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February 22, 2023 Impact story

Regional Ministry Leads Mission Priorities through Canon Missioners

In 2019 the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem received a three-year Ministerial Excellence Fund (MEF) grant from the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) to help address the leadership and financial challenges of congregational ministry. This grant was part of ECF’s Lilly Endowment Initiative to Address the Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders.

The Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, covering almost 8,700 square miles in northeast Pennsylvania, is comprised of 57 churches and more than 8,200 members.

Diocesan leaders assessed the culture and current state of ministry in the diocese to determine emerging missional priorities. The diocese set “Five Priorities” as follows:

  1. Vibrant and stable congregations
  2. Racial justice and advocacy for the most vulnerable
  3. Lay and clergy formation
  4. Creating new faith communities
  5. Diocesan partnerships

The first priority led to a strategy of developing church partnerships and shared resources. This was the beginning of experimenting with a shared resources model across various churches and the diocese. Then the pandemic arrived and the diocese’s plans for the church partnerships struggled due in part to a lack of existing relationships and shared ministry goals. The diocese had to adapt quickly to move forward with a plan to organize regionally. During the summer of 2020 the ECF MEF grant made it possible to roll out a new way of “gathering.”

Convocations were designed with groups of five to ten churches within geographic proximity with the goal of fostering relationships among churches to strengthen and support collaboration. By learning how to gather virtually, the diocese was able to roll-out the Convocations in two weeks versus a lengthier in-person implementation. We met virtually with hundreds of members from more than 50 churches. Those first Convocation meetings were powerful as we connected on topics, such as fear, hope, and faith.

We learned that church partnerships needed support from their Bishops and Bishop’s staff. During Bishop Kevin Nichols’ early days in his episcopacy, diocesan staff was kept intentionally low as we were discovering where the Holy Spirit was leading us. As the Bishop and the staff began supporting Convocations while dealing with the pandemic’s impact, we learned that extending the Bishop’s authority and leadership more widely across the diocese would be beneficial.

A new role of Canon Missioner was created for this function. A Canon Missioner is responsible for leading the “Five Priorities” of the diocese focusing on churches from several Convocations. Each Canon Missioner oversaw the development of adaptive models to nurture the growth of new Christian communities as well as supporting legacy churches by providing leadership support, strategic recruitment, and placement of clergy. While most of their time was spent on ministry with churches in their Convocations and across the diocese, a Canon Missioner also served as Rector of a church to remain connected to their call to ordained ministry. Each Canon Missioner additionally called an Assistant Priest who would be responsible for most of the day-to-day church activities at the Canon Missioner’s church. The MEF grant funded the hiring of two Canon Missioners, each working with approximately half of the churches in the diocese.

As the diocese looks forward to continuing momentum generated from the MEF grant, we are discerning a potential reunification with the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. This reunification would require an even further extension of the Bishop’s authority and leadership in twice the number of churches and an even wider region of Pennsylvania. If the time comes for reunification, we hope to adapt and improve on the Canon Missioner model made possible by the MEF grant.

Bishop Kevin shared that “with untroubled hearts and lack of fear, the Ministerial Excellence Fund grant has inspired us and helped the Diocese of Bethlehem to be hopeful about the future of the Episcopal Church in northeast Pennsylvania.”

Steve Baker serves as the Canon for Mission Resources and Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem. In this role, he is responsible for leading the mission priorities of the diocese and providing support to lay and clergy leaders across northeast Pennsylvania. He began his diocesan ministry service in 2011 as a volunteer. From the U.S. Marine Corps to Microsoft to Habitat for Humanity International, Steve has enjoyed an eclectic career and enjoys using his life experiences in service with the Episcopal Church.

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