Despite the promises of renewal and redemption, it can often be far too easy for all of us to look at our surrounding problems and say “It’s too much;” the temptations to look at patterns of decline or atrophy to want to run and hide or to cease looking for a way forward are very real, and very scary.
It’s in consideration of these real world fears that make the transformation and growth seen at St. Mark’s and All Saints Episcopal Church in Galloway, NJ all the more inspiring and awesome. Two years ago, the church found itself in a steady pattern of loss, as spiritual, personal, and financial resources continued to shrink. The Rev. Terry O’Connor joined the parish in late 2015, and noticed this sense of loss had become endemic: “We all wanted to talk about how things used to be. We were grieving something that hadn’t died. It was troubling.”
Flash forward to today, and circumstances have changed; several new families have begun to regularly worship at SMAS, as parishioners lovingly abbreviate the name of their church. Finances are improving, with “Fair Share” giving from the church to the diocese closer than in years past, and the church proudly requesting no financial assistance from the diocese in the 2018 fiscal year. “We made a conscious choice to be better disciples,” O’Connor said. “We made a commitment to be there for one another and for our community.”
And in ways incremental and monumental, that covenant is carried out. Parishioners engage in fellowship beyond the walls of the church, taking in entertainment in Atlantic City and supporting community theater and arts projects of other parishioners. Recovery ministries have seen new life, as noted by O’Connor and long-term parishioners like Brian Bishop. SMAS is a host congregation for Family Promise of Atlantic County, a relationship that continues to grow. And a commitment to reinvestment across all definitions of the word is paramount: “We connect with each other, and with God, in ways that are visible and meaningful. And our budget, and our commitment to it, is a representation of that.”
O’Connor insists that this new commitment to life within the parish is a collaborative effort between all members of the church. With that said and understood, it’s hardly a coincidence that much of this energy arrived with his beginning to serve at the church. O’Connor was ordained to the priesthood in summer 2015; as is becoming more and more common with modern clergy, O’Connor opted for a bi-vocational path. On weekdays, he serves as an assistant principal at a local elementary school; he often finds that his two callings coincide. “There are definitely skills that overlap—listening has to be the first thing.” He also finds occasional moments where his ministry actively presents in his “day job,” such as when he was permitted to offer ashes on Ash Wednesday to school staff before school hours began. “It really started new conversations and was an opportunity for staff who couldn’t make it to church that day—I was happy to be able to do it.”
Looking to the future, O’Connor sees more communications and collaborations with the community as a whole as a path to further health and growth. “We’re small and mighty, like many churches [in New Jersey]. But we’re living proof that a not-great situation can be turned around. I really am looking forward to new families, new ideas, and lots of love pouring out of and powering our church. I think we’ve made a commitment to being here, and we all understand what that means and the possibilities it brings.”