The first significant crack came right out of seminary when I was appointed by the bishop to serve a three-point circuit in the Appalachian communities of north central Pennsylvania. The logging industry—once booming in these now impoverished communities—had been completely wiped out by a flood in 1912. At one time the two-mile-long lumber mill was the largest in the world. Without it the area fell into and remained in economic hardship. Though attempts were made to revitalize the area, it never recovered. Even in the mideighties, when Kim and I were living there, there was little work for people. Addiction, violence, and poverty hung over the community like a dark, impenetrable cloud. It was the roughest, rowdiest, and scariest place I had ever been. The people of the area were clannish, rugged, and brutally honest.
In the United Methodist church, clergy are appointed to their ministries by a bishop based on the needs of the local church and the particular gifts and graces of the pastor—at least that is the way it is supposed to work. I learned later that I was appointed to this parish because there was no other place for me to go.
Early on in my appointment I had to make the decision to be a bridge builder rather than a gatekeeper. A dream I had soon after my appointment solidified this for me. In my dream I was sitting on the front steps of the church. Steady streams of people were passing by. Most of them were bent over, disfigured, and dressed in rags—men, women, and children alike. As they passed by, they turned toward me and I noticed each one had the same face—the face of Jesus. I didn’t want to serve in this parish. I had never lived in a place of such poverty. I was required to be there because the bishop said so, but I didn’t want to be there—until this dream. Then I fell in love with them.
The largest of the three churches I served had about forty people attending worship on Sunday morning. My smallest church had eight. With the exception of an elderly Catholic priest who would drive in from a nearby community to lead mass on Sunday mornings, I was the only resident pastor in the entire southern part of the county. Because I served a parish of predominately older people, I had a lot of funerals. After the first six or seven of these, family members—outside of the church—who had attended one of the funerals began to ask me to lead funerals for their loved ones. By my second year I was averaging twenty-seven funerals a year. Most of these were for “unaffiliated” folks. I decided I would serve these families as if they were members of my church. In the six years of my ministry there, worship attendance grew from 40 to 120 people. We averaged twenty to thirty new professions of faith each year. Because we filled every space we could find in the church for small groups and Sunday school classes, our parsonage next door became the church annex. By our sixth year the church was filled with young families and lots of children.
When the bishop decided to visit every congregation in the Central Pennsylvania Conference (which, I believe, involved more than six hundred churches) he stopped at our church, listened to our story, and marveled at the transformation we had experienced. When he asked what was the most significant thing I had done as a pastor to encourage this growth I responded, “Funeral evangelism.” I let the funeral director know that I was willing to conduct funerals for families without a church home. I asked the women of the church—who loved to cook—to provide meals for these families in our modest fellowship hall. I coordinated visits between some of our leaders gifted with care and compassion and the families of the deceased. I watched our small, struggling church grow numerically and financially through death.
Bridge builders find ways to extend God’s love from the church into the community. Gatekeepers find ways to keep the community from coming into the church.
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Adapted from Imagining Church: Seeing Hope in a World of Change by Gary and Kim Shockley, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Imagining Church: Seeing Hope in a World of Change
by Gary and Kim Shockley
Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church–form a mental image of what we believe the church is and ought to be–we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator, and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.”
The Meandering Way: Leading by Following the Spirit
by Gary A. Shockley
The Meandering Way offers a contrarian take on the more popular practices of leadership found throughout the church today. Meandering leaders are attentive to the promptings of the Spirit. They are guides and mentors who patiently journey alongside those they love and lead. Ultimately, being a meandering leader is about being on a journey with God–personally and corporately slowing down the pace of our lives and following God’s Spirit.
The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles
by Timothy C. Geoffrion
Designed for pastors, executives, administrators, managers, coordinators, and all who see themselves as leaders and who want to fulfill their God-given purpose, The Spirit-Led Leader addresses the critical fusion of spiritual life and leadership for those who not only want to see results but also desire to care just as deeply about who they are and how they lead as they do about what they produce and accomplish. Geoffrion creates a new vision for spiritual leadership as partly an art, partly a result of careful planning, and always a working of the grace of God.
Church on the Edge of Somewhere: Ministry, Marginality, and the Future
by George B. Thompson, Jr.
George Thompson asks congregations to explore the meaning of being in the world but not of it—a church on the “edge of somewhere.” Thompson envisions a church that is deeply engaged in ministering to the community while calling on others to commit to doing the same. By analyzing the interaction between a congregation’s focus of identity and its stance with the world, Thompson helps congregations see where they currently stand so that they can discover where they must go in the future to fully live out their call to be God’s people in the world.
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