Monday, July 6, 2015

By Joyce Hope and Pat Swalm, Calvary Lutheran West Chester, Penn.

Rejoicing Spirits at Calvary Lutheran Church in West Chester, Penn., will celebrate its 11th year anniversary in October. Starting with a small core of worshippers, it now has an average of 65–70 in attendance each month (though it serves an overall greater number), with the expectation of continued growth.

Joyce Hope and Pat Swalm, co-directors, feel there is much more to do to strengthen bonds and recruit, but they attribute the above uptick in attendance to several reasons.

First, of course, is that Rejoicing Spirits offers a meaningful spiritual experience that is unique. On that foundation, they have been reaching out to the community and developing relationships within Rejoicing Spirits, both of which relate directly to growth.

Here are some keys things that have helped:

  • A contact at the Chester County Office of Developmental Programs e-mails our flyers every month to all the providers who serve Chester County clients.
  • A standing announcement on the community page of our local school district’s website announces our services.
  • Calvary’s Rejoicing Spirits participates in its church’s ministry fair, and in local chapter of the Arc and Down Syndrome walk-a-thon fundraisers. Joyce and Pat set up an elaborate booth with photos, a game, Rejoicing Spirits songs, and their flyer and give all who want one a butterfly tattoo and/or a handcrafted origami butterfly. Word definitely gets out to our target audience, and a number of volunteers have been recruited this way.
  • Those who are served are invited to help staff booths; another way to build relationships. A Rejoicing Spirits mother and son, for example, helped at its last ministry fair booth.
  • Personal visits to group homes have been a factor in developing relationships, as have such practices as sending birthday, get well, and Halloween cards with individual notes.
  • Specific procedures to assure that those who come to worship receive a personal welcome are in place. As Calvary recently began to attract larger numbers, church members were recruited just to visit with worshippers during fellowship time. Joyce and Pat want everyone to receive a personal contact at each service. Ensuring a high comfort level for each person and creating an atmosphere where all are wanted and welcomed is critical.
  • Calvary’s Rejoicing Spirits invites its worshippers to church events outside of Rejoicing Spirits. One particularly nice event was Calvary’s Christmas Tea. Joyce and Pat both hosted a table for eight and invited those who attend Rejoicing Spirits to come. Each co-director had a Christmas decorated table with butterflies as the theme. This was a hugely successful evening.
  • Calvary also hosts an indoor picnic in the fall that includes not only delicious food, but decorations, door prizes, fun activities and entertainment.
  • Making aides feel welcome each month is crucial to growth; in November Calvary formally honors aides during its Bring a Friend Month. One aide, who retired about two years ago, still returns by herself when she is in the area just to be with Calvary’s Rejoicing Spirits. In May she arrived with a birthday cake so that Rejoicing Spirits could help her celebrate her big day!
  • Growth also requires that affiliates be open to new ideas and to using the skills of those they serve. Calvary has one girl with Down Syndrome who plays the keyboard at a service twice a year.
  • Recruiting and reinvigorating the volunteer staff is especially important to maintaining quality during growth periods. Joyce and Pat reached out to youth through two song workshops (not only to teach Rejoicing Spirits songs, but to introduce the children to Rejoicing Spirits itself), and also to the confirmation class. Individual phone calls are essential to grow volunteer staff, and appreciation and recognition afterwards.

Other factors, too, are related to Calvary’s growth and success. This church is blessed to have two extremely supportive pastors; also, to have many church members who, when approached individually, are willing to help. A large core of volunteers helps make Calvary’s Rejoicing Spirits affiliate strong.

Another factor is simply that Calvary is located in a populous area with a multitude of large local residential providers for individuals with developmental disabilities. In one ongoing transition, a large provider in the next county has an agreement with the state to deinstitutionalize to small group homes. The homes are now beginning to tap into community based services, including churches that will welcome their residents.

Pat works for Elwyn in adult residential services, and Joyce, who taught Family and Consumer Sciences and volunteers for a large Girl Scout council. Both bring specific skills to Rejoicing Spirits. Pat is able to speak with in-depth, professional knowledge about issues related to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and Joyce brings educational principles and broad experience with managing and working with volunteers. This combination has served Calvary’s Rejoicing Spirits well.

For example, when the lady who sends Calvary’s Rejoicing Spirits flyer to providers every month said that her counterpart in another county could not do this because of the separation of state and church, Pat was able to quote the Pennsylvania regulation that references the individual’s right to practice his/her religion of choice. She responded that sending the flyer is just a way of offering choice and allowing individuals to enjoy their rights as United States citizens.

One of Calvary’s Rejoicing Spirits’ current challenges is to manage growth. It is outgrowing the chapel space where it currently meets, and is now formulating plans to move to the sanctuary and expand the area where refreshments are served. (Part of that managing was the additional recruitment already mentioned.)

When Pat and Joyce first decided to aggressively begin to attract more people to worship, their decision was to go slowly and always absorb any new people before moving on, so that no matter how many would be attracted, each would find a home. They feel they are definitely in the absorbing stage right now, and will need to level out before using other recruiting ideas that are in the wings.

It is worth noting that, although Joyce and Pat’s initial efforts to grow did not “take off” immediately, they continued to work on their goal over several years. Once new people and new groups began to attend, however, word seemed to spread. Growth over the last six to eight months has started to soar. 

When Joyce’s husband attended Lutheran Night with the Phillies on May 29, he happened to sit beside a stranger from a distant church. When they exchanged the names of their home churches, that stranger first responded, “Oh - Calvary - that’s the church with the great Rejoicing Spirits!”

To learn more about Calvary, please visit sites.