Bishop Linda Nicholls will share her vision for the future of Huron at Synod and call on each parish church to develop a five-year plan. The key words in the process of revitalization of the diocese are: sustainability and discipleship.
By Sandra Coulson
The bishop’s voice is kind and soft-spoken, but the message she delivers is difficult and firm: Decades of social and demographic changes have caught up with Anglican churches and there is no more time to delay the transformations needed to ensure Anglicans are part of the future with God.
“The big picture plan is around the need to stabilize the diocese in terms of the sustainability of parishes because we have a lot of fragile congregations, very fragile,” Bishop Linda Nicholls says in an interview with Huron Church News.
At Synod in May, she will call on each parish church to develop a five-year plan – with measurable benchmarks – for financial stability and building upkeep.
“At the same time,” she says, “we have to be working at discipleship, working on why we are the church, working within churches and on the spiritual needs of the community around us.”
“It’s very daunting” to have to address both tracks simultaneously, she admits, but adds, “We don’t have time to wait; we don’t have time for people to wake up to this.”
These two sides – finances and discipleship – are not disconnected in Bishop Linda’s view.
“When people are passionate about what the church is called to be, they will support it… It’s not just about the money; it’s about being realistic and hopeful. And that’s where the discipleship piece comes in. What is God calling you to do and be in this community?”
Financially, Bishop Linda says, there are four “non-negotiables” for parish churches: having a balanced budget, not using reserves for operating expenses, paying full apportionment, and paying the stipend and housing of clergy.
“My experience is if you don’t have a plan, people will say, well, it’s going to miraculously get better. Or people, when they do a budget, look at what they need and put magic figures in the envelope-givings slot with no plan how to get there.”
While many churches hope for new members, Bishop Linda does not believe people can be asked to join a church essentially to pay expenses. “They’ll be gone faster than you can say, ‘Want envelopes?’ ”
She adds it takes time – sometimes years – for new members to develop the discipleship to be strong financial contributors. Likewise, new ministries may take two years before a parish church will see a financial payback.
Some churches might look to draw on the principle of reserves and trusts to pay for everyday expenses, even though such a strategy can’t last. “You’re wasting the legacy of your ancestors – that’s a pretty hard thing to say,” Bishop Linda says. “I would much rather see reserves drawn down for emergencies and seed money for creative ideas for ministry.”
She foresees some churches needing a radical change. “The way in which we are church is having to change. People say, ‘Bishop, you’re just going around closing churches.’ Well, No. 1, I don’t close churches. Congregations have to decide. Now, I will be the one who comes around holding up a mirror and say, ‘This is what I’m seeing. What are you seeing?’
Yet even if a congregation can’t afford a building, it doesn’t mean the congregation itself has to fold. “In some ways, God may be calling us back to being house churches in some areas,” the bishop says.
Huron has one house church, in London, although it does not operate as a stand-alone parish.
“At the end of the day, (church closure) is not usually about money; it’s because they’ve run out of people energy” as members get older and tired, Bishop Linda says. “It shouldn’t be to the point where you’re so exhausted that you didn’t have any time to really enjoy being God’s people in that place.”
Which brings the discussion around to…
Whatever five-year plan each parish church develops, “it has to be rooted in what Christ calls us to be, which is to love God and love neighbour and worship in ways that are going to be life-giving,” says the bishop.
“Being a Christian is about being in relationship with God through Jesus. It’s about learning to live a particular way in the world.”
The question is: how can members be helped to learn to articulate that? Bishop Linda is still contemplating how to roll out a discipleship push, but notes there are resources that parish churches can use, including Natural Church Development and the Five Marks of Love.
“What gives me hope is the passion and energy of people who do have a vision of what God is calling them to do and be and who want to see things healthy and vibrant and are doing things that are creative,” she says.
The state of Huron
Bishop Linda says she is “not surprised” at the state of churches in Huron. She saw much the same when she was a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Toronto before coming here. “This is true everywhere,” she says.
But she does see strengths in Huron.
She appreciates the dedication of the archdeacons who not only carry the load of their own parish church but also offer their skills and gifts to their deaneries.
She sees Huron Church Camp – a rarity among dioceses – as a place where children can have an intensive eight-day interaction with God and the church in an era when few children attend at the parish level.
She observes Huron people have a sense of family across the diocese, especially the clergy who have often served in parishes all over Huron.
And she says, “What I’ve seen in the church generally and I see it here too is the feistiness of congregations. That’s a good thing. Occasionally it clashes with my good thing,” she says with a smile, “but feistiness is good because we need that stick-to-it-iveness to work through some tough times.”
Sandra Coulson is a member of Church of the Ascension, London, and a copy editor at the London Free Press