Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

5/25 2017

Post-Christendom and Bi-vocational Ministry

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bi-vocational ministry and church plants can help communities in a post Christian era

Post-Christendom Ministry

Standing in the middle of a field in Burnaby, British Columbia, I could not help but smile. Hundreds of people from our neighborhood—new immigrants, families, elderly, young professionals— streamed into a park for the second annual “Inclusion Festival.” A youth band from a local music school played on a stage and a Peruvian dance troupe was the next act. Across the field, children worked on art projects, waited in line to jump in an inflatable castle, played games with the city parks staff, and tested their soccer skills against some coaches from a local camp. Increasingly, this is what pastoral ministry looks like in North America: finding a way to be present in the middle of one’s neighborhood in love and hope.

The Inclusion Festival grew from the vision of a refugee claimant named Sofia. A married mother of two from Peru, she found government-sponsored housing in my neighborhood and began to make herself a vital part of the community. Occasionally, Sofia came to church functions. After a bullying incident in her daughter’s school, Sofia decided that our neighborhood needed a public event focused on the message of inclusion, hospitality, and acceptance.

The surprising success of the first Inclusion Festival drew public attention. City officials approached Sofia and offered a grant to establish the Inclusion Festival annually, with one catch: she needed to find a registered nonprofit to receive the funds and claim responsibility. Suddenly our church became the sponsoring organization for a community event that we did not plan or initiate, and one run by a non-member whose status in the country remained (at that time) uncertain. It was a mess. I like to lead. I have experience running and planning such events. But instead of leading, I found myself in a supportive role alongside Sofia.

She pulled together neighbors and created an experience that we (the church) could not. She blessed the neighborhood. And so did we . . . by supporting her. This, at least in part, is what post-Christendom ministry looks like.

Decline of Christianity in North America

We are all aware of surveys that report ambivalence toward religion generally and declining interest in Christianity specifically across North America. American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, reports the rise of those claiming “none” for religious affiliation, while Christian Smith (Soul Searching) describes the Christian commitment of our young people as “moral therapeutic deism.” Sociology aside, we all likely know of a congregation that has closed, a church plant that has failed, or a church building turned into a beer hall. Post-Christendom describes (albeit imperfectly) this reality.

The Christian church in North America has lost significant power and influence. The fairly recent interest in “bivocational” ministry emerges as one solution. The reasoning usually follows: congregations have less money available for ministry staff and less energy for fundraising; congregations will survive if they have more financial flexibility; therefore we need pastors who are not solely dependent upon the church for income. It argues for bi-vocational ministry as a strategic element for congregational survival. But that argument misses the opportunity that bi-vocational ministry places within the congregation.

The North American church is not the only casualty of changing cultural meanings and social upheaval. Since (at least) the 1980s, observers have prophesied the loss of public life in America—declining civil society institutions, voluntarism, and civic practices crucial for democracy. We face a slate of social problems that seem intractable. Institutions as basic as government, school, law, and family are in various stages of upheaval. As Barbara Kellerman suggests, we seem to be facing a crisis in leadership (The End of Leadership); we have lost a collective faith not only in the pastoral leader, but also authorities in general. We must not lose sight of the fact that our congregational malaise participates in a broader cultural uncertainty.

Bi-vocational Ministry as an Opportunity

Here bi-vocational ministry becomes a Spirit-given opportunity for the church to discover the shape of mission and ministry in our dynamic era. Recently John McKnight and Peter Block have made the principles of Asset Based Community Development practically accessible in their book The Abundant Community. McKnight and Block suggest a gift-based localism, arguing that we will not build community and social trust/capital by consulting experts to solve societal problems. Rather, we will address a variety of social ills by focusing on the gifts already present in a neighborhood in order to cultivate local communities of shared gifts. Cities across North America have begun experimenting with this thesis.

The cry for abundant communities invites us to reconsider the ways that pastoral ministry might be gifted to the broader community. Bi-vocational ministry presents a distinct adaptive challenge to the church. It invites us to think more publicly about pastoral ministry, to imagine different possibilities for sharing life and funds. It is not simply “tentmaking” for the sake of making ends meet, but rather the practice of ministry for the well-being of the neighborhood.

Sofia’s invitation did not fit within the usual bounds of pastoral leadership. Her event was not one organized by the church, it did not promise to grow the church as “outreach,” and Sofia was not a member or in frequent attendance at the church. My work with the Inclusion Festival gave me the opportunity to be present in and with my neighborhood in an entirely different way. Consequently, our church community received an opportunity to participate in the sharing of gifts—Sofia’s vision, our volunteer base, city funds, a host of neighborhood organizations, and the sharing of a collective and public neighborhood event.

In a place described by several polls as Canada’s loneliest city, such an event and the sharing of such gifts certainly reflects some of God’s trustworthy character and work in the world. Perhaps, just perhaps, so-called bivocational ministry provides the push that we need to live in and with our neighborhoods in such a way that folks like Sofia and the gifts of our neighbors might be given fresh expression in the name and hope of Christ.

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.

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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?

***

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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