St. Alban’s offers a case study for growth

20191117_140316 (1)Peter Jesserer Smith of St. Alban’s Catholic Church, an ordinariate community in Rochester, New York  attended the Anglican Tradition in the Catholic Church conference last November in Toronto. He’s shown in the picture with Matthew Perry from the Connecticut Ordinariate Fellowship.  Peter wrote the following (slightly edited) on Facebook on what his community has done to evangelize and grow.

It’s a pretty amazing prescription!  Any thoughts on how these ideas might work in your community?  Want to share what’s working for you?

When St. Alban’s Catholic Church, the Ordinariate church in Rochester, NY, got its first real chance, we were without a priest for a year, in a terrible location, and boiled down to about 12 people (including kids) after a host of other challenges. We kept the community together with prayer and fellowship, and finally got our priest at part time. We made our case to the bishop and he decided to take the chance. Based on what we could afford, our priest would work 75% for the local diocese and 25% for our Ordinariate community. That was Summer 2017. At the beginning, some Masses we had more people on the altar than the congregation. But we’ve built good relationships with the broader Catholic community, we’re now in a better location, and we’ve all worked hard. On our first Epiphany Sunday in 2018, we might have had 18 people at Mass. Last Sunday we had 72 people at Mass.

I should probably write a case study, but here are salient points:

1, Our mission is to bring every man and woman alive in Jesus Christ through the Catholic faith as experienced in our Ordinariate life (worship, prayer, Biblically-rich traditions, fellowship, etc). That is the most important point.

2, We welcome everyone at church and invite them to fellowship at coffee hour, which is where the disciples of Jesus gather in fellowship after Christ brings us together in Eucharistic fellowship.

3, We think and act like a big parish. If you want to be a fully established parish, then think and act like you’re a fully established parish. That’s the only way you’re going to get there.

4, Growth depends on collaboration between the priest and lay faithful as co-responsible missionary disciples. Everybody has something to offer to build up the Body of Christ made manifest in our Ordinariate parish community. Our priest facilitates action — he does not micromanage — but he makes sure that we do things well and provide a consistent-experience. We have a good open dialogue going, based on mutual respect, so nobody gets burned out but people feel co-responsible for the future of our church.

5, People tithe. Want an Ordinariate parish community? Then give generously to the general fund. [If you’re a pre-Ordinariate fellowship or community applying to become an official community, you’ll need to demonstrate to the bishop that you’ve got financial support so he can make the case to a local diocese, college, etc. that you can do 25% if they do 75%.] And then also volunteer your time and talent. We only have two paid personnel: our part-time priest and our part-time music director/organist.

6, We established strong financial and accounting procedures with transparency. First thing our priest did was establish a finance council. We also made clear that people needed to give to the general fund and couldn’t just give to this or that. You can’t grow a parish if the music is funded, but there’s nothing to give to the priest’s salary. Our finance director laid that down once Fr. Evan came and it was a brilliant decision. People know what it costs to have a church now. As a result, we’ve run a couple very robust parish pledge campaigns and have bought back our priest’s time to 40%. And we’re always trying to professionalize our procedures with best-practices.

7, We established strong digital-communications to complement our personal engagement: we’ve got an active FB page that shows our community in photos and video, our eCatholic website is clean, beautiful, and content is easy to find. ALSO: We use Flocknote: it’s a text-email service for churches that has been absolutely brilliant and aided our growth enormously. I can’t recommend it enough. People love the text-message reminders (usually day before) for an event, or text messages letting them know an event is cancelled (such as due to bad weather), and it is easily customizable to reach different subgroups too.

8, We’ve worked hard on developing consistent branding and simple messaging that helps us reach as many people as possible. And we make adjustments as we go on. We’re Ordinariate Catholics. When people ask “what the Ordinariate is” we say “we’re a Catholic diocese with Anglican traditions established by the pope in 2009.” We basically use whatever works and allows us to easily get to the conversation about following Jesus and having fellowship with him as his disciples. Above all, we make clear that we’re here for point 1: bringing each man, woman, and child fully alive in Jesus Christ as his disciples living in fellowship with their Lord.

9, We advertise on local digital and print forums where we can, and we have a layperson person who oversees that. Get your community out there in the places where people have eyes to see and ears to hear, and then share the wonderful things you have going on. We try to keep our website’s news and events up to date. And we’ve got great people in our congregation that invite people to church and share those news and events.

10, We believe the Gospel has power and we’re called to evangelize like all Catholics. We work cooperatively with the broader local Catholic Church, but we think and act like co-equal laborers in the Lord’s vineyard, and we look for unique opportunities that aren’t being filled elsewhere. We just added Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which has a huge demand and not enough supply. But we make the case that a rising tide lifts all boats: if St. Alban’s is doing well, then that effort and energy will have a positive encouraging effect on diocesan Catholics and parishes that work together with us. And we’ve seen proof of what we said would happen. Our priest and the pastor of the larger host parish have a solid working relationship, and it’s been a fruitful collaboration for both parish communities. There’s a local parish that overhauled their website and is considering adding electronic giving because they’ve seen our website and talked with us about it.

Those are the thoughts off the top of my head, but the point is we’re just doing it. It is done with a great deal of love for the Lord Jesus and takes a lot of sweat, toil and (from time to time) even tears. And honestly, above all prayer. Prayer keeps you going, esp. when your evangelizing efforts feel like all you’ve got is dry dust in your mouth. There are points at which you think, “Dear God, I’ve done all I can, you’ve got to make this work” … and then He does. And you realize that the Lord is making the point that this is His Work, and not yours and that “thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.” It’s not a mere human effort, but divine grace is truly at work here. The Ordinariate, with all its sweat and hard work, makes it the most wonderful time to be a Catholic. And you look ahead and see the day when your mission is a fully-fledged independent parish, and is starting new missions in your area, opening churches where many were closed, by bringing more men and women fully alive in Jesus Christ with his Gospel. And it’s all worth it. It is all the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

I will write more on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in a subsequent post.  It’s a great program for young children that has an amazing effect on the adults who run it as well.

UPDATE!   Pam Smith (no relation to Peter) of St. Alban’s sent along a comment that makes a great addition to this post.   She writes:

We eight or ten souls who first gathered in a home as ‘St. Alban’s’ from earliest 2012, through our reception in Oct. 2012 at the old church we used, all thought then that we had a real chance!  We were on a life-raft from the Episcopal and other Protestant denominations which seemed to have left us each stranded, and were heading for the mother ship of the Catholic Church all eager to accept then-Pope Benedict XVI’s gracious offer.  More than four and a half years of fellowship, catechesis then study, and faithful attendance at worship, none of which should be overlooked as a phase of community formation, preceded the calling of our current beloved priest in mid-2017.  When this priest arrived he had this little band to work with, and we had already grown a bit in the four years, though there had been slight attrition and some visitors who did not stay. New babies also had arrived. We have one diocesan layman in particular who mentored us from the 2012 beginnings and has been supportive by frequently video-ing our Masses and giving much other encouragement. The core membership kept on keeping on, coffee hours and all, and in addition to our first two priests who carefully taught and trained us in their time with us, we had a bevy of excellent church musicians, each giving us a grounding in liturgical music and keeping this very important part of the Anglican patrimony vivid among us.  Perhaps that gave us latent parish potential that was discernible to Peter and others who began to arrive by 2015.”

That’s the whole piece.  And Peter confirms that was the ‘latent parish potential’ he was attracted to when he visited in 2013 and returned to live in the area in 2015, so it seems a coherent evaluation.

Reading his summary of what has happened since mid-2017, I just felt it appropriate to look at how we had reached a ‘critical mass’ which Fr. Evan could work with, given that we were already going four and a half years before the past two and a half years which Peter wrote about got underway.  From the point of view of a case study, the earlier history should matter.


4 thoughts on “St. Alban’s offers a case study for growth

  1. Sounds like they are doing a lot of things right! Interesting that they use Flock Note — I always thought of that as a tool of large, impersonal parishes, but I can see how it makes sense for smaller groups whose members may not live near the church (i.e., aren’t constantly dropping in at the parish office, etc.).


  2. Pingback: Small is beautiful—more on St. Alban’s | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

  3. Did this community live in one location, or at least close to each other, or were they dispersed in different locations, travelling long distances to be together?


    • Hello Jordan – more people live in the greater Rochester area, but not in the same neighborhood. Some however drive from a long way away. Pam Smith, for example, has the longest commute from Ithaca, NY, a drive of just under two hours.


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