Christian Discernment and Community Engagement

Guest contributors Lynn Williams, Barbara Holley and Matt Stehle reflect in this week's Weekly Chapel on the particular importance of this moment to engage in the process discernment, as St. Paul's continues to explore its expression of Community Engagement.

Guest Contributors: Lynn Williams, Barbara Holley and Matt Stehle

Christian discernment at times both an active and a passive process – involving intention and inspiration. Like searching for shells at the beach, we find treasures in the sand both by digging with our hands and waiting to see what the tide brings in.

What is the discernment process and engagement with Spark Mill about?

The goal of our discernment on Community Engagement at St. Paul’s is to bring new life and renewed purpose to our programs and partnerships. As you may have seen, we have asked The Spark Mill to help us in this process. The Spark Mill has a unique focus on non-profits and religious organizations combined with an “asset-based” approach to helping organizations develop and redefine their Community Engagement strategies to get the most from their strengths and passions. They are guiding us through a process that involves inside-out as well as outside-in assessment. This involves the intra-congregational surveys and group discussions you’ve seen and hopefully participated in. Another aspect of this process is to talk with external peer organizations and community members to get an external view of St. Paul’s. With a view from many angles, we can develop the best vision for moving forward.

Why are we doing it now?

In our city, our nation, and throughout the world today we see pain, fear, and crisis but we also see helpers, hope, and compassion. As the present moments call on us, we’re people of action – we’re educating ourselves, having conversations, helping others, protecting ourselves and our neighbors. It’s an obvious time to be thinking and re-thinking what St. Paul’s as an organization can do to contribute as well.

This discernment started much earlier though. St. Paul’s has not done a deep exploration of our outreach ministries in 15 years. With many new members, a new rector, new staff, and new insights from our History and Reconciliation Initiative (HRI) the time had already come for discernment. We were well underway with our planning and process before a pandemic and a national awakening to addressing deep-rooted social and racial justice raised the stakes.

In 2018 and 2019, the steering committee performed interviews and information gathering on St. Paul’s current commitments, programs, and partnerships within our “Outreach” ministry. On February 1, 2020, the vestry voted to approve The Spark Mill’s engagement to help in this discernment. While the pandemic has changed our timing and approach, we’ve remained committed to this process and having important conversations.

What do we hope to learn?

St. Paul’s has a rich tradition of engagement and activism. We have much to offer in the form of experience, people, physical space, and funding. We also recognize that the world is changing, the roles of churches amongst non-profits are evolving, and the opportunity for building new partnerships with community members is growing.

We have changed the ministry’s name from “Outreach” to “Community Engagement”. This change may seem subtle, but it represents an emphasis on engaging with the community in partnership. We will ground all of our endeavors in this bi-directional mindset.

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives. While there is some solidarity to be found in the shared experience of isolation and uncertainty, the virus and related restrictions have had an outsized impact in particular communities and created immediate, unique needs. We responded by creating the St. Paul’s COVID-19 Relief Fund. To date, we have given over $195,000 in grants to over 30 organizations serving a range of critical needs in the community. The creation and operation of this fund has been a learning experience for us and an opportunity to build relationships with partner organizations that we carry into this discernment.

We want to hear from you in this time of pandemic and cry for justice. It is amazing to see that nearly every organization applying for COVID-19 grants can claim a tie to St. Paul’s – either through a personal or organizational relationship. We know that so many in the congregation are already engaged so we seek your input and ideas. What are you passionate about? We want to think about how best St. Paul’s as a community and organization can have an impact. How do we best leverage St. Paul’s strengths? How do we scale our impact? We want to think about the future or our community and congregation. How can we empower ourselves and others to seek justice and create hope? How can we create new excitement and a sense of purpose at St. Paul’s through our approach to Community Engagement?

Thank you for your support, your ideas, your passion, and your prayers as we continue through this process. If you are interested in learning more and getting future updates, please sign up for our monthly email newsletter. If you have ideas for Community Engagement and Justice at St. Paul’s please send an email to


Lynn Williams, Director of Community Engagement
Barbara Holley, Community Engagement Vestry Liaison
Matt Stehle, Community Engagement Vestry Liaison

(You can learn more about our Community Engagement Steering Committee HERE.)