Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/16 2017

[Mis]managing Risk

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managing risk in church planting programs

I didn’t recognize the risk when I first strolled out of Home Depot with several eight-foot cedar boards and posts over my shoulder. I neglected to consider the possibility of failure when I started digging up my front yard. But when the cedar boards had been cut and built into an 8’x4’ box, and made into a raised garden bed in my front yard, my wife and I suddenly realized the public nature of our experiment in gardening. A neighbor watched us work all morning. After the box was put together and the front lawn dug up, he strolled across the street to wonder out loud why we would put a garden where everyone can see it, from which children can steal produce, and perfect strangers can pass judgment.

Gardening with an Audience

To be honest, we had not considered these possibilities when we began. We previously lived in a condo on the West coast, where yards were the luxury of the wealthy. The narrow strip of sun-bathed lawn out our front door looked like an ideal place for a garden. But our neighbor was right. The plants could be damaged by neighborhood kids looking for trouble. We might, in the end, only display our dismal gardening skills for the entire neighborhood. Perhaps we could have started smaller, in pots on our back porch. But we tried that for years living in a condo in Vancouver. And, living in a temperate rain forest, we managed to kill everything we ever planted. Our enthusiasm carried the day. We plunged ahead, our first foray in urban gardening.

As we filled the raised bed with soil, other neighbors and several strangers – on their way to grab coffee or walk their dogs in the park – stopped to reflect with us on our new venture. Several people offered advice; a few neighbors and strangers gave us seeds and starter plants. Over the course of the summer, a number of elderly folks made weekly trips to our front yard to offer advice, critique, and dispense decades of hard-earned gardening wisdom. We listened, asked questions, sometimes nodded without understanding what people said to us . . . but we continued to work the soil expectantly. Some crops were failures and some seeds didn’t take. But others grew so abundantly that we gave away produce for weeks: collard greens and kale, anyone? Seriously. Anyone?

Planting Safely

It seems to me that participation in God’s mission in post-Christendom North America looks a lot like our garden experiment. While many in our congregations recognize the need to engage new initiatives—participate in church planting or discover new ways to build community in their neighborhood—we tend to minimize risk, protect our reputation, and plant little safe experiments in our back yard. We tweak an existing program. We get crazy and serve coffee before Sunday worship. And, like gardening on our condo balcony in Vancouver, we tend to reap minimal benefits from playing it safe and saving our reputations.

Encountering God

I think the reason these safe experiments fail is because they keep our knowledge in-house, they simply work with what we already know and what we already believe to be true. They are an attempt to participate in God’s mission without the risk and disruption that comes from unexpected learning. But what if we decided to make our ignorance and uncertainty about mission in post-Christendom public? What if we decided to cultivate intentional spaces within our neighborhoods where we —the congregation or the church planter or the missional community leader—invite our neighbors to instruct us, to dispense wisdom, to share their gifts with us? Is it possible that God might lead and shape us through the gifts, wisdom, and concerns of our neighbors? Is it possible that we might be surprised where we encounter God?

In the book of Acts, the Spirit puts strangers together for the sake of mutual discovery. Cornelius discovers God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and Peter discovers God’s acceptance of Gentiles. An Ethiopian official discovers new depths to Isaiah’s prophecies and Philip discovers the boundary-breaking grace of God. Perhaps it is time we dig up the dirt in our front yards without a full consideration of the risks it entails. Seriously . . . collards . . . anyone?

Dr. Scott Hagley is assistant professor of missiology and also works with the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative and teaches in the MDiv Church Planting Emphasis program as well as the new Church Planting and Revitalization certificate program. He previously served as director of education at Forge Canada in Surrey, British Columbia, where he worked to develop curriculum for the formation of missional leaders in hubs across Canada.


3/6 2017

5 Practical Considerations for the Church Planting Process

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Church Planting ProcessIn my years as a church planter, I’ve learned a thing or two. Here are my five practical considerations for the church planting process:

1. Work on a team.

If there isn’t someone on your team who can tell you when you’re wrong without starting a fight, you’ll end up with an ineffective ministry. Your partners will help you edit your work, behavior, and foundation so that the community that grows from those norms is not adversely affected. Work with someone who has different skills and a different perspective on your shared vision. With at least two people collaborating on the vision others start to see and participate in the vision separate from the leadership, rather than seeing one charismatic leader as the only source of vision.

2. Church planting is not about you.

This is not about the music you like, the sermons you want to preach, the people you want to hang out with. This isn’t about how charming or not charming you are or how many people like you. And when someone hates your preaching, that isn’t about you either. You will constantly be representing other powers and principalities to people, and you will be regularly tripping over the triggers of people’s traumas. Try to walk gently, to listen, to apologize, to hear what people need you to hear. Continue to preach the Good News as it is given to you for the people you are called to.

3. When you see unhealthiness, address it.

Particularly early on you are building a communal DNA. People are building an implicit or explicit understanding of what it is that we do and don’t do here. Don’t let someone’s unaddressed inappropriate behavior confuse the forming community, or worse invite them to act in kind. Some people won’t appreciate their behavior being addressed—but the good news is there are likely plenty of churches in your local area that would be happy to welcome them and not address their bad behavior.

4. Explain who you are and what you do—everywhere.

Put it on your walls; as the Old Testament tells us, post it over your doors. People don’t know what church congregations do and people don’t know what they’re supposed to do upon entering a church. They feel nervous and insecure about their behavior, their clothes, their skills, their pasts. When you invite them to do or not do certain things, invite everyone together. Explain why we do whatever you are asking folks to do, and make it clear that you didn’t expect everyone walking in to just already know. It is the difference between these two scenarios: A new mom with a crying baby feels uncomfortable because she doesn’t know whether to wait it out or leave the service, and even if she were to leave, she has no idea where to go in a strange building. Or, a scenario wherein a pastoral leader or liturgist announces to the congregation, brand new visiting mom included, that one of our joys as a church is to worship together and that the laughter and crying and shifting of people of all ages reminds us that God is with us, that if anyone needs to step out or use the restroom it is down the hall to the left.

5. Be willing to do what you ask the children to do.

Children recognize when you respect them, and if you only offer them faith experiences that you would never undertake yourself, they learn pretty quickly that faith practices are something they will outgrow. Adults will follow your lead as well. When you are willing to be childish, communal vulnerability will grow from there. The same principle is true for answering the questions you ask in Bible study or around the table at dinner. People get their queues on the appropriate level of vulnerability from the leader in their midst. Be willing to be honest and be willing to seem silly.


The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world, and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.


3/2 2017

10 Things I’m Glad I Learned in Seminary

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things I learned in seminaryI graduated from Pittsburgh Seminary last June with my M.Div. Six months ago, I began my first call. As the temporary, solo pastor at Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church.

One of the unexpected blessings to my current call is that I manage a preschool. Last week I met with my head preschool teacher to discuss payroll, registration, and teacher evaluations. As I held my own in a conversation about registration protocol, Miss Beth exclaimed, “I bet they didn’t teach you this in seminary!”

If I had a dollar for every time someone has said this to me in the last six months, I would be a rich woman. But I don’t think that it’s a helpful way for us to evaluate seminary education. Sure, there are plenty of things I’ve had to learn on the job. But I couldn’t have learned them without the foundation that is my seminary education. Let me explain what I mean, by giving you a list of the 10 things I’m glad I learned in seminary:


1. Sunday’s Coming, Gotta Preach

A former professor taught us this chant in homiletics. Having spent time with the text, she explained, how can we not climb into the pulpit and preach the good news? In my ministry, I am learning that Sunday comes every single week, whether I are ready or not. It comes every week because the gospel we proclaim every week demands a weekly proclamation within the gathered community.


2. The Times They Are A Changing

When I was a student at Pittsburgh Seminary, we welcomed five new faculty members, one passed away unexpectedly, one retired, one became Dean of Faculty, and four took positions elsewhere. All of these things taught me to accept change as a natural part of ministry. God calls specific people, to specific places, for a specific time. Learning this in seminary helps me to face changes in my congregation without anxiousness.


3. The Art of Transitional Ministry

In my current call, I am following a pastor who served Mt. Nebo for 16 years. My time at Mt. Nebo thus far has been a time of transition as the congregation gets used to someone of a different generation, gender, and theological perspective than its former pastor. In the midst of this transition, I’m so glad that I studied at a seminary with such diversity amongst its faculty and student body.


4. Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

If I learned nothing else in pastoral care, and parish leadership, I learned about boundaries—learning to say no to things that are not your responsibility. I admit that I still struggle with this. There is so much need, and there is only so much of me to go around. One way that I practice boundaries in my ministry is by not working on Fridays. I snooze my e-mails. I let my assistant screen church phone calls. I unplug from my phone and computer. Setting this boundary allows me to offer my best self to the congregation on Sunday mornings in worship.


5. Budgets are Theological Documents

Money can be a huge source of anxiety in a congregation. Especially around budget season. If you don’t know how to read them, they can look like someone took a big red pen and wrote HERE’S WHERE WE MESSED UP LAST YEAR!!!! Thankfully I learned in my Theological Reflection on Ministry class that budgets are theological documents. They are a way that our church leaders can put into writing where we believe that God is leading our congregations. God is in control of our budgets; our job is to get in on what God is already doing.


6. Rely on Your Colleagues

I’m really lucky to be ministering in Pittsburgh Presbytery, the same presbytery Pittsburgh Seminary is a part of. When I graduated, I had a whole network of contacts to help me navigate the first few months of new ministry. I’m so grateful to Pittsburgh Seminary for helping me develop this network of colleagues.


7. Read as Though Your Life Depends on It (Because it Does)

In seminary, you read to pass your classes. In parish ministry, you read because no one person can know how do to every aspect of ministry. I try to read two books a month that are not part of my sermon preparation. Sometimes these books help me work through a particular challenge of ministry. But mostly they remind me that I am not alone, that God is with me, and the call is to be faithful, not perfect.


8. Turn Off Your E-mail on Your Phone

My field education supervisor told me that she would never get a smart phone because she didn’t know how to impose boundaries on technology. I thought this was a generational problem. A problem that this millennial wouldn’t have to worry about. Well I didn’t sleep for the first month of my call because one of my volunteers is a night owl, and would be e-mailing me into the wee hours of the morning. Now I only leave e-mail on my phone when I’m working.


9. Never Call a Meeting without an Agenda

You know how they say a party without cake is just a meeting? Well a meeting without an agenda should be done over e-mail. I learned this from my time serving in leadership in the seminary’s Woman’s Caucus. Meetings without agendas do not respect people’s time, and rarely accomplish anything. I view a well-run meeting as an act of pastoral care to the lay leadership of my church. And I always have a written agenda.


10. God’s Grace is Enough

Every seminary student can point to a moment where they persevered in their preparation for ministry despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Some call it luck, but I believe it is God’s grace that sustains us for ministry. When I look back at my first six months at Mt. Nebo I have no justification for our thriving preschool, amazing, high functioning staff, dedicated lay leaders, and a pastor who really loves her job, other than God’s grace. God’s grace is enough. In all times, in all places, and in all seasons.


The Rev. Rebecca DePoe ’16 is the pastor of Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church in Sewickley, Pa. She earned her MDiv degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A member of Pittsburgh Presbytery, she served on the Administrative Commission for Transformation (ACT). Rebecca blogs at mtneboupc.com/pastor-s-corner, and tweets @RebeccaDePoe

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