Sabbatical Update: What's Happening on the Homefront?
Overview: Using Plot to Tell Our Story
The sabbatical proposal was centered around the the theme of narrative plot and story construction. Over the past seven years, DBCC has experienced some monumental changes that have shaped the way we think about and practice ministry. And while we can name individual programs, meaningful events, or philosophical shifts, we haven’t yet been able to identify the narrative thread together as a part of a coherent story—the story of Douglass Blvd. Christian Church.
The virtue of thinking about our recent changes in terms of plot is that it allows us to take seriously the changes we’ve undergone, seeing them as a continuation of our history, not a departure from it. In that way we remain connected to our past because we’ve named it and owned it—which gives us a kind of intuitive sense about where might be headed and what that might look like for us. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to do something different from the past, of course; it only means that in choosing to do something different, we would be able to do it as a conscious decision, instead of as a reaction.
I want to propose a series of changes we’ve made to the way we do things, or to the way we think about things, that ought to be gathered together under the umbrella of a unifying philosophy. We have said many times in the past that the decisions we make should be driven by our values, or by our philosophy, or by our theological convictions. My belief is that the work we do on this sabbatical journey is an aid to articulating just what those values/philosophy/theological convictions are. Indeed, this kind of grappling with what I’ve called “DBCC’s story” is an excellent way to make explicit some ways of thinking and operating so that we may question them, own them, and change when necessary. Until we can, through some kind of consensus, say positively, “This is DBCC’s story,” we don’t have a good mechanism by which to measure a proposal that calls for us to do something (or to stop doing something).
In other words, by looking at we’ve done over the past seven years (what’s worked and what hasn’t, what had energy and what didn’t—and why), I take this as an opportunity to clarify to ourselves as a congregation who we are. That kind of positive identification will better assist us in decision making as we look to the future.
I’ve identified a series of areas at DBCC that have undergone profound change since my time here. I think it would be beneficial for us to think about them separately, focusing on one area at a time. We would invite in a speaker who is doing interesting work in that area, and allow that person to help us expand our thinking about how we might think about what kind of possibilities exist for us as we think about writing the story of our future.
While I am away, we have invited nine speakers from all over the country to come for a weekend, and share with us the work they're currently doing in an area we've identified as important to DBCC's ministry. These speakers will lead workshops for us on Saturday and Sunday, and will preach on Sunday.
On those weekends when we have no outside speaker, our worship services will be led by Candasu Cubbage, Mary Ann Lewis, and Chuck Lewis.
As far as the pastoral care needs of the congregation, we have contracted with Candasu to be the point person. Candasu will work with the elders to provide pastoral care as needs arise.
Areas of Change
1). Organizational Models: We no longer operate on the Functional Church Model of church organization—that is, an efficiency model of church organization popularized during the industrial revolution. The thinking in the early twentieth century was that businesses were enjoying some success by reorganizing themselves with a board of directors, an executive committee, and a host of standing committees. The Functional Church Model worked pretty well during the salad days of Mainline Protestantism’s cultural ascendancy in the middle of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, as churches experienced membership decline beginning in the early 1970s, filling out the organizational flow chart became more and more difficult. [I’ve written extensively about this here and here and here.]
Moreover, with the increase in the number of families where both partners work, finding time to devote to committee work became increasingly difficult. At some point, young people seemed no longer to be stepping up to take over the often difficult work that had been performed by committees. Consequently, congregations began experience a great deal of stress, wondering how the work that had been getting done, would now be done.
At DBCC we’ve experienced these same stressors. Beginning in 2006, the congregation underwent the transition from the old Functional Church Model to a new form of organization, where the work is driven no longer by committees “thinking up stuff to do,” and then having to figure out how to convince someone to do it, but by people who have a desire to see a particular ministry take shape. We still have a few ministries that cover things like worship, property, and personnel, but almost all of the ministry opportunities in the church have developed because someone saw a need, and asked the church for help in figuring out a way to meet it.
• Woodbourne House
• our move to become Open and Affirming
• Louisville Classical Academy
• the Douglass Loop Farmers Market
• Freedom House
• our public stance on marriage
• our ministry to refugees
• our work with the Fairness Campaign and Louisville Youth Group
• five mission trips to Mexico
• our support of the Louisville Gay Men’s Chorus
• Diersen House
• our support of GLAD
• the expansion of our web and social media presence
• the clothing closet
None of these ministry initiatives started in a Leadership meeting, or because of the work of a committee. They all came about as a result of people who saw a need, brought it forward, and then took responsibility for helping to make it happen.
Now our Leadership Coordination Ministry isn’t primarily responsible for thinking up new things to do; it is responsible for seeing that the church meets its obligations and for seeing that potential ministries have the resources they need to thrive. Consequently, we don’t have to worry about expending energy on continuing things for which there is no longer any enthusiasm. We invest in ministry where the energy is.
2). Facilities Stewardship: One of the most visible changes in the life of DBCC over the past few years revolves around the use of our campus. We’ve undergone a philosophical shift in our thinking about the resources over which God has made us responsible. For years there was anxiety about how the church was going to maintain a campus as large as the one we have with a congregation that, for a time, continued to see itself shrinking.
There were several serious discussions about how we should handle such an enormous responsibility, ranging at certain points all the way to whether or not we might be better off selling our building, and finding somewhere more manageable.
A philosophy began to evolve, however: What if we use our building and grounds as tools to be used for ministry, rather than as keepsakes to bequeath to future generations. Of course, we’d still want to care for them as good stewards. Only now, we could feel free to give them away to other groups when we could, and to charge rent for other space where we needed to.
As important as anything about this shift in philosophy is its implications as a theology of stewardship. We’ve tried to move from an “attractional model” of programming—in which we do programming with an eye to attracting people to membership at DBCC—to a purely ministry-driven model of programming—in which we offer space and programming as a gift, because it’s the right thing to do. Of course, we hope people will like us and want to come find out about us, but that’s not why we do what we do. We do what we do because we believe it’s what God is calling us to do.
This theology of stewardship has allowed us to have our facilities used at almost total capacity every day. With Woodbourne House, we’ve helped offer low cost senior housing to eleven people. We give our grounds to the community on Saturdays for the Douglass Loop Farmers Market, allowing a neighborhood gathering place every week for people in our community. We donate space to Highland Community Ministries every weekday for a senior adult day center. On weeknights, we donate space to two AA groups, the Humane Society, HCM Water Color and Ball Room Dancing classes, the Louisville Gay Men’s Chorus, and an LGBT Film Group.
We offset the costs of ministry by renting space to the HCM day care and to the Louisville Classical Academy. In addition, we rent 28 parking spaces every day to businesses in the Douglass Loop, and lease the front parking lot to the bank.
Our mixed-use formula has allowed us to stabilize our revenue over the foreseeable future, while at the same time giving us an opportunity to serve the community … just because.
3). Social Justice: In July, 2008, we voted unanimously to become an Open and Affirming Community of Faith.
One of the questions in the beginning was: “Will this decision make us a one issue congregation? I mean, will we be dismissed as the ‘gay church’ on the corner now?”
In other words, is O&A just code for “gay friendly?”
In a word, it turns out, no. Interestingly, we didn’t anticipate what would ultimately happen, though. The thing we found out after becoming O&A is that being “gay friendly” is merely the first step on an amazingly exciting journey in search of justice for all God’s children.
Since declaring ourselves O&A, our congregation has done some amazing things. We’ve sponsored and hosted a refugee family of five from Burma. We participated in grass roots community organizing that brought restorative justice practices to the Jefferson County Public School System. We’ve organized community forums on the issue of drugs in our community, which has resulted in an ongoing relationship with an inpatient treatment facility that allows mothers and pregnant mothers to remain with their children throughout the program, a program in which we provide weekly spiritual reflection times for the women, as well as organizing and maintaining a clothing closet for the women and their children. We’ve taken six work trips to a children’s home in Mexico for the purpose of completely rewiring a fifty year-old facility. We’ve sponsored and held community forums on the plight of children in the judicial and educational system. We started one of the most successful Farmers Markets in the state as an expression of our commitment to food justice. And on and on …
I know, blah, blah, blah. Sorry. But the point is that becoming O&A didn’t turn us into a one issue church, it sharpened our vision about how we might expand our understanding of justice to all the people who’ve been left holding the bag. In other words, becoming O&A gave us an opportunity to express our commitment to justice even more fully.
Now, someone might respond by saying, “Well, you could have done all those things before. You don’t have to be O&A to seek justice.”
To which I would respond, “No question. In fact, our congregation has had a historic commitment to social justice. What our O&A experience did for us, however, is to place that focus on justice front and center in the life and vision of the congregation. Now, we’re constantly looking to find new ways to express our solidarity with those our society has been only too willing to leave behind. We actively seek out new opportunities to be Christ’s presence to a world in turmoil, a world ruled by those who often think last, if at all, about those on the margins.”
4). Outreach: Over the past seven years we have also revised our relationship to outreach, both our commitment to giving and to whom we give. We’ve gone from giving a sizable amount to (Disciples Mission Fund) to our denomination in Indianapolis, to concentrating our outreach giving more locally.
One of the ways we’ve recently revised our thinking about outreach concerns the Outreach Task Force, which has taken on the job of actively seeking local non-profit organizations with which we can partner—both in fundraising and in raising awareness. This particular shift is beginning to ask that outreach be a more central part of our congregational life—not just as financial donations, but as a way of engaging members in the actual work that these non-profit agencies do. As a consequence, our emphasis on participation in outreach is moving more and more toward a way of life for us, and away from just a way of talking about how life as followers of Jesus ought to be lived.
We believe that this change in our relationship to outreach has the potential to radically alter our way of being the church in our neighborhood, in our city, our state, our nation, and in the world.
5). Internet and Social Media: Our Internet presence, which has grown considerably over the past six years, has become a major area of ministry to people all over the world. A majority of first time visitors when asked how they found us will say they saw our web site. Our sermon podcasts and blog articles are consumed by people all over the world. The realization that our ministry was broadening in this area caused the Leadership Coordination Ministry this year to fund a new position, charged with the responsibility of managing this new frontier for ministry. We’re proud to welcome Geoff Wallace back to help us discover the exciting possibilities of ministry done on a global scale.
Our online presence has caused us to ask just how we can maximize the resources we have, so that we can take seriously the threefold nature of our web presence—1) among our church members for information and edification, 2) among those locally who are looking for some way to engage DBCC, and 3) among those globally who find themselves spiritually fed through our ministry.
6). Youth and Young People: Our educational mission at DBCC has gone from a being comprehensive in its aspirations to more targeted. That is to say, over the past seven years, we’ve realized that we were trying to sustain a program designed to meet the needs of a larger collection of children and youth—realizing that neither did we have the volunteers to staff such a program.
We’ve tried various ways of meeting the needs of our children and youth. One of the takeaways from struggling to get a handle on this is that we still have significant opportunities to provide ministry to youth and young people. We just have to be more creative about how we go about it. We have taken a greater interest as a congregation in trying to provide opportunities for intergenerational engagement (e.g., mission trip, camping, work opportunities).
Speakers Who Will Address These Areas
1 Organizational Models: Jon Berquist (President of the Disciples Seminary Foundation and published author) Jon is an extraordinarily smart man, who is good at framing how cultural shifts can impact organizational structure, and just what that requires of organizations to stay current.
2 Facilities Stewardship: Sandhya Jha (Director of Interfaith Programs at East Bay Housing Organization and Director of the Oakland Peace Center) Sandhya (pronounced Shan-da) was the minister at First Christian Church in Oakland, a struggling inner-city church that turned its building into the Oakland Peace Center. She has a fantastic book on racism coming out this spring from Chalice Press.
3 Social Justice: I’ve divided this into two areas (so two different speakers)—a) Racism and b) LGBTQ. First, April Johnson (Director of Reconciliation Ministries). Second, Audrey Connor, now a chaplain, but has a history as an LGBTQ activist in the Disciples of Christ.
4 Outreach: Brandon Gilvin (Former Assistant Director of Week of Compassion and published author) Brandon is from Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and an innovative thinker about how the church can better live out its call to serve a world in need.
5 Internet and Social Media: Steve Knight (Director of Sales and Marketing for Chalice Press, social media director for the Wild Goose Festival, former social media director for the Billy Graham Crusade) Steve is heavily connected in the world of church and Internet. High energy guy, who knows everybody, and is always doing cool things.
6 Youth and Young People: Julie Richardson (Advancement Associate at Lexington Theological Seminary) Julie is one of the premier voices among Disciples when it comes to youth and young people, having worked in this area at the congregational and regional expressions of the church.
7 Story: Dan Moseley (Former Professor of Christian Ministry at Christian Theological Seminary, former pastor of Vine Street Christian Church and published author): How story works to identify a congregation’s gifts, and to clarify possible ways of moving forward.
8 Demographics: Phil Snider (Minister of Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, MO and published author) Phil is another innovative thinker whose written books on the emerging church and on the issue of the “hyphenateds,” those young people growing up with multiple racial, religious, and age demographic influences.
All of these people are dynamic and engaging speakers and personalities. It almost makes me wish I could stay home to listen to them myself.