Imagine a weekly small worshiping community where the focus is less on the number of members than the depth of ministry with its community. Also imagine a worshiping community that seeks to fund the majority of its operating and programmatic costs creatively through private grants in addition to its partnerships with congregations, the presbytery, the synod and the larger denomination. The dollars they receive from the weekly offerings are not enough to sustain their vision.
The congregation described above is Beacon Church in Kensington, a neighborhood of Philadelphia. It offers three weekday afternoon art and creative writing workshops for local youth, programs that enable Beacon to earn grants that help pay for the activities and the pastors’ salaries. These factors could make some presbyteries think twice about chartering such a church. Fortunately, the Presbytery of Philadelphia is not one of those presbyteries.
In November of 2015, the presbytery issued a charter to Beacon Church, the first charter it had blessed and issued in 17 years. Despite a resume that didn’t feature many of the unwritten rules that were once assumed for a worshiping community to become a chartered church, the Presbytery of Philadelphia took a leap of faith with Beacon.
“When we started talking with Beacon, it was clear that they could be a church as a new expression of ministry,” said the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. “Churches and communities of faith – our understanding of that does not have to be limited to what once would have been a formulaic understanding. We believe that the uniqueness of this church, of this community, warranted recognizing them as an official expression of a congregation.”
To read more about Beacon Church and its reasons for applying for the charter, click here.
While the leadership commissions at the Presbytery of Philadelphia felt this way, Ruth admitted that she was hopeful but unsure as to how the rest of the presbytery body would respond to this non-traditional model when it would be presented for final consideration.
“We believe they (their pastors – Becca Blake and Karen Rohrer) have the gifts and have been called to grow this community in this creative way,” Ruth said of Beacon Church leadership. “Our COM equivalent approved it (the charter), and when we finally went to the floor, there was not a ‘no’ vote. That’s a wonderful statement of faith for a presbytery grounded deep in tradition, to be able to recognize God’s powerful spirit at work in a fresh expression of ministry. It was a very powerful moment for us.”
The move to charter Beacon Church sends a clear message of encouragement to other ministry entrepreneurs as well as the rest of the congregations in the presbytery. It is a message affirming that doing something unique will have its rewards.
“One of the challenges that we are sharing with our congregations is encouraging them to think outside the box with regard to the traditional one-building, one-congregation, one-fulltime pastor equals church,” said the Rev. Kevin Porter, the presbytery’s Stated Clerk. “Just as the realities of mainline Christianity and mainline denominations have shown across the board, that’s a harder and harder model to sustain. But that doesn’t mean that ministry isn’t taking place there.”
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Ruth added. “We have to be creative about terms of call and give them some particular context of the church. We believe Beacon has the right infrastructure in terms of their leadership team, their elders and an advisory team that stays working with them and continues to give them the support they need.”
Aside from grants, Beacon Church is also partnering with several other congregations in the Philadelphia area that provide financial support to the congregation and its programs. Because the flow of income is dependent on many different factors, it can make for a challenging situation at Beacon Church. The presbytery isn’t about to add any extra pressure, saying it just wants Beacon to focus on the things that have made them an important presence in that neighborhood.
“Our only expectation of them is that they continue to do what they’re doing: being a witness for the Gospel where they have been placed,” Ruth said. “Our prayers are that that they will faithfully explore how they will continue to be a relevant force in that community.”
By taking this leap of faith, it does open the presbytery up to future churches that are also doing good work but are lacking in some of the unwritten qualifiers to come knocking on its door. When that happens, the presbytery will again take a good, hard look at the situation and judge it on its own situation.
“You have to take each expression of ministry on its own merit,” Ruth said. “If it’s a new concept, we would have to assess it as such. Beacon was watched for several years. They had some traction in what they were doing well, but they were working hard, too. What it does, though, is it sends a signal that there are other ways of exploring ministry models. It says that we need to be open to how God is leading at this time. We need to see possibilities that are different.
“I think it gives hope for churches that have been around for a while and need to reframe how they do ministry. Some of them are stuck in buildings that they can’t sustain. We are hopeful they are hearing permission to consider: Are there other models? Are there other partnerships?”
These are the questions the Presbytery of Philadelphia is hoping its congregations are asking themselves. Because, having another congregation like Beacon Church step forward and want to become chartered would be welcomed by the presbytery, which has also benefited greatly from the experience.
“I learned that this is an exciting thing once we started truly understanding the depths of their (Beacon’s) commitment,” Ruth said. “They identified a community that would be considered disenfranchised and economically modest. By using the arts, they created an entrée into a conversation of faith that allowed people to be comfortable, especially to children. They meet the saints of Kensington where they live – an incarnate presence in the very reality of the world.”