The mission of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church is to walk, without judgment, with those taking different paths to God so that we may be transformed through Jesus Christ as we serve others.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Community has a long history of serving others. But change now swirls around our campus; economic, social, and spiritual trends reshape our neighborhood, our church, and our world. So we take this moment to pause and ask ourselves: what is our theology of service, and how should we best express it today?
In speaking with long-time members of St. Stephen’s about our history of service, we found one idea which surfaced again and again: that service arose to address a current need, often one not addressed sufficiently by the broader church or society at large. Our efforts, in the words of one parishioner, “just happened.” In this way, we have been a listening church. Our service has been responsive, authentic, and organic, arising from the realities we’ve faced in our history. It is not an additional “thing” we do, but a sign of who we are as Christians. Service is our way of being in communion with the world, both within and beyond our doors. In the words of one member, “At St. Stephen’s, loving God and loving our neighbor are distinct — and the same.”
Our service always honors the human dignity of those we serve. It is always a person-to-person connection — never an impersonal one — and is based on mercy, compassion, and total acceptance of the uniqueness of each individual served. Above all, we recognize the power of service to change the giver as well as the recipient.
How does service connect with the spiritual development of our members?
St. Stephen’s is a place of growth and renewal, a place of rest and resurrection. We recognize we are each on unique spiritual journeys. So St. Stephen’s offers all members opportunities to serve, teaching those hungry to serve how to do so. Our spiritual formation programs must recognize the strong reciprocal nature of service and faith: growth in faith demands growth in service, which spurs further growth in faith. All spiritual formation programs should include a service component, from study and discussion, to actual service opportunities.
Essentially, our call to be servants arises from our faith and shapes it. From the newest member to the oldest, all of us are called in our time at St. Stephen’s to experience the love and mercy of God in serving others. All of our efforts as a community arc toward that goal.
Finally, it must be noted that some of us arrive at the doors of St. Stephen’s hurt, scarred, or broken by damaging experiences, both personal and spiritual. Service opportunities may not call to them until they have had both the calendar time (chronos) to rest and the sacred time (kairos) to experience renewal. The call to serve will unfold gradually in their resurrected lives; no undue pressure to serve is placed on their shoulders as a condition of membership. We are called to serve them as they seek our community as a place to heal.
So where do we serve?
Opportunities to serve occur every day, everywhere, in each of our lives. We serve those both inside and outside our St. Stephen’s Community. Many of us already serve through our jobs, careers, volunteer efforts and professions. We can be found feeding the hungry, or healing the sick, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable throughout the year.
Our concerns are local, regional and global. Poverty, isolation, injustice and oppression happen inside and outside our neighborhood, and Jesus’ call to serve does not end at any border. Therefore, we support service efforts wherever need exists.
In particular, we encourage our community to follow a long Episcopal tradition of examining the structures in society which create need. A full theology of service incorporates both helping the homeless and examining the reasons why homelessness exists; offering support for the LGBT community, and protesting exclusion. Service without justice can devolve into mere housekeeping; justice without service into pure politics. Jesus calls us, not to one or the other, but to both.
Admittedly, our reach and resources are not boundless, and we feel it is important to focus our efforts on problems where we can make a deep and long term impact. How do we measure our impact? This is an issue on which we need to develop a clear process. We recommend the development of an initial list of a few areas of focus, through a community dialog. We recommend that these focus areas cover local, national, and world issues. These focus areas should guide our efforts as a community for the next 3 years, at which time they should be revisited, their continuing importance determined, and our impact measured and evaluated. All discussions should be open forum. The areas of focus will be promoted throughout our campus, and serve as themes for our programs.
The process of choosing areas of focus will be aided by reviewing our own history, and understanding how we have made an impact in the past. Many of us are unaware, for instance, that our School had its origins in a decision to offer space to a Montessori school which had lost its lease twice, or that we offered temporary shelter to Covenant Baptist for three years. Our AIDS Respite Care Teams led to our challenging both the Diocese and the City of Houston to address the epidemic. Members can list many examples of service: hosting refugee families through Interfaith Ministries, providing space for community organizations, etc. One such need merits particular attention: the challenges presented by the changing economics in the Montrose area.
If we are to have a sustained impact on these issues, partnerships are crucial. The Honduras mission trip — an example of a partnership with Christ Church Cathedral and the Archdiocese of Honduras — is an example of the global reach we are capable of by working with other churches and agencies whose values we share. Partnering with CCSC and Interfaith Ministries are outstanding examples of how we can extend our reach in Houston.
We note that focusing will not prevent individual members of St. Stephen’s from proposing, initiating, or promoting projects deemed important by those members. Nor does it mean the elimination of any existing effort — multiple projects can fit within a focus area. Focusing will, however, increase our impact, guide our funding, and highlight our values.
“Core Values do not inform only who we are and what we care about. They also engage us on how we spend our money. St. Stephen’s budget demonstrates our values.” - St. Stephens’ website
We wish to acknowledge that, in naming the Service Committee, we are not using the term Outreach — that term, and the committee that used it, has a long and significant history in St. Stephen’s, which we honor. However, in our discussions we found that the term often led to the question: “Is it outreach if we’re serving those inside the community?” More as a matter of direction than theology, we use the term Service to avoid confusion. At St. Stephen’s, our walls are permeable — we are called to serve those in need, whether inside or out.
Patrick Flannery (Vestry)
Madeline Mauk (Vestry)