Many voices heard as mission strategy listening process continues

Good participation, in both numbers and spirit, has the diocese's mission strategy listening process on a successful track so far, according to members of the design team that has been hosting open forums around the diocese in January and February.  Their next step will be to compile what they've heard and make an initial report for the diocesan community's review in April.

"I've experienced at the two listening sessions that I attended a lot of energy and enthusiasm," Mission strategy Andover forum Courtesy: Billy Boyce The Jan. 20 open listening session held at Christ Church in Andover. the Rev. Meghan Sweeney said in a group interview.  She is a Diocesan Council member from All Saints' Church in Attleboro and the chair of the design team.  "It's been heartening to hear the deep care and concern that people do have and to witness their willingness to engage the questions of the listening sessions," Sweeney said.

There is still time for members of the diocesan community to make their voices heard.

The seventh and final open listening session is coming up on Saturday, Feb. 27 at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston.  All are welcome.  Online and phone surveys remain open until Monday, Feb. 29.  [Find the online survey here, or give input via the toll-free phone survey by calling 855-208-5877].

According to the design team, more than 550 people representing 100-plus congregations have attended the six open forums held so far.  In addition, the team has received more than 300 responses to the online survey and about 10 phone-in surveys.

"I think overall the tone has been incredibly positive," design team member Billy Boyce said of the sessions (he's attended four of them, as well as two smaller focus groups).  Boyce is a member of Diocesan Council from Grace Church in New Bedford. 

"It's amazing to see how different people coming from different congregations or different life situations have come together to interact and dream about what the church will be next, and to ask, what does church look like in today's world with today's challenges?  It's been incredibly hopeful and outward looking to what's next in our life together," Boyce said.

The open forums are a means for gathering input but have had the added value of helping the diocesan community come to know itself better, team members said.

"When we set things up, we wanted to create enthusiasm for whatever mission priorities would emerge," Sweeney said.  "By asking some of the questions in the way we've tried to frame them, it creates an opportunity, ideally, for a renewed understanding of one's own relationship, perhaps, to the church." 

Dr. Ellen Childs, a sociologist from Boston University who is serving as a consultant to the team, said the large group forums "allow both for us to glean information but also for people to be heard amongst themselves.  Providing that space for us to be open to people's experiences and their viewpoints but also [for participants to] hear each other has been really central to what we're trying to do with this process."

She highlighted one Q&A exercise, in which participants are asked to use Post-it Notes to share a Mission strategy post-its Courtesy: Billy Boyce At open forums, participants shared proud moments via Post-it Notes. time when they've been proudest to be an Episcopalian.  "At one of the sessions I went to, somebody said, 'I've never been asked that question before.'  A lot of the responses are momentous times, the kinds of things that united the diocese together--the bishop's consecration, for example, and the decision to open the camp [the diocese's Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center in Greenfield, N.H.].  These are snapshots of what makes people proud of this shared identity.  I found that to be fun and uplifting," Childs said.

In addition to the logistics involved in organizing the road show of open forums, the biggest challenge to the listening process so far, Childs said, has been combating the sense that some participants may have had at the beginning that the design team came with an agenda to impose.  "I think people have been pleasantly surprised.  We're really just trying to do the best listening that we can, to be as open and transparent as we can, and I think people have seen that," Childs said.

Childs characterized the participation so far as both good and fairly typical for a project like this. "I think we're not lacking in giving people opportunity to be heard," she said.

In addition to the seven open sessions, the team has conducted a number of smaller focus group sessions with what team members described as selected communities whose members might not easily be heard in the larger open forums: youth of the diocese, retired clergy, immigrant congregations and those who speak languages other than English, for example.  Diocesan Council reviewed the list of focus groups and the criteria for their selection at its December meeting, team members said. [The list of focus groups is available here.]

Once the listening sessions and surveys conclude at the end of February, the team will use a social scientific approach to their analysis, coding the transcripts and survey responses so that common themes can be identified.

"An initial report will be developed that highlights the primary conversation points and topics that emerged," Childs said.  "That's not the mission strategy--that's just the initial report of what was said and not said."

That initial report will be released in April, so that the diocesan community can respond to it.  The team is currently scheduling several open meetings in April to give members of the diocese an opportunity to offer their feedback. 

The point of those sessions, Sweeney said, will be "to ask people if we missed anything and then have an engaged conversation about what is in the initial report." 

There will also be an online response option.  Details are still being worked out and will be announced as soon as they become available.

After the public response period in April, the team will make any necessary revisions to the initial report, and then will hand the revised report off to the working group that will actually draft the new mission strategy.  That group, soon to be named, will comprise approximately 14 people, half appointed by the Diocesan Council and half appointed by Bishop Alan M. Gates, to help ensure well-rounded representation of the diocese as a whole. 

In November of 2014, the Diocesan Convention approved the call for the development, starting in 2015, of a new mission strategy--a plan for how best to use financial, staff and other resources for current and near-future mission priorities. 

The listening process design team has been at work since last May, devising and then implementing the process by which input could be widely gathered from across the diocese to inform the development of the new strategy.  The diocesan community will have an opportunity to give feedback on a draft version before the mission strategy is proposed to the Diocesan Council early in the fall.  It will be presented in final form for approval at Diocesan Convention in November.

--Tracy J. Sukraw

Learn more and find updates about the mission strategy process at