Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

7/21 2017

What a Church Planter Needs

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church planting for new communities

This morning I had breakfast with a church-planter. Starting a new worshiping community is a different beast from pastoring an established congregation. To quote The Wizard of Oz, “Now that’s a horse of a different color.”

“There has been vocational confusion, dark times,” my church-planting friend told me, now four years into this endeavor.

Of course, I thought, there has to be vocational confusion and dark times.

After all this pastor has had to wear more hats than I can imagine: visionary leader, construction foreman, preacher, worship leader, volunteer organizer, community developer, grant writer, meal planner, non-profit director, fundraiser, coffee-shop barista, spiritual director, cheerleader, landlord, entrepreneur, marketer, community events organizer, theologian, evangelist, custodian, ad exhaustium.

And all that to help birth a community the vision for which is still taking shape.

One wonders how pastors of new church plants survive the beginning years. What allows those who sustain this kind of ministry to do it? What keeps them from hanging up their stoles and dawning the barista’s apron full time?

I suspect that though this work is a horse of a different color, the practices that have sustained pastors throughout the centuries in the widest variety of ministry settings haven’t changed. They are the practices that keep us most open and available to God, the practices that help us discover and honor our truest selves, the practices that help us stay true to the voice of vocation speaking to us from deep within.

There are many, but three strike me as particularly relevant: having a soul friend, keeping a sabbath, and practicing silence.

Have a Soul Friend

I pastored churches for eight years, and I don’t think I would have survived without my soul friend—a spiritual director. My spiritual director created the space once a month for me to do nothing but look at my life to discern how the Holy Spirit might be at work. His office was a space where I could cry, yell, laugh, and think. His office was a space where I could do the work of remembering who I truly am and why I was in this work.

When the demands of ministry begin to overwhelm us, our soul friends can create the space for us to remember our deepest center in the heart of God.

These friendships can take different shapes. A pastor can see a trained spiritual director, have a mutual friendship with another clergy person, or meet with a group of clergy friends to practice soul friendship for one another. (One warning about clergy groups: The minute they begin to become gripe sessions or mutual advice-giving sessions, run away fast. That’s not what soul friendship is about.)

Keep a Sabbath

Second, a church-planter should consider keeping a sabbath. Sociologist Judy Wajcam has argued that we live in an era of “temporal disorganization.” Because of technology, there are fewer boundaries on our time. Work spills into family and play in a way it never has before. And this is truer, I suspect, for church-planters than for other pastors. Church-planters often have no office to go to, no staff to meet with—they lack the structures of an institution to order their time. And without those structures, the work of ministry bleeds in to every second of every day.

We then can forget that it’s not our frantic agency that brings in the tides and holds the stars in the sky. There is Another at work.

And that’s why God gave us a day of rest, so that we could cease from work long enough, not just to rejuvenate (a good day off can do that), but remember that it’s not our initiative that matters in ministry, but it’s discerning and joining God’s initiative that makes the difference.

The work of getting things started is so close to the heart of church planting there’s all the more reason to stop once a week to remember: it doesn’t all depend on us.

Practice Silence

Finally, practice silence. In silence we get to know the voices that drive us—and often they are not the voice of God. We are driven by the need to succeed, to prove ourselves, to “get this ship off the ground” or “turn this ship around.” Many of those voices aren’t the gentle, wooing spirit of God, but are the voices of our own frail egos (and of our judicatory leaders). In silence, we can see them for what they are: smoke screens, concealing the real voice we need to listen to—the voice of God and the voice or own vocations, which, if we listen carefully enough, we might discover are one and the same.

We chatted for an hour, then my friend had to hurry away. He had another appointment at nine o’clock. And I knew he had another meeting that afternoon, because it was with a friend of mine to talk about small group ministry. Then back to the worship space tonight for the weekly community meal. Such is the life of the church-planter.

A life that can be sustained—and even flourish—when soul friends, sabbath rest, and silence give us the space to discern the voice of God, remember who we are, and rest in a Love that will not let us go.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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6/9 2017

An Unusual Church Planting Journey

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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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5/25 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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