Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

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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4/7 2017

Palm Wednesday – How the Church Responds to Violence

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I am continually faced with my powerlessness over gun violence and its traumatic effect(s) upon me personally and the community in which I live. This past Wednesday afternoon, my four-year old daughter and I, heard around 10 gunshots as we stood near my bedroom window. This is the second time in two weeks that we both have heard gunshots while together at our house. My daughter has recently become accustomed to the “bang bangs” and she appeared excited that such noises were near her house. I have to ask myself, “How do I respond to my daughter’s acceptance of ‘bang bangs[1]’ in her life?” As a community leader, I have to ask, “How do I respond on behalf of my community that has heard and felt more ‘bang bangs’ then I ever will?”

The Humble Witness of Jesus

This past Wednesday, we celebrated the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. I spoke about the ineffectiveness of military to produce the change of heart and mind that God requires. I proclaimed that the Kingship of Jesus is clothed in humility and that his Kingship is the very reign of God of heaven come down to earth. The day after our service, it struck me—the humble witness of Jesus is just as applicable to my community as it was to that of Jesus. The Roman occupation of Israel was secured through its military strength and it was keen to use it to maintain control. The frustration of being an occupied people often led to revolts and it became apparent that violence would not produce the Peaceable Kingdom (Hauerwas) spoken about by the prophets. My community appears “occupied” by various powers ranging from a dominant street gang to police departments taking on a more militarized approach. The evidence of the occupation of our community is the prevalence of “bang bangs.”

Forgiveness of Sins

As we gathered for worship a few hours after a young man and his pregnant girlfriend were shot, singing of the Kingship of Jesus has a strange power. I was led to shift my focus from the violence around me, to the brokenness within me, as I sang, “Heal my heart and make it clean, open up my eyes to the things unseen, show me how to love like You have loved me” (Hillsong United, Hosanna). As I broke the body of Christ in Holy Communion, I broke it on behalf of our broken community. As I presented the cup of the blood of Christ, I presented a solution to the “bang bangs,” forgiveness of sins that leads to reconciliation between God and humanity and humanity within itself. I became aware of the true occupation of our community, the Kingdom of God breaking through. This reign of God was witnessed through a small group of people whose praises filled the air and whose hearts were at peace with God and each other.

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor 10:4, NIV).

If you’re interested in learning more about how churches can prevent gun violence in their communities, download the Seminary’s Gun Violence Resource Kit, written in partnership with Allegheny County Health Department, Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.

The Rev. Keith Kaufold ’07/’12 is the lead pastor of a circuit that includes United Methodist Churches in West Homestead, Swissvale, and Millville; pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Aspinwall; and founding pastor of Eighth Avenue Place—a church plant and Christian community that confronts the ignorance that perpetuates racism and lives and ministers together in the name of Jesus Christ. Keith is currently enrolled in the master’s in social work program at California University of Pennsylvania.

[1] The term I use with my daughters to describe gunshots.

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