When the part time vicar of Christ Church in Lucketts, Virginia announced his retirement, the parish took the unusual step of asking the Bishop to call a layperson as Lay Pastoral Leader. The object was not to call this lay person for good but rather to bring in someone who knew the parish and who had experience in managing organizations so they could get stronger in order to call a priest within a year or two. After a Vestry led planning process, sixty-nine-year-old, former parishioner, Kurt Aschermann was called as LPL beginning in April 2018. Aschermann fit the job description having been a former member of the parish who was licensed to lead Morning Prayer and preach and who had continued to conduct Bible Study for some five years for the parish even though he was no longer a member.
Unlike many small parishes that were struggling, Christ Church wasn’t struggling at all. A strong, 50+/- member parish with membership that also bucked the demographic trend having about 1/3 of the membership being families with children, Christ Church had a strong foundation to work with. “Someone asked me if I was going to Christ Church to fix it,” said Aschermann. “I told him I had little to fix. Rather what I was called to do was more clearly help the parish define its unique characteristics to present to the community in order to grow enough to call a priest.”
Besides the usual responsibilities of making sure Communion was celebrated twice a month alternating with Morning Prayer (“some of us old timers reminded the congregation that used to be the norm,” said Aschermann), the Vestry and parish took on the important work of better describing what made the parish different. “We open each service with a formal welcome,” said Pattie Palmer a member of the Vestry. “Kurt stands up and says ‘we don’t care who you love, as long as you love, we don’t care who you voted for, as long as you love, we don’t care where you are on your spiritual journey-if you love and seek to follow Jesus—welcome home’ This sets the tone and says welcome like nothing else.”
The parish also began several other innovations. They began to have stick on name tags with everyone’s first name (‘our goal was to make sure people visiting saw there was no in-crowd; they were part of the in-crowd the minute they walked through the door,’ said Palmer), they began to ask the priest and LEM celebrating to call each person by first name when offering the elements, which the name tags made possible (‘George, this is the body of Christ…’). And they started a program where you could put someone’s name on a 3×5 card, put it in the plate at the offering and on Wednesday morning’s they would be prayed for. “The Wednesday morning ‘praying the names’ became so popular,” said Aschermann, “we now have a full Morning Prayer before we do it, adding a service to the schedule.”
But it was a theme the church adopted that helped re-energize the parish. When one of the readings on a Sunday morning was Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus where he implores them to ‘imitate Christ,’ Aschermann’s message (he doesn’t call them sermons) offered a chance to try something fun and unique. The church embarked on a three week challenge they called The What Would Jesus Do Challenge.
During a three-week period of time the members of the church agreed to ask ‘what would Jesus do’ every time they had to make a decision or consider an action.
“I remembered an old book called In His Steps where a church decides to ask what would Jesus do in everything and I thought it would be fun for CCL to do it as well. To us the simplest way to describe what it means to be a Christian is to ask what would Jesus do in every situation. Of course, I was pleasantly surprised when several people commented that this phrase/challenge matched our welcoming language, and was a good way to tell folks how different we were. This made the challenge take on larger meaning for us and helped us focus the Vision Statement we eventually adopted”
During the challenge members of the church agreed to read a portion of the Sermon on the Mount every day (where Jesus answers the question the most directly) and to wear WWJD bracelets the church provided.
“The cloth bracelets, which were popular in the 70’s and 80’s, we think are a simple reminder that we’re taking seriously ‘what would Jesus do,’” commented Susan Lee, junior warden. “We’re didn’t expect folks to wear them forever, but during the three weeks of the challenge it helped us remember. We are now way past the end of the challenge and many people of the parish is still wearing their bracelets!”
An interesting part of the challenge is that several members of the parish commented they had taken it seriously enough it was causing them to do things differently. “I had several instances in the first week where I had to make a serious decision,” said Betty Hutchison a long-time member of the parish. “In the past I would ask God for assistance a lot. But since the WWJD challenge I find myself intentionally asking that question! It helps me focus on Him and to see the value of turning to God in all things.”
“My grandchildren were over,” said Palmer. “I immediately announced to them we were going to ask WWJD in everything we did for the days we were together. First, they laughed and said ‘o Mawmaw.’ But before half a day was out we found ourselves saying out loud ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ when making a decision. It went from being fun to being something they took seriously. We’re still doing it!”
The challenge also had parish-wide impact. “As part of our work together, to reach new people, we decided to articulate our vision for a faith community,” said Aschermann. “That led us to put on paper the basic tenets of what we believe and at the heart of that was being a ‘what would Jesus do’ church.”
Recently the parish had a lengthy discussion about its vision, including adopting some of the language from the Presiding Bishop’s call to become members of the Jesus Movement. This led them to adopt the following as their vision. It now is part of all of their communications:
CHRIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH–LUCKETTS, VA
AS FOLLOWERS OF JESUS WE ARE GUIDED BY ASKING:
“WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?”
WE ARE ACTIVE MEMBERS OF THE EPISCOPAL BRANCH OF THE JESUS MOVEMENT-
FOLLOWING HIM INTO LOVING,
LIFE-GIVING RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD, WITH EACH OTHER, AND THE WORLD.
AT CHRIST CHURCH
WE DON’T CARE WHO YOU LOVE-AS LONG AS YOU LOVE;
WE DON’T CARE WHO YOU VOTED FOR-AS LONG AS YOU LOVE;
WE DON’T CARE WHERE YOU ARE ON YOUR SPIRITUAL JOURNEY—IF YOU LOVE—IF YOU SEEK TO FOLLOW HIM–
“It seems everyone is saying the Episcopal Church needs to change, to be different, if it is to survive,’” said Aschermann. “We believe we have struck a perfect balance between the traditional and the new with our ‘what would Jesus do’ approach to our ministry. Now we shall see if those who aren’t part of our world will eventually see it the same way!”
In the days and weeks ahead, the parish will also roll out its new Sunday School program entitled “What Would Jesus Do?” (‘is there a better way to help our young people negotiate all the pressure they are under than by offering them a tool like asking WWJD?’ said Aschermann) and Youth Group program that will offer teens and pre-teens a chance to have confidential, serious conversations about living in today’s world and how perhaps asking What Would Jesus Do might make doing that somewhat easier.
“We know we have to reach more families if we are going to survive and thrive,” said Susan Lee. “We hope that the renewed energy from our Vision along with revitalized youth programs will reach people and let them see that at Christ Church we aren’t very complicated. We just try to do what Jesus would do.”