Making the Church the Town Square

May 29, 2024 | Stories from the Diocese

When the Very Rev. Scott D. Parnell arrived at Ware Episcopal Church, Sunday attendance averaged about 40 people.

So Parnell and parish leaders began thinking about how Ware, established in 1652, could once again be the vital part of the Gloucester community it had been in years past.

After a lot of discussion and prayer, Parnell and members of the church about an hour north of Williamsburg decided they first needed to let town residents know the church, built in the late 17th Century, is not a museum.

“We needed to find something to sort of put our name back out there since most people who drive past the church think it’s a museum,” Parnell said.

Their idea, bring the town square to Ware.

The Very Rev. Scott Parnell with the Gloucester County “Bee”

“We decided to turn our church into the public square so that we would become literally the center of Gloucester.”

But how?

“During COVID, we had the imagination of doing something called an art walk where we brought children’s artwork from the public schools onto the campus twice a year,” he said. “And we realized what an amazing thing it was to have people on our campus.”

That result spurred the people of Ware to imagine how else they could use their 38-acre campus to do more things for their community.

That’s when Parnell’s education in asset-based community development – which focuses on using existing community strengths, assets, and resources to create sustainable and self-reliant solutions to local needs – came into play.

“We started looking at community needs. And one of the things that we noticed is that we had no regular public gathering time or space. We also didn’t have a farmers market at all in the county. And we realized that we have the space that could meet this need of our local community of providing a regular gathering place for the community,” Parnell said.

“So, we took that and we spent sort of like a year and a half discerning about what is the right thing? Are we able to do it? What’s the cost going to be? How are we going to pay for it?”

In the midst of this process, God showed up, Parnell said.

“I found that God was very active in that discernment as we were considering stepping out in faith to do this huge outreach,” he said. “I remember driving home one day and asking God, you know, we think this is what we’re supposed to do. How do we pay for it? And literally the next day I walk into the office and someone has sent us a check for $150,000 saying they wanted to start an endowment for outreach.”

The Ware Church congregation learned that the county of 39,000 didn’t have a farmers’ market, so they decided to start one. After a successful test run in the summer of 2023, the Ware Farmer’s Market launched this May with 1,000 shoppers. It will continue on the second Saturday of each month from May through October.

In addition to 70 vendors, the church has a table at the market, where they provide information about Ware, and give tours of the church. In May the church raised $2,000 for outreach from the sale of baked goods.

Market Patron

Market patron Will Lemons gets information about the Church from Carol Swartz, before walking inside for a tour given by parishioners.

“We have signs for each of our outreach programs and allow the punchers to decide which program their money will go to,” Parnell said.

Parnell said the church actively promotes the market on Facebook, Instagram, with ads in local paper, yard signs, and by doing radio interviews.

“It’s great now because people know about it and when they see us doing something else, they stop in because they think it’s another market,” Parnell said.

Sunday service attendance is also up from an average of 40 to 100, he said.

“Our church is growing because of the market, but it was really the year and a half leading up to it where we saw God continually affirm what we believe the calling to be.”

Learn more about the Gloucester Farmer’s Market.

Parnell, who is now dean of a geographic region encompassing 12 Episcopal Churches, is focused on ways to help other congregations imagine how to improve their presence in their communities by developing group training on best practices for operating parishes.

Closer to home Parnell set up a coordinated financial aid distribution system for churches of all denominations in the area.

“Last year I convened a group of churches in Gloucester to start working together to help prevent homelessness. And at this point we’ve got 17 churches that since July of last year have managed to scrape together about $30,000 to help people pay rent arrears or electricity back payment so that they don’t lose their housing.”

Called the Jubilee Churches of Gloucester, the churches coordinate their giving requests.

“I’m not a social worker, I don’t know how to verify someone’s actual need. And I assumed that a lot of the other pastors in the area would share a similar feeling about it. So, we initially got together to figure out how we could partner to pool our resources, but also to find somebody to do this intake for us,” he explained.

They ended up partnering with a local nonprofit where they refer requests to be evaluated.

“We have an intake protocol. We tell the person you don’t need to call any of the other churches because we all work together. That by calling me, you’ve called all of us. You don’t have to tell your story a bajillion times.”

He said prior to the group forming many people just started calling churches in alphabetical order and that by the time someone gets to the W’s they may have only pieced together part of what they need.

“Say they’re looking for $4,000. They’ll tell me ‘Well, so and so said they’ll give me this much and the other church this much and another this much.’ But if you don’t get it all, it doesn’t matter. So, what we do is say, ‘Just call one of us and then the pastors will sort out if we’re able to help and tell you the total amount of money we can put towards this.’”

“And so, in January we had someone looking for assistance that needed like $5,000 in back rent payment. And between, I think it was seven churches, we were able to put up the full amount and she and her kids didn’t lose their house.

“In February we had eight requests totaling $11,000. It was all for rent back payment and a lot of them were single mothers whose kids got sick who worked hourly jobs. When they couldn’t go into work because they had to stay home with their kid, they just didn’t get paid and couldn’t pay their rent. So, we were able to, again, pool our resources and put the money up and take care of it all.”

Learn more about Ware Episcopal Church.