Saint Francis in the Redwoods Episcopal Congregation and our Total Ministry

Bill and Betsy Bruneau

Saint Francis in the Redwood Episcopal Church
66 East Commercial, Willits, Mendocino County, California
(707) 459-3066

Our Congregation

Willits used to have an Episcopal church that was closed about 30 years ago under very dubious circumstances. I am told it was very traumatic, but a few carried on in living rooms until they were able to meet in the storage room behind the stage in the Methodist church. This is where I first met this congregation about 25 years ago. After a few years we got a retired priest who dragged us into the front of the church. We met before the Methodists and warmed up their church for them. About ten years ago we made a huge step and bought an old cinder block business office for the utility company. We have made this humble structure very special, and its lack of windows has given it a "monk's cell" atmosphere that has allowed us to focus on what is important: the holy spirit. We are now struggling with the almost embarassing richness of our new building.

Our congregation is quite a mixed bag. Half "cradle Episcopalians" and half representing nearly every other spiritual direction. We are both very conservative and quite liberal, old families and new. The history of tolerance and finding a middle way in our church has blended a rich and usually quite balanced viewpoint. We are accepting of all people who follow our path and defend their right to their faith in peace.

Our local Mormon church holds an interdenominational Christmas sing every year. We have long been participants and supporters of this. Our first year about half of us showed up to sing and when we finished someone said to us, "You must have a big church to have a choir that big". "No, that isn't our choir, that is our church." A few years later a friend of ours came to see what this singing was all about. She is not particularly religious but we dragged her up on the stage to sing with us and she so enjoyed it she formed a non-denominational choir the next year. I was a member of that choir for about a decade and we were quite good, but our choirmaster several times told us before this singing event, "I want you to really listen to the Saint Francis people because that is the spirit I want you to have."

Total Ministry

DISCLAIMER This is my personal perspective on Total Ministry and not the Episcopal Church's or Saint Francis's definition. I suppose that eveyone might have a different perspective, and certainly every congregation has its own way of implementing Total Ministry.

The Total Ministry movement is quite new to the Episcopal Church, but is "old hat" to other protestant churches that do not ordain full-time, paid priests. Some think of TM as a way for small churches (that can't afford paid clergy) to have a priest. TM does provide this option for small churches, but it is much more than that.

We are one of the first two Episcopal congregations in California to "graduate" as a Total Ministry church. We spent three years in training and prayer to re-discover our baptismal covenant to all be ministers of Christ. As part of that covenant most of us have taken over some aspect of our retired priest's duties and/or the management of our church. As a group we have become sort of a super-priest who always has the collective wisdom of about 60 people to refer to for decisions.

This "new movement" is actually as old as the Christian church - where everyone is directly responsible to our God - and we are simply fulfilling our baptismal vows based on whatever gifts we have to offer. This was a three year program for us, which is pretty fast for fundamentally changing a lifetime's perception of what church is. Key to this progress was a lot of communication between everyone; it is surprising to realize that you have been in church with people for years who you hardly ever talked to, but when you did, they had a lot to say that is important to you. We learned to see each other as powerful agents of the Holy Spirit.

We either found new strength in ministries were were already doing, or discovered new ministries, or both, and now we are all empowered with the full awareness and support of the rest of our Congregation. It is a significant qualitative difference in our religious life. It is important to note that this is entirely voluntary, but it is hard to resist the joys of finding such personal fulfillment. A notable bonus comes from this improved awareness of other's ministries - many of us have developed new ministries that we had not realized we had in us. What this all boils down to is finding much bliss: in each other, in our ministries which are as varied as our lives, and as a living functioning church. We recognize that nearly any activity in life can be, and is, a ministry if you see the sacred in it.

It is hard to describe how empowering and energizing this has been for all of us. As an inspired and a truly democratic congregation, we allow ourselves to find true communion where everyone has full voice. As convenient as a minister-led congregation can be, total ministry consistently offers multiple points of view for every decision. Where other churches have the benefit of a wise vestry, we have the benefit of a wise (and vocal) congregation.

Straw Bale Church

The latest development for our congregation is finally building what our wonderful retired rector calls a proper church. We have been operating out of a very humble cinder-block building (a former utility pay-station) with no windows and plenty of leaks in the Winter. We have made it a wonderful spiritual home, but a spirit-led financial windfall has enabled us to build what appears to be the third straw bale church ever built in North America. It has been a challenging process but you can view an initial photo portfolio of its construction and see how lovely the result already is.

Our town of Willits has taken the construction of this new church into their hearts. First of all it anchors our miracle mile, a stretch of Commercial Street that is the showpiece of our architecturally humble town. Our church is right on the busiest corner in town and the noisiest. We expect the straw bales to be excellent noise reduction, as well as being great thermal insulation.

Mendocino county, and especially Willits, is a center of alternative energy and construction. There are quite a few straw bale houses, a few rammed earth houses like ours, and even the first cob house to code in the state of California! Our soaring straw bale structure has captured the imaginations of many in our town. Finally, we fully expect it to be a destination for alternative builders, and people interested in alternative building, from hither and yon. As time and energy permits I will expand on our story. But in the meantime enjoy some pictures of the building so far!


About Alternative Building in Willits

Photodocumentary About Building Our Straw Bale Church

Personal Pictures of Bill and Betsy




Bill and Betsy Bruneau
18001 Shafer Ranch Road, Willits, CA 95490-9626 USA
Copyright 2008, William Bruneau