By Margaret L. Farnham
Trinity Days speaker Diana Butler Bass told her audience on September 29 that we are living in a time of “massive cultural change.” Individuals have less confidence in their clergy than they did a decade ago. Fewer people attend worship. Many under age 40 did not attend church as a child. “This is our time, genuinely different and genuinely challenging,” she said. “We have to figure out how to lead in times like these.”
Some of Trinity’s more recent graduates have faced today’s challenges head on. They are guided by God and innovative ideas—not big salaries or numbers in the pews. They are defined by vision and fortitude—not years of experience. They have taken what they learned in seminary and proven themselves genuinely different leaders in genuinely challenging times. What follows are a few of their stories.
We can only pay you for nine months
Ron Mathews (’09) went into his first call knowing the congregation in the Cincinnati suburb of Amelia, Ohio, had only enough assets to pay his salary for nine months.
“We really struggled and wrestled with the call, as I owe more on my student loans than my house is worth,” said Mathews. At the time, his wife Amity was unemployed in anticipation of a family move. Their daughter, Ella, was just two years old.
Before Mathews met with the call committee he spoke with the treasurer for nearly three hours about the church’s financial situation. In the end, it wasn’t so much what the treasurer and the call committee said, but what Mathews saw in the members of Friendship Lutheran Church.
“What I saw in the community itself was not 10 percent of the congregation doing all the work, but 95 percent. I randomly talked to people and they were on fire; even
though they were a small group they were dedicated. They said they wanted a full-time pastor because that was what they needed to grow,” he said.
Much of what Mathews encountered at Friendship those first weeks and months was new. The congregation worshiped without a hymnal. Their worship style was
contemporary, driven by PowerPoint, videos and imagery.
“There were a lot of things I wasn’t prepared for. Obviously the seminary can’t answer every question for every context, but Trinity did give me the foundations to do it. I had the confidence enough to figure it out,” he said.
In addition to the financial strain, several members left the congregation following the August 2009 churchwide vote to ordain openly gay and lesbian individuals. The vote took place the day after Mathews started his call. He encouraged the remaining members to focus on the ministry and mission of the local congregation, and not on the vote—an action he credits to his training in Healthy Congregations and his Person in Ministry class at Trinity.
“Understanding family dynamics and the grieving process helped me identify their issues and help the congregation to name them,” Mathews said.In the meantime, neighboring congregations in Cincinnati and Columbus provided a struggling Friendship with support through prayer and monetary donations.
“Before we even approached others to support us we said, ‘They’re not going to support us just to worship.’ We asked ourselves, what is our purpose? We did some education on what it means to be a congregation,” Mathews said.
Today the congregation’s list of ministries is six pages long. It includes a community garden tended in partnership with children from a local preschool, a blanket ministry in which members create blankets for babies undergoing heart surgery, a week-long day camp for the children of members and others in the community, and a campaign to collect Valentines for a child undergoing treatment for cancer. The latter project drew cards and packages from more than 10,000 people across the country and around the world. “It made an impact on the congregation as we noted that we who were worshiping in the thirties could do something on such a large scale,” said Mathews.
Friendship manages to pay Mathews’ salary two years into his call. But the church’s ability to meet its budget the past two years has been tight as they cut costs in all possible areas. Mathews’ health insurance has been covered by his wife’s employer, and the church negotiated a deal with the mortgage holder to pay the bare minimum of interest only on their loan. “Having little to no funds to support ministry has forced us to get creative in how we serve,” he said.
The church currently operates on a $1,500-a-month deficit, down from a $4,500-a-month deficit. Over the last year member giving steadily increased, and in May members gave $1,000 more than in January, allowing the church to pay all of its bills that month through member giving only. “This was the first time that has happened since my call,” Mathews said. They even ended the month with $112 in the checking account.
In the past two years attendance has risen to a high of 60, and one recent Sunday 11 of the 47 in worship were children.
In the midst of all this, the Mathews welcomed another child in July 2010, daughter Avery, who required heart surgery following her birth. Mathews realizes the lessons learned at Friendship would have taken years in another congregation. He also has learned the significance of a pastoral, non-anxious presence in the midst of uncertain times.
“We’re not called to have all the answers, but to know what it means to serve,” he said.
Starting with a clean slate
Just two years into her ministry Kathy Redpath (’09) accepted a new call to serve the Joplin, Missouri congregation that lost its building last spring in one of the nation’s deadliest tornadoes. She came to Peace Lutheran Church—the people, not the place—after her first-call congregation in Mankato, Kansas, expressed a desire to leave the ELCA.
“Mankato was a good learning experience, but it was difficult. I told them from the start that I would not leave with them, but I would support them in the process of making their own decision,” said Redpath. With her own departure imminent, Redpath had hoped for a second call closer to her son and daughter-in-law in Texas. Her
first grandchild was born with a rare syndrome that required chemotherapy, a liver transplant, and an extended hospital stay. Mankato did not have an airport and the drive to her son’s home took 14 hours.
“There were four things I wanted in the next call: I wanted out of Mankato, I couldn’t afford a gap in employment so I needed a call right away, I wanted a good challenge, and I wanted to be closer to Houston. The Houston thing didn’t work out,” she said.
During the Central States Synod Assembly in June, an assistant to the bishop began talking to her about the Joplin tornado on May 22. “I was trying to figure out
what this had to do with me. Then she said Joplin had an airport and that American Airlines flew out of there to Texas for $108,” said Redpath, who suddenly caught on.
“I lost my home in a tornado in Willard, Ohio in 1973. To me, the request was the Holy Spirit,” she added.
She was installed as pastor of Peace on August 21, 2011, in a service held at Bethany Presbyterian Church. Bethany has provided Peace with worship and office space since the tornado.
“Some are anxious to get into a building immediately. I see my role as calming those who think we need to put up a building right away,” said Redpath. The question she
asks her new congregation is, “What is your mission in the future, not just today?”
“This is a perfect opportunity to redefine what your mission is and put up a building that will serve that,” she said.
Peace is a mission-minded congregation. They have received gifts from other churches and individuals since the tornado, setting aside a portion for a new building and some for others in need. “They are not neglecting their neighbor because of their own need,” said Redpath.
Her new congregation's generosity in the midst of tragedy has energized her after leaving a call that was defined by division. “Mankato was a good learning experience, but a difficult one. Joplin is a whole different story. Not one person is related to another in the church, and no one is a native of Joplin. Right away I know the situation will be different and it gives me a whole new energy,” she said.
Redpath also understands their loss. “My background ties me to their situation. You never forget walking out of that shelter and seeing your home lost,” she said.
Since her arrival in Joplin she has walked the empty lot where the church once stood and viewed photos of the devastation the tornado wreaked. Drawing on her work
at Trinity, particularly in her Pastor as Leader course, she discovered that her first question was not about rebuilding but was,“How does it feel to be church without a building? That is what I think we need to explore as we think about building. The mission is what makes us church, not the building,” she said.
Redpath’s call to Peace initially is a two-year appointment. She was assigned by the bishop’s office and the congregation agreed to the assignment. The synod, the congregation, and Redpath signed a covenant. “At the end of two years they have the option to extend the call,” she said.
In the meantime they will worship at Bethany Presbyterian Church, and they will contemplate their mission as members of Peace in Joplin.
“The ground is clean and the slate is clean, but the congregation brings a whole history with them. It is both good and bad that I have no history with them. I am not
limited by the statement, ‘This is what we always did’,” she said.
Embracing the ancient and the innovative
The typical mission developer receives some training in the art of knocking on doors and meeting people in their homes, but Mark Huber (’09) sought some latitude in this model when he was called to New England.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 40 percent of those living in Massachusetts say religion is important to them. “A lot of people call themselves ‘spiritual and not religious’,” said Huber.
When he arrived in Marshfield, Massachusetts, in August 2009, he didn’t begin his ministry in people’s homes, but went straight to the nearest Starbucks. He met people over coffee, discussed the issues of the day, and learned about the area. He also began working with community service groups like Habitat for Humanity.
By the summer of 2010, Huber and those he met throughout the previous year began to meet a little more formally on a backyard deck. “We ate dinner and worshiped on this deck all summer, and dreamed about what a congregation would be and look like. About 40 percent came from a traditional ELCA background,” he said.
“There was a tacit agreement among everyone that there was a need to be and show Jesus without an agenda, because we encounter a lot of people who had been hurt by previous experiences with ‘the church’,” he added.
The group identified a need for a “safe space,” a sacred space, where people could connect to God and respond through their involvement in the community. At the same time, Huber met Rick McKinley, the pastor of a Methodist mission start who shared Huber’s convictions.
Not long after their initial conversation, the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church and the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America came together in celebration, commemorating the full communion agreement between the two denominations. With that the two ministers began to envision a joint Methodist-Lutheran congregation. They had the place—the Methodists already had a church building in Marshfield—and adopted the name that Huber’s small Lutheran group had been using, Sanctuary.
“In January we really had a vision of what it would mean and look like to work together, and we took that plan to our bishops,” Huber said. By Easter Sunday in April 2011 about 85 people from both denominations came together to worship as Sanctuary.
“In New England there are so many spaces where people don’t feel the sacred, where people are too busy trying to live up to their suburban identity. We exist to create sacred spaces where people can connect with God and respond to what God is already doing in our community and the world,” said Huber.
This summer, Sarah Dennett, Mark’s spouse and a 2011 Trinity graduate in the Master of Arts in Church Music program, joined the church as part-time worship leader and musician. She had played for the congregation during visits and used a class project from her MACM program as the basis for a blog about worship music on Sanctuary’s website. In her descriptions of new ideas for music she had attracted people to the church.
“She flew out in April and led a band of people who walked in off the street, liked what we were doing, and wanted to be a part of it. The band includes youth, boomers, you name it. That group of people has really grown and now we have a coffee house night twice a month. Sarah has been instrumental in developing this shared culture of creativity and imagination,” Huber said.
Pastor McKinley has since taken a new call and Huber now serves as lead pastor and “vision caster.” Another Methodist minister works 10 hours a week alongside him.
When the local Starbucks remodeled its interior, the store’s manager donated its old tables and chairs to Sanctuary, where they now adorn the church’s former balcony turned “coffee loft.” Dozens of volunteers also gave the worship space a fresh coat of paint and replaced the church’s 50-year-old pews with more flexible seating.
What began in meetings at a local coffee house and on a backyard deck has grown into a congregation with mission at its core. On November 11, members of the congregation, along with members of a local synagogue and Boy Scout troop, will package 11,111 meals for local food pantries. They also continue to build homes with Habitat.
“We built a Habitat house for a year, and the woman who received the house joined the church and was married here this summer. It is incredible how doing the things we are called to do as church advances our purpose and helps us connect,” he said.
Huber believes his experience with his internship congregation in Berkeley, California, his part-time work with campus ministry at Jacob’s Porch on the campus of Ohio State, and the theological footing offered at Trinity, prepared him for his ministry in Massachusetts.
“Trinity, through contextual education, taught me there are many ways to be a pastor, and you don’t have to fit a
particular mold,” he said.
You have to know who you are
Nick Billardello (’10) knew he was taking a chance when he restricted his first call to Texas, where his spouse had a full-time job.
“The bishop’s office told me they didn’t know when they would have a call,” he said. That was a little more than a year ago.
Today, Billardello is the pastor of the newly formed Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Southlake, Texas, located between Dallas and Fort Worth. They became an official congregation of the ELCA on June 5, 2011, a year after their first worship service in a city park.
Their story is similar to other newly formed congregations in the ELCA. Abiding Grace is the product of a congregational split over the August 2009 churchwide vote to ordain openly gay and lesbian candidates for ministry. About 30 people who disagreed with their congregation’s decision to cut ties with the national church approached the bishop and asked if they could form a new ELCA congregation.
The bishop told the group it would take time and may be difficult, but asked Billardello if he would lead them in worship in the meantime. During this time Billardello was in the process of interviewing for a more financially sound, long-term call and had no intention of starting from scratch as a mission developer. Still, he offered to lead this small, committed group in worship.
“I saw from the beginning that this small group was dedicated and committed to the ELCA, and would do what it takes to have a church home where God’s grace is preached weekly and freely,” he said.
When Billardello asked why they wanted to remain in the ELCA, “They said the connectedness to Lutherans around the world.”
Billardello eventually attended mission developer training and accepted a call to Abiding Grace Lutheran Church. The congregation held its first worship service as a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community in July 2010, and eventually moved into a rented gym at a Montessori school in Southlake.
“At the first service they said, ‘If we make enough to pay you we will’,” he recalled.
The members initially paid Billardello to preach on Sundays. By October of 2010 they made enough to pay him for two day work weeks, and in November he was up to three. In February 2011 the congregation was able to offer Billardello a full-time salary, which meant he could set a date for ordination in early March. Like many of his colleagues called to churches with little – or no – budgets, Billardello opted to join his wife’s health insurance plan to save the new congregation money.
The congregation of Lutheran Mission of Seguin in Seguin, Texas, and its pastor, Tim Bauerkemper (’01), provided Abiding Grace with 120 hymnals. Billardello’s internship congregation, Calvary Lutheran of Richland Hills, printed Abiding Grace’s bulletins before they purchased their own printer.
Abiding Grace became an official congregation of the ELCA on June 5, 2011, two years earlier than most new startups. The congregation’s current membership of 180 includes the initial group of 30, along with several people who returned to church after years away, including former Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
“Our goal was never to grow from other people’s flocks; these were just people who had stopped and now came back,” said Billardello.
Everything the congregation does is mission-focused, Billardello added. One month 60 members offered
landscaping services for an elderly woman and lawn care for a summer camp. In August, the members assisted a group that provides lunches for children during the summer months when school is not in session.
“We would have members invite their friends to help out and they would see that our heart is in service. It’s about giving people something to be excited about; letting people have ownership of the community,” he said.
The Montessori school closed after 26 years and Abiding Grace’s current home is now on the market. Until the final sale, the congregation has full use of the vacated school for a reasonable rent.
They meet for a Bible Study once a week at a different restaurant, introducing an array of restaurants to the members of the congregation and Abiding Grace to an array of diners. “It’s been great to watch the group grow and become more comfortable bringing their Bibles into a restaurant,” said Billardello.
“Everything we do is outward-focused. Every decision we make has to do with how we can share God’s grace with the community and how we can get it done with the least amount of expenses,” he said.
A place to call home
When Marla Flewellen earned her Master of Divinity degree in 2010, she had plans to plant a Fellowship Church in Columbus. This predominantly African-American denomination has always welcomed the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
“I knew that I would do a ministry with the LGBT community, but I didn’t know exactly what it would look like. I knew that it would be with people connecting – or reconnecting – with God,” she said.
As she prepared to start the Fellowship church, she and her partner, Michelle Miller, attended a meeting where someone spoke about the rising tide of homelessness among gay and lesbian youth. “I looked at Michelle and said we need to talk to that person,” said Flewellen.
Within days the couple began to research the issue of homelessness among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in Columbus, Ohio. They also began to create a business plan.
Flewellen had served her internship with the West Side Free Store, a ministry of the United Methodist Church located on Columbus’ west side. While working with Methodist pastors and others associated with the store, she met someone looking to donate a house for homeless youth ages 18 to 24. Flewellen’s business plan included a house in Columbus’ central city for youth who identify as LGBT and who have been abandoned by their families or loved ones. After much collaboration and planning, the seed Flewellen planted began to take root.
On June 5, 2011, Flewellen and Miller officially dedicated Fellowship Family House near downtown Columbus as transitional supportive housing for youth ages 18 to 24. Three to four individuals, gay and straight, have already sought shelter in one half of the duplex for a month or two at a time. In addition, others have stopped by for Bible study, conversation, and connection to resources. Flewellen frequently schedules workshops about household finances, HIV/AIDS education, and nutrition.
House rules include no drinking or sex, and all residents are required to participate in two hours of community service a week. They also tend the garden, clean the house, and cut the grass.
“A neighbor recently said that her mother has been living here 20 years and these are the best neighbors she has ever had. That is what we want to be in the community. It takes the stigma off the stereotyping,” she said.
Until Fellowship Family House officially receives its non-profit designation, the gay and lesbian alumni organization of The Ohio State University will serve as its fiscal agent. (Flewellen holds a bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from OSU.) A board of directors is under formation and will eventually help direct programs and finances.
Flewellen has an office in The Neighborhood House Inc., a Columbus settlement house offering childcare, parenting classes, and other social services, but you will not likely find her there. She is busy most days collecting donated furniture for the house, volunteering in the Columbus schools, or connecting young people with jobs and other services. She currently works about 25 hours a week with minimum salary.
Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Community Life organization initially helped supply Fellowship Family House with personal care items. Other donors have provided furniture and financial support. Flewellen recently applied for and received a nonviolence community grant from the city of Columbus to promote nonviolence education among youth ages 14 to 18.
Her promise to connect others to God and church stems from her own history and the disconnect she encountered as a young African-American lesbian. “I grew up in the Holiness church and I thought church was a great place. Then I learned that people can be mean and at 18, when I attended college, I stopped going to church,” she said.
She continued to attend Bible studies here and there, but when she came out in her early 20s she was told she had to choose between the church and being gay. “For 10 to 12 years I did not attend church. I didn’t return to church until God called me to ministry and to seminary,” she said.
“My self esteem was built at Trinity. I preached my first sermon in Nebraska, in a class called Ministry on the Plains. That trip was one of the most enriching experiences; it broke down a lot of fears – staying at a stranger’s house, traveling with strangers, maybe being the only African American in a small town,” she said.
In the coming years Flewellen would like to add another house to Fellowship Family House, but is content to get the first one off the ground.
“I believe what John Wesley said, that the world is our parish. I practice ministry wherever I am– in and outside the pulpit. I believe I am called to be an advocate for change,” she said.
Marla Flewellen wants Fellowship Family House to be a beacon in the
neighborhood. Learn more at www.FellowshipFamilyHouse.org.