What is EMMA anyway?

First-timer reflections on a meeting of East Metro Mission Area

by Judy Stack

It takes something important for Minnesotans to voluntarily give up a large part of one of the first beautiful Saturdays of the spring. But clearly this was one of those things!  

Over 40 people–both lay and clergy–met on May 18 at St Christopher’s in Roseville to participate in the East Metro Mission Area (EMMA) Gathering. These take place twice a year, and though I have been curious for a few years, I’d never attended one even though I knew they were open to anyone from EMMA churches. 

When I arrived, I saw a number of familiar faces among the 40 or so participants. Our rector Jered is the Dean of this Mission area, but there were also other people connected to St. John’s: Katie Madsen (SJE layperson) is on the EMMA Leadership Team, as is former St. John’s member Rev. Jayan Koshy (now priest at Ascension, Stillwater). I learned that the members of that team serve as representatives to the ECMN diocesan council, and thus as the voice for the East Metro in that committee. Also at the gathering were Rev. Margaret Thor (former SJE deacon now at St. John in the Wilderness), and SJE members the Rev. Karen Mosso, Roger Wilson, and myself. It was easy to feel at home with people who were not just friendly but familiar.

I came in with a number of hopes: as someone relatively new to the Episcopal church, I was hoping to get to know clergy and lay leaders from other parishes. I was also hoping to hear what other folks see as the challenges and opportunities for ministry in the St. Paul/east metro area. And finally, I hoped to see some ways to connect and collaborate with other parishes. And it turned out that my hopes were not far off from the agenda! The first thing on it was the stated goal of the spring Mission Area Gatherings: “[to] act as learning labs…to share stories of innovation, reflect on learning and practice, and build relationships and connections.” 

We began with an address from Bishop Loya that emphasized how we plan for and approach the future of the church. As we go forward, the church will face many challenges but “church challenges can only be faithfully addressed by asking Jesus questions not church questions”–that is, we have to focus on how we live into the life Jesus calls us to rather than how we can simply preserve the church.

For this he sees three crucial habits and three necessary mindsets:

The habits (which are tied to the practices of the early church) are 

  • Bible study – everyone lives their life within a story framework. Most (even within the church) live in a story that is not fundamentally Christian in that it is centered on us and not centered on Jesus and the work he is doing.
  • Life together – we need to share more deeply in each other’s lives–our sorrows and joys, struggles and daily victories. An hour or so on Sunday is not enough. We need deeper community.
  • Spiritual “extras” – How do we bring our sense of God’s presence and activity to the things we are doing outside of church? This is a fertile space for new spiritual community to grow.

The three mindsets are: 

  • Living in expectation not devastation – The church as we knew it is passing away, We need to be living in expectation of the new thing God will do, rather than live in a narrative of devastation. (Example: the disciples on the road to Emmaus begin in devastation. Also the disciples in the locked room in John. Then Jesus shows up!)
  • Play – We need to be open to experimenting joyfully. When you are too serious, you shut down and can’t flow in God’s fresh plans.
  • Curiosity – Wonder about “What’s God up to in people’s lives?” Talk about it!

We then had time at tables to discuss and report back to the large group what’s happening at our own churches related to things the bishop discussed. It was interesting and inspiring to hear what others are up to. One thing that came up in multiple groups is the challenge of younger people or new people coming to our congregations–on the one hand we want them to join us but often we then do not really engage them. Only the longtime members are allowed leadership roles and significant decision-making voice, so newer and younger members feel unheard and unimportant and leave or become inactive. I was pleased to report that St John’s has been active and intentional in bringing newer and younger members into leadership roles (including vestry). We also discussed the importance of faithful and knowledgeable lay people being empowered to lead and minister and supported in that leadership. There was also a desire voiced for more collaboration between parishes–not just doing things together but learning from each other as well. We then had noon worship with Eucharist, and then enjoyed lunch together.

In the afternoon we were regrouped and different tables were tasked with talking about what their churches are doing related to the one of the four diocesan priorities (faithful innovation, discipleship, justice, or congregational vitality) or connectedness within EMMA. My table was given the last topic to discuss. A number of useful and creative ideas were brought up including a gathering for EMMA wardens to learn from and support each other in their work, having fun social events bring two or three parishes together, building relationships between churches vestries, having lay leaders visit other parishes as intentional groups to experience worship and meet members of other parishes, finding ways for lay leaders in ministry areas (Faith in Action, Lay Pastoral Care, Youth, Adult Formation, Invite-Welcome-Connect, etc.) to connect and learn from one another, and ways to more effectively use the EMMA Facebook groups. There was much great food for thought shared by the other groups as well. And many inspiring ideas and stories.

We concluded at 1:30 and I went away feeling a much deeper sense of shared mission and the exciting things happening through our churches. It made me wish we met more often and that there were more folks from every EMMA parish there. There are good things ahead, especially as we share in the work together!

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