Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

5/5 2017

Sustaining a Church Plant Vision through Unlikely Partnerships

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Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia

Photo Credit: www.visitphilly.com

Recently 250,000 football fans gathered on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to witness the NFL draft and boo the living daylights out of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It’s cold comfort to Commissioner Goodell but he’s not the only one to ever divide opinions on that proud avenue.

The Parkway is home to priceless collections of art, luxury hotels, and spendy condos. Likewise, the Parkway is also home to many of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable residents—people experiencing hunger, homelessness, and poverty. Consequently, the Parkway is where many people of faith pull up in station wagons and pick-up trucks, unload soup and sandwiches, and ask people to form a line.

You can picture the battle lines: NIMBYism, shame-the-rich-ism, scaring away the museum customers, first amendment rights to religious expression – the whole shebang. The church I used to serve, Broad Street Ministry (BSM), was less than a decade old and we were trying to figure out our identity, particularly in our civic space. It started in 2005 as a church plant focused on an alternative church community. BSM seeks to be dynamic in its expression of worship, embracing those both on the margins of faith and those who have enjoyed the embrace of the church. We decided to position ourselves like this: We are not against outdoor feeding and we are in favor of indoor dining. We invited our brothers and sisters in the faith as well as our friends in the hospitality industry to come work with us at the church, serving excellent chef-prepared meals to vulnerable people indoors without having to stand in a line.

Overwhelmingly, the people who responded in the affirmative to our invitation were the big bad capitalist hoteliers and restaurateurs. They responded to our claim that hospitality is hospitality, regardless of ability to pay, and soon they were treating us like colleagues in the hospitality industry. We church and nonprofit types were becoming friends with servers, bartenders, chefs, and general managers because we had so much in common. The GM of the Four Seasons asked me to officiate his wedding to his partner of 16 years.

Incredible new possibilities for partnership emerged. Steven Cook and Mike Solomonov, the James Beard Award winning duo behind CookNSolo restaurants approached us with an idea. They ran a fried chicken and donuts chainlet called Federal Donuts that was throwing out at least 500 pounds of chicken backs and bones per week. Could they make stock out of that and provide us with chicken soup in perpetuity? We at BSM knew our identity wasn’t a soup kitchen so serving soup every day would send the wrong message, plus we had a chef who did incredible work. So together we arrived at a related idea: Let’s turn the backs and bones into soup, sell the soup to the public, and donate the proceeds to BSM.

In the three years since that conversation, we raised $180,000 via Kickstarter and a bunch more from several foundations, gone on lots of charm offensives armed with donuts and delicious Israeli food from their restaurant Zahav, and become great friends and confidantes. Oh, and the Rooster Soup Company, a classic luncheonette donating 100 percent of its proceeds to BSM’s hospitality work, opened to favorable write-ups, like this one in Bloomberg. GQ called it one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in America.

When my spouse, Karen, and I were considering whether we should move to Pittsburgh, Steven and Mike, both with roots in Pittsburgh, were instrumental in helping me picture life in a new town. Steven listened well, held my ambivalence about a new call and, of course, made restaurant recommendations. Mike even made a warm introduction to a chef in town who was hiring for his Lawrenceville restaurants in case I wanted full-time kitchen work.

When the conflict on the Parkway was fomenting, I was certain I would emerge with deeper relationships with my sisters and brothers enacting their Christian faith. Instead, two secular Jews who run some of the best restaurants in the country became lifelong friends and partners who shared a vision for caring for vulnerable people in Philadelphia and who helped me understand God’s vision for my life. Too often, our own conception of who our adversaries will be prevents us from seeing the allies, friends, and co-conspirators right in front of us.

What is the unlikely partnership you haven’t considered?

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When in Philadelphia, consider dining at one of Steven Cook and Mike Solomonov’s restaurants: Zahav (Modern Israeli), Abe Fisher (small plates inspired by the American Jewish experience), Federal Donuts (fried chicken, donuts, and coffee), Dizengoff (hummus), Goldie (vegan falafel), and, of course, the Rooster Soup Company.

The Rev. Andy Greenhow came to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary from Philadelphia, where he served as the pastor and director of faith and worship at Broad Street Ministry, a missional faith community of the PCUSA. He has also served as a chaplain on a locked psychiatric unit, as the director of young adult ministries at a large suburban church, and as a construction worker rebuilding houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Andy currently serves as the Seminary’s interim dean of students.

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4/26 2017

Church Planting: A Rollercoaster Ride

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church planting for communitiesI am 32 years old and until this year I had never been on a rollercoaster in my entire life. Scared of heights with a sensitive stomach, I never much liked the feeling of falling quickly. I never saw the appeal of being deeply aware of how close you are to death as some pieces of metal and plastic are the only things keeping you from flying out into the sky. Things just seem so much better, firmer, more steady, down here on the ground.

Changing Community

Last fall my work at Beacon Church, an agile, scrappy PCUSA church plant near Philadelphia, Pa., was rocked by an unexpected pivot: a major programmatic shift. Barely a year after chartering as a congregation, and five years after beginning afterschool arts and weekly worship programming, Beacon’s community was changing rapidly. The gentrification that was slow in 2011 had begun to accelerate, and we were feeling its effects, with attendance dips and swells, different first-time participants, and long-term participants moving away to more affordable zip codes. In many ways we were growing, but in other ways we were experiencing new challenges for which we felt unequipped. We did another neighborhood assessment and met with our local elementary school principal and discovered that after school programs of various foci had sprung up all over the neighborhood. The need for in-classroom literacy-help became clear.

The questions were endless among the staff and board of Beacon. Could we meet that need? Would our dedicated volunteer team be able to change and commit to a morning program? Could our creative writing program be adapted to complement the teachers’ curriculum? How would our supporters and participants perceive such a shift? What if it didn’t work? The name “Beacon” has become synonymous with serving kids in Kensington. If we end up stopping children’s programming altogether, who are we? What will we do?

The Broader Mission

We came back to our broader mission: “Beacon strengthens our neighborhood, its children and neighbors, through art, storytelling, and faith” and asked one final, foundational question that has been the question all along: how are we being called to live out this mission right now? The staff and session bravely decided to pivot its programming. We adapted our creative writing curriculum and brought it into all three first-grade classrooms at our closest elementary school. We shifted our art programming from weekly after school programs to quarterly evening events that allowed parents to join their kids in these creative endeavors—painting pumpkins, building gingerbread houses, and decorating Mardi Gras masks.

Enjoy the Rollercoaster Ride

In the midst of all this transition, a very wise person told me to “try and enjoy the rollercoaster.” She is a pastor and a pilot, and somehow enjoys flying planes for fun. Feeling overwhelmed, I laughed out loud and told her that was impossible.

But her words really stuck with me, and as the opportunity arose in late January when my family and I were on vacation in Orlando, I decided to try a small-ish rollercoaster at Universal Studios.

I had all kinds of expectations: that I would get sick, or fall out of the car, or scream, or even faint. I screamed—a lot—but after the first 20 seconds or so I realized, with a shock, that I wasn’t dying. I was still alive. I was firmly in a seat with strong metal bars hugging me and I was flying around like crazy, but I was okay. A few seconds later I realized I was having fun. My step kids even convinced me to go on the Hulk—the biggest rollercoaster in the park. Every ride we tried had different loops, speeds, turns, but there was something constant in the midst of it all. I was safe, I was soaring, and after every sickening swoop in my stomach, I was flying high again. Once I realized how it was possible for me to be flung all around and yet be so safe at the same time, I was able to have fun, to even delight in the experience.

If we are engaging in faithful ministry, in work that makes a difference in people’s lives, whether or not they are Christians, we are necessarily going to be taking risks. If we are doing our best to be good stewards of the resources we have—money, people, time, buildings—that means that we will need to strive for efficiency and impact. That means we need to be evaluating and re-evaluating what success looks like for any given endeavor and if we are achieving it. It also usually means we need to try new things fairly regularly. Trying new things, taking those kinds of risks, is much like riding a rollercoaster for the first time: even if you know the concepts of how it goes up and down and twists and turns at high speeds, you have no idea how it’s going to feel, when the ups or downs will come, or if it’s actually going to be okay. But in ministry, if we are committed to our mission, if we are grounded in the belief in and experience of God as our provider, as a source of enough, then we can experience both the falling and the soaring as sources of delight, learning, and meaning. We can take risks, both big and small, because we know that God is working in and through all for good. No matter how intense the figurative rollercoaster, God is with us, reminding us that we are beloved even in our failures, even in our successes.

The Rev. Rebecca Blake is pastor and co-founder or Beacon, a PCUSA church plant near Philadelphia, Pa. Trained as a visual artist, writer, theologian, and pastor, she finds work at Beacon to be a challenging and life-giving environment where she’s able to cobble together those skills to facilitate transformation in the lives of individuals and communities.

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4/17 2017

Discerning a Call to Church Planting

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I’ve often heard successful writers say that you shouldn’t get into writing if you can imagine doing anything else with your life. And, while I never want to limit the wide manifestations of call into one particular rule—as if God speaks to us each in the same language—the way I’ve seen call, both in my own life and in the life of others, is more as a practice, a vision, or a need that just won’t let us go.

Gaining Skills as a Church Planter

When I first got into the work of church planting, I started to recognize it in my own willingness to do all sorts of things that I would have otherwise hated and would never have undertaken for lesser reasons. I went to seminary to get my Master of Divinity terrified of speaking publically, but not particularly afraid of preaching class or the fact that I was preparing the way for myself to speak publically roughly every Sunday until retirement. I entered ministry conflict averse, but knowing that for my little church plant to grow and grow healthy, I would have to engage in conflict and enforce boundaries pretty regularly, so I set about practicing and learning how to do it. As an introvert, I learned how to work a room, cold call strangers, and chat people up about not only the weather, but their hopes for their community, their children, and their vocations. As a pastor, I learned how to deal with dead mice on a trap, leaks in the basement, and the legal incorporation process. Frankly, though, these steps were not about my determination, strength of character, or will power, as much I might like to pretend they were. They happened because those challenges were small annoyances compared with the vision that had a hold of me. If they were the means to do what God was calling me to do, then I knew I had what I needed to do them, even if they weren’t always fun or comfortable.

Ministry Under Particular Terms

As a church planter and now as a theological educator, I always have questions for people who are interested in church planting, or really church leadership in any context, only under particular terms. That is not to say that one should ever violate one’s essential boundaries, but I’m a big believer in being open to the surprises God has for us. A thought that begins with, “I would never be willing to…” and ends with something that is not immoral or damaging to yourself or others, is not a great way to declare yourself called to church planting. After all, church planting is full of surprises, as we go out beyond the boundaries of where church currently is. For instance, you very well may never want to work with children. But if you refuse to imagine that God might call you to a work with children, you might miss a great gift to you as a leader and a key piece of the ministry you are called to build—speaking from experience.

Doing the Work God’s Calling Us to Do

The truth is we worship a God so desperate to convey God’s love to us in a way that we might understand it, that God became human and submitted to an excruciating death, alone in a garbage dump on the edge of town. While the crucifixion is already done, once and for all, if we see ourselves as part of bearing that kind of powerful love into the world, we will likely find ourselves doing things and welcoming people that are difficult, surprising, or even uncomfortable. If we are unwilling to face that, we may not be ready to do the work we imagine God calling us to do. If we are willing to face it, the measure of joy and beauty set before us is likely more than we can yet imagine.

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.

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