If, in the life cycle of a church parish, there are times of high energy and low energy, two years ago "we were in a trough," recalled Randy Cooper.
Cooper is senior warden at the Church of the Holy Comforter. Consecrated in 1889, the Episcopal stronghold with traditional red doors and a relatively affluent parish sits on seven acres at Bellona and Seminary avenues in Lutherville.
The church's "trough" came following the retirement of Holy Comforter's former rector, Janice Gordon-Barnes, after 20 years. Average Sunday attendance had dropped in a decade from 222 to 136. The church has always had a strong core of lay leadership, but the leaders had grown older and there were few younger people stepping up to the plate — or filling the collection plate.
"People pass on or die or move away," Cooper said. "Looking down the road you have to prepare for that kind of shift. Without replacing them with a younger demographic, you at some point are going to run out of people."
Cooper summed it up in The Cupola, the church newsletter: "Continuing along the same path is an easy route. However, if trends from the last 10 years continue, our same path will quickly become a dead end."
The church's journey ultimately led to the appointment of a new rector this summer — the Rev. Christopher Tang, who had actually served as associate rector at Holy Comforter in 1999, and now returns to a mission to engage both young and aging members.
The selection process was a path that saw the church challenging itself to chart a new course for its flock, and also engage members in that mission.
"We didn't want to become the Church of the Highly Comfortable," quipped Robin Vahle, who has been a parishioner for more than 15 years.
Vahle, a registered nurse who is director of compliance and ethics with Blue Cross-Blue Shield, chaired a 10-person search committee charged with finding candidates to replace Gordon.
But, "the reality is that churches need lay leadership, as well as clerical leadership," Vahle said. "It was time to grow that core of lay leadership, to get more folks involved.
"People stay in churches — or places — when they are actively engaged," Vahle said. "They need to feel that what they are contributing makes a difference, whether it's time, talent or money."
The committee had to determine where parishioners wanted the church to go before they began the process of finding a new rector to lead them there, so they surveyed members with 80 questions.
Noting that Holy Comforter's mission statement is, "to be Christ's arms of love reaching out to this broken world," Cooper said the church needed to implement programs "that serve our community, our neighbors and ourselves in ways that emphasize and demonstrate our beliefs as Christians."
Still, parishioners said they wanted a good leader and a strong preacher, interested in working with a broad spectrum of age groups — including young and the old — and in strengthening pastoral care.
The committee received 79 applications — from as far away as Colorado, California and Canada — and working in three-person teams, conducted 79 separate 45-minute telephone interviews, even though it was obvious from the beginning that some applicants wouldn't be a good fit.
"If they cared about us enough to apply, they deserved that," Vahle said, who noted that the field was eventually narrowed to nine. "We were really blessed with a number of strong, strong candidates."
Tang, who had been rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Hampstead since he left his position as associate rector at Holy Comforter in 1999, had no plans to apply.
"I was happy where I was," said Tang, 45, a computer analyst with a degree in economics from University of Maryland before he was called and entered Virginia Theological Seminary in 1996.
But Bishop John Rabb wanted him to put his name in. "He thought we might be a good match," Tang said.
Tang was not surprised by the quality or quantity of candidates.
"Quite honestly, it was a very attractive congregation to serve," he said.
"I remembered a willingness to engage in new things and new liturgies, and a real commitment to outreach, and the survey revealed a desire to make the church a place where families with young children and youths would be included," he said.
"I'm not a great activist, not the best preacher, but the thing I do ministering to children and youth, I do quite well."
His philosophy smacks of Tom Sawyer painting the fence, acting as if he was having such a good time that everybody wanted to do it.
"That's the whole idea," he said. "This is fun, engaging, life-giving work. My role as a priest is to have other people discover that."
If he was to return to Holy Comforter, he would come with more gray hair, extra pounds, divorced and with two sons, ages 12 and 9.
"I made it clear to them that, as a single parent, I had limitations," he said. "Anybody could be rector, but only one person could be my sons' father."
Divorce is a double-edged sword, he said. He believes he is compassionate and empathetic, but he is now less judgmental in his heart when he is dealing with people experiencing marital discord.
"We know you're not perfect now," he has been told.
His reply? "My mom has known that for years."
Tang's divorce was not an issue for the search committee, said Vahle.
"Nobody was disturbed by that," she said, "but that may be a cultural change."
Tang stood out for other reasons.
"Chris has a sense of comfort with himself, and he knew this church, which was a plus but not a deciding factor," Vahle said. "There was also his spiritual leadership and his preaching. We knew the church needed to move forward and we felt this was a man who could make this happen."
Church as home
Tang and the Holy Comforter parish are moving forward since the celebration of their new ministry together June 7, said Vahle.
"The energy here now is so clear," she said.
For Tang, the challenges are clear — and are not uncommon among congregations of today.
"For a lot of people, church has very little meaning," he said.
Conservative churches can threaten eternal fire and brimstone, he said, but "whether you come or not, we believe you are a beloved child of God."
"We need to take this wonderful tradition we have, and help make it accessible and meaningful for people not yet exposed to it, particularly children and youth," he said.