From The Rev. Sarah Phelps, Rector
Past, Present & Future
In early 2019, St. John’s made an historic decision with parish-wide participation and financial investment, to hire a half-time minister to lead our children and family ministries for the first time in our parish history. We hired Sarah Bentley Allred fresh out of seminary at Virginia Theological in May and she began her work with us that summer.
At the same time, we expanded the role of our youth director, Joy Shillingsburg, to a half-time position, giving her support to enhance our existing EYC program for both middle and high school youth, and engage our youth and whole parish in our ever-expanding outreach ministry within the wider Wake Forest area.
That investment has proven wonderfully fruitful, even if short-lived. This is evidenced by the fact that throughout 2019, young people and their families found a spiritual community waiting for them at St. John’s, ready to embrace them; and they made the decision to become a part of this community in record numbers. In 2019 our little parish grew by 90 individuals, which was fully half of our average Sunday attendance at worship that year. This burgeoning spiritual community has sustained our young people and their families through a global pandemic and lockdown in 2020, and lingering pandemic impacts up to the present. One sign of this: Participation in children and youth ministries at St. John’s was greater during much of the pandemic than at any time in recent memory.
But, there’s no doubt about it, our children, youth, and family ministries experienced a series of gut-punches in 2020: The resignation of our Music Director, Helen Sopris, in May 2020 was a loss for our Children’s Choir and the entire parish. Our preschool had to close for the 2020-2021 school year because pandemic enrollment limits made it financially impossible to operate. Then, the health-driven departure of Sarah Bentley Allred in February 2021 presented another unexpected setback. Many of our children and families struggled through online learning and work-from-home. And, finally, we’ve just begun to grapple with the recently-announced shift of Joy Shillingsburg out of EYC leadership on September 1 after 9 years of transformational ministry with our teens.
But, alas, this is life!
Thankfully, Joy will continue on our staff as Director of Outreach Ministries and will work with our faith and community partners around Wake Forest to establish the Wake Forest Community Table – a ministry to continue feeding the bodies of hungry neighbors in Wake Forest and to build beloved community around dinner tables and across historic dividing lines of race and class. She will continue to engage our youth in this and other outreach, even as others take up leadership of spiritual formation, worship, and fellowship with our teens.
Despite the anxiety that so much simultaneous change engenders, I hope we can nevertheless give thanks for God’s faithfulness. Our former preschool staff, music director, and children/youth ministry staff have left a strong foundation upon which to build. I pray that we can give thanks for all that has been, and now look to the future with joyful anticipation of whatever – and whoever – comes next.
Long-term planning questions
This fall St. John’s will engage in re-visioning and strategic planning for the next chapter of our parish life and ministry with the assistance of Ministry Architects. The Wake Forest area is growing so fast that we are likely to continue the pace of rapid growth in our parish; and we want to begin planning long-term and strategically, rather than short-term and reactively.
This process will not likely require the investment of many more dollars for staffing in ministry with young families as we already have committed generous funding. (Thank you!) However, it may mean we should consider re-organizing our staff positions and parish leadership differently; that is, in such a way that we have the capacity to engage many more people in our ministries over time without burning out staff and/or volunteer leaders, and without setting ourselves up for frequent staff turnover.
At this moment, we are in a challenging position in that we have vacancies in all three current, permanent staff positions that serve our children, youth, and families: Preschool Director, EYC Director, and Director of Children and Family Ministries. Some may look at this and think, “Wow. What a disaster!” But I think this moment offers a unique opportunity to re-vision and re-organize for greater capacity and sustainability into the future.
For example, here are a few questions that we may consider during this process: 1) Would it be possible to combine two of these part-time positions to create one full-time position which might attract trained, professional candidates who might be more inclined to invest more deeply in our ministry and for a longer term? 2) Could one person reasonably serve as both Director of the Preschool and our Director of Children and Family Ministries at St. John’s? 3) If so, what might that do to improve childhood education, enhance Christian formation of our preschoolers, and build connection between our church and preschool communities? Or, 4) What if we called a full-time Director of Children, Youth, and Family Ministries, creating a position to oversee our entire ministry with children and school-aged youth instead of carving that work into two separate part-time positions that are more vulnerable to frequent turnover? 5) What would it cost to choose one of these options? 6) What fruit might these options produce?
The concurrent vacancies in our children, youth, and family ministries and big questions arising out of the pandemic season suggest to me that we ought not rush to “fill holes” in our current staff structure without stepping back to survey the whole structure in light of our values and priorities, and within a rapidly changing context within St. John’s, Wake Forest, and the wider Church. I think it’s important to proceed in this work with prayer and careful consideration. Other possible staff and leadership configurations may emerge as we take the time to survey the whole; but by early spring 2022, I trust that we will have arrived at clarity of vision and unity of purpose around our next steps, and then we’ll be ready just in time for seminary graduation season and the moment when child educators and ministers are most actively considering new vocational opportunities.
What happens to our ministries with children, youth, and families in the meantime?
With the encouragement of Ministry Architects, I am proposing to the Vestry that we hire temporary staff for the 2021-2022 program year for our children, youth, and family ministries so we may retain flexibility as we plan our next longer-term steps. Temporary does not mean a “slapdash” result if you approach it the right way and with the right people.
Even as we have multiple staff vacancies to contend with, we have the blessing of Jane Hill who was a founder of our preschool and its first Director who can provide “temporary” leadership of the preschool this year along with long-time returning teacher, Lisa Giramonte, as her co-director for the year.
We also have the blessing of the Reimagining Curacies program – and the leadership of The Rev. Amanda Bourne with us this year, full-time.
And, finally, we have a church full of smart, gifted, creative, and generous people who love children and youth, and who already have demonstrated their commitment to walking Jesus’s Way of Love with them and building spiritual community with them.
I am confident we can do well by our children, youth, and families for the coming year if we work together. Please read below for more about how this plan is shaping up for the coming year.
What’s Shaping up for the 2021 – 2022 Program Year
Episcopal Youth Community (EYC)
Mo. Sarah is currently seeking an EYC Director for a one-year commitment at 8-10 hours per week. She is posting it as a short-term position that may have potential to become permanent. It will be posted on our website, with the diocese, Duke Divinity, and the Episcopal House of Studies at Duke. Interviews will be set up for the first half of August. If you are interested in the position, please send letter/resumé to Mo. Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org by July 31.
If we are not able to identify an EYC Director by mid-to-late August, we will move ahead with a “Plan B” approach as we begin the program year. Plan B is to invite a team of parishioners to coordinate and facilitate the EYC program for the coming year. We can post the EYC Director position again mid-August, keeping the position open into September/October in case someone surfaces as we begin the program year, while also moving ahead with Plan B.
Regardless of whether we have a paid EYC Director on staff by mid-August, a standing youth task force is needed at this stage in our parish development to support a sustainable youth ministry moving forward, especially as we expect our parish and the number of involved youth to continue to grow. The infusion of our parishioners’ wisdom, energy, creativity, and elbow grease is essential to a healthy and vibrant future for the EYC.
Our curate, The Rev. Amanda Bourne, will provide clergy support and supervision for this area of our ministry (and actually for Christian Formation overall – adult, youth, and children/families) through the 2021-2022 program year. Her focus for pastoral care and for the welcoming of newcomers to St. John’s also will be families with school-aged young people at home. In July and August, Amanda will:
- Recruit a committee to support and possibly facilitate the EYC ministry for the coming year, if needed. Early tasks for Mo. Amanda and task force leadership will be to establish the length of a “term” for each task force member, draft a task force job description, and draft potential job descriptions for smaller teams within the task force (e.g., fellowship/outing team, formation team). The structure can be refined by the task force as a whole, but something like this is needed to clarify expectations and time commitment for potential volunteers, so no single role becomes too much for one person to carry.
- Identify potential curriculum resources to support EYC formation for use by either an EYC Director and/or a parishioner-led formation team.
Joy Shillingsburg will continue in her capacity as EYC Director through Aug 31 (unless we hire her successor before then.) In her remaining time in this position, Joy will:
- Provide Amanda an understanding of the EYC program as it has developed in recent years (i.e., EYC’s most recent patterns of formation, outreach, fellowship, and other activities as well as its intergenerational and mission-oriented character).
- Offer Amanda guidance re: who to approach as she recruits an EYC task force that will support the ministry moving forward.
- Share her thoughts on the opportunities and challenges of youth ministry and the “re-imagining” work that is necessary in this post(?)-pandemic moment.
- Offer her insights regarding various formation curriculum and how they might be utilized by a new EYC Director and/or a formation team of parishioners.
If we have identified an EYC Director by late August, the new Director (with others’ help) will need to quickly plan a couple of events to get the EYC program started in September while a committee is being established. If we do not have an EYC Director identified by mid-August, then it is possible the “fall program start” may be delayed a few weeks as we get the committee up and running to facilitate the overall program.
Children & Family Ministries (children 5th grade and younger, and their families)
Given that children under 12 still do not have access to the Covid-19 vaccine, our options for indoor, in-person gatherings including young children remain limited. (For example, our diocesan protocols do not yet allow us to resume Nursery Care alongside in-person Sunday services.) Therefore, it is likely that online and outdoor gatherings will continue to be the mainstay of our children and family program at least through the fall of 2021.
Our Godly Play Sunday School program is likely to resume meeting in September in an online format (as opposed to in-person, at church.) At minimum, we hope that public health conditions will improve enough by January 2022 to allow us to move to a “hybrid” of in-person and online meetings; but we need to remain nimble enough to “pivot” in either (or both) directions.
Mo. Sarah is currently seeking a Godly Play Coordinator for the 2021-2022 program year and has been in conversation with potential candidates for the last several weeks. The job description will be posted on our website and with the diocese. This Coordinator position is a temporary, one-year position with a $500 monthly stipend and a time commitment of 5-7 hours per week. Our hope is to provide sufficient structure with this position to enable this beautiful program to continue as it did last year for our youngest children and their families, even amidst the limitations of the pandemic.
In addition to resuming Godly Play online, we will continue as the weather allows to offer a monthly, outdoor worship service for all ages called PRAYground. This service offers a Covid-safe, accessible, and beautiful worship experience for all ages, regardless of vaccination status. The service will be coupled with outdoor outreach projects and fellowship time with our children, youth, and families.
Beyond Godly Play and PRAYground, we will need to take it “one day at a time” to see what more we can safely offer in the months ahead. If children have access to the vaccine in time for the Advent/Christmas season, we may be able to re-start the Children’s Choir and resume things like the Christmas Pageant. If not, we’ll look to offer “Faith at Home” helps as we did last year during upcoming special seasons, and we’ll seize every opportunity we can to gather outdoors!
As with the EYC, we expect our children and families ministry will continue growing in the years ahead, perhaps rapidly, and the formation of a permanent task force to engage the wider parish more deeply in this ministry will be essential in addition to whatever staff position also supports it. During this transitional year as we re-visit our longer-term staffing plan for children, youth, and family ministries, this committee will need to plan and carry out any events and activities we offer beyond Godly Play and PRAYground.
As with the EYC, an early task for Amanda and task force leadership will be to establish the length of a “term” for each task force member, draft a task force job description and potential job descriptions for smaller teams within the task force (e.g., family fellowship/outing team, Godly Play support team, seasonal celebrations team?) The structure can be refined by the committee, but something like this is needed to clarify expectations and time commitment for potential volunteers so that no single role becomes too much for one person to carry.
In addition to supporting the Godly Play Coordinator and helping to form and guide the work of these groups, Mo. Amanda will offer pastoral care and connection to our children, youth, and young families throughout the year.