Parish spotlight

Blacksburg, Virginia

-An interview with Fr. Wade Miller on growth & revitalization-

  •  What made you choose this parish when it was on the brink of closing its doors?

A few things struck me as I visited St. Francis (now named St. Philip’s).  The first was the building and location. The church is located on a busy road within walking distance of Virginia Tech University. The building is a beautiful stone edifice from the original St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, back before the 1960’s psychedelic phase influenced church architecture. The Second thing that impressed me was the growth of the area.  The New River Valley region has become a major corridor for technology and research due to the growth of Virginia Tech.  Not only has Blacksburg grown, but surrounding towns have also seen a rise in population as Southwest Virginia is much more affordable than the northern part of the State.

The final deciding factor had to do with the people.  Although there were only six regular members, most of that core group was very eager to get involved, investing their time, talent, and money into this struggling mission.
Before deciding to come to Blacksburg, I was offered a teaching job in a classical school close to Lake Michigan, where I would oversee the humanities and religion department.  I had all but decided to take this job.  I visited St. Francis with Bishop Grundorf and Mary.  The night before I was to preach, I didn’t sleep a wink.  My wife, who never has trouble sleeping, could not sleep either.  We talked at 6:00 AM that Sunday morning as I was in a hotel in Blacksburg, and she was in North Carolina.  We decided that the Lord had weighed it on our hearts to go to Blacksburg.  Bishop and Mary thought for sure that I would be heading to Michigan. When I told them and the congregation, they were all quite surprised.  I have made decisions in the past that I regret but coming to Blacksburg is not one of them.  

I was forthright with the people at St. Francis about what I wanted to change from the very outset: this included adopting a new name, St. Philip’s.  The people have responded with tremendous kindness trusting their priest and not bickering about petty matters.  Those who want to be in control and criticize have moved on to other churches where that perpetual behavior sadly followed them.  St. Philip’s is flourishing with a spirit of unity and like-mindedness that is simply the work of God.

  •  What was the initial plan for growth at the beginning?  What were the key elements that led to success?

We had many obstacles starting in August 2015.  We had six people.  We had a dated website with inaccurate information as the church had changed its service times to accommodate a visiting priest.  We had a building, albeit beautiful on the outside, that smelled of mildew inside its walls.  The first step was to get an informative website that wasn’t busy and reflected who we wanted to be as a parish.  We spent our first several months ripping out carpets, painting, working on landscaping, and finding the right people to develop a website.
The next step was to make the liturgy accessible by providing booklets containing everything except for the hymns.  We wanted our liturgy to reflect the beauty and majesty of the God with whom we worship.  We were also sensitive to the fact that we are in an area that is very anti-Catholic.  It was important to me not to push my own style or agenda but to do our prayerbook liturgy and elements of the Missal with maximum participation from the laity.  We were not about creating liturgical robots but a community participating in our Incarnate Lord.    

Third on the list was to model our ministry on Acts 2:42 by providing daily Morning and Evening Prayer opportunities.  We held daily Morning Prayer.  On Wednesday evenings, we started Life Together, where we met for food, fellowship, prayer, and the study of Holy Scripture.  We started a Theology on Tap where we read one book a month and met over food and drinks to discuss how the various topics read corresponded to our life as baptized Christians living in a post-Christian culture. We did various Advent and Lenten Studies.  I could go on, but all these events flowed from our life at the altar where we gathered each Sunday, Wednesday, and for Prayer Book Feast days for the Holy Eucharist.  People started slowly attending, and Life Together became our parish family meal.

The most important thing I did was to teach the faith through catechesis. Catechesis involves a study of the Creeds, the Sacraments, and the Ten Commandments, as well as praying, serving, and tithing in the local parish.  We taught people how to use the prayerbook and even disciplines like fasting and going to private confession.  We now have 60-70 people coming for Sunday and Wednesday Mass. Our Christian Formation (i.e., Sunday School) has about 12-18 children.  The adult class gets anywhere from 20-30 people.  Our little mission has flourished into a vibrant parish with new people coming weekly.

  • What are you and St. Philip’s doing to reach out to the community?

Our parish participates in the Interfaith Food Pantry.  We are very active in the Pregnancy Resource Center.  We are involved and looking to get even more active in Valley Classical School.  We have booths at various festivals (Highlander Festival in Radford, Gobbler Festival in Blacksburg, Stepping Out in Blacksburg, etc.).  Our people are very social and are not afraid to tell others about our church. People have been captivated by the beauty of the liturgy, the discipline of daily prayer, and a zeal to share the love of God found in Christ Jesus has helped with our parish transformation.

As a priest, I believe my job is to be a peripatetic (walking) clergyman.  I study and do my administrative work, but I meet with people regularly in the community.  I often attend coffee shops, being present in the community.  Although I am not an extrovert by nature (I love escaping from people and hiking with my two Vizsla dogs), I believe the priest needs to be present among his people and the community and always available to discuss various needs with people.  Ministry is exhausting, but the Lord gave me a tremendous wife who cares and helps me every step of the way.  My children have been great as they were always willing to help.

  • What advice would you give to others who are looking to grow or revitalize a parish or mission?  

The most important thing is to invest in people who share in the vision of making the Kingdom of God the highest priority in their lives.  Although I am a priest to my entire flock, I identify those who really want to go deeper in their knowledge and a life of prayer and invest in such people.  Those who long for the Eucharist are those who become what they eat and drink, the precious body of Christ. Growth only happens when such hunger catches on and becomes the DNA of the parish.    

My job is not to make clones but to make disciples: this takes time and perseverance, which is not my forte or strength.  The goal is not simply to gather more disgruntled people together but to form folks who love our Anglican tradition as the best expression of the Catholic and Orthodox faith in the English culture and language.  My advice is to simply find a core group of people who share this vision so that you can teach, love, and care for them because they will be the best evangelists a mission or parish could ever have.