Anglican Perspectives

Playing the Long Game for Real Growth: An Interview from Out in the Field

From March 22-24, the Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge visited Wellspring Anglican Church, Modesto, CA, where the Rev. Nathan Baxter has been the rector for four years. Canon Mark led a Revive weekend after the congregation read through his book, Revive. The weekend further defined the parish’s goals for ministry in their new season of life through small group work, large group discussions and teaching, and one-on-one consulting. You can read about the weekend and see the photo gallery here. While there, the AAC team interviewed Fr. Nathan about his journey at Wellspring, challenges he faced, and his experience with Anglican Revitalization Ministries.

Question: You began serving this church in August of 2020. How was that experience of moving across the country and then being in the middle of a pandemic in a new church?

Fr. Nathan: The Covid shutdowns started right before Easter. I was watching what all of my colleagues were doing, so I learned from other people’s change processes. Thankfully, the leadership here at Wellspring had done good work to accommodate what California regulations were going to require. When I got here, it was weird to be holding a service entirely online. At the time, there were 300 chairs in the sanctuary, and there were fewer than ten people including me, my wife and two kids, plus some tech people. It felt surreal.

On the other hand, it was good transitionally, for the family. We could get acquainted with people slowly and in small groups. Tiffany and I went set up a system on our patio so that people could come on various days in small groups. We would share stories, talk, ask questions. For an hour or so, we had easy personal conversations that weren’t awkward. Meeting in a group made it okay.

So, when we were able to return to gathered worship, we’d already gotten some personal rapport going and could ease into community life again. It may have felt different if it had been a normal non-COVID entry for us, and maybe that would have been positive, but I didn’t experience it as a negative thing and neither did the congregation. It actually worked to our benefit.

Question: One of the main objectives of Revive is to help leaders lead congregations through change at the right pace. It seems like COVID helped you do that. What were some other challenges the church has experienced since you’ve been here?

Fr. Nathan: One of the first things I noticed as a new rector was a spirit of scarcity and diminishment in the congregation. Many people believed the narrative that there weren’t the resources, people, energy, or finances to redirect the community for this new season. Then there was a narrative that since we’re all older, we don’t have much to give anymore. People wouldn’t put it directly in those terms, but it permeated everything. So, in the first year I needed to help people remember that age isn’t really a thing with God. In the Psalms it says those who trust in the Lord will remain fresh and green, bearing fruit even in old age. I was trying to encourage the leadership as well as the congregation that God’s not finished with us.

Another challenge was the narrative that growth necessarily means numbers. A few people were focused on well-defined strategies for getting people to come to church and not seeing that growth in health, which was happening, was the foundation for other kinds of growth. They were frustrated that we weren’t doing attractional church, and it was hard for me to hear that and to say that I disagreed. There had been so much turmoil for them over the past few years; they needed real healing and inner growth.

Question: You mentioned turmoil over the past years before you came. Can you summarize the church’s journey?

Fr. Nathan: The story covers about 50 years of history that I’m acquainted with. Much of the change and transition that the congregation went through over the course of those years was related to the coming and going of different rectors. The second biggest shift was deciding to leave the Episcopal Church and associate with the ACNA. They decided to walk away from a building that was built and paid for by the existing membership. They had to leave a location that they were in for a very long time. They did all this very freely, very open-heartedly. They didn’t fight for the property. They just walked away, and that choice was pretty transformational for them. There’s been a lot of resiliency built into them over the last 20 years, and I’m grateful for that.

After they joined the ACNA and right before COVID, there was another challenge. Things didn’t work out with a new rector and that was pretty rough. It added to past experiences with clergy coming and going. When I came, the church was being held together by a previous rector who came out of retirement to help the congregation until they could find yet another priest. All in all, there was a lot of wounding, so when COVID came, they were separated and couldn’t spend the time together to address it. There were a number of people that didn’t want to talk about all those painful memories.

Question: So now four years have gone by. You’ve worked through COVID, and you’ve worked through some of the initial concerns and challenges that people felt with yet another rector. Enter Anglican Revitalization Ministries. How did you hear about ARM and get connected to Canon Mark?

Fr. Nathan: I was friends with people closely connected with the American Anglican Council who suggested that I consider Canon Mark’s work for this church. I have also benefited from the AAC’s Clergy Care Groups through my own transition process. Getting in a Clergy Care Group was profoundly helpful. I’m in that group to this day. It’s deeply transformational and life-giving to me as a pastor.

Through these connections, I was aware that the AAC had revitalization resources, but I didn’t want to just jump on another bandwagon. Throughout my ministry, I had experienced many “programs” that came and went with varying degrees of success. So had Wellspring Church. I had to come around slowly to the idea of bringing Canon Mark in, and I had to work with the congregation slowly to help them see the value of revitalization at this time. When I first read through Canon Mark’s book, Revive, I thought, “Oh, my goodness, here’s somebody that actually understands that it’s about health as the foundation of real growth.” If you aim at health in a church and the biblical mission of the church, then numeric growth will happen according to God’s purposes, and there will be structural changes that will make sense along the way.

Then, talking with Canon Mark and being transparent about my worries was key. I told him I didn’t want gimmicks; I wanted health. “Prove to me that you’re not going to do some seven spiritual practices for making all things perfect,” I said. He talked me through it and reassured me that it wasn’t a program as much as a process, one where he walks with our leadership to help us bring the values of Revive to life in our own community. Having had him here to walk us through the principles of revitalization and using the book with the congregation, I’ve realized this is good. It’s provoking great conversations for us. It’s also provoking motivation for some people that I didn’t think would get on board. As we’ve read the book in a small group over the past month, I’ve seen those people slowly come around. There may not be 30 degree turns but maybe 10 degree turns. For them, that’s big, and that’s been awesome.

Question: What is one thing that has stuck out to you during this Revive weekend that could help meet the challenges you’ve seen in the past four years?

Fr. Nathan: The way that Canon Mark laid out mission was valuable in helping us understand that evangelism isn’t a program you do with a set of laws and guaranteed results. It’s partnership with God as an outflow of who we are as a church. Mission comes out of renewal as each of us grows closer to God and each other. Mission is relationship, not program, and the end-goal is transformation, not numbers. I was so grateful to hear him teaching what my convictions have been, though I have not been able to articulate them in quite as beautiful a way.

Question: What are some things you’d like to see moving forward as Wellspring implements these principles?

Fr. Nathan: Well first of all, I’m grateful that I’m going to get continued coaching with Mark. Now that my vestry is on board with him and the Revive process, we have a trusted person to help us sort out bumps in the road. There’s a trusted resource going forward. That’s exciting to me. It’s not just a program you’re left with; it’s people who walk with you as you walk out the principles.

I also feel like Revive was a catalyst so that when we take the next step, there’s going to be at least 30 people who went through this workshop together and are on the same page. The steps we are going to take won’t come out like a bolt of lightning out of blue. That momentum for the next steps feels really encouraging and hopeful for me.

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