Exploring common mission: Episcopalians east and west engage in yearlong conversation

Exploring Common Mission Task Force members on Zoom Photo courtesy of Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts Members of the joint Exploring Common Mission Task Force have been meeting regularly via Zoom.

What can be done better together than apart?

For the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts, a steady increase in collaborations in recent years suggests that the answer could potentially be: Quite a lot.

Both possess a long, rich history of serving God’s people, and have been doing so mostly in parallel over the decades following the founding of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts in 1903 out of what started in 1784 as a single diocese in the Commonwealth.

Lately, however, Episcopalians from both dioceses have been coming together in a variety of meaningful ways: Public actions and advocacy to end gun violence and to act for the care of God’s creation at a time of climate emergency, for instance. Joint retreats and professional development events for clergy, and adult Christian formation and discernment programs for the laity. Youth activities and shared ministry networks around outreach with veterans and growing “Good News Gardens.” And more.

Bishops Alan M. Gates and Gayle E. Harris of the Diocese of Massachusetts and Bishop Douglas J. Fisher of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts began to wonder about the extent of this spirit of collaboration and to discuss the possibility of further exploring current shared engagement, at all levels. What would it be like to get to know one another at a deeper level? How might two vital dioceses partner across difference for the sake of the Gospel? How might experiences of shared engagement be a call to discern the Holy Spirit’s leading? What can we do better together?

With these questions in mind, the bishops, last November, convened the Task Force for Exploring Common Mission, and the group has been meeting regularly in the months since. Their charge from the bishops is to be in dialogue and prayer for a year about what collaborations, and potentially what more formal institutional structures, might warrant more exploration. There are no foregone conclusions, and the task force will share findings with both dioceses for further discernment.

The task force invites everyone’s prayers for their continuing “holy conversations” and for their commitment to walking forward together, Spirit-led.

Four people from each diocese, lay and ordained, comprise the Task Force for Exploring Common Mission.

Serving from the Diocese of Western Massachusetts are the Rev. Nathaniel Anderson, St. John’s Church, Williamstown, Co-Chair; the Rev. Heather Blais, St. James and St. Andrew’s, Greenfield; Trudy Weaver Miller, Christ Church, Sheffield; and Mark Rogers, Church of the Reconciliation, Webster; with the Rev. Dr. Richard Simpson, Canon to the Ordinary, staff liaison.

Serving from the Diocese of Massachusetts are Claudette Hunt, St. Andrew’s Church, Ayer, Co-Chair; the Rev. Julie Carson, St. Andrew’s Church, Framingham; the Hon. Judith Dilday, St. Cyprian’s Church, Roxbury; and the Rev. Pam Werntz, Emmanuel Church, Boston; with the Rev. Canon William Clay Parnell, Canon to the Ordinary, staff liaison.

--The Rev. Vicki Ix and Tracy J. Sukraw

Exploring common mission Q&A:  What’s it about and why now?

As the Task Force for Exploring Common Mission continues its conversations about what two neighbor dioceses might do better together than apart, three task force members from the Diocese of Massachusetts recently took time to share their thoughts, via an e-mail exchange, on first fruits of their discernment, why it’s important to do and why now. 

Regardless of specific outcomes or recommendations that might result from the task force's explorations, is there a benefit or gift that you've already experienced or observed as the task force's work together has been getting underway? 

Common Ministries Q&A Courtesy Photos From left: Claudette Hunt, St. Andrew's Church, Ayer; Judith Dilday, St. Cyprian's Church, Roxbury; and The Rev. Pam Werntz, Emmanuel Church, Boston

The Rev. Pam Werntz, Emmanuel Church, Boston:  I think we've all been excited and inspired to learn of the many ways our two dioceses have already been collaborating. Our conversations are generative and generous. On a personal note, I already knew and loved the people from eastern Massachusetts who are on the committee. Now I have five new friends in western Massachusetts!

Claudette Hunt, St. Andrew's Church, Ayer:  By far, what stands out the most is how much we—both dioceses—have and share in common.  Also, the power of honest communication. By that I mean how quickly it was for task force members to overcome stereotypes we might have held about each other.

Judith Dilday, St. Cyprian's Church, Roxbury:  I feel much more connected just by talking with the western Massachusetts members of the committee, and noting the common problems and issues we face. We have already uncovered some procedures that may be unified to our benefit. I wish that all parishioners could have this experience.

Why do you believe this common mission exploration is important to do? 

Claudette Hunt:  This is what God expects us to do. We have an opportunity to learn and build together so that we can better address our needs as well as the needs of our neighbors.

Judith Dilday:  I feel that this mission is important to narrow the divisions between us as Episcopalians and Christians. I always bemoan the fact that we are  separated in our individual parishes with little ability to congregate as members of the wider church. This is an issue not specific to the two dioceses, but within each diocese as well. 

Pam Werntz:  Gospel ministry is essentially collaborative. Self-sufficiency, whether as individuals or parishes or dioceses, is a dangerous illusion. "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together," is the proverb that comes to my mind. We are two dioceses in a relatively small territory, and both a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Why now?  Is there anything particular you note about the current season of church life and ministry that makes exploring common mission with our neighbor diocese particularly apt? 

Judith Dilday:  Parallel with shrinking parishes are shrinking church budgets. I feel that we can share strategies to cope with this attrition.

Claudette Hunt: The exploration of collaboration between our dioceses predates the onslought of COVID-19. The task force was commissioned in November 2020, and held its first meeting in December 2020. COVID-19 became our joint reality in January 2020 and helped to shed more light on the power one gains from synergy through collaboration. As a church family we had to stay resilient, nimble and responsive to our own needs and those of our neighbors. This common experience unveils how essential it is for us to strengthen our collaboration so that we are better prepared to address the big unknowns of our church life and ministry post-COVID-19.

Pam Werntz:  We are in a period of profound disruption in the wider culture and in our church life. The prayer we pray at ordinations and institutions, and on Good Friday, comes true in times like these:  "Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection" by Jesus Christ. God is calling us to see and engage new possibilities for mission.