coffee friends
Innovation Stories

What is Church?

Carolyn Hughes innovates by building relationships with families and children
by Timothy Bowman | April 27, 2021

Meet the Innovator

Carolyn Hughes is a lay leader in the Episcopal Church, called to practicing family faith formation. She currently lives and serves in the Andover, Massachusetts area. 

Carolyn has worked in several Episcopal parishes in the area over the years in family faith formation and is now taking some intentional time away to discern what God has in store for her next and what her ministry will look like in the future. She felt like she was a church planter within established churches as she tried to connect new and young families and minister to them. She noticed how different the needs were for these new families compared to the established members. Carolyn realized that we need to be doing something different than sitting in our churches waiting for people to walk through the door. “Our job isn’t to stay inside and have great programming.” 

A lot of her ministry was in coffee shops meeting people. In the last year she has discerned that her next call likely will not be in a formal church setting but in a coffee shop or maybe starting a parent-toddler playgroup in a space that is not in a church.  

Carolyn has seen this gap between people inside and outside the church for quite a while. She has an engineering background and for a long time felt if she had just tried hard enough that she could “fix it.” The parishes she ministered in offered her a lot of freedom for experimentation in ministry. However, ultimately she felt like she was trying to make changes in a church that didn’t want changes. She is exploring retreat houses as places for the revival and renewal of Christian spiritual practices, especially as places for reaching out to those who have never experienced church.  She feels that there is much energy around building small communities around a life of prayer, silence and fellowship outside of church buildings.

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

For Carolyn, the church and ministry are not about the programming but about the relationships that come along the way. “There is a reason ours is an incarnate faith.” In this interim time she decided to go back to school and get a masters in spirituality at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA. She describes the journey as, “taking theology and living it out in daily life, making it into a practice.” This is something she has identified that we are missing in established churches. We are missing the practice of our theology, thus the spiritual component of our faith is not there to be able to give it to others. The path for others has been church programming and not experiencing Jesus. “As disciples we are called to give that relational experience.”

Families, children, and youth have been the focus of Carolyn’s ministry because they are in her orbit, largely outside the church walls. She has a real passion for helping parents pass on their faith to their children and families. The problem is that many parents don’t have the vocabulary to be able to do that. Many don’t have a faith background and do not even know why they are walking into church that morning. “How do you help them become parents who can pass down what they feel is the transcendent?” she asks. 

One of Carolyn’s big convictions is that in order to reach people and build the kind of substantial relationships needed, we can meet people where they are. For example, “our vocabulary can be exclusive.” You can tell by body language when people are getting uncomfortable and that we need to be attentive to our words. Even the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘God’ will create barriers for some. 

One practice Carolyn had while in the parish was Children’s Chapel. They took little pieces of scripture, symbols and gestures of the liturgy to connect them together, helping them to understand and learn the language of the church. The worship service started to become more accessible to the families. Younger kids had a parent or grandparent with them when they joined and often the adults continued to sit in with their children because they were learning too. It helped create a community in a holy space where children and adults felt safe and welcome to ask questions.  Families wanted to come back and got further involved in the life of the parish. She said that events around the feast days of the church are other opportunities to bring people together for instructional worship. Families show up and participate when we are intentionally hospitable and make our worship accessible.

The Big Challenge

One of the biggest mistakes we make as a church is assuming that people outside our walls live similar lives to us. She said, “We need to be friends with people who are different from us more than they need to be our friends.” We need to learn how to be a guest and trust that others have something to offer us, not just the other way around. 

One of the biggest challenges we are facing right now, according to Carolyn is answering the question, “What is church?” There is a huge need for healing and relationships that are not happening. Running our churches like businesses doesn’t help raise up lay people, and hampers the identification of gifts. We often fail to identify the gifts of others and to empower them to use their gifts beyond the regular “church people”. 

Your Turn

Take a moment to reflect on this question, either on your own or with other church staff or volunteers.

How have we engaged lately with those “outside” of the congregation?


Holy God, thank you for the gifts you give to everyone inside and outside the church. Continue to raise up faithful and passionate lay leaders so their voices can be heard. Give us all hearts for building relationships with those outside our walls. Expand our imaginations to what the church could look like, and help us be open to what your future has for us. Amen.

About the Author

Timothy Bowman is an ELCA pastor currently serving in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod along with his wife, Allyson. Most recently serving as Associate Pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Mankato, MN, he is now serving Grace Lutheran Church in Nerstrand, MN, and also serves as a board member of Crossroads Campus Ministry at Minnesota State Mankato.  Tim has an MDiv (Luther Seminary) and a BA (Bethel University). As part of the Seeds Project Tim is partnering with Luther Seminary’s Faith+Lead platform as a Digital Journalist working to share the stories of identified Innovators on Faith+Lead.

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