishop.
I began to think: What if I were to reach out to them with a field project? What had I learned about transitions that might open them up to new possibilities? Could it be possible to care for them and keep their gifts within the life of the Diocese? What if my leading them through a transition could help them reconcile with the Diocese?
Of course, I had to begin by calling a meeting of the leaders of SNXL. I explained that I needed to do a field project and asked if they would be willing to help me do three separate activities that would involve them meeting with another congregation. Motivated to help me, they agreed.
I then contacted the priest at the church where I wanted to do my project. Our bond was strong because we had supported each other in our ministry to aid parishes and our churches were located within a few miles of each other. I explained my plan to bring the two congregations together to see if a transition could happen with her congregation welcoming SNXL and SNXL finding a future in her congregation.
She selected about 15 members from her parish and they welcomed SNXL for the first meeting with an upbeat spirit beginning with a delicious meal. Then we priests stood together and thanked our people for coming out and I explained the whole project to everyone present.
After this, we broke into several small groups made up of people from both congregations. The task was for one parish to tell the other all they could in 20 minutes about their history, connections and missions. After 40 minutes each congregation posted a thumbnail sketch of their church using the focus points. It was immediately apparent how different the two groups were and a silence ensued as we contemplated the results.
Then, one person from our host church began to speak and others followed. People from the host group offered words of comfort to SNXL, They did not urge an action or suggest a fix. They just acknowledged that the SNXL people were in pain and in no mood for peace or reconciliation.
Then it was time for the bible reading (The woman at the well) we had planned, and again, something spontaneous happened. Instead of the serious reading I had imagined, a woman from the host congregation volunteered to read the part of Jesus, and a man from SNXL volunteered to read the part of the Samaritan woman. These two had never met before but both proved to be hams and the room erupted into laughter. Afterward, the priest of the host congregation led a brief reflection on the question, what do we bring to give Jesus?
As we left that night I felt that the host church had succeeded extremely well. They had helped in the healing process by conveying respect and caring for SNXL. SNXL experienced healing through validation of telling their narrative using the focus areas of history, connections and mission.
About ten days later we held the second event. This time the two groups came together on a Sunday morning. I was the preacher at the Eucharist and spoke to the whole congregation, informing them that they had a group in their midst and about my project. Later at the coffee hour, I observed host members and SNXL members engaged in lively conversation. I was happy to see how easily they were connecting.
For the third and final event, I had to do some work on my own transition as I simultaneously helped with the transition of bringing two groups together. I needed to say good-bye to my ministry in this place and take my leave of the city. This was done by my being allowed to celebrate the Eucharist and preach on a weeknight at the host church.
Planning such a ritual would make up for my having had to leave my former parish so abruptly (due to a death in my family) that my farewell had not taken place. I had just disappeared. I needed some type of closure to my ministry, not only to SNXL but with many others in the community as well.
When word got out about this farewell service via social media, the Diocesan staff (the Bishop was away on sabbatical) opposed it, concerned I would be breaking my separation agreement if members of my former church attended.
The priest I was working with did not waiver. We agreed I was not to solicit members who remained at my former church to come, but if anyone heard about it and came, we had no means to stop them nor would we want to.
As we prepared for the evening, we got a shock when news came that the priest of our host church had suffered an accident where she and her small dog were injured in an attack from a neighbor’s dog. When I got to the church, everyone was very upset and the mood was sober.
Several people from around the Diocese were there, including two other priests. We stood together at the altar for the Eucharist. My sermon had been on The Beatitudes. It felt strange to be leading heartfelt prayers for the injured priest and her beloved pet. After having THE farewell cake my project was officially over and so was my time in that city. My plan, stated from the beginning, was not to discuss with SNXL their immediate thoughts on their experience of my project; I wanted them to make their own decision if they wanted to join this congregation or not.
As it turned out, almost all the SNXL people showed up at the host church the following Sunday and it didn’t take long for them to transfer in and become members. SNXL had dissolved but the people had found new friends, new ministries, and a new priest. Two years later, three former SNXL members serve on the vestry.
The transition work I learned from IMN training helped a distressed, alienated group find a place to belong and thrive. It helped them reconcile with their bishop and resume relations with his staff. I couldn’t ask for a better transition than that.
The Rev. Patricia C. Cashman is currently the Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Burlington, Iowa. She began her ministry in November of 2013 after serving as the Priest-in-Charge at the Church of Ascension in Rochester, New York. She completed the IMN Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry training in 2013.