Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/9 2017

An Unusual Church Planting Journey

Dave Lettrich, Mdiv and church planting program student I’ll be 47 years old in July. Like most second career seminarians I’ve met, I had little if any idea why I was there, and to be honest, I had little idea of what seminary was supposed to be. My life to that point had been driven by a lot of things, none of which were God. I grew up 30 miles east of the city in a small town at the foothills of the Laurel Mountains, where I continue to live. I have an undergraduate degree in business and an MBA. Most of my life, and my identity, were wrapped up in my entrepreneurial endeavors. My new found focus on God came only after the destruction of everything I thought I knew about my life and what it was supposed to be. Three years ago when I first toured the Seminary, I found myself wandering through the halls of PTS with Director of Enrollment Derek Davenport and I clearly remember meeting then Church Planting Director Chris Brown that day. When Derek introduced Chris as the director of the Church Planting Initiative that was the first time I heard the words “church” and “planting” used together. For all I knew it might as well have been an initiative intended to restore the landscaping around aging church buildings.

Fast forward a few years and the creative, entrepreneurial spirit found in church planting and innovative ministry has been the easiest transition for me from self-driven endeavors to a God-driven life. I should think most everyone who knows me even a little would say it’s hard to see me in traditional church leadership/pastor rolls. Systems theorists might say I’m self-differentiated to an extreme, almost detrimental degree (extreme, almost detrimental is my default setting in life). As I have followed God through this strange blurry trip they call discernment, I’ve found myself most drawn to atypical pastoral leaders—community starters like PTS alums Chris Brown, Keith Kaufold, and Jeff Eddings[1]. I’ve been encouraged by their determination to follow God on the terms they hear God calling, regardless of the established church world around them.

Ministry on the streets of Pittsburgh

church planting on the streetsThrough this discernment process, I have heard God call me to the streets, to minister to Pittsburgh’s homeless population. Almost by accident, I found myself building deep personal relationships with people from the street. I’m drawn to those struggling with addiction and mental illness, those who reject society first, out of fear that given the chance society would reject them. It is in these heavy circumstances that I hear Christ calling me to those who have lost him, or those who have yet to know him. They are drawn to me, and I to them, so I minister to them on their terms and their turf, under the bridges, along the tracks, in the middle of the street. As I do, I’ve recognized how hard it is to convince someone that there is hope in a God greater than anything in this world, when their world view is constricted by the eminent need to survive the next day, the next hour, the next minute.

Bridge to the Mountains

church planters Dave Lettrich and Keith KauffoldTwo years ago, Keith Kaufold and I were rafting down the whitewater of the lower Youghiogheny River with 20 teenage summer campers when I turned to Keith and said, “can you imagine what it would be like to bring people from streets here?” That was the seed that eventually would grow into Bridge to the Mountains.  It started with a few trips bringing a few homeless individuals at a time up to the mountains to ride bikes along the river trail, ride the natural water slides, and just enjoy God’s wonder for a few hours. Eventually I raised some money and brought a group of 20 homeless, and homeless care providers white water rafting. That was a year ago. Today Bridge to the Mountains is a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation, and we are awaiting our 501 (C)(3) status. We are a Pittsburgh based Christian faith mission dedicated to developing relationships with, and providing a bridge of hope, to those experiencing homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and otherwise challenging life situations. By combining street outreach and the coordination of services with other providers throughout the city with mountain excursions of hiking, whitewater rafting, trail biking, rock climbing, and adventure courses, we believe we can create the best environment to allow an inbreaking of Christ’s peace and hope to those who so desperately need it.

For more information on our ministry visit our website at http://www.bridgetothemountains.org/ or find us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/bridgetothemountains.

Dave Lettrich is a senior Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who is also pursuing his graduate certificate in church planting through the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative.

[1] The Rev Chris Brown (PC USA) is the former head of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a founding co-pastor of the Upper Room Church Community in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The Rev Keith Kaufold (UMC) created Eighth Avenue Place in Homestead, Pa. And the Rev Jeff Eddings (PC USA) is a founding co-pastor of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood.

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5/5 2017

Sustaining a Church Plant Vision through Unlikely Partnerships

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

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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