BISHOP GEORGE Lemmon, the seventh bishop of Fredericton, has spent the past 10 years helping to build a sense of community and forge bonds of trust throughout the more than 187 congregations that make up the New Brunswick diocese.
"The very first bishop of the diocese had a vision of having each church in the diocese no more than a buggy ride apart," explained Bishop Lemmon. "So, initially, the churches were about six miles apart."
But, as the diocese grew, the churches became more sparsely spread out. In some cases, churches can be separated by more than 100 kilometres. By the time he arrived in 1989, Bishop Lemmon discovered most of the 90-plus clergy in the diocese felt disconnected from their colleagues and from the church hierarchy. In fact, it was the key issue they identified as a challenge to their work in the church.
"We've spent a lot of my time as bishop trying to develop a sense of community," he said. "For the past six years, we've had a Monday morning meeting of the clergy. This is used as a time of prayer and reflection on the upcoming Sunday's lectionary. This not only helps build a stronger sense of community, it also helps fertilize the mind with new thoughts and ideas."
Those early meetings with the clergy also served to set up the notion of shared ministry in the diocese, said Bishop Lemmon, who explained he wanted to lead the diocese with not only a sense of shared management, but also a sense of common purpose.
"It was a bit upsetting to hear that the No. 1 issue in the diocese was lack of trust," he recalled. "It's not the kind of thing you want to hear in a community of faith. We had to get away from being lone rangers and share our ministry with each other and the laity."
This sharing has given rise to the strong sense of lay ministry in the diocese.
"There is a strong lay ministry focus," said Bishop Lemmon. "The laity are assisting in the services, yes, but it goes beyond Sundays. We are looking at what we do in the community as ministry and making sure the church is a significant part of the community."
It is vital to do this, he added, because in many parts of rural New Brunswick, the churches are among the only remaining community-based institutions.
"In most cases, the post office is gone, so is the train station. Even the general stores are gone," he said. "And, with them, go the places people can meet their friends and neighbours. It is up to the churches to take the places of these things. It is part of our ministry to provide a food bank, or a soup kitchen, or a community kitchen, in addition to maintaining our same high standards for Sunday worship."
In order to do all this, Bishop Lemmon found it necessary to subdivide the diocese into six deaneries and have archdeacons become "the eyes and ears of the bishop."
In this way, he said, it is easier to provide support to the clergy and people -- and further encourage the development of strong clergy partnerships -- and to encourage creative solutions to problems like declining church attendance and stretched-to-the-limit church budgets. …