Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

Waiting to be sown

David Potter

The third session of the St. PJs working group opened with a poem, ‘On the Parables of the Mustard Seed.’ In it, Denise Levertov paints a vivid picture of imagining what is yet known.

“Faith is rare, He must have been saying,” the poem muses in reflecting on the words of Jesus. That a mustard-seed might become “a treeful of shade and nests and songs” seems implausible; have any of us actually witnessed this?

As we continued our discussion on the impact of pandemic disruptions on the congregational life of St. PJs, the working group considered all that is on the horizon:

At the end of November, the well-loved priest and a long-time champion of St. PJs—the Reverend Harlon Dalton—will depart, the congregation will enter a time of transition, embracing interim support while preparing for future leadership.

In the coming months, two newly constructed condo buildings will welcome residents to the Wooster Square neighborhood; 500+ homes sharing the same corner as St. PJs will bring an influx of new life to the community.

And in the coming years, months, and weeks, the church will continually open its doors to host countless events in its recently renovated nave. Having redone its floors, replaced stationary seating with a combination of easily movable pews and chairs, is equipped with an agile foundation for hospitality.

There is not lack of change in store; there is not lack of possibility.

Imagining all this horizon contains surfaced many ideas. Because, really, it’s not too difficult to identify a list of needs in our city, neighborhood, and congregation, and then then consider how St. PJs resources and passion aligns with those needs.

But in this discussion, a more significant question became apparent… Who really makes up the St. PJs congregation?

As an active, service-oriented church with creative and dynamic liturgy, it can be all-too-easy to consider the gifts and limitations present in Sunday morning services as being ‘internal,’ while the gifs and limitations of programs and partnerships serving those not attending Sunday services as being ‘external.’ It’s a natural, perhaps seamless distinction to make—but the tendency indicates an easily unseen notion of us/them, serving/served.

Before reflecting and what’s working and what’s not working, it’s necessary to first ask: for whom? Who determines the priorities of a parish? What might an integrated vision of congregational “membership” look like, of who belongs, and what opportunities and fears does that surface?

Now, to return to mustard-seeds. Levertov’s poem, true to Jesus’ parable, concludes with a vision of the kingdom, of “a great concourse of birds” finding belonging in what has become a great tree. And all of the bursting forth in this vision somehow began with a mere “seed waiting to be sown.”

Perhaps the foundational questions in this working of imagining are as “simple” as ‘where are the seeds among us—and who is holding them?’


Here’s a couple of the working group’s insights and takeaways from this third session:

1. Change is non-linear: All transition is messy and contains conflicting feelings and experiences, which often cyclically resolve and resurface—and resolve and resurface.

2. Many diverse needs exist, not all are met equally: St. PJs includes a broad range of diversity with regards to human identity and also to socioeconomic realities. Each person also brings differing spiritual needs informed by their experiences. An integrated and inclusive vision of congregational life necessitates multi-dimensional efforts to care for spiritual needs.