The New Math at St. John's Chicago

March 19, 2012

Even though she was an English major, the Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer is good at math, particularly addition and multiplication.

When she arrived at St. John's Episcopal Church on the northwest side of Chicago in 2005, the average Sunday attendance was 62, there were two Sunday services, and one Sunday School class.

Now the average weekly attendance is 103, Sunday School classes have tripled, and they've just added another Sunday service. Numerous new ministries have taken off, including the parish's highly visible and lauded sustainability efforts.

How did this small, quiet congregation become a vibrant and growing family church? Conversations with Wagner Sherer and diocesan leaders point to four contributing factors: Wagner Sherer's energetic leadership; passionate parishioners; a diocesan Congregations Commission grant; and Making Excellent Disciples, a diocesan program funded by the Lilly Endowment.

PLENTY OF TALENT IN NEED OF A LITTLE TREASURE

St. John's Church sits at a crossroads. Literally. Twenty minutes from downtown, it is situated at the intersection of train lines and bus lines, halfway between downtown and the airport. It is a diverse, active, stable, middleclass community.

"One of the joys at St. John's is that it has an abundance of talented people," Wagner Sherer said; just not much money.

Diocesan leaders recognized the congregation's potential, and they recognized the potential in Wagner Sherer, who graduated from Seabury Western Theological Seminary and was ordained in 2003. She became part of the Making Excellent Disciples program, which provides five years of pastoral leadership experience and mentoring for newly ordained clergy making the transition from seminary to parish ministry. As part of that program, Wagner Sherer served as a curate for two years under the Rev. Jim Steen, who was rector at St. Paul and the Redeemer in Hyde Park and is now director of ministries for the Diocese of Chicago. She then was called to be rector at St. John's.

"She has done a great job there," said Steen, who continues to work with clergy who are part of the Making Excellent Disciples program. "She has taken a congregation that had been extremely sleepy and barely growing on its own, and now it's grown to the extent that they have just added a third service because it was too crowded.

"Kara also has attracted another priest, Julianne Buenting, who is getting a PhD. Julianne is an energetic person also and, like Kara, is very big on outreach involving justice issues," Steen said. "They've done all sorts of outreach initiatives."

Those initiatives include Hands to Help Ministries, a program to combat homelessness that was founded by Wagner Sherer, neighborhood leaders and the pastors of several local churches. Wagner Sherer serves as president and several St. John’s members serve on the board and volunteer. Other outreach efforts include the Pence Blessing Program, which collects funds for local, national and international causes, and sponsorship of a community organizing event to promote raising state taxes to support social programs facing severe cuts.

Steen said the Making Excellent Disciples program continues to make a difference not only for congregations such as St. John's, but also for the entire Diocese of Chicago.

"It's about taking newly or soon to be ordained clergy and putting them in excellent mentoring congregations," Steen said. "They graduate after two years and become the vicar or rector of their own church, which is most typically a mustard seed congregation that has potential but isn't quite there. It's a wonderful program. The best thing is that it attracts great young clergy to our diocese."

Wagner Sherer said the growth at St. John's also has been fueled by significant financial support from the diocese's Congregational Support Commission, which supports mission churches. In 2009 it awarded St. John's with a substantial, three-year grant that the church used to hire a part-time Christian formation person.

"That really infused a lot of energy into our congregation," Wagner Sherer said.

So has she, according to parishioner Leanne Gehrig, who is a driving force behind St. John's sustainability efforts.

"Rev. Kara is wonderful," Gehrig said. "She just lives what she preaches. She has a lot of energy, and that attracts people. We're really lucky to have her. A lot of people live in the neighborhood, but some people do travel some distance to get to church. People want to be a part of that community."

SUSTAINABILITY AND THE GENESIS GROUP

One of the most energizing ministries at St. John's—and the catalyst for some of its membership growth—is its sustainability effort, spearheaded by the Genesis Group. Formed in 2007, the group was the result of parishioner Gehrig's passion for promoting sustainable living. The group's accomplishments belie its young age, and its efforts are quite visible.

"First we gave out CFL (compact fluorescent) light bulbs, and then we gave up paper and Styrofoam mugs," Wagner Sherer said. "People brought mugs from home, and someone volunteered to wash cloth napkins, so we use as little paper as possible."

The parish switched to fair-trade coffee, recycled toilet paper, and Eco-palms for Palm Sunday. Rain barrels have been installed on the church grounds. St. John's partners with a community supported agricultural farm to deliver fresh vegetables to St. John’s every week from July to November, and each year the parish hosts a winter Farmers Market or a free trade fair featuring Ten Thousand Villages, a member of the International Fair Trade Association.

The church' sustainability efforts haven't gone unnoticed. In appreciation for the accomplishments of the Genesis Group, in 2008 St. John’s received a Congregational Best Practices recognition from Faith In Place, a Chicago organization whose mission is to help people of faith understand that issues of ecology and economy are at the forefront of social justice.

"People ask what we are accomplishing," Wagner Sherer said. "Being green is connecting the Christian practice of awareness and deliberateness to what we use. By washing our mugs or supporting a local farmer we are tangibly investing more of our own effort. I think there is something in our Christian faith that we affirm by not being a throwaway society."

And that has attracted at least three new parish families who either read about the sustainability efforts or bought a share in vegetables or attended the farmers market at St. John's.

Budget constraints remain a constant at St. John's, but the mustard seed continues to grow.

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