On Fire with Living Compass in Maine

Sometimes, when a seed is planted, it seems to take forever before there’s any sign of growth.

Other times, new life practically explodes from the earth. That’s what happened when Emily Keniston introduced Living Compass to the congregation at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Windham, Maine.

“We are just thrilled about what Living Compass has done for us thus far,” said Keniston, director of faith formation at St. Ann’s. “The sky’s the limit!”

Keniston first became aware of Living Compass in 2013 when, as chair of the Diocese of Maine’s Christian Education Collaboration group, she heard that another church in her diocese “had dabbled in it.”

Then in January 2014, she picked up Living Compass brochures while attending a conference meeting of FORMA, a national association of Christian education and formation leaders.

“I think it was the combination of seeing the Living Compass table and just having heard that another church had started using it,” she said. “That church didn’t wind up doing a lot with it right away—these things happen—but my church has embraced it fully and is running with it.”

When Keniston introduced Living Compass to St. Ann’s Christian education committee, church leaders were busy planning for its first-ever parish retreat, to be held Labor Day weekend in 2014.

“We rolled out Living Compass and used it as the basis of programing for our retreat, as well as the launch point for Living Compass,” Keniston said. Those at the parish retreat completed the self-assessment tool and discussed how to use Living Compass in the parish’s Christian formation program.

The response, during and after the parish retreat, was overwhelming.

“At the end, the feedback we got was phenomenal,” Keniston said. “They all said, ‘We want more!’ We were expecting a positive response, but maybe not quite that much demand.”

Using Living Compass’s focus on whole-person wellness, St. Ann’s parishioners returned from the parish retreat and initiated a wide variety of programs.

“We had a belly dancer who came in and led classes,” Keniston said. “We rented out an arena and had a parish soccer game. We’ve scheduled wellness workshops on the power of prevention. We had a couple of financial advisors who offered workshops on household budgets and finances for kids. We happened to have an artist in the congregation who came in and taught painting classes.”

All of which cost the parish very little.

“We drew on plain ole’ parishioner talent,” Keniston said.

This year the church youth group started using a Living Compass curriculum, and for Lent, Keniston said the parish had a “full congregational push,” to get everyone to do the Living Compass assessment to see how their compass might have changed during the past few months.

“We wanted them to see what they might need to work on. We just started using Church Next as well. That’s been a huge success, too.”

Keniston said one of the most notable impacts of Living Compass has been the way parishioners relate to one another and to the church.

“We thought this was going to be really cool from a spiritual perspective, talking to people about wellness and balance,” she said. “We’re in a fairly blue collar community. A lot of times parents have more than one job. Retirees are on a fixed income. There’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure to live a certain way. Living Compass makes clear that God wants us to live fully and vibrantly; he doesn’t want us to scrape by. He wants us to thrive.

“The thing that blows me out of the water is the sense of community it has created. We have brought back the idea that the center of community is the church. We didn’t set out with that in mind. What we’ve done, almost by accident, is to show that when you have a need in your life, church is where that need can be met.

“We’ve had people come out of the woodwork,” Keniston continues. “One parishioner is offering Zumba. Another retiree—she’s in her late fifties—is going to teach hula hooping because that’s her God-given gift and she’s going to share it with others.

“It’s very exciting. A whole bunch of people are feeling that their gifts have a place, no matter what they are.”

Keniston said St. Ann’s plans to use the Living Compass Lenten devotional and program, “Practicing Resilience with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind,” for their parish retreat in September.

“This year we are sticking with a course-catalog approach during Lent,” she said. “We’ve had an overwhelming request from parishioners, saying please don’t stop. It’s been very exciting. Kids are excited about it, and teens and adults are able to use it in their curriculum. It’s a unifying approach to formation.”

St. Ann’s has two services every Sunday, attended by about 175 parishioners. Keniston said the courses offered through Living Compass have helped with cross-fertilization between the two congregations.

“What’s been really neat is that through these fun workshops and events, we’ve seen groups from those two services really come together and form friendships that may not have happened otherwise. We’re extremely active as a church, socially, but these programs have deepened relationships in a way that a Christmas party or other one-time event can’t. When you do something that may seem silly together, like belly dancing, you have to trust people around you and be willing to take risks.”

The next step for St. Ann’s? They’re going to send parishioners to a Living Compass Congregational Wellness Advocate training at the Nicholas Center in Chicago to expand their Living Compass knowledge and skills and to learn more about what the program offers to congregations.

“Then they’ll come back and foster even deeper spiritual discussions,” Keniston said. “We have great, forward motion, so now is the time we want to get trained and come back and push even more.

“We are just on fire.”

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