Know Jesus, change the world. Proclaim the Gospel. Empower the Congregations. Address the pain of the world. That is the mission described by The Reverend Canon Kirk Berlenbach, the Canon for Growth and Support in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, at ECCP’s luncheon on January 22 at The Acorn Club.
Canon Berlenbach spoke on his innovative work for the diocese. He is tasked with helping congregations to look beyond their walls to facilitate community involvement and connection, assist them in developing creative ministries that connect with people who might not otherwise attend worship, and make the best and fullest use of their buildings and other assets.
Before joining the diocesan staff, Canon Berlenbach was rector of St. Timothy’s Church, Roxborough for more than 14 years. Before that, he was assistant rector at St. Alban’s, Newtown Square. Before entering parish ministry, he worked in behavioral health and as a hospital and hospice chaplain.
Canon Berlenbach related how St. Timothy’s Church put up outdoor signs to promote the use of parish facilities to outside groups. One reaction from a community member was, “Oh, is that still open?” The message taken from that is that churches need to show their communities that they offer attractive activities and facilities to draw people in.
The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania is a historic diocese in a historic church. This means that many church buildings are old, with implications for building maintenance, heating, and the like. As a result, parishes may see their facilities as an albatross. Part of Canon Berlenbach’s task is to help the parishes see their facilities as an asset. He notes that churches used to be important centers of community life. He asserts that parishes should reclaim that legacy, even if doing so is not exclusively for ourselves. We need to overcome territorialism and fear. If we do not, the church we may fear losing to strangers will instead be lost to closure.
Canon Berlenbach urges parishes to engage with their communities. Important aspects include learning the needs of the community, learning what resources already exist to meet those needs, cultivating partnerships, and becoming a visible and active presence in the community. There can be multiple points of entry to the church, including unconventional activities: hosting cooking classes, gardens, common interest groups, even new businesses. It is important that these are open to and appeal to the community, not just the church. In opening parish facilities to community groups, it is important to see them as community partners.
In concluding, Canon Berlenbach said, “We must be willing to dream big and to let go of our fear of failure, and more importantly, of our territorial instincts, because it is not our church—the Church belongs to God, and no matter how great our commitment to it, it is not ours. It is the Body of Jesus Christ. As part of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, we in the Diocese of Pennsylvania have an incredible opportunity, if we but let go of our fear and move forward in faith.”