Gary Charles had as close a seat to the events of September 11, 2001, as anyone would have cared for. Then minister at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, Charles kept a near non-stop vigil for those affected by the events in New York City, over the skies of Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon—a scant six-and-a-half miles from his congregation. 

A decade later, Charles—now senior pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia—was preparing to meet his worship team to plan his current congregation’s tenth anniversary 9/11 service. He came fully prepared. Working with the congregation’s director of music ministries, David VanderMeer, and a lay leader, Ellen Phillips, they crafted “what we thought was a wonderful approach to this anniversary. I expected everyone to say how wonderful it all was.” 

The others on the worship team were not so easily impressed. The associate pastor, junior staff members, three young women clergy in Central’s pastoral residency program—a project funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. that allows recent divinity school graduates to serve for three years under the tutelage of an experienced senior pastor—church administrators, and various other laity attending the meeting were concerned that what had been proposed didn’t “feel like a worship service,” says Charles, “but a special service to which we would invite people in honor of 9/11.”  

Oftentimes, this level of disagreement would lead to conflict. But no conflict arises. Instead, the possibility of a conflict gives way to a fecund environment that deepens their members’ roots in the congregation and strengthens community vitality—a concept too often measured in quantifiable units such as growing membership rolls, increasing donations, and proliferating programs.  

Vitality has a very different face in this downtown Atlanta community. Those familiar with Central sum up it up in one word: “authenticity.” Indeed, in a series of interviews over three days with congregational staff, members, visitors, and those in and around the greater Atlanta community the term was offered by no less than a half dozen people. Whether discussing worship, the sharply focused arts program, the vibrant teenage youth community, the music program, or any of the church’s other offerings, “authentic” was the word people kept returning to when explaining what is happening in the church across from the Georgia State Capitol on Washington Street.  

It is tempting to credit the congregation’s success to well-crafted programs headed by talented people. And there is something to this. Central does have a heavy concentration of professional people, theological educators, and ordained clergy who attend. And the congregation offers a range of well-designed, thought-provoking programs that appeal to them. From the annual summer educational program (whose theme this year is “Searching for Justice in Georgia” and lasts 13 weeks), to its art displays (currently, “Seeing Christ in the Darkness”—a collection of prints by artist Georges Rouault), to an outreach and advocacy program (a ministry to homeless people in Atlanta that in 2010 served 10,000 unique guests), and a seasonal night shelter operated in cooperation with the neighboring Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, few congregations offer the depth and richness of programs Central provides.  

But scratch a bit deeper into the community, and it becomes apparent that the programs are expressions of Central’s vitality, not its source.  

Everything at Central stems from an open and honest transmission of ideas that enables clergy and staff to rise to their potential and members to interact richly and deeply. It has developed intentionally and organically, in response to dedicated leadership and Central’s geographic and cultural realities.  

The Meeting   

  Martin Lehfeldt has been a member of Central since the late 1960s. When he talks about what makes Central Presbyterian vital, he turns, as do many others, to worship first. What Lehfeldt values most is the ease with which the order of worship progresses. “For years,” he says, “worship was a cerebral experience” in which the sermon was the focus of the Sabbath gathering. That began to change when Ted Wardlaw—now president at Austin Seminary—arrived and began to shift worship toward a more-liturgical format. “Ted taught us,” Lehfeldt continues, “that worship can touch the heart as well as the head.” Charles continues, and has expanded upon, this liturgical tradition. “Preaching is still important,” Lehfeldt says, “but there’s so much more to it now. Every part of worship matters. The experience is, simply, authentic.” What it isn’t, he adds, is “production.”  

The ministerial staff takes his opinion as high praise—and with a grain of proverbial salt. While no leader at Central approaches worship the way a producer would a Broadway play, Central’s worship team does plan for worship with the same concern for details and flow that any theater producer does.  

That work begins every Monday at 1:00, and it can run for hours. This is sacred time for the congregation’s staff. Nothing, not even a nosy reporter, interrupts the time together.  

The meetings are large. The ministerial staff, which includes the pastor and associate pastor, the three resident pastors, VanderMeer, education leaders, Michael Morgan (the church organist with a 35 year tenure at Central), church administrators, and often lay leaders in the arts—a total of no less than 10 individuals—plan for and parse every aspect of the service. This is no gathering to rubber-stamp Charles’s ideas.  

When his team protested the direction the September 11 service was taking, Charles opened not by defending his ideas, but by working with the team to “push and prod here and there, [until] we wound up crafting something that is both Sunday morning worship and a special one.”  

“Everyone at that table,” Charles states, “is a worship leader.”  

“I’ve learned,” he continues, “when you’re working with really creative and talented people, let them stay at home if you don’t want to draw on their creativity and talents.”  

Clearly, at Central, there exists a robust environment in which leaders not only feel free to explore, but are regularly pushed to do so.  

There is no better example of this than how Central deploys and challenges its three resident pastors. Steve Bacon, who heads the resident pastor program, says that he aims to deliver more than three years of hands-on-training in congregational life and ministerial practice. He wants each to “develop their own sense of pastoral identity.” And that requires both hearing the hard criticisms, and developing the nerve to speak truth to power when necessary.    

Welcome to Central . . . Here’s a Ministry for You  

  When Sharon Junn, Kate Taber, and Cat Goodrich joined Central’s staff as resident pastors they knew they would spend a lot time in pastoral care. However, they probably didn’t envision the extent to which Central’s leadership would trust them to do this work.  

Consistent with their belief in empowering staff, Charles and Bacon, and associate pastor Caroline Kelly saw in these young pastors an opportunity to breathe life into a key congregational program—Central Neighbors.  

Church members come from across Atlanta—a city that shares more in common geographically with Los Angeles than other Southeastern urban hubs such as Charlotte, Tampa, or Raleigh. The expansive rings of suburbs and ex-urbs from which Central’s members are drawn means it’s difficult, if not impossible, to expect people to attend the campus on days other than Sunday. Worried that the limited time on site, coupled with the distances people live from one another, would hamper developing close relationships between members, the church began playing in the 1990s with a system of “parishes,” geographically defined, that create opportunities for parishioners to interact with one another.  

For years, the program experienced uneven success. Bacon, Charles, and Kelly decided that the parishes were a great place for the three resident pastors to spend much of their time. So each week, they do—coordinating events, visiting people in the hospital, and being available to celebrate and mourn with members in their local communities. And with the addition of an ordained company of deacons and the new pastoral support of parish leaders, Central Neighbors began to thrive.  

“The parish system forces members to interact with us on a deeper level,” says Taber, “because we are the frontline.”  

They are not left to work alone, of course. The entire pastoral staff is copied by email on every issue relating to pastoral care, and each pastor supports the other as needed. And there are additional layers of accountability. “They also report to the parish coordinator and the deacon assigned to the parish,” adds Charles. “And, of course, they are accountable to the people they minister to.”  

Bacon, Charles, and Kelly know that mistakes will be made, that situations will inevitably be mishandled. But far more positive interactions occur. When things do go awry, Bacon, Charles and colleagues use the time to teach and instruct; to aid the resident pastors in learning and in moving on. They then empower them once again to act with authority when the situation requires.  

Bacon argues about the influence of the resident pastors: “The parish system works because of [these resident pastors].”  

Bring Them In    

If the staff is empowered by Charles to trust one another and value each member’s opinion, no less is true of how staff relate to parishioners.  

Building this level of interaction between staff and parishioners is carefully managed at Central and begins from the time people express interest in joining the congregation. Debbie Miller heads new member ministries, and it is her job to set the wheels in motion. But she does not carry this load alone.  

Four times each year, Central holds an Inquiry Class for those interested in becoming members, and four times a year those interested in membership and those who join gather for a dinner celebration at the home of Gary and Jennell Charles. These meetings and dinners include all staff ministers, parish leaders, and select laity.  

The Inquiry Class and subsequent dinner certainly caught the attention of Matt Baum, who joined Central in early 2011. For the recent graduate of Davidson College and struggling actor, a free meal is always appreciated. But more than the food was the nature of the interactions. “I was introduced and shared a little bit about myself,” he begins. “At the dinner, most folks put out feelers and made it known what they do.”  

On the Sunday Matt was subsequently introduced to the community as a whole, the ministry staff talked about his gifts and interests. “Then,” he said, “people seemed to come out of the woodwork to ask me how/if I’d like to be more involved.”  

The expression of interest is authentic, but not coincidental. Between the Inquiry Class/Evening Dinner and Matt’s introduction to the community, staff had already connected with existing members—via email, phone, and face-to-face discussions—who shared Matt’s interests.   

Those with an interest in the more creative aspects of worship, such as Ellen Phillips, wanted him to work with the congregation’s arts program. He has less interest in participating in parish events, as his schedule doesn’t allow time for intense involvement. But the parish coordinator and resident pastor responsible for him check in regularly.  

What stands out when speaking with Matt is how all this attention comes across to him. The outreach, he says, has “more of a witness’ account than a sales pitch. I get the sense that people have a genuine appreciation and love of the things they are involved in, and when they share their experiences in particular areas it resonates with life, rather than sounding like a slavish burden…. [T]hat kind of vibrancy rubs off on people and helps them get involved.”  

Staff efforts to connect and nurture parishioners’ relationships don’t end when the honeymoon period is over. This process of staff empowering parishioners plays out well beyond the initial welcoming into the congregation.  

The innovation spurred by this open and honest communication leads to a continuous generation of ideas that are creating new opportunities for people to get involved. Rarely are these projects born fully-developed. Central is comfortable with seeding ideas and giving them time to grow.  

Consider the origami cranes.  

Each year from September through the second Sunday of Advent, the sanctuary is ornamented by sixty strands of origami cranes suspended from a handcrafted trefoil (see cover). Members volunteer to fold the birds—but can do no more than ten. Each participant receives a package that contains the origami paper and the names of ten members (including guests of Central’s Outreach and Advocacy Center and Night Shelter) which they are to write on the completed birds and seal with a promise to pray for them throughout the year. It’s a huge production and a huge success. It hardly started that way.  

According to VanderMeer, the project began because the congregation wanted to do something to recognize the annual International Day of Peace. “We didn’t have a clear vision in the beginning,” says VanderMeer, “beyond our wanting to do something that involves a lot of people.” Origami birds were a natural symbol to use,  as white peace birds are the internationally recognized symbol for the day. How to use them, however, was the problem.  

Things began to come together, he continues, “when we got the name down—wing and a prayer.” Today, the origami birds are a hallmark of worship at Central, involving up to 150 people. It unites people of all age groups across the community and is a major factor in building a healthy sense of members’ respect for one another.  

That sense of respect came through clearly when Matt was asked if he ever felt out of place because there are relatively few people in the congregation newly minted from college. “No. In fact, it’s an honor to learn from the older members of our congregation.”  

The cranes, and all that they bring to them, give wings to Matt’s observation.  

People to People    

At Central, the staff isn’t only patient with projects, they’re especially patient with people.  

Molly Kent joined the staff several years ago under stressful circumstances. The Director of Christian Education had left suddenly; Kent was asked to step in on a part-time basis. With no background in Christian Education, no seminary training, and limited experience with youth, Kent was an unlikely candidate.  

She had recently left her corporate position with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to find “more fulfilling” work, however, and was willing to give it a try. According to Charles, she was a “natural” with the congregation’s middle and high school students and their parents.  

Not that it was easy. It took “years” to gain the youth’s trust, she said. “I would ask ‘what are you doing this week,’ and for the longest time people wouldn’t answer.” The key to changing that was proving to them that she’s interested and isn’t going to go away or to judge them. “I never give up on a kid. Even if you choose not to participate in youth programs, I still want to have lunch with you.”  

The same patience is shown with the younger children, many of whom are involved with the graded choir program. Beginning with younger elementary school children, they are taught the fundamentals of singing and worship, assuming more responsibility and larger rolls in worship as they age.  

“We are a teaching and nurturing congregation,” says VanderMeer who oversees the choir. “We set goals before people so they have something to reach for.”  

Not just the youth have come to love Kent. Many of Central’s elder members do to, and are quick to point to the ways that youth are regularly involved in worship as liturgists and musicians and the annual worship service for which they carry the total responsibility. “This is the highlight of the year for many of us,” said one member. “Not because the youth are leading, but because of the seriousness with which they take the responsibility, and the creativity they show, moves the community to a higher place.”  

Expressions like this tell Kent if she’s being successful in her work. “I don’t want there to be a ‘that’s what the youth do’ feeling about any of our activities,” she says. “That’s not what we’re about. We are a part of the body of believers at Central.”    

Making Lemonade    

The varied—and oftentimes overlapping—ways staff and members communicate at Central is what makes the community vital. But it can also lead to difficulties. Honest communication always does.  

“Life is not Shangri La here,” says Kent. Parents’ feelings get hurt. Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, people’s feelings get hurt. And sometimes people grow away from Central. But even then, the honest communication makes it easier.  

VanderMeer says that sometimes “difficult conversations” have to occur with people who feel moved to participate in music, but don’t have the gifts to do this. Not that this is ever a quick decision.  

“What most people never see about Dave,” says Charles, “are the hours upon hours he puts in with individuals who want to be in choir but don’t have the natural gifts. And what most people don’t see about Mike Morgan, are the hours he spends with children and youth inspiring them to become the next generation of church organists. In short, Dave and Mike will do everything humanly possible to help them find their place.”  

And if all else fails, says Susan Landrum during lunch with a group of Central members, “there’s always the usher corps.” No one laughs. This is a heartfelt gesture of support to help everyone fit in. No ministry is taken lightly.    

Nothing Easy About It    

“This place,” opined more than a few staffers and parishioners, “is a pain in the butt to get to.”  

It is, in fact. So much so that during my visit I opted to walk the mile from the hotel to the church each day, rather than wrestle with finding a parking spot where, for all practical purposes, there are none.  

For many, this kind of problem would serve as the needed out for not creating a thriving community. But because Central and its leaders and members share so honestly and openly, even the most vexing problems often become opportunities for growth.  

Because the lack of a natural neighborhood means people come from afar, church at Central is a near-all-day affair. Consider the schedule the youth and their families keep each Sunday.  

9:45—Youth handbell or youth group
11:00—worship service
4:50—Youth choir
6:00—Youth meeting

“We expect people to be involved,” says Kent. And because it can’t happen during the week, it “happens on Sunday.”  

Note, too, that there is only one service on Sundays. That, too, is intentional. Multiple services would simply not be practical. But beyond this, they would fracture the natural community that one service creates. Even the children are on-board for the long haul. There’s no children’s church. No contemporary or praise service.  

And for that reason, the staff work hard to push one another to create a service that reaches all.  

Central doesn’t talk about intergenerational theory and how to apply it. They live it, each and every day, with the understanding that “every generation has to make a shift,” says Kent. “There’s no bait-and-switch here,” she continues. “When people come, we tell them, ‘now that you’re here, here’s what we need.’”  

And there to talk it over is a staff and membership that understands and appreciates the beauty and difficulty of what they’re pulling off in Atlanta.  

One conversation at a time.