Congregation Spotlight: St. Stephen's Liberty and the Texas Rural Leadership Program develop community leaders
Alexis Cordova likes to joke that she had the key to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Liberty before she was even a church member. As the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension agent for Liberty County, she often held community events and meetings at the church.
“When we call on people to help in the community, it’s always St. Stephen’s members who volunteer,” Cordova said.
When she began looking for a church to join, St. Stephen’s was a natural fit for her.
It’s no accident that St. Stephen’s Liberty is so connected to the community. In the early 1990s, former rector Fr. Bob Greene recognized the role the church could play in developing strong, connected leaders for the community. He formed the Texas Rural Leadership Program (TRLP) to provide leadership training for rural and other underserved communities statewide.
The legacy of his work is alive and well in the fiber of St. Stephen’s today. When The Rev. Ted Smith joined the St. Stephen’s family in 2007 as the new rector, he recognized the generous spirit of the congregation. The church turned out to be a perfect match for him because he shares the same belief that churches need to get “outside of their four walls” to not only engage, but also participate in the community.
“I was blessed and I can’t take the credit for my congregation because they were already very active in various ways,” Rev. Smith said. “They already had a fairly strong outreach ministry team put together.”
TRLP has also evolved and remains strong. It is now housed under Texas A&M’s AgriLife division, where Cordova works. In 2013, TRLP launched a revamped training program using an assets-based approach to addressing community needs. St. Stephen’s and the Liberty community presented an ideal place to pilot the new curriculum.
Cordova had already formed an advisory board made up of stakeholders and volunteers in the community for the AgriLife Extension Family Consumer Science program. Rev. Smith was an active participant and became chair of the board as they developed the Project 2020 Initiative to strengthen the community in the areas of education, workforce preparation, family services and medical services.
Through her ties to AgriLife and the work they had already done to build a community advisory board, Cordova was approached about piloting TRLP’s new curriculum to train community leaders as facilitators for a “class” of local leaders from diverse backgrounds who participate in the program together. Cordova jumped on the opportunity to bring the program to Liberty to help form successful coalitions in the community working as teams to create programs and see them through to implementation.
“I think our community was targeted for the pilot because we had already been doing some of the TRLP concepts for years,” said Cordova. “That’s why we were so successful.”
When the program began in Liberty, the pilot project allowed Cordova to pull in additional leaders in the community to become facilitators and participants in the classes. Rev. Smith was a key facilitator trained to lead some of the classes.
Leaders from across Liberty from different backgrounds had the opportunity to share ideas and perspectives of common problems in their community, like those identified in the Project 2020 Initiative. They also gained a common set of skills in leadership, communication, organizing and planning. They are skills they could all use when they work collectively outside of the program to address community priorities.
Benefits of TRLP
“The biggest blessing to me is to see people’s eyes get wide and get excited about their community and taking ownership of that,” says Rev. Smith.
The largest impact the church as seen in working with the TRLP has been the increased credibility of St. Stephen’s programs and initiatives through Texas A&M. Their work has put the congregation in the forefront as a go-to organization for community engagement. The church is now well known in Liberty and the community is well aware of the things the congregation is doing to improve the health and well-being of the community.
Participating in the pilot project for TRLP has also opened the doors for other programming through Texas A&M. The school’s College of Architecture, which focuses on Texas Target Communities, is helping Liberty County create a community and economic development plan.
Smith hopes that these other community initiatives will have some success and soon St. Stephen’s and Liberty will be seen as a critical and viable partners that can take on bigger things such as health care and the development of a wellness center that could house coalitions and groups and provide better coordination of volunteer efforts.
Inspiring other churches and communities
After hearing about the experience St. Stephen’s has had with TRLP, St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, Hearne and Trinity Episcopal Church, Jacksonville are working to bring the program to their counties. St. Phillip’s is launching the program this spring for Robertson County. Trinity is working in partnership with their local Methodist church to organize the training in Cherokee County. EHF’s Congregational Engagement team is helping to cover some of the costs associated to bringing TRLP to those communities.
One way to learn more about TRLP is to attend the TRLP state conference June 21-23 in San Antonio. See EHF’s Learning Opportunities page to learn how the Foundation can provide support to help with registration costs if needed.