A Letter from Bishop Benfield
This past weekend participants from across the state met in Little Rock as the Episcopal Church in Arkansas began a new local training program for future priests and deacons. In less than three years these people will begin their ordained ministry. In the case of priests, it will be primarily in congregations that cannot afford to call a rector. Additionally this past weekend, current priests and deacons new to their ministry in Arkansas met to start their continuing education in a program called Fresh Start.
In response to the need for locally trained priests who are either working full-time in secular jobs or are retired, we began participating in the Iona Initiative a year ago. This program, headquartered at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, provides the backbone of academic training, which is supplemented by both academic and practical training presented by Arkansas priests and deacons. The Rev. Sandra Curtis serves as the dean to oversee the Iona Initiative.
Five people began a three-year study program leading to ordination as priests, and five people are part of the program of studies for eventual work as deacons. We hope to add at least five new students for priesthood each year, so that one day we can have a priest in every congregation in the state each Sunday, regardless of the congregation’s size.
The two programs, the Iona Initiative and Fresh Start, are part of a three-pronged effort focused on long-term congregational health and development. Joining these students are people from several congregations who want to participate in a program called Growing Congregations, our effort to develop healthy congregations through training both lay leaders and members of the clergy. On various weekends throughout the year, all three groups gather for Saturday worship services and meals, and spend the rest of the day in their respective classes.
As your bishop, my hope is that you will support these exciting new programs. There are three main ways.
First, your congregation might wish to get a team together to attend Growing Congregations, where you can develop techniques for ensuring that your congregation is a vital, active presence in your town. (Email Canon Jason Alexander for more information.)
Second, members of the clergy need to be on the lookout for people with secular jobs or recently retired who would be good candidates for ordination to work voluntarily in smaller congregations.
And third, everyone can participate by donating to the New Generation Fund, ensuring that these programs have the money necessary to sustain their ongoing viability. Less than half of the money necessary for the Iona Initiative comes from tuition; the rest comes from diocesan budget allocations. If you are in a large, vibrant congregation, your financial support will make it possible for other smaller congregations to have that same possibility for health. By participating in some or all of these ways, we can assure ourselves that the Episcopal Church has a rich future in Arkansas.