Community as a parish

The ruins of the Abbey on Holy Island.
The abbey ruins on Holy Island off the northeast coast of England. (Marrton Dormish)

My personal experience with church is like a scoop of neapolitan ice cream—I was born and baptized Catholic, grew up in a tiny and now-defunct charismatic church, spent 15 years as part of a large evangelical parachurch ministry, and am now part of a somewhat non-traditional faith community in my adopted hometown.

Over the years, the more I’ve become aware of the tangible needs of my neighbors both in my own community and in the wider world, the more I’ve wondered how the hope and resources found in local churches can be made more accessible to non-church members. Beyond simply waiting for residents to choose and join a particular faith community, that is.

I commend the relevant, important and ubiquitous work of church “outreach” committees, the existence of chaplaincy roles in hospitals and hospices, the relatively recent growth of “community pastor” positions within contemporary evangelical churches, and the long practice of parish ministry by clergy in some mainline churches.

If only these relatively isolated efforts could become more integrated, how many more of our neighbors could be clothed, visited, encouraged and served! People of faith need only be available to do for their neighbors in their wider community what they would do for any member of their family, any friend or any member of their congregation. Some already do.

The last thing most clergy and committed lay leaders need to hear is that they need to “do more.” I know well that their time and energy is often stretched paper thin. What I’m suggesting is that there is an important, and often under-explored, role for collaboration and cooperation in faith-inspired efforts to meet tangible needs in local communities.

Yesterday, I wondered how more faith communities could “go” to people in need in their community, rather than waiting for them to “come” to them. Today, I’d like to suggest that one way to do that would be for churches to adopt a “parish” mindset in their orientation toward their wider community. (The word “parish” always makes me feel sheepish, because I accidentally spelled it “perish” in my original minister’s licensing thesis 10 years or so ago. Oops.)

The general idea behind a parish is to consider all the members within a particular geographical area as under the pastoral care or jurisdiction of a particular member of the clergy. For the purposes of this post, I’m extending this loose definition of a parish to “under the care and jurisdiction of a particular faith community or group of faith communities.”

Practically speaking, there’s no way a few members of the local clergy could hope to pastorally care for the 9 in 10 residents in my community of 56,000 people who do not attend a local church. But if more members of local congregations were mobilized for that purpose, and they learned to cooperate somehow, we could together help keep more of our neighbors from falling through the proverbial cracks in our local social safety net.

What might our communities look like if more of us adopted the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of becoming agents of blessing in and for our cities?

Marrton Dormish

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