The Nicodemus Project
will transform our church
by Jim Morell
Our vision and goals as the Diocese of Fredericton, expressed by Synod 2009 and articulated by Diocesan Council, require a transformational change in our understanding of our church. In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus leads him to seek transformation as well. He knows that in order to begin a new life focused on God, he must change his ways. In honour of that faithfulness and with confidence in our own prayerfully revealed priorities, our diocesan pursuit of transformational change will henceforth be called The Nicodemus Project.
The name was chosen in November by members of the Diocesan Council Administration Team, the group charged with clearing the path that leads to the fundamental change we need. It constitutes the Diocesan Council action plan and will help us fulfill our mission “to proclaim the Gospel for the making of disciples,” and the vision we have set for ourselves — to be a “diocese of mission-focused, healthy, welcoming and growing parishes.” In short, the Nicodemus Project will help us become the church God wants us to be.
Last June synod delegates approved two diocesan reports that called for fundamental changes in the culture of our church. At its November meeting Diocesan Council responded by approving a four-point action plan designed to guide us through a period of change that will transform our diocese. Council believes that in order to be effective and long lasting, the changes we need to make must be diocesan-wide and implemented over an extended period of time. The changes that Jesus told Nicodemus about and the changes synod delegates talked about are deep and life changing. The Nicodemus Project is council’s action plan on paper and will be rolled out in the coming months.
While there will be leadership and support from the bishop, synod office staff and Diocesan Council, by far the greatest responsibility for change rests with individual parishes and archdeaconry greater chapters. But what needs to change? Where do we begin? Who is responsible for doing what? When should we start?
Purposely, there is no ‘one size fits all’ plan for change. No one is going to dictate exactly what should be done differently or what new initiatives need to be undertaken. It will be up to parishes to make their own decisions. To start the process council’s action plan asks that every parish vestry make a deliberate decision to conduct a self-assessment — a process of corporate and organizational self-examination that leads immediately to an action plan for change. Such a plan should address such fundamental questions as “Are we being the church that God wants us to be?” and “What can we do differently or better in order to grow spiritually, numerically and financially?” One useful tool for this exercise might be the ’10 Marks of a Healthy Parish’ compiled by the struggling parishes task force.
What if our changes are slow in coming or don’t go deep enough, one might ask? To paraphrase the Rev. Chuck Congram, a well-known workshop leader, without deep change it is entirely likely that a good number of our 78 parishes will continue to decline and eventually die off.
Synod delegates, gathered in archdeaconry groups, were given the opportunity to deliberate on the question of “what should our first priorities be?” Their message was clear – “we first need to re-learn what it means to be Christian and Anglican” and “we need to prepare our clergy and lay leaders for a different future.” In response to these two priorities, council tasked its working teams with developing programs of support for parishes participating in The Nicodemus Project. Facilitators will be trained and available to visit parishes. They will bring with them existing and/or specially developed videos and written resource materials. Their other resources include a congregational development fund being developed now, and a leadership and learning weekend planned for the coming months.
At the same time all of this is happening at the parish level, a new task force responding to another synod motion will be evaluating diocesan governance, structures and processes with a view to improving administrative efficiency and reducing costs.
The report of the Task Force on Rural and Struggling Parishes documented why we need to change. Collectively we are facing many problems and challenges: our most loyal and generous parishioners are aging, funerals far outnumber baptisms, attendance is dropping, Sunday schools are shrinking, and fewer teens and young families join us for worship. These days mission and outreach initiatives are often the exception rather than the rule, the number of full-time clergy decreases each year, and our stewardship of God’s gift of money is rarely spoken about. Certainly parish income is not keeping up with expenses, our buildings are old, impractical and expensive to operate, and most of our parishes are struggling – some barely surviving.
Clearly ours is a church in decline. Like Nicodemus, deep down we know something is missing and we have to change. Our plan for transformational change is spelled out in The Nicodemous Project (19 November 2009). May God help us to become the church he wants us to be.
Jim Morell is chair of the Diocesan Council Administration Team, the group charged with responsibility for The Nicodemus Project.
He invites your comments and questions at <jamorell at nbnet.nb.ca>.