But one thing is common: launching a new place of worship is difficult. It’s especially difficult in the middle of a global health crisis, when gathering in an intimate space with fellow congregants is made next to impossible. So why would someone take this leap of faith?
As a military spouse who’s been previously stationed overseas, Pastor Jennifer Moreno has a personal understanding of life away from one’s faith community. She started Kesh ‘Oved Faith Ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic to not only provide worship services for families like hers, but to help other congregations connect with one another through technology, such as pre-recorded videos and Facebook Live. Pastor Jenn hopes that her emerging collective will be an example to others of how to keep in touch with members located out of town, out of state, or even across the world.
“It’s building-less and borderless,” she says in a recent video call with New Church Ministry, “because we need that right now even more than ever.”
Kesh ‘Oved Faith Ministries also strives to create a sense of belonging for those who have become socially isolated during the past year. After an interruption from the household’s pet parrot Yoshi, whom Pastor Jenn refers to as her associate pastor, she stresses that we have to recognize mental illness and how COVID-19 has exacerbated it, particularly through the restriction of outdoor hobbies and pastimes that would contribute to better mental health.
“It’s really important that we check in on each other,” Pastor Jenn says. “And make sure that we’re all okay.”
The people of Kesh ‘Oved, which is Hebrew for ‘lost sheep,’ do just that in Zoom meetings called BYOBB (Bring Your Own Bible and Beverage) where they drink coffee and talk about what’s going on, whether they’re joining from South Korea, Japan, or Germany. If they do happen to be in Pastor Jenn’s town of Riverview, Florida, and it’s safe to do so, members will eat a meal with each other.
“We all connect,” she emphasizes, “and ensure that we have relationship with one another.”
Pastor Jenn hasn’t been with her own parents, who live in Amarillo, Texas, because they are elderly, homebound, and she doesn’t want them, nor her, to get sick.
While Kesh ‘Oved is a virtual church plant, she makes sure that local residents become familiar with it too. Pastor Jenn’s car is adorned with a chalice and as a Door Dash driver, she puts her business card in with every meal that she delivers, every load of groceries that she does through Walmart.
“I do that because I want people to know we’re here,” Kesh ‘Oved’s minister shares, “and that we give of ourselves, time, and talents to help those that can’t get out right now.”
For Pastor Jenn, her work in ministry is about more than just bringing together Riverview’s Disciples. It’s about promoting the denomination’s mission and vision of being a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. After all, she sees the Church as a safe space for her – the region provided her support during the launch process and New Church Ministry provided her educational opportunities through Leadership Academy.
“When everything’s falling apart and it doesn’t look like it’s going right, New Church Ministry’s there,” Pastor Jenn says. “Knowing that we have such a good foundation, it’s the perfect time for everybody to try to plant something new.”
And she doesn’t just mean new churches. Pastor Jenn believes that throughout our lives, we’ve all been given seeds of wisdom, love, grace, and mercy. When somebody took us to church as a child, the seed of prayer was planted, helping us grow and mature into who we are today. To her, everyone has the chance to spread the seeds we’ve received through the people that we come in contact with every day, even complete strangers. If someone’s struggling, we can plant a seed of compassion by giving them a smile or expressing our gratitude for their service. The Holy Spirit will water that seed throughout the day, which will germinate, and grow into something fresh. But there’s a difference between a positive seed like that, and a negative one, and we have a choice to make between which one we scatter. Pastor Jenn makes the case for treating workers in the service industry with more care, say if they got a customer’s order incorrect or delivered it to the wrong address.
“We need positivity,” she says. “We need to know that we’re all in this together.”
Throughout our call with Pastor Jenn, she spoke with calm self-assurance, even when the doorbell was ringing in the background or her dog barked. When we asked her where this confidence comes from, Pastor Jenn said it was due to her work as a pastor at another congregation in Winter Haven, Florida, and the experience she gained as a leader for Family Readiness groups within the army. She also credits the support she’s received from friends, one of whom serves on Pastor Jenn’s team as the Music and Worship Director, and the owner of Ms. T’s Soaps N Such, who was inspired to make different colored bars of soap for Kesh ‘Oved, all in the shape of sheep. (Kesh ‘Oved’s catchphrase is “Finding lost sheep everywhere!”)
“We are all looking for comfort and security,” she says. “I started Kesh ‘Oved so that anybody could reach me at any time and know that they’re not alone.”
Pastor Jenn then asks her daughter, who had just recently returned from school, to get her a “Lamby.” When she returns, Pastor Jenn holds up a rainbow lamb. On the bottom of the soap it says, “God loves ewe, no matter what.” People who have become regulars of the church receive a “Lamby” from her that has been prayed over. This way they know that they are loved, they are thought of, they’re missed.
“No matter how dirty we are,” says Pastor Jenn. “Jesus Christ cleans us and has made us clean for God.”
And she wants Disciples to know that they can be supporters of the new church movement too. Money is an important issue in church planting. Often, church leaders initially operate with little to no funds. All of the startup costs that Pastor Jenn has spent so far have come out of her own personal finances, despite her husband’s misgivings, because she felt the need to do so.
“Give cheerfully, because when you do so, you’re not just touching the general church or region,” Pastor Jenn says. “You’re touching all of those new churches.”
As we wrap up our conversation, we ask what the future holds for Kesh ‘Oved.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” laughs Pastor Jenn. “Whether it’s the bird landing on my head, the dog barking, or my kid running through.”
On a serious note, a nearby Colombian café has offered her the use of their facilities for Bible studies and different kinds of worship services. Pastor Jenn looks forward to that, and to watching her baby, as she calls Kesh ‘Oved, flourish.
“If you take that leap of faith and do what God is calling you to do,” she concludes, “the blessings will overflow.”
You can support new faith communities like Pastor Jenn’s by making a gift to the Pentecost Offering, collected in most congregations on May 16 and May 23. Half of the gifts go to New Church Ministry to train, equip, assist and multiply leaders, and the other half stays in regional ministries to support local new church development.
On a Sunday afternoon in early December, Rev. Foster Frimpong, the founder of Co-Heirs with Christ Missions in Lexington, KY, was ordained while participants looked on over Zoom.
This would be an unorthodox way of conducting such a process in any other year, but for 2020, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and still marked a milestone for the Ghanaian pastor.
Immigrating in 2009, Rev. Foster was initially unsure of what to do with his life. His eagerness to carry out God’s work was not shared by the company he kept at the time, so-called “prosperity preachers” who exploited their congregants. Even when Rev. Foster brought attention to this, he became, in his words, “like the only pebble on the beach,” unable to see any good in the Gospel of prosperity. This led him to doubt himself.
“However, as I sought the Lord’s guidance in prayers, the Holy Spirit used this Psalm to instruct me,” recalls Rev. Foster. “I followed and settled down.”
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
And God was silent for a while.
Over the next few years, Rev. Foster felt a strong calling to join the Seventh Day Adventist church but was eventually drawn to the Disciples.
“I immediately wanted to be a part of [the church] because it fits with what I grew up believing,” he says.
On August 19th through the 21st, 2020, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) convened a New Church Summit to strategize about the future of the Disciples’ New Church Movement over the coming decade in light of current realities and next normals. This three-day virtual event was hosted by Pastor Terrell L McTyer, Minister of New Church Strategies with New Church Ministry (NCM), and Erick D. ‘Rick’ Reisinger, President of Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF). Summit attendees included nearly 90 general ministry leaders, regional ministers, regional new church team leaders, church planters, seminary leaders, and representatives from various demographic and church planting initiatives.
After welcoming those assembled, Pastor Terrell introduced General Minister and President Terri Hord Owens who opened the Summit with scripture and prayer. She quoted from Isaiah 43:19 saying, in part, “I am doing a new thing” and urged all attendees to move beyond the familiar, citing the need of the Church to re-imagine itself.
“Now is the time to pivot and evolve,” she said, “to insure the New Church Movement remains a denomination-wide tool that all Disciples can connect with to support new faith communities.”
Terri then referenced the Preamble of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), before stating that “Hope” (for the Summit) “is on fire as long as there is openness to what God is saying.”
Following Terri, Rick Reisinger presented a brief history of the Disciples of Christ starting with the Stone-Campbell Movement and showing how strength of mission defined our denomination.
“The DOC started as a new church movement,“ he explained. “From 1832 to 1929, we were planting hundreds of new churches a year and continued to do so until the stock market crash.”
In 1902 alone, 300 new congregations were formed. During the Great Depression, however, very few congregations were started. Activity picked up, though, following World War II and remained steady through the mid-60s. Since then, several summit-like gatherings have been held to re-energize, and set goals for, the new church movement, including the 1980 ‘consultation’ which set a goal of 100 new congregations over the next ten years with a third of those being churches of color. Under the leadership of Jim Powell, 128 congregations were formed with just under a third being of color. In 2000, another summit was held which resulted in the 2020 Vision and the goal of planting 1,000 new churches by this year, 2020.
“We exceeded that goal,” Rick noted, “but we’re now in a completely different time and need to find new ways to be ministry to the community.”
Terrell noted the success of the 2020 Vision and the 1,049 faith communities that have been formed or have affiliated with the DOC over the last 20 years with about a third of these being racially or ethnically diverse.
“It appears that we’ve become the family of choice for our many newly affiliated congregations,” he said, “thanks to our dedication to God’s covenant of love which binds us to God and to one another.”
He noted that there was much about the 2020 Vision that had to do with denominational survival and projected congregational loss.
“Now is the time,” he said, “to push the new church movement from survival to service, from comfort to courage. Now is the time to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ through our actions, to serve all people, and to make Disciples.”
Keynote speaker for the event was Mark DeYmaz, author of DISRUPTION: Repurposing The Church To Redeem the Community, whose basic assertion is that we need to do church differently to remain relevant. He noted that the first question any church planter is asked when looking for support is “Who’s your target audience?” Historically, this approach has led to homogenous churches with non-diverse congregations. He said the real question should be, “How can we be multi-cultural?” Why? Because the greater your diversity, the greater your community influence and the more likely your sustainability. This way your church is connected to more groups, more causes, and more influencers beyond its walls. DeYmaz asserted that disruption is a structural shift of the church; that spiritual church is not just a spiritual entity. It is a model of reconciliation and a reflection of the community’s composition that promotes peace.
He used as a model of a community-transforming church a three-legged stool. DeYmaz used the image of a three-legged stool to model a community-transforming church. One leg represents the SPIRITUAL. It is coached by the Senior Pastor and supported through tithes and offerings. The second leg is the SOCIAL, which is coached by an Executive Director and supported through grants and donations. And, the third leg is the FINANCIAL which is coached by a Chief Executive Officer and supported through a for-profit enterprise. In this way, the church achieves sustainability and is able to leverage its assets to bless the community, spread the gospel, and teach Jesus.
After a break, Yaw Kyeremating (a.k.a. King Yaw), a Ghanaian spoken-word artist, performed an original composition illustrating for the summit diversity in culture, in age and thought. Then, Rodney Cooper, PhD., made a presentation on Cultural Intelligence. Dr. Cooper is a Clinical Psychologist, Consultant and Certified Facilitator for Mosaix Global Network, of which Mark DeYmaz is president. Summit participants were asked to fill out a cultural intelligence survey prior to the gathering, and Dr. Cooper presented the results to the group, reflecting the cultural intelligence of this body of DOC leadership. Prior to doing so, he noted that cross-cultural competency is considered the fourth most desirable business skill needed for the future and that, by the year 2044, only half of the U.S. population will be Caucasian.
Cultural Intelligence (CQ), as explained by Dr. Cooper, is based on these four key quadrants: CQ Drive, which reflects the level of interest; CQ Knowledge, or knowing how cultures are different or alike; CQ Strategy, or one’s ability to adapt when dealing with members of other cultures; and, CQ Action, or one’s willingness to adapt. In all quadrants, the group attending the Summit scored well above the average of those who have taken the survey (150,000+ in 167 countries), with CQ Drive being the highest at 82% and CQ Knowledge being the lowest at 57%. Specific group characteristics Dr. Cooper cited include a tendency toward collectivism, or the valuing of group goals and relationships, over individualism; uncertainty avoidance through planning and predicting rather than flexibility and adaptability; cooperative and collaborative behaviors over competitive, assertive behaviors: and, a preference for long time orientation over short.
Following another break, Peter Wernett of MissionInsite by ACS Technologies spoke on the benefits of big data available from the community demographic analysis tools his organization provides to churches, denominations, and faith-based nonprofits. Big data can be analyzed for insights to aid organizational decision-making. It also provides on-going discovery. For churches, that can mean finding a new area where they are likely to grow or where current members will be more comfortable worshipping. Wernett asserted that religious big data innovators believe big data is essential to their ministry, that it provides faster and/or greater missional results, and that church leadership and budget rely on and are tied to, big data discoveries.
The second day of the Summit started with a presentation by Mark DeYmaz and Terrell called Disruption & TEAM Review. The purpose of this presentation was to prepare attendees to break into separate groups and develop their own ‘huddle pitches’ just as disruptors do when seeking support for their initiatives. Mr. Deymaz again focused on information from his book, pointing out that successful church planters are, by their nature, disruptors. He also advised would-be disruptors/church planters that in the 21st century demonstration, not proclamation, will build churches. In other words, show your good works. He then laid out the four steps needed to sell a vision or plan a pitch compelling enough to attract support. They are:
• Identify the problem you’re trying to solve.
• Present what you’d do to solve it.
• Detail the features and benefits of your solution.
• Ask for support in specific terms.
Terrell followed by describing the T.E.A.M. concept used to support church planters by New Church Ministry. It identifies what leaders of the new church movement need to succeed. They need to be Trained, Equipped, Assisted, and Multiplied.
These four needs were paired with the three legs of the Disruption stool to assign topics to the break-out groups around which each would develop their two-minute pitch. There were twelve groups in all, and the various topics included Training & Spiritual, Equipping & Social, Assisting & Financial, and Multiplying & Social. After an hour to prepare, and a thirty-minute break, each group presented its ‘huddle pitch’ followed by three minutes of Q and A.
Another half-hour break followed before Rick Reisinger returned for a presentation on funding. He started by explaining that DCEF, the general ministry that houses NCM, helps congregations and other organizations with their capital needs through loans, capital fundraising, and building planning.
Funding NCM itself, however, is a complex issue because it requires connecting general ministries, regions, congregations, and leaders. Furthermore, general ministries participate in different ways. In particular, Christian Church Foundation works with individuals and congregations on providing funds to new churches as old ones close.
Rick went on to explain how funds have been and are being raised by other expressions of the church, and what’s in the future. This included a call for Disciples Mission Fund giving to be instilled into the DNA of new congregations to support the mission of the whole church.
Rick moved on to discuss how the need for buildings is changing. He introduced DCEF’s pilot program, which facilitates the transfer of a building previously owned by a congregation that is closing, usually to the region. Its results can be seen in the Glendale Mission and Ministry Center.
Rick closed out his presentation by mentioning congregations that are creating space by launching their own nonprofit organizations, such as Missiongathering Charlotte, which bought a building, using the sanctuary for themselves and leasing office space to local nonprofits. He encouraged general ministries and regions to be creative in how they work with new churches to generate income.
“How do we create a theological and ethical ‘culture’ where buildings are not ‘our’ asset, but an asset for the good of God’s work in the world?”
The last workshop of the day, presented by NCM Associate Minister Rev. Dr. Jose Martinez, was on competitive analysis, standardization, and best practices through the lens of starting new churches before and after the pandemic of 2020. He started with the history of church planting after 9/11, which experienced a boom as the model shifted from denominations to networks, and a new theological undergirding was developed.
Jose went on to break down the ten models of church planting networks recognized before COVID-19, which ranged from collaborative to regional and urban to rural and their various strategies. Jose said that overall, this methodology, which included identifying potential planters, sponsoring churches, and coaching was very successful.
The next part of the presentation saw Jose discussing 2020 as a pivot year due to the coronavirus pandemic. He explored strategies that are currently being utilized, what church planters are saying, and what to keep in mind which echoed Rick’s earlier call to get creative.
Jose then looked at what’s been taking place in culture this past year because of the current global health crisis that will continue to affect people’s lives and the practice of church planting.
He ended the presentation by talking about the next steps that Disciples can take after the pandemic, urging them to change the metrics, adopt new mental models, and develop a process of hybridity where new models of church planting can grow.
Regional representatives and others participating in the chat continued the conversation about metrics, sharing what they’ve each learned about defining metrics within one’s context and vision/mission and letting data tell a story instead of assigning a passing or failing grade. As one participant noted,
“God says, ‘Well done good and faithful servant,’ not ‘well done good and successful servant.’”
Terrell opened the third and last day of the Summit explaining the purpose and process for the Implementation Strategizing unconference of the morning. An ‘unConference’ is an informal gathering of collaborators/participants who set the agenda for an event focused on discussion.
“We’re going to decide on our topics now for the discussion groups that follow,” he explained. “We’ll follow the rule of two feet, meaning you can go in and out of different conversation huddles, but we’re trying to get to a place of strategic thinking.”
It was impressed on participants that every conversation should arrive at a goal. Also, that this exercise was seeking the contributions of ‘butterflies’ (those moving easily from conversation to conversation) rather than ‘bulldogs (individuals dominating group conversation).
The subjects developed during Topic Brainstorming included:
What does church look like after COVID-19?
How do we make church cross-generational?
How can we build sustainable new churches?
How can dying churches help plant new churches?
How do we make all congregations immigrant-welcoming?
How do we recruit for and assess new churches?
How do we make regional new church teams stronger?
How do we build multi-diverse, inclusive congregations?
As in day two of the Summit, the strategy huddles had an hour to prepare, discussing their topics in detail, and arriving at their recommended goals. Unlike in day two, these huddles were not followed by pitches. Instead, participants elected to submit their discussion notes and goals to New Church Ministry for consideration and documentation.
Following a break, Terrell identified eight tactical teams that would implement new church movement strategies related to the list of topics developed during brainstorming. All participants were asked to sign up for two teams to continue working on the evolution of the new church movement post-summit. The tactical teams include:
Near the conclusion of the Summit, DCEF President Rick Reisinger thanked all attendees for the three days of time, effort, and ideas they contributed to the future of the new church movement.
“My hope is that we can expand our collaboration in making Disciples in the world,” he said. “I look forward to a re-imagined and energized new church movement.”
Terrell then closed the Summit with an impassioned plea for all to actively participate in the Multiply Movement. Quoting Mark 9:23, he said, “all things are possible to him that believes.” He then referenced the Great Commission and our denomination’s charge to ‘go and make Disciples.’
“That is in our DNA. It’s who we are as Disciples,” he said. “Every member of a congregation is responsible for making disciples, not just the pastor. In fact, some believe you’re not a disciple, until you’ve made a disciple.”
Recalling the goal he set forth at the 2019 General Assembly of making 1,000,000 new disciples by 2030, Terrell noted that while that’s a big number some feel it’s not big enough. Jose Martinez agreed, noting that five years ago 57,000,000 Americans were religiously unaffiliated.
“Surely, that number is even bigger now,” he noted. “So, maybe we should be setting the bar higher.”
To make a million or more new disciples over the next ten years one thing is certain: a covenantal direction for the New Church Movement relevant to current realities and next normals is a must. The New Church Summit, with its three days of presentations, strategy huddles and pitch exercises, was just the first step.
The New Church Ministry team met Rev. Debbie Griffin, the Senior Minister of Downtown Disciples, last summer at General Assembly (GA). Since the pastor’s congregation is based in Des Moines, IA, it offered worship services, hosted pre-assembly activities for general ministries, prepared a meal for regional ministers, and chaired the local GA mission committee.
All of that as a new church planted in 2015.
To celebrate the culmination of the 2020 Vision goal to form 1,000 congregations within the first two decades of the 21st Century, we spoke with Rev. Debbie about Downtown Disciples.
I was about to give up on the Church. I love many things about it. I was raised in the Disciples Church. I love the faith. I love the stories of Jesus. But I was really frustrated that some folks within the Church were really challenging progressive theology. I just felt like the Church wasn’t being the inclusive, boundary-breaking, justice-loving presence of Christ in the world. I thought I would just go work in the nonprofit sector. I secured a position with the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa when I was called by the Region to consider a small congregation that needed a short-term interim minister. I started serving that church full of beautiful people and they really changed me. They were doing such great ministry, in western Iowa of all places, which is very conservative. This small church of faithful people was doing amazing work in the love of Christ. They had two queer women in leadership positions. They were serving a home-cooked meal to more than 100 people every Wednesday night, no questions asked, opening their doors and not pressuring people to be church in a certain way. A diverse group of people came for many reasons. Relationships were built. It was just organic, and it was ministry. They gave me hope for the Church. I thought to myself, “If this can happen in western Iowa, it can certainly happen in downtown Des Moines.” I thought, “there must be more people like me, who love Jesus and miss faith community, but whose theology is too progressive for most people.” So, I laid out a vision of starting as an LGBTQ+-affirming book club. We started with a book called SavingJesus From the Church by Robin Myers, who’s a UCC pastor. People came! We read one book, and then we read another book. Then we started serving meals at the homeless shelter down the street. Then we walked in the Pride Parade. Then we started doing a variety of other activities, going to our city council about policing and racial profiling. Pretty soon someone said, “When are we going to worship?” That’s when I knew we had a church.
The Pentecost Offering allows local Disciples to support new church plants like yours, across the United States and Canada. What does the Pentecost Offering mean to you as a church planter?
We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Pentecost Offering. Downtown Disciples wouldn’t have had a place to worship that worked for us. We needed to be in a neutral place, because we’re reaching out to people who’ve been wounded and excluded from church. Also, we wanted to be in an urban setting. That costs money. Plus, we needed a full-time pastor to make this work. The Upper Midwest Region has been exceptionally supportive of us. Ultimately, they set out a three-year plan of sustainability for us. And the other people in our Region have been just as supportive of this amazing ministry.
The 2020 Vision prioritized forming 1,000 congregations in 1,000 different ways. What is the “way” your faith community demonstrates that diversity?
We didn’t start with worship. When we did decide to start worshiping, we were clear that we didn’t want to do so in a typical church building. At Pentecost, we’ll be five years old, and we’ve had three worship locations: a community center, a loft-type space above a music venue, and now a bakery. We also started out with worship on Sunday nights. Then as we grew, we added a Sunday morning worship. We also have a podcast called Like Micah, because our mission is Micah 6:8 – “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” We tell stories of our faith. We like to say we’re nimble, and we respond to the needs of the community. Most of our people were not coming to us through worship. They were coming to us at the wine bar when we were having Word Up Wednesdays. They were coming to us for Bible Geeks on Tuesday mornings at the local hip coffee shop. We were meeting up at a laundromat where we would just do random acts of kindness and hang out and be there with children’s books and food and quarters. People found us at other places that were easier entry points, and then once they could trust us, they would move to worship.
How would you define the progressive Christianity you promote?
We spell it out in our website. People who have been wounded or excluded by the church, need to know who you are. I’m specifically referring to LGBTQ+ people. They have gone to churches that say they’re welcoming, until you want to marry your beloved; or you want to be a leader in the church; or you want to attend seminary. So, when we say progressive, we mean LGBTQ+-affirming; we proclaim Black Lives Matter; we are curious about other faiths. We do not condemn or judge others, because Jesus calls us not to do that. And we are passionate about social justice.
What role do new faith communities have in the church?
They are the heartbeat of the church right now. I know that in the Upper Midwest Region, other Disciples churches that identify as traditional look to us. Oftentimes people worry the new churches are going to “replace” the traditional churches. I don’t see it that way. I see that we can be an outreach for traditional churches who see in us something that they love, but they can’t be right now. So, we become an outreach of their ministry. We currently have one church in the Upper Midwest Region that supports us financially. They send us part of their outreach budget. They send us a check every quarter because they can identify that we can do some things that they can’t do right now. I think we’re the hope for, not only people who have been excluded and wounded by church, but for traditional church people who see in us an opportunity to partner and extend their ministry.
Do you have any advice for people looking to plant a church?
What God is doing in new church is different in every single place. What worked for Downtown Disciples was unique to what God was doing here and is doing here in our time and our place. New church planting here is not the cookie-cutter for other new churches anywhere else. Still, some things are true for all church plants. I would say, don’t do it alone; listen to the Spirit and to the people who you’ve gathered. We wouldn’t be who we are without the people who gathered with us, allowing the Spirit to work through them.
How is your congregation responding to the coronavirus?
We worship and gather virtually. We share what type of bread we are breaking together in our homes during communion. We raised $1,000 for PPE, donating those funds to our local hospitals that need life-saving equipment. We continue to deliver supplies to our homeless neighbors, wearing face masks, gloves, and staying at a safe distance. We write cards to our friends who are isolated. We cook and deliver meals, flowers, and groceries to members who are quarantined or at high risk. In summary, we are still a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world. The Spirit still calls and empowers us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly together.”
New faith communities like Downtown Disciples are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Half of the offering supports New Church Ministry to coach and train new church leaders. Half supports local Regions to sustain new churches. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift through your congregation or the DMF website. This Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.
The city sits just north of a men’s prison, and is one of the areas in which formerly incarcerated individuals are released. South Pomona struggles with gang violence and drug abuse.
None of that was a deal-breaker for Rev. Al Lopez, the congregation’s Lead Pastor. He felt called to plant a new church where folks could be themselves and still belong.
In this New Church Ministry interview he shares how UrbanMission reframes church in the 21st Century.
What is UrbanMission?
We are a church without walls. We have several ministries that are interconnected and interdependent… plus we get together and worship.
In our Open Table gatherings, people from all walks of life create a sense of belonging and provide a free meal.
Rev. Nora Jacob, our Restorative Justice Minister, goes inside Chino State Prison every week and facilitates several groups. She also heads up the Reentry Coalition, which assists, and provides a place for, people coming out of incarceration.
In 2014, we founded UrbanMission Community Partners (a non-profit organization) with a vision and purpose that really aligns with that of the church, although it’s an independent entity.
So UrbanMission has been kind of like a seed planter. UrbanMission Community Partners takes those seeds and helps them grow.
What was the impetus for you to plant UrbanMission?
A few years before starting seminary, my theology began to change. As it expanded from the faith that I had grown up with, I found myself feeling less and less part of my community because of our different insights and interpretations of scripture. There’s a very dualistic way of understanding who’s in and who’s out.
When I received the call to start a church, I began meeting with Rev. Dr. Felix Villanueva, the Southern California Nevada Conference of the UCC, Conference minister. I indicated I felt the call to plant a church, but one where I belonged. I couldn’t find a community that I felt a part of, where I could be myself. The Southern California Nevada Conference really offered me the opportunity.
They essentially handed me the keys once we looked at the property. A congregation there had closed. Rev. Villanueva said, “You do what you feel God is calling you to do and just keep reporting to us. You’re part of our staff.” They’ve given us the freedom to really pursue this the way that we feel led.
I am Mexican American. I’ve learned in being part of the immigrant community that you don’t look at what you don’t have. You look at what you do have and make the best of it.
I had: an empty building, no people, no connections to the (local) community. So, I started looking at communities where I had connections.
I had just started seminary at Claremont School of Theology. I was meeting people who were passionate about several issues that overlapped with (the neighborhood’s) needs. (We discovered) an organic fit.
I happened to know Rev. Jacob through other regional work. She started our prison ministry.
I was introduced to Rev. Stephen Patten by the Disciples Seminary Foundation. Steven is our Community Wellness Minister, and in his role, he addresses drug abuse in our community.
My main focus is the Sunday morning congregation.
The three of us approach this planting of a new church as a team.
This collaborative leadership model is one other new churches use. How has it helped you be successful?
Our congregation is in a community that’s financially challenged. So, we knew going into this that we needed to approach church planting in a very entrepreneurial way. We were not going to be looking at the income from the Sunday morning gatherings as the main revenue in order to sustain the ministry and all the other work that we do. That shapes our understanding of leadership and what each individual contributes.
We recently had our very first church council meeting. It’s made up of people who had previously come to UrbanMission that had never even attended church, or had never been part of church leadership, or were against the thought of church. We’re playing into their strengths.
It has been a learning curve, especially because this past year was particularly difficult for me on a personal level. I haven’t been able to do the kind of training that I wanted to do. But that’s the wonderful thing about church. When you empower people, they take the ball and run with it.
So, they each bring their gifts — that has made us successful. The impact we’re having in our community has gone above and beyond what I ever thought possible.
How do you measure that impact?
We use some traditional metrics, such as: How many families are being fed? How many community groups are we housing in our Community Wellness Center? The more life-changing (measure) for me has been, how many lives have been transformed?
This woman showed up at one of the nonprofit’s art shows, where we highlight art created by people who were formerly incarcerated. This woman looked very familiar. Eventually, Nora pulled me aside and said, “You need to hear her story.”
We had her on camera sharing that she actually was one of our guests on Sundays. She was houseless and dealing with addiction, so the only reason why she was coming was because she was invited with no strings attached. Just welcomed. She took that and went from there, little by little. Now she is a counselor working with people that are still on the street. She’s completely turned her life around. She came back just to show her gratitude.
She said: “This is where my life changed because of the way that you greeted me and what you were providing.”
Our first moderator is the very first person that I met when I started in Pomona. When he found out that I was a pastor, he said, “I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t trust pastors.” We spent about six months developing a relationship over coffee, over food, over imagining what could happen in that place. Eventually he told me, “I want to be the first member of your congregation.”
He went from having some really serious legal issues that prevented him from working, to becoming a contractor, to owning his own company. He’s been very successful at it, giving great prices to a lot of our congregations in the area. His company was hired to remodel the Conference offices.
All of that from a conversation that started with us being vulnerable with each other. Me saying, “Hey, I need help. I don’t know anything about property,” and him saying, “I don’t trust church. Here are all the things I don’t like about church.” And me saying, “Hey, here are all of the things that I don’t like about church, either. A lot of them match up. How can we change that?”
Do you feel like being a hybrid church has helped you folks do ministry?
Both denominations have wonderful things going for them, and they both have their unique challenges. I think for those of us who are somewhere in between the Millennials and the Gen-Xers, we have the ability to be part of both worlds, speak both languages – think in both ways. It gives us freedom to not be shackled by some of the things that would hold others back.
Case in point, I was asked, “What about baptism? What about communion?” Those two happened to be some of the contentious areas between both denominations. At that point, baptism was far into the future. But I said we will teach what both bodies believe, and then we will leave that up to the person to decide.
Having the congregation be in community with other churches both within our denomination and outside helps them see the way that they’ve been growing up in their faith with us. Sometimes a congregation from a well-to-do area will drop off donations. In the conversations after, one of our people will say, “Did you notice that they kept saying that they’re helping us?” It’s a very transactional way of doing mission work. They are able to tell the difference between the way that we approach it and the way that some other churches do.
How is UrbanMission responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our leadership struggled to find an appropriate response that would honor our commitment to our community, while also ensuring the safety of our volunteers. We decided to continue supporting our community via an “Outdoor Open Table.” This includes distributing dinner in to-go containers and limiting contact as much as possible. Our food pantry continues to work with our partners to provide emergency food services during this time.
What do you see in UrbanMission’s future?
We’re just about to start talking with both denominations about the UrbanMission Training Center. We have learned lessons that can help a lot of churches, both established and new churches, even nonprofits. Several of us are trained coaches now, so we would do some coaching. And that’s actually really transformed the way I approach ministry, by just asking deep questions and just doing a lot of listening. It’s very much walking with, instead of trying to lead. I think that’s one of the things that the Church really needs to own.
Is there anything you want to add?
The importance of vulnerability. I mean, we follow a man that, depending on where your Christology is, made himself, time after time, vulnerable with those that he was with. It’s something that we’re trying to emulate. I think that has been part of UrbanMission’s success. We don’t see ourselves as an institution, but as part of a community.
UrbanMission, and the 1,034+ new churches–and counting–that have formed or become affiliated with the Disciples since 2001, are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Half of this Special Day Offering is used by New Church Ministry to coach and train new church leaders, and the other half is used by local Regions to sustain new churches. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift online or through your congregation when this Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.
She knows what it’s like to distrust others; how damaging isolation can be to recovery. That’s why she and her husband, Thaddeus Shelton, launched The LabOratory Church. This new Indianapolis church offers safe space for those with mental illness to worship, cultivate strong connections and seek healing.
New Church Ministry spoke with Pastor Amie about The LabOratory Church, one of the 1,034 congregations (and counting!) that have formed or become affiliated with the Disciples since they adopted the 2020 Vision in 2001.
Tell us about your new church’s name: LabOratory.
It’s a play on words. It’s a lab. But it’s also oratory, like preaching. We’re a new church with a focus on mental health and building community in new ways.
We really want to reach people who have been hurt by the church, people who are afraid of others. They isolate because they’re like, “I just can’t deal with humanity anymore.” We’re trying to create a brave space where people can be fully real. If they want to come in sad or angry or frustrated, or happy or joyful, they could bring their whole selves. We’ll still work with them, no matter what feelings or problems they’re having. I feel like too many churches try to be positive all the time. It has its place to be positive, right? But we can’t really minister to people if we don’t also name what is wrong, and name what we’re struggling with and have support in our struggling times. So, really, it’s a place to be whole and do relational healing.
Trauma psychologist Judith Herman talks about the three stages of healing. The first is about naming the trauma. You work through it in the second stage, like in the therapist’s office. The third stage is relational healing, being in relationship with each other. That was the stage where I had stalled. I felt like if I was fully myself, people would reject me. We want to be the place where people find healing in relationship.
We understand from what you were saying that this was a personal journey of yours because you’ve dealt with mental health issues and your partner is trained in therapy. Are these issues particular to the neighborhood that you’re in? Or are you addressing a local context of a wider problem?
It’s definitely a wider problem. I think it’s cultural. You have to start with yourself and the people around you. It’s a concentric circle sort of thing. We name individualism as the problem. That’s what damages relationships. All the sins that break our relationships are based out of our culture saying that individualism and competition is the only way to survive. But that’s actually the only way to make sure that no one survives. We are created to be relational. So, we have to learn how to be in relationship with each other, despite the cultural norms telling us, “You can’t trust anyone, they’re always your competition. They’re gonna’ steal your stuff, they’re gonna’ steal your glory.” It’s a scarcity mentality, right? We’re trying to emphasize an abundance mentality, a mentality of mutuality, a mentality of generosity, compassion and, shocking, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Is your team-leadership style a response to individualism?
Absolutely. We’re really focusing on training people to internalize (the values of the community) before we give them more power over decision making. Most of the people on our launch team get it. But we’re in the early stages. We’re being very intentional about making sure that the values are the most important thing. We’re open to suggestions on how we do worship, on who we serve, all of that. But what we’re teaching people is that every question has to go through the lens of, is this supporting individualism or cooperation? Is this supporting everyone? Or is it self-serving? We ask those questions every time we decide to do something.
I’m the main person because Thaddeus has a second job as a therapist, but he is in charge of the mental health aspects. I am in charge of pastoral care and worship. But we talk everything through together. When I figure out what scripture to preach on, for example, we’ll sit and say, “What is going on in the world right now? What sort of mental health challenge fits what people are dealing with? And how does that tie to the scripture? And how does that tie to our mission?” I’ll read through his stuff and he’ll read through mine, and we’ll give each other feedback.
How is your community responding to the soul searching and in-depth questions you’re asking them?
They love it so far. I think they’re really understanding how it helps the healing. People have been drawn to us, to be in our launch team. They may have associations with other churches even. But they really like the fact that we’re going so deep, it’s not a surface level thing, and that we’re creating a safe environment. We’ve had some conflict already, but I preached on conflict resolution because I wanted, from the beginning, the bar to be set, that we are still human. We are not going to agree on everything. We’re going to misunderstand each other sometimes.
The key to building this type of community is that we have to be brave enough to be honest, and really deal with conflicts as they arise instead of the traditional way of just pretending like it didn’t happen, pushing it down, and developing all of these intense feelings that come out in other ways later.
Who are the current members of The LabOratory Church, or are you not at that point yet?
We have a solid group of people, but I haven’t called them members yet, because we’re still figuring out how we want to name that and what that looks like. A lot of the people that we’re reaching, in addition to the unchurched people, are fellow ministers. We have one minister who’s very active, and she’s a chaplain, and she also serves at another church, but she comes to our church and Bible study as well. We have two elders from another church where I used to serve who are not members because they’re members of another church, but they’re still very instrumental in our programming. So, we’re still figuring out membership.
I’d say if we counted the people who were regular worshipers, we probably have a list between 15 and 20. So that’s a pretty good number for us. We’re not in it for high numbers, we’re just getting to the people that need it and want it. It’s a good mix of people too – younger, older, middle-aged, single families, gay, straight, Black, white.
Because you’re an interracial couple, do you think that people of color consider The LabOratory Church a safe space to worship?
We did a statement of values, which I posted on our website and is in every single bulletin. I usually go over it every single service. We are very clear about everybody being welcome. We named the inclusivity across economic statuses, races, genders, sexualities. We name that we want honesty. We want you to be fully who you are, and we will accept you. In addition to us being interracial, I think, having that constantly represented, stated explicitly, helps people know where they stand.
Eight months ago, you planned to lease a storefront by January, meet on Saturday nights, and have a New Church Ministry coach. Have you met those goals?
The storefront required way too much work. So, we’re planted inside another church that hosts five congregations. I love that. That’s part of what we loved about being there. Emerson Avenue Baptist Church is right on the border of our neighborhoods. But it also meant that we could only use certain time slots. We now have worship online once a month. But we’re thinking about increasing (the frequency of worship) online to twice a month, (eventually alternating between) once a month online and once a month in person. I’ve also been meeting with a coach. It’s Steven Smith. I’ve been meeting with him for three months. He’s helping us address our bylaw and constitution questions. We’re slowly working toward our goals.
You’d been having in-person gatherings in the neighborhood coffee shop, right?
We did Bible study and my office hours at the coffee shop. The coffee shop that we used, Rabble Coffee, they have just an incredible group of people. They’re very concerned about the neighborhood, they let homeless people come in there without buying anything. They will give them food and they’ll give them clothing and they’re like a church. They’re perfect. They’re not religious, but they do the work that religious people should be doing. So, it’s a really great fit.
Both Thaddeus and you attended Leadership Academy. How did that event impact your ministry?
The packet on demographics that we received confirmed that we had picked the right neighborhood. I liked that we went over budgeting processes. That was very helpful. One of the best things was the relationships we made with fellow church planters. Being a church planter can be lonely. Bouncing ideas off of others going through the same thing was awesome.
What do you see in The LabOratory Church’s future?
I personally have connections with people all over the world, because I was a traveling photographer before I started doing this. I like the idea of us being a dual-type of church, where we do serve our local Indiana neighborhood, but that we really focus on our online ministry to reach people who don’t want to attend (traditional) church who still have questions. We’ve got our Givelify link, YouTube channel, and socialmediaup. We’ve got our messaging out there so that people looking for a place where they can be themselves will find us. We could go global because we’re trying to do life in a new way. It’s not just about church, it’s about how can we live together better as humans.
New faith communities like The LabOratory Church are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Each year, half of what you give stays in your Region to support and sustain new churches near you. The second half helps train, equip, assist, and nurture leaders across the United States and Canada through New Church Ministry programs. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift through your congregation or the Disciples Mission Fund website. This Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.
During the month of October, we have an opportunity to honor the ones we so often take for granted.
The ones that we desperately seek out for advice before making a major decision; the ones we long to see in times of sorrow, bereavement or illness; the ones who encourage us and/or correct us with a heart of love and concern; the ones who celebrate our achievements – no matter the magnitude; the ones who cast a vision and work diligently to bring it to fruition; the ones who teach us God’s Word not only through preaching behind a pulpit on Sundays, but also through their lives lived before us Monday through Friday; the ones who bombard Heaven for mercy, grace and blessings to be added to our heavenly accounts.
Pastors, we honor you! From our General Minister and President Terri Hord Owens, to our thirty-two Regional Ministers, to each and every Commissioned and Ordained pastor – THANK YOU!! For your tireless sacrifice to walk with us through all kinds of trials and tribulations at a time that is RARELY, IF EVER convenient for you – THANK YOU!! For being an instrument used for peace and reconciliation in a time of such turmoil and angst – THANK YOU!! We value and appreciate you for giving of yourselves so that Colossians 1:9-10 may be evident:
“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
Happy Pastor’s Appreciation Month!! Know that Your Labor is Not in Vain! God’s Choicest Blessings Upon You!
Rev. Dr. Joi Robinson oversees our Coaching program. In this capacity, she recruits and trains coaches that reflect the demand of New Church Ministry and the diversity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to walk alongside New Church pastors and leaders as they move through the various stages of the new church process. To help them remain on track and accountable for the goals they have set for themselves and their new church plant, Robinson matches New Church pastors and leaders with experienced coaches who – through prayer, encouragement, active listening and strategic questioning – provide support to New Church pastors and leaders as they encounter the various aspects of church planting.
Their conversation took place right on the heels of General Assembly, where Disciples marked the culmination of the 2020 Vision. In NCM’s resolution, it celebrated the formation of 1,000 congregations in 1,000 different ways. This discussion Nadine had with the women of The Gathering truly demonstrates the diversity of the new congregations Disciples have welcomed, and how important this aspect of the Vision is to the future of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She spoke with The Gathering’s preachers over Zoom (you can watch the video of the interview here).
The discussion has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nadine: Thank you so much to the both of you for being here. So both of you didn’t start your careers as preachers. Irie, you started off in banking and criminal justice and Kamilah, you started your life as a lawyer. What led the both of you to be church planters?
Sharp: Irie you want to go first?
Session: People often ask me or they say, you know, “you’re everywhere you do this, you do that.” Where I am in this season of my life, I would say that, like, I didn’t plant a church on top of all of that. What I have learned to do is to blend all of my doings into becoming what I consider a spiritual entrepreneur. In other words, I have made my gifts, my talents, my expertise and experiences available to God and the universe, in an effort to make life better for others. And so I’m open to – I try to be open to – the Spirit, and where I sense the Spirit leading me in any given time. And so when we started talking about The Gathering, it actually flowed out of some conversations that we were having with Reverend Kamilah’s husband, actually. (Kamilah can tell you more about her specific piece of that.) But we were in transition, trying to find a church where we felt like we fit and we were spiritually nourished and that spoke to our concerns with social justice. And so we were actually attending a particular church and Kamilah’s husband, Nick, would would often look over and say to me, “Why don’t you go be Moses, and plant a church?” And I would look back and like, “I’m not interested in that and if we did anything like that, it would not be me.” He mentioned also this idea of having a one-hour service, and so probably about two years later, after, you know, some resistance and some other things sort of fell in place, The Gathering was planted. I mean, we weren’t thinking about a church, we were thinking about a community, a gathering, where the community could experience womanist preaching. And the community that began gathering really made it clear to us that they were interested in a church. So that’s kind of how it started. Kamilah?
Sharp: Well, for me, as you say I started my life as an attorney. That’s the only thing I ever want to be since I was seven years old. And never did I imagine I’d be a preacher or pastor and definitely not a church planter. I was not interested in any of that. A series of, I guess, yeses to God is how I feel I ended up right here: the yes to call to ministry, leaving my good paying job to go to seminary… [Laughs] (Then I came to Dallas to pursue a PhD, so I’m working on my PhD in Biblical Interpretation at Brite [Divinity School]. And my husband’s family is from Dallas.) …And the yes to a lot more time of school after I said I would never go back to school. And as Irie was saying, you know, trying to find a place where I felt I could worship and be you know, nourished as she said. And here in Dallas, you know, there was no place that really felt like, you know, “this is where me and my family would need to be or want to be.” And like, you know, again, piggybacking off her, the idea of even doing this wasn’t an idea of planting a church. It was, “what will happen if we create a space for womanist preaching, for people to hear more womanist preaching?” Because, after we did the first Seven Last Words with Seven Womanist Preachers, people were asking for more womanist preaching. And so the question then became, “how do we get a space for people to do that and experience that?” And you know, as Irie says, she wasn’t interested in planting a church, I was interested in planting a church, and definitely not by ourselves. But when we first started out initially it was three of us. And so the idea that there will be three people who could manage the load seemed more realistic, even with the idea of just creating space, because even in a creative space, it takes time, it takes energy, it takes planning. And I was working on a PhD. And I’m still working on a PhD. [Laughs]
Session: And you’re a mom and a wife…
Session: And you’re partnered up, you know.
Sharp: Right. And as my daughter likes to joke, “…and my 40 cousins,” you know, so just life, period. [Laughs] So trying to figure out how this would be a way of it working, where you should live and not die, even in doing.
Sharp: And so, you know, when we agreed to start it, like she said, you know, we started out with the idea of creating space and so we planned it, and we prayed about it, and the first Saturday, people showed up. I was like “okay,” and the next Saturday, people showed up.
Sharp: And every Saturday since then, [laughs] people have showed up. We started in October in the fellowship hall because this wasn’t church. So we created just a space in the fellowship hall. But on the first Saturday of December, the church had already rented out the fellowship hall for another event. So they were like, you’d have to move in the sanctuary. And I really didn’t want to move in the sanctuary because again, this wasn’t church. And I didn’t want people who were coming to feel uncomfortable because a lot of people who were coming to our service, and who still come, are people who have been hurt by church. I didn’t want to re-traumatize them. But we went in, and the people loved it. And so that’s when we became church.
Session: Yeah. I want to add something to what Kamilah was saying about The Seven Last Words. So The Seven Last Words or Seven Last Sayings of Jesus From the Cross is an event that occurs primarily, I would say, or traditionally, in Black church… are you familiar with that Nadine?
No I’m not, please fill me in.
Session: Okay. It occurs on Good Friday. What happens typically is there are seven pastors or seven preachers that preach each of the seven last words of Christ from the cross. And so we were, looking at that, thinking about that, and wondering what would it look like if we had seven Black women because traditionally, it’s always seven men. They may have one woman in there, but rarely. And in Dallas I’ve never seen, had never seen, seven Black women doing that. So we organized that, and it was actually held at an open and affirming white congregation in Dallas, Midway Hills Christian Church. The place pretty much packed out and it was incredible. It was seven Black women, the seven sayings, for seven minutes. So each of us had seven minutes to preach. And most of us, you know, tried to stick within that seven minutes, but, you know how that is. But after that is when we started getting all these inquiries. And so, you know, we just kind of paid attention to those kinds of things, right, those kinds of responses. And then we would go various places individually, and preach or speak. And again, we would still get the same question: where can we hear some more of this? And then Reverend Kamilah talked about the church where we have our services. And when we talked and agreed to do this, we knew that we did not want to have concerns of mortgages, because our focus, we wanted it to be on ministry, and on a certain kind of ministry. And so what we began looking for was a church, a Disciples of Christ church, that could give us what we called ‘permanent nesting space.’ And so I sent an email to the North Texas Area minister, and asked him to send that request to the North Texas Area churches. Within several hours, we received five responses, saying, “Yeah, come to our church.” But we had in mind, a particular church that we wanted, that we felt like would be best for this ministry. We wanted it to be centrally located in Dallas, where people had access to transportation and things of that nature, which was Central Christian Church. And I would say, it took about two weeks for Dr. Ken [Crawford, Central Christian Church’s senior pastor] to reach out and confirm, but when he said yes, you know, that, again, was another affirmation. Because that’s what we’re looking for, right, we want God’s approval. We want Spirit’s approval, and we want to know that we’re, to sense that we are moving in a good direction. And so when those kinds of things happened, you know, that was affirmation for us.
This actually ties in really great to my next question. So The Gathering describes itself as a womanist church, but not everybody is familiar with that term. How do each of you define womanism?
Session: I’ll go ahead and leave the scholar to go last. So let me begin like this: everyone interprets the Bible through a certain lens, whether we admit it or not, or whether even we know it or not. What I’ve discovered, and I’m sure you have to, is that we bring all of who we are to our study and interpretation of the biblical text. That is, what we’ve been taught theologically, what we believe about the Bible. And I say what we’ve been taught theologically, what we believe about the Bible, because the two may not be the same, right? We may have been taught some things theologically, but may not necessarily believe ’em. But we bring our biases, we bring our experiences, etc. So as a theologically trained Black woman who identifies as womanist, what I’m simply doing is naming the lens through which I do theology, and ministry, and quite frankly, life. So we’re naming that. So I wanted to say that first because often, I think when people see womanist church, or when they see womanism, they get a feeling that like, we are… We’re doing something… Well we are doing something that no one else is doing, in a sense, because we named it, we put it out there. But everybody has a lens, right? So I thought that was important to say, but as far as the definition of womanism, I consider it an embodied framework or methodology that – and to quote Dr. Mitzi J. Smith – that privileges the voices, traditions, concerns, and experiences of Black women, as opposed to the voices, traditions, concerns and experiences of say, white males, right? Because traditionally, that’s how we’ve all read Scripture. That’s how we’ve understood it. And so, when we when we think of theology and biblical interpretation, they’ve been held hostage by the white male gaze and the white male perspective, right? But that’s just one way of doing theology, not the only way. Womanism declares Black women’s theologizing and scholarship is valid, and more importantly, necessary for the survival and wholeness, and I would say well-being, of all God’s creation. That’s how I would define it.
Sharp: And I would take it even a step further, because even outside of our theology, womanism is about our lived experiences and how we are communal about the community and the survival and fitness of all people. But womanism is grounded in the experiences of Black women and taking Black women’s experiences seriously, as a valid starting point. However, because we are concerned about the survival of all people, it’s not just about Black women.
Session: That’s right.
Sharp: And so for me, womanism is a lens in which I interpret the Bible, but it’s also my lived experience. It’s also how I try to live out my life in helping liberate all people. As a womanist church, yes we are interpreting the text from a womanist lens, but we’re also trying to liberate all people through our preaching, through the ways that we engage in issues of injustice, and trying to seek justice in the way we put our bodies on the line for certain things and the ways that we spend our money. All this is wrapped up for me, and what it means to be a womanist.
Session: Ditto what she said.
Sharp: Womanism started out in [academia]. And I believe one of the things that we are trying to do is make womanism accessible to more people to understand. Because for me, when I learned the term womanist, it was what I’d been my whole life, I just never had that terminology.
Session: And for me, it wasn’t what I did my whole life, but it was what my soul was in desperate need of. And so when, and I know this is another question that you’re going to ask, but I came to a womanism when I was a seminary student at Brite Divinity School and had experienced some success professionally, but emotionally, and even spiritually, I was not free. In terms of who I believed I was, and my capabilities, and my worth, and my value, it was all wrapped up in a patriarchal kind of Christianity that was suppressive. And so when I experienced womanism, I say it saved my righteous mind. And so for me too, it is a way of doing life and it’s a way of being that I believe can transform our Church.
Sharp: The world.
Session: And the world, yeah.
So Kamilah, did you also feel like what led you to a womanism was academia?
Sharp: Yeah, I learned the terminology in seminary as well. I was taking a Hebrew Bible class and Hebrew Bible interpretation. That’s where I learned about womanism and was like, “that’s what I am, that’s what I’ve always done.” And not only me, this is how my mother was, this is how I grew up, in a very communal sense of seeking liberation for everybody. And also a communal sense of trying to make sure everybody’s okay, too. I was familiar with the term feminism, I’d heard of feminism before. But that’s not really what I am. This is really what I am.
So for the both of you, was it a no-brainer when you started The Gathering, for it to be a womanist church? For it to be based in this theology?
Sharp: We knew we were going to be grounded in womanist preaching and womanist interpretation, but it was never supposed to be a church in the first place. [Laughs] But once it became a church? [Laughs] It was Irie’s idea to name it as such. For us, we were operating as a womanist church, but to name it? And it’s interesting because when you name it as such…
Sharp: …we already got people questioning us like, “three Black women, really?” And then to say womanist, you know, “what, can men still come?” You get all those type of things. It’s interesting because we’ve named it as such, that this invoked certain things in people, whereas you don’t necessarily ask some of these questions of other churches that just have ‘church’ in the name.
Session: Right. And I think that’s a really good point. I’m glad you mentioned that, Kamilah, because I was thinking about that this morning, that had we just named the church, The Gathering, even with two or three women pastors, it would not have caused… You might not be interviewing us, right? But because we named it and we – and I forgot that it was my idea, I didn’t remember that…
Session: But we want it to be… because we’re trying to, as Kamilah said, and we are doing this, we are making womanist thought more accessible by some other things that we’ve done, putting the name there was important for doing that, for making womanism accessible, even for generating questions so that we could have conversation and dialogue about what it is – it’s a way of educating the community. But also, I think it’s a way of being forthright and letting people know, upfront, that this is what we’re about. This is what we’re about. And not being afraid to do that, right? Having the courage to even experience some opposition, some questioning, but I see it as always opportunities for education, and enlightenment.
Sharp: And also, you know, with the whole naming of it, even coming out initially with our priorities and you explicitly say, you know, the things that we’re for, you recognize that there’s going to be a lot of people that’s not gone come with you.
Sharp: And that’s okay. Because we said it’s a womanist church, now there are people who won’t like it, who don’t even know what womanist is, but won’t like it, because we put that name in the title.
Sharp: And that’s okay. Because they’ll learn eventually.
So I’m going to skip forward, actually, because I feel like this question that I’m going to ask ties into what you said, Kamilah. So you had said that womanism, and at least your approach to it, is that you want to liberate all people, you want to make it accessible to everyone. But it doesn’t change the fact that womanism or womanist theology is rooted in the Black female experience in America. How do you then navigate the power dynamics of having a multiracial, mixed gender congregation? And then the second part of that is, how does this inform what you preach from the pulpit?
Sharp: I’ll start with your second question I think, and back into your first one. Because we are interested in the liberation of all people, we are often preaching issues about marginalized people, because we are as Black women, marginalized people in these all but United States. And so, a lot of our topics are dealing with justice issues. Although right now we’re talking about money. We’ve talked about all types of things, not just justice issues, but issues that are impacting people in their lives and issues that are going to impact you whether you’re Black, White, red, gay, or straight. These are issues, issues about money, issues about domestic violence… But certain things that we’ve preached about, these are issues that are issues across the board. Now, they may impact Black women more so than they impact some other people, but they still impact people. And not only that, because we’re trying to teach a communal spirit. If it impacts me, whether it impacts you directly, it should impact you because we’re part of the community. So trying to get an understanding that it’s not an individual experience, it’s communal experience, and a communal healing is going to need to take place. And as far as your first question… The other thing is we have a nonhierarchical organization. So that’s the other thing about The Gathering. There is no senior pastor, we’re co-pastors. And so the idea that we’re trying to eliminate patriarchy and hierarchy, not only in the world, but in the Church, we navigate that by modeling, this is how we want to live life in a communal, nonhierarchical manner. And if there’s no hierarchy, then we can get rid of some of these high-power dynamics. And recognizing that there are still issues, we still are centering the experiences of Black women when we start, so we’re still speaking from our own experience.
Session: Nadine, can you unpack just a little more what you mean when you say “navigate the power dynamics of having a multiracial, mixed gender church?” What are you trying to get at there?
I’m glad you asked…
…because I struggled with forming this question. I will be up front, I pass as white. I’m half white, half Asian. And so I have a foot sometimes in both worlds. And so [racism] is something I struggle with as well… I guess what I’m asking is, if you’re a womanist, you’re a Black woman in America…
…Do you feel like, “Ok well, you know, I have some white people in my congregation, I have some men, I have to now change what I originally wanted to say so that it also includes them.” Do you ever feel like you have to censor yourself or change it so that it can be applicable to everyone? Do you ever wish that like, “I wish I could just preach to Black women, period?” You know?
Like, “why do I have to make it accessible?” I mean, accessibility has been a huge fight for a long time for a lot of people, but sometimes, when you are in a minority, or an oppressed community, it’s like, “why is that burden on us, that we have to make it accessible for everybody?”
That should be the other way around, that’s why we have to have our own community! That’s why we have a womanist church because we’ve not been made to feel welcome in the traditionally white male Church. I guess that was the real question behind that.
Session: Okay yeah, I get it now!
Session: The answer to that is nope, nope. [Laughs] And that is the beauty for us. And I think for others, for the white people, for the Asian people, for the Black people who come to The Gathering is that we don’t censor what we say it. I mean, we preach, and we lead and we do ministry authentically. And so we don’t feel that pressure to censor what we say, because we don’t want to hurt white people’s feelings who are sitting in the congregation, you know, the white women who are in the congregation. Look, [these] are what our social justice priorities [are]: we have three, and the first one is racial equity. So that means we’re going to be talking about racism, we’re going to be talking about and preaching about white privilege, and…
Sharp: White fragility
Session: …white fragility, right. We’re going to be preaching about white nationalism and white supremacy. All those are evils…
Sharp: And they exist in the Church!
Session: Yes! So that is the freedom Nadine, that we have. And that’s one of the reasons for me why I knew the traditional Church is no place for me. In terms to pastor, I’ve done it. And I didn’t feel that freedom to speak truth to power as I sensed I needed to. Reverend Kamilah?
Sharp: Yeah, I agree. Um, I think the naming of it, like she said, makes a big difference. Because for me, anybody who comes across The Gathering, however they come across The Gathering on social media and things like that, if you go to our website, or if you come to our things, like, we’re very clear, there’s no sleight of hand of what you’re going to get.
Sharp: Like, you know, upfront, what this is going to be about, how we’re going to be. But when people come, they all say, you know, they never felt more welcome, they feel so welcome. We have quite a few white people who come to The Gathering and come faithfully every week.
Session: Every week. Frankly it’s amazing to me, because [laughs] I’m so appreciative of it and grateful for it. And it gives me so much hope for the Church.
Session: If they can sit there and listen to this, what we’re saying, and then have conversations about it when they go home, read the text before (because every week, we send out the Scripture and a little snippet about what we’re going to preach about)… Oh, the other thing that has really been helpful Nadine, after every sermon that we preach, we have what we call ‘talk back to the text.’ So, we’ll preach, we’ll sit down, moment of reflection, then the preacher will come back and entertain comments and questions from the congregation about what they just heard. Oh, we have some rich conversations, you know? And so that helps people to feel like their voices matter, all people, everybody who’s in there. Because everybody can say something and ask something. And is respected, and is not judged, or made to feel like their question was stupid, or something of that nature. And sometimes the questions are a critique of what they heard us preach. But that’s welcomed as well.
Yeah. I was led to the Disciples, (I was raised Roman Catholic), because there was a local congregation where I was living a few years ago, that had that similar structure, where there’s an open floor, and you can respond to what the pastor said, and she was a woman, she had a shaved head. So that was huge for me initially. And she dyed it according to the liturgical calendar, which is great.
Yeah, I mean, just having that ability to, like you said, break down that hierarchical structure so that you can have that one-on-one in a space, you can respond. Because a lot of times a lot of people’s experience is: you sit there passively taking this information, and then you kind of, “Okay, I’ll go now,” you know, unless you’re the kind of person that’ll go to Bible study. And a lot of people don’t do that because that’s a little much. So I want to build on that…
Sharp: Before you go on, with a lot of these churches, you’re only allowed to go by that pastor’s interpretation. So the interpretation that he or she may say, and then when they come to Bible study, this is the interpretation. And this is the one that a lot of people are trained. And so the difference in The Gathering is we are upfront that this is the way we’re interpreting it. There are other ways to interpret text. As she said, sometimes it’s the questions or comments, may be a critique because maybe the person does interpret it differently than we do. And that’s okay. And so to welcome that kind of freedom is different.
So, again, going to skip ahead, because I feel like this dovetails really nicely. I noticed on your website, and then also, based on what you said, Kamilah, on trying to get away from this traditional hierarchical structure. So your website refers to members as ministry partners. I’m wondering if that’s intentional, has your church done away with formal membership, as some other churches have done? If so, why? And then has it created better community for the people at The Gathering or of The Gathering?
Sharp: Yeah, we were intentional not to have members. We have ministry partners, because we say we believe that we are partnering in the work together. And so to be a ministry partner at The Gathering means that someone comes regularly, whether they’re in the sanctuary, or… we have quite a few ministry partners who do not live in Dallas, but they watch us online, faithfully, and they engage online. Also, we ask that our ministry partners share their gifts with the community. Now that comes in a wide range, it could be someone making communion, it could be someone singing, it could be someone writing litanies, it could be someone working the technology, but it’s us all working together for our community. And then we ask that they give regularly to support the ministry of The Gathering. So those are the three things we ask our ministry partners to do. Now, another thing about The Gathering, which is unique, as you know, we meet on Saturday. There are a lot of people, quite a few people, who come to The Gathering every week, who are ministry partners, but still go to a traditional church on Sunday.
Sharp: And that’s fine, but there are quite a few who only go to The Gathering.
Sharp: And to be clear, not all churches are okay with you having a dual membership, let me say that. [Laughs] They may not be okay with you saying you’re a member here, but that’s not why we don’t say we’re members, because membership, it’s a different thing than what we’re trying to build. We’re trying to build community. So to partner is to do something different. But see, our ministry partnership goes beyond just individual peoples, we also partner with other organizations and things because we recognize that this is a small gathering of people, and although there are a lot of issues in the world, we can’t address them all. Some of the things that we want to do, people are already doing that work, so we don’t have to start from scratch. So we can partner with other churches, other organizations and do things together. For example, when we were doing our food justice sermons, Friendship-West [Baptist Church] has a community garden that gives out fresh fruits and vegetables to anybody. Anybody who wants to, just come with a bag on the second or the third Saturday of the month. So we partnered with them to go volunteer and hand out those vegetables and work with them and those type of things. That’s work that needs to be done, but we don’t have to start from scratch. So ministry partnership, for us, it goes beyond just the individual people.
Session: Yeah. I would add this about the ministry partnership: we’re discovering that people need to learn how to be in ministry partnership, right, because as you said, so often they’re used to coming to the church, joining like a club, giving their money, maybe, and going home.
Session: So they’re not accustomed to this notion of partnership. And so we, Reverend Kamilah and I, I think we model partnership, quite beautifully.
Session: And so they see our partnership, they see that this is not a hierarchy, they see that the different roles that Reverend Kamilah and I have sort of grew organically. We discovered, “Oh, I do this well, and I like doing that,” you know, that kind of thing. And so it’s a slow process of helping people feel comfortable with availing, recognizing and availing, their unique gifts to this partnership. Also, there is this added component of partnership of responsibility and accountability, right? Membership doesn’t necessarily put you in a situation of accountability, and responsibility, right? And so when we invite people to ministry partnership, we also give them, like, an online sort of questionnaire, where we’re asking them, what do you, you know, bring to the table that you would like to share with The Gathering with this community, with the larger community. And then it causes them to think about that, you know, because up front, we want them to know, you know, we don’t want you to just show up and just open your brain and have us pour stuff in it. We want community, and you are important and what you bring is important, and what God has gifted you with is important and necessary for community, for the survival and wholeness of this entire community, which is a womanist tenet.
I’m going to switch gears a little bit and kind of go back to, I guess, why we’re having this conversation. So Women’s Equality Day is on August 26. It was established to commemorate the passing of the 19th Amendment, which was supposed to grant American women the right to vote in 1920. Obviously, this largely applied to white women, as women of color had to wait years before they could cast a ballot. How do you think womanism contributes to equality, or let’s say equity or inclusion in the 21st century?
Session: I think womanism is a way of saying or not waiting for someone to invite you to the table, but to create your own table. So this idea of being able to create your own space and to privilege your own way of thinking about life and thinking about ministry, is what it means to be free. And equality is about being free. It’s about being free to exercise your rights as a human, as a human being. And so I think womanism is a way for Black women to experience freedom – freedom to be… all that God is created and crafted us to be. I can’t see equality without freedom… Just one thought.
Sharp: I agree with Irie.
Sharp: [Laughs] Like really. [Laughs]
Session: Right? It is about dismantling, resisting, every oppressive structure that prevents people from flourishing. And so it has everything to do with equality. That’s why it was birthed. That’s why Katie Cannon and Jacqueline Grant and Dolores William and Kelly Brown Douglas risked putting forth this notion, this idea, this methodology, this framework, this way of being, you know, years ago, 20, 30 years ago, because of this lack of equality… right. You know, as Reverend Kamilah said earlier, womanism is not just about Black women’s freedom.
I wanna… go to something that you said that stood out to me. So you said, womanist theology allows Black women to create their own table, their own space… because you’re not waiting to be invited to the table or to the space. But then how does that tie in with Disciples identity, where it’s “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world,” and they have such a stated commitment or dedication to this idea of unity?
That’s something I personally struggle with, because I wasn’t born and raised a Disciple. It seems to be such a pattern that repeats itself over and over again. How do you reconcile those two?
Sharp: Well, I’ll say two things: that is part of the Disciples thing, a movement for [wholeness], but the other thing that many Disciples love to bring up is the fact that each church has its own autonomy.
Sharp: [Laughs] And that’s a real big thing with Disciples churches. But here’s the thing: The Gathering is no longer waiting for space to be created, but creating space that we believe is necessary, so people can hear this type of preaching and experience this type of worship community. So you create this space, which is a womanist move, however, we’re still tied with Disciples, we still… We come to the table every Saturday, just like, you know, all the other things. You can still be having your own table at a picnic. So, we got our own table, but we’re still part of the party.
Session: That’s right. Well said!
Session: We got our own table, but we still part of the party. Yes. We were intentional about remaining Disciples.
Sharp: Right. Yeah.
Session: Disciples profess to being a pro-reconciling/anti-racist Church. We are definitely anti-racist/pro-reconciling, right, but there’s some things that we understand as Black women about reconciliation… that… inform what we do. I’ll just leave it at that, right. So what makes us Disciples – we’re still connected, and we were intentional about that, about remaining thus. We participate, we’re engaged in the larger Church, you know. We attend General Assembly, we attend National Convocation. We… We come on and we talk to you…
Sharp: We go to these events, we’re part of committees and things of that nature. So yeah, I think the way Kamilah said it is just, it’s perfect.
You know, it’ll make for a great tweet at some point.
[Laughs] But I’ll credit you, don’t worry about it. [Laughs]
Sharp: [Laughs] Thank you. Thank you. Please give me my credit @kamilahmh. [Laughs]
Registered like, [laughs] trademark.
Session: Yeah! Absolutely.
[Laughs] Okay, so I’m going to keep on going. I think that actually this is the last question. So from your perspective, what is the future of womanism?
Session: I see womanism expanding. I see a lot of innovation and increased creativity in its expression. Womanists aren’t monolithic. There are all kinds of ways that womanists express our identities and who we are in our ethics. And so I see more of that, particularly as it relates to Millennial womanists, and I see… I see people becoming more and more enlightened and educated about womanism… particularly as we see, you know, as we look around and we see Black women period, in key places. I mean, we’ve got an African American General Minister and President of our denomination. Now I’m not saying she’s womanist, I don’t know. But there are more womanists holding key positions in our world, in various churches and denominations. I see expansion, innovation and creativity when I think of the future womanist.
Sharp: I agree. You know, womanism started in theology. However, in [academia], womanism has spread way past theology and is into all types of fields, and there are people who are identifying womanism in psychology and nursing, in so many other fields. Yeah, because it’s informing thought, I think it’s going to expand. Like she said, I think there’s going to be some expansion in how it comes to play out in people’s everyday life, because it’s not just going to be a quote-unquote, academic term. There are people at The Gathering now who understand themselves to be womanists. But also, I think we’re going to see a shift in the way people think on certain things, as more people start to take their own experiences seriously. I think it’s also a way of empowering people. So I agree with Irie, I think we’ll see some more creativity. You’ll see some more expansion. And with all of that, you’re going to see more people trying to push back because of the way it’s going to impact the work.