Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

11/30 2018

Planting a Church is Whole Body Work

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integrative learning space at Pittsburgh SeminaryThe world seems to be increasingly comfortable with most of our embodied lives being reduced to the digital, and for some things that is perhaps neutral—but life together is something that is hard to do outside one’s body.

When I lived in Philadelphia, there was a neighborhood bar where I would somewhat regularly get dinner, sometimes with my husband, Andy, sometimes with others while he was still at a church meeting. I noticed over time that I bonded pretty deeply with the servers and the bartenders. They became a bit like family to us. As I tried to articulate why that was, I found myself saying, “The other person in my life who regularly made sure I was fed is my mother.” There was muscle memory, it turned out, between being fed and feeling loved. Sure, we liked the staff at the bar—we got on well and laughed together, but the bond that was formed was one of provision. They looked after us, and we began to see the bar as a safe space and a sort of second home. That kind of bond is part of what it means to do life together, and it is hard to get that bond when you don’t bring bodies into account.

 

Church Planting as Whole Body Work

When I think of church planting as a whole body work, I think of provision more generally. People often say, “Church isn’t the building, it’s the people,” and while that isn’t untrue, what we miss is that people gathered inhabit space and time. If we are to care for each other, to nourish each other, or offer rest to each other, real physical space is needed. Real physical elements are needed.

And part of pastoring, part of church planting, is making a space that is prepared. This can’t be done by solely putting our theological education into words and reading it out loud. We can’t do this as dis-embodied, talking heads, beamed into a blank holding space of chairs all facing one direction. Church life together—the sacraments—is embodied and inconvenient. They require the whole body—the moving of chairs, the setting of tables, the baking of bread. They require the sitting with and the listening to, the working alongside and the wading through with.

For me, at my little church in Philadelphia, it required the shoveling of snow in winter and the schlepping of electric fans in summer. It required paying attention and bearing witness, cleaning up scraped knees, and painting building signs.

 

Church Planting at Pittsburgh Seminary

At PTS, we are looking to do life together. We are training leaders up to make and convene space for folks to live life together. We have made a significant step toward this with our Barbour Library renovation. Not only does the Library make space for all manner of neighbors, groups, and friends to gather (You can bring snacks! You don’t even have to be quiet!), there is a dedicated space in the Library, called the Integrative Learning Space (pictured above).

This space invites students, small groups, and community members to think about how we make space and set the table for folks to do life together. The space is indestructible and stocked with supplies to make communal art and liturgical aids, banners for the seasons, Bible time lines, signs for orienting guests, materials for stained glass mosaics, paints for re-visioning pastor thrones, and all manner of other things that might make space for people to enter in and find a way to share life together. We hope you’ll use this space to make your own welcoming spaces, spaces where God can enter in and make us known to each other in the breaking of bread and the hearing of the Word.

 

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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9/18 2017

Seeing God in the World through Short-term Mission

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short-term mission trip participants, The Netherlands

WMI Netherlands 2017 mission trip participants at the community of Nijkleaster

WMI Brazil 2016 mission trip participants learn from church planters in Sao Paulo

In the fall of 2014, my wife, TJ, encouraged me to look into going on a mission trip through Pittsburgh Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. I was apprehensive in the beginning because this was my first year in seminary and I had never been outside the United States or Canada. After looking at the different trips offered in the spring, I joined a group that regularly met over lunch to share about their relationships with folks that they met while in Southeast Asia on previous WMI mission trips. Through the stories I heard and the learned reality of God’s people in this land, I had to go for myself and witness what God was doing in that place.

After receiving financial help from the World Mission Initiative, the Shortridge Fund, and many generous friends and family members, I was headed across the Pacific to meet these people and hear their stories and be with them in worship, study, and prayer. On a cold February day in 2015, a group of us departed from Pittsburgh and flew 12 time zones to experience life as a Christian in a completely different culture than our own. Through this one trip I was able to explain to others back home that the world is not at all what we have been conditioned to believe but instead the world is full of beautiful people that are made in the image of God.

Fruitful Ministries Around the World

My first trip to Southeast Asia also allowed me to see what it is like to have fruitful ministries in places that we would least expect. Most churches that we visited were either additions to someone’s home or simply someone’s living room. But the Holy Spirit was present in these places and God was moving through the church leaders that we met, and the Christian faith was growing.

In the following months as I grew spiritually, I was able to see that God was really pointing me in the direction of church planting. My experience that I had in the spring showed me that God does not need walls and a hymnal to show up; but God needs people connecting with other people. So I began to connect with others and listen to stories and hear how the Spirit was moving in communities and in relationships. Once again, I was able to travel with WMI to Brazil and continue my listening journey. As we traveled around the state of Sao Paulo, we met with innovators in church planting that were wrestling with their faith, listening to others, and finding a place to welcome their neighbors. That was what God was calling me to hear and I heard it—loud and clear.

God in the 21st Century U.S.

Just a couple months after our Brazil trip, my wife traveled with WMI to Kenya and was too introduced to a new culture and a new way of defining church. This experience sparked in her what I had been unraveling since I first started traveling. We talked about culture and faith and this helped us to better discern our future together in church planting. But for me, there was still a burning question: what is God up to in the 21st century U.S.? To discover this, I journeyed again with WMI to the Netherlands to see what God was up to in a secular society.

In the cold, windy, rainy countryside known as Friesland, our group met with a gathering of people that have called themselves Nijkleaster (translated: New Monastery). This project was based out of a nearly 1,000-year-old church and included folks from all walks of life and faith traditions. They gathered on Wednesday mornings and occasionally on Sundays to dive into Scripture, pray for each other and the world, and to experience God through one another and through contemplative practices. The most profound experience occurred Wednesday morning when we took a pilgrimage walk with the folks of the monastery. This was a time of reflection and prayer and allowed people to walk around the farmlands and be totally blessed by the presence of others. What I heard God say on that walk was that people desire to be accepted and loved. They do not want fancy solutions to their simple problems; people want to be loved, just as Jesus commands.

If there is one theme that goes throughout my journey of international travels with WMI it would be that God wants to show us something, and to see it we have to be attentive to the Spirit working through others in this world. Are you unsure about whether you should go on a WMI trip? I encourage you to go and see and hear what God has in store for you.

The World Mission Initiative is now accepting applications for the 2018 spring break trips to Egypt (Church Planting in Context), Colombia (Cultures of Violence, Culture of Peace), and Israel/Palestine (Listening to Palestinian Voices). Learn more about these trips!

Ryan Lucas is a senior M.Div. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He and his wife, TJ, are raising their daughters while both attending seminary and serving the churches and communities they love.

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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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