Sandy and Ned Bergert credit the diocesan-led Fresh Start program with helping the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia get a fresh start between rectors.
In fact, the husband-and-wife lay leaders liked it so much they signed up for an extra semester.
“It was wonderful; we learned a lot about church in general and a lot about ourselves and really a lot about our church community and what we needed to look at in order to change and grow,” said Sandy, 60.
Fresh Start is a seven-year-old collaborative effort of the Episcopal Church Office for Ministry Development, the Church Deployment Office and others that helps equip dioceses, congregations, clergy and laity to grow during times of transition.
One of the biggest shifts Ned Bergert noticed was a more reflective tone in vestry meetings. “Previous vestries were run like a corporate business meeting,” said Ned, 61, a 30-year Blessed Sacrament parishioner and the current senior warden.
Now, after Fresh Start, “it feels more like spiritual formation,” he said. “We spend probably the first 30 to 45 minutes of our vestry meeting on a reflection. We’re looking to update our mission statement and during our last vestry meeting we spent time reading articles from the Vestry Resource Guide [a publication of the Episcopal Church Foundation]. We went through several of the discussion questions using mutual invitation, which has changed how the vestry communicates with itself.”
Mutual invitation, a process initiated by the Rev. Canon Eric Law, founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute, a diocesan institution, “respects everybody’s opinion, everybody’s time,” according to Ned.
“We’ve learned as a body that when we have a discussion we don’t interrupt each other. We let everyone finish their thoughts and the next person is invited and we go around and if somebody has follow-up, they share,” he said. “We found this to be very beneficial, very spiritually growing, to allow us to know each other more and to know our congregation better.”
Directed by the Rev. Canon Joanna Satorius, diocesan Canon for Clergy Formation and Transition Ministry, participants include clergy in new cures and newly ordained clergy, and lay leaders who are experiencing critical periods in the life of a congregation. Its content is based on embracing formational opportunities during times of transition, the importance of relationship building, and the need for self-care.
Ten day-long sessions are held on alternating Saturdays at the Episcopal Theological School in Claremont’s Bloy House.
Deep listening, relationship-building
Fresh Start debuted in 2000 through the wider Episcopal Church as a clergy resource which “relied on dioceses to develop it in the way that would work best for them,” Satorius said. “It’s a very powerful program for those in transition.
“Typically, when vestries or bishop’s committees sit down to meet, they generally don’t listen deeply; they’re problem-solving, paying bills, deciding on actions, but never have the space to sit and hear one another, to ask questions and get informative responses.”
With Fresh Start, she said, “you build relationship — and what is the church, if not relationships of trust, and communication? — even if you differ greatly” about other issues.
The sessions include such topics as: healthy beginnings for new ministries; congregational systems and life; sharing history and community understanding; and how to navigate transition and response to change.
Led by diocesan deployment staff and other nationally trained mentors, sessions also include finances, leading planned change, wellness and time for worship.
Since the program’s debut, modules have been updated and the program was expanded in 2003 to include sessions for laity.
Building those relationships offers congregations a way to move forward in the midst of changing circumstances that might otherwise create controversy,” Satorius said. “A lot of the controversy we see in churches is because leadership never really has the opportunity to develop those relationships.” With solid relationships, there is more ability to work through challenges, she said.
Because of Fresch Start’s benefits to congregations and individuals, the Los Angeles diocese continues to offer the program, even though it has been discontinued elsewhere, Satorius said.
Fellowship and challenges
Over time, Fresh Start has affected a majority of congregations throughout the diocese through clergy or laity who have participated.
For the Rev. John Limo, priest-in-charge at St. Timothy’s Church in Apple Valley, the relationships built during the Fresh Start sessions themselves have felt extremely supportive.
“When we meet together and share our experiences and our challenges, we are able to help one another with ideas and also we are able to pray for one another together,” he said.
“Fresh Start is the place where we go to the cross and leave our problems,” he added. “I look forward to it because it is a fellowship of its own kind. Each time, we learn something new.
“When I first got into Fresh Start, the first thing I learned was the way all parishes have unique problems and challenges, and then I learned to be more patient with people, to look at each case as uniquely as they are, to look at a new parish with a lot of enthusiasm. It has been a place for growing.”
The Rev. Fairbairn Powers, priest-in-charge at St. Hilary’s Church in Hesperia, said listening to the stories of other participants afforded powerful connections.
“I am not that comfortable with conflict, but it’s a reality,” she said. “And to hear people talk about how they navigated their way through it is particularly helpful to me.”
Plus, the sessions always offer “the sense that we’re called back to recognize the whole community of the faithful and what the laity and congregations are doing.”
A three-time Fresh Start participant, she told The Episcopal News that “one of my key lay leaders has been in the one for laity and swears by it.
“It’s a wonderful way to connect with the diocese or with a new ministry and a marvelous way to get counsel or wisdom. It opens us and invites us to trust.”
A prayerful process
Jennifer Pavia said Fresh Start profoundly affected the rector search a few years ago at St. Augustine by-the-Sea Church in Santa Monica.
“The discussions revolve around whatever people are bringing into the room,” recalled Pavia, 54, who led the search committee. “There is a whole module about bringing you through conflict. Another wonderful one focuses on entrances and exits; you learn about family systems theory so you can understand the dynamics within your congregation.”
The Scripture-based content of the modules empowered her to go back to the congregation and be a non-anxious presence throughout the transition, she said.
Meetings became more prayerful. “We elected a chaplain for our committee whose sole job was, if people were getting ahead of themselves or trying to push too fast or rising to conflict, to pull us back and say, ‘let’s be quiet for a few minutes and then have prayer,’” she recalled. “It turned our process around and it helps people to be patient.
“When the diocese came to us and said this is going to be an 18-month to two-year process, we laughed and said, maybe for some other congregation but it’s not going to take us that long.”
But Fresh Start changed all that, she said, by “turning it around from being this corporate thing, like we’re going to run it like we’re human resources. Even those who were the most hard-core began leaving it up to the Holy Spirit. We had agendas and structures, but they wasn’t driven by our need to direct this thing.”
And the congregation didn’t fast-track the call to a new rector after all. “It ended up being two years to the day,” Pavia chuckled. “We were led by the power of the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t our own agenda.”
Eventually, Pavia also trained as a program facilitator to “share my experiences with other congregations in the diocese. That’s also what Fresh Start does. It plugs you into other lay leaders and their wisdom. It isn’t top-down; it isn’t the bishop’s office saying this is what you have to do. The learning is coming from your contemporaries, saying this is what we tried, this was what worked.”
Fresh Start had a profound personal impact, added Pavia, who is currently enrolled at Bloy House. She intends to seek ordination to the priesthood.
“Living in that discernment place so prayerfully for two years really yielded my own discernment,” she said.
Others also noticed the program’s impact. “The wife of one of our search committee members asked, ‘What are you people doing at your meetings?’ My husband comes home so different, and I want some of that.’”
A new Fresh Start session for laity will begin Jan. 14. For more information about Fresh Start, contact the diocesan deployment office at 213.482.2040.