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Webinar: “Turning Around a Small Church”

The Continuing church has many local parishes that were once healthy, but have been struggling recently. Revitalizing these parishes is an urgent need for Continuing Anglicanism, and thus a key emphasis for the mission of Continuing Forward.


Our recent webinar examined one such revitalization effort. It featured Fr. Matthew Mirabile, a co-founder of Continuing Forward and the rector of Trinity Anglican Church in Rochester, N.H. He was interviewed by Fr. Mark Perkins, who has been a member of the Continuing Forward executive committee since 2023.


Trinity Anglican


Fr. Matt Mirabile joined Trinity in April 2016, after three years of interim rectors. His predecessor had built up the church to an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 38; since then, it has grown to 68-70.


Rochester is a town of 32,000, about 25 miles northwest of Portsmouth, N.H. When Mirabile joined, the average age in the parish was in the low 70s: in 2018 he did a burial a month for 13 months.


The church was at the epicenter of The Episcopal Church controversy involving the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in TEC. Many of the parishioners back in 2016 were those who had previously worshipped at Robinson's church. While the internationally known incident caused people to leave TEC, at the same time non-Episcopalians became suspicious of any church associated with TEC.


The first step in Trinity’s turnaround was to commit to hiring a full-time rector. Both Mirabile and Perkins agreed that while the risk is higher — in this case the church had only enough savings to pay for a full-time rector for two years — it is very difficult to turn around a parish with a part-time priest.


Reaching the Community


After Mirabile arrived, the number one priority was to build upon the loyal core that remained to mount an aggressive outreach to the community. “My plan was to continue to press forward the spiritual vitality of the parish while inviting new people in to surround that core,” he said.


The initial steps including revamping the website, launching new ministries — including a men’s breakfast and regular Bible study — and sending volunteers to the local soup kitchen. These efforts were designed to restore Trinity’s former prominence in the community, and the website allowed the church to communicate these efforts to potential visitors.


Rochster has a number of veterans, so the church created a program delivering an existing curriculum for rehabilitating combat veterans. The response — both by the participants and the community at large — inspired Mirabile to develop an entirely new program entitled “Deep Recovery.” That program is now being taught several times a year in N.H. and a satellite site in South Carolina.


Finally, the church invested in upgrading the church music program, hiring a professional choir director and supporting choir members. Mirabile makes no apologies for continuing with traditional music, which he calls “an answer to a profane culture.” He added: “there’s no place within an hour of here that does music the way we do it here.”


Welcoming Newcomers


An important theme in many church turnaround stories is the central role of hospitality. Trinity Anglican is no exception.


“When people come in, they find a very joyful community,” Mirabile said. “People say ‘my gosh, I felt warmly received.’ ” That experience is intentional, as the church has designated greeters and ushers to welcome visitors and help them understand the liturgy.


At its core, he sees the traditional liturgy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer has being profoundly counter-cultural.


“We recognize that this not a contemporary service. Frankly, I want there to be a culture gap. I want somebody to come through the door and encounter a different culture. You’re experiencing the culture of heaven as opposed to the profane culture outside. There should be culture shock, and we want to help people over that culture shock,” Mirabile said.


The difference often requires nine months or more to adjust if the visitor did not have previous experience with liturgical worship. At the same time, they will expect solid preaching, which is sometimes neglected by Anglican churches whose sole focus is on liturgy.


In response, Perkins noted the need for a balance between joy and reverence. He quoted the former presiding bishop of the APA, retired Bp. Walter Grundorf: “If you’re going to have a solemn and reverential service, you need to have a joyful and exuberant coffee hour.”


Moving Forward


Like other parishes, Trinity was challenged by Covid. Throughout the pandemic, it maintained its presence — staying open (sometimes with a restricted numbers of worshippers) — and eventually gaining new members.


Mirabile believe it’s essential for a rector to move quickly to reverse any decline in congregation size, or the problem will become even harder. He says Seth Grodin’s The Dip has heavily influenced his thinking here.


In the end, Mirabile says that spiritual formation requires new (and existing) members to strengthen their own prayer life, which can include the Daily Office, the BCP’s family prayer, and also regular, extemporaneous prayer. Lent in particular provides an annual opportunity for parishioners to rededicate themselves to their life of prayer.


Conclusions


Asked by Perkins to sum up his experience, Mirabile offered four points.

  1. The importance of prayer in dealing with challenges. “It’s God's church, so we don’t have all the answers”; instead, it often takes praying and listening for direction.

  2. A relaunch has a lot in common with church plant, even some aspects are different.

  3. It’s essential to do things in the community to be noticed.

  4. A parish must also leverage social media and other online marketing to be noticed. These tools don't substitute for a healthy church but complement one — so you shouldn’t promote your church if you’re not ready for exposure.


The entire video has been posted to our YouTube channel. Continuing Forward welcomes your feedback on the webinar, and suggestions for topics and speakers for future webinars.




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1 Comment


I really like this article and its recognition that growth in numbers follows growth in holiness. The church is counter-cultural, for sure.

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