Category Archives: Ministers

National Leadership Team welcomes new members, looks to future

 

NLT201908In its August meeting, the EPC’s National Leadership Team (NLT) convened its 2019-2020 year by welcoming five new members, reviewing the EPC’s mission and vision, and looking to possible futures for the denomination. The meeting was held August 20-21 at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and is one of four in-person gatherings each year.

The 39th General Assembly approved an update to the composition and functions of the NLT, and much of the agenda for the meeting reflected the newly defined responsibilities:

  • Seek the mind of Christ for the EPC and to express this in a mission statement that states who God has called the EPC to be.
  • Development of vision and strategies that express what God is calling the EPC to do to carry out the mission statement.
  • Assess the execution of the mission, vision, and strategies on behalf of the General Assembly.
  • Encourage EPC presbyteries and local churches to participate in implementing the mission, vision, and strategies.

“With the Assembly’s action in June, the NLT is now formally charged with leadership and strategic ‘looking out to the horizon’ and how we could be prepared for that—both the opportunities and the potential challenges,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “I am thankful for the members of the committee and how seriously they take the collective responsibility to seek the mind of Christ for the EPC.”

The 39th General Assembly also approved increasing the roster of the NLT to twelve elected members. New to the committee are Gerry Arnold, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Gulf South; Brian Evans, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Midwest; Brett Garretson, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the West; Duke Lineberry, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic; and Dave Strunk, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Southeast.

Other members are Tom Werner (Chairman), Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of Mid-America; Chris Danusiar, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Rivers and Lakes; Nancy Duff, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Pacific Southwest; Phil Fanara, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the East; Michael Gibson, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Great Plains; Rob Liddon, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Central South; Rosemary Lukens, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest; Luder Whitlock, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean; Case Thorp (Moderator of the 39th General Assembly), Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean; Glenn Meyers (Moderator-elect), Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Alleghenies; and Jeremiah, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest.

The next meeting of the NLT is scheduled for November 5-6.

Podcast features Revelation 7:9 Task Force members discussing diversity in the church

 

Four members of the EPC’s Revelation 7:9 Task Force discussed diversity in the local church on the August 9 episode of The E.A.R. (Evangelical and Reformed) Podcast. Their discussion, “The Beauty of the Local Church through Diversity,” closed the E.A.R. Podcast’s second season, entitled “The Beauty of the Local Church.”

Click the play button to listen:

 

The podcast is hosted by Task Force member Brandon Queen, Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Thibodaux, La., in the Presbytery of the Gulf South. Appearing with Queen were Teaching Elders Soon Pak, Tim Russell, and Rufus Smith. Pak serves as Pastor of Discipleship for Ward Church in Northville, Mich.; Russell serves as Assistant Pastor to Middle Adults for Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn.; Smith is Senior Pastor of Hope Church in Cordova, Tenn.

The E.A.R. Podcast is available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, Podbean, RadioPublic, Spotify, and Stitcher.

EPC represented at World Reformed Fellowship 2019 General Assembly

 
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TE Rob Norris, Teaching Pastor for Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md., opens the World Reformed Fellowship’s 2019 General Assembly in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 10.   

Rob Norris, Teaching Pastor for the EPC’s Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md., served as Moderator of the World Reformed Fellowship’s 2019 General Assembly. Todd Smedley, Senior Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, served the event as Recording Clerk. Also in attendance were Assistant Stated Clerk Jerry Iamurri and Case Thorp, Moderator of the EPC’s 39th General Assembly.

The WRF’s quadrennial meeting was held at the headquarters of the Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia in Jakarta, August 8-12.

The general theme for the Assembly was “Storming Seas: Key Challenges Facing the Global Reformed Church Today.” For more information, see www.wrf.global.

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Case Thorp (left), Moderator of the EPC’s 39th General Assembly, and Jerry Iamurri, EPC Assistant Stated Clerk, also attended the WRF’s quadrennial gathering.

Church, Pivot!

 

ThorpPivotArtby Case Thorp
Moderator of the 39th General Assembly

Michael Jordan, I am not. Yet my stocky frame came into its own during middle school basketball. While I wasn’t the one leading in the number of baskets scored, setting the standard in layups, or scoring on average more than four points a season (yes, a season, not a game), my pivot was something to behold. I could take the ball, swing my hips, and redirect the ball in a new direction with my mean pivot. All the skinny boys who weren’t slammed to the floor by my moves—and my hips—were in awe at such skill. I got a nickname from my feats of athletic prowess: The Enforcer.

I find this move, the pivot, an analogy for today’s church.

CaseThorp

Case Thorp

As Presbyterian Christians, we instinctively appreciate our past and recognize the movement that Reformed Christianity was in Europe, the Americas, and beyond. In theory—and from theological conviction—as Reformed Christians we seek to continue the reform begun in Christ’s Church in the glory days of Calvin and others.

Yet the danger of focusing upon our past is that we focus so much on where we’ve been that we can grow lethargic about our future as a church and where the Holy Spirit is leading us.

I see the church as needing to pivot as does a basketball player, who keeps one foot planted while being free to move the other as the situation in front of him or her unfolds. The church today needs to keep one foot firmly grounded in Scripture and our confession, and yet pivot in our methodologies in order to make the pass or attempt the shot. We must push harder on the work of reforming due to the cultural decay around us.

With a smart pivot, our shot toward the goal can result in flourishing Reformed churches for the 21st century that have a robust mission, a clear note of praise for the Father, and sightings of the Kingdom of God that abound.

Over my term serving the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as Moderator, my aim is to advance a conversation. This conversation occurs between us all: church planters, solo pastors, ruling elders, and stated clerks. It is the conversation that seeks honesty and realism about the state of today’s church, and likewise a focus on methodological changes that will lead to the future to which Christ calls us.

Besides traveling to be with many of you, I will be creating a series of blog posts and podcasts focused on issues of pivoting toward a rich and robust future of ministry, spiritual growth, adult conversion, and more. And so I begin this journey by sharing my opening remarks upon investiture as Moderator.

My intent with these remarks made at Cherry Creek in June was to present to the church and her leaders some past challenges to inspire us for present ministry threats, and then illustrate some of those headwinds. For cultural headwinds are nothing compared to the Spirit of God who fills our sails.

Remarks delivered on June 19, 2019, at the 39th General Assembly of the EPC held at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colo.:

In September of 1866, my great-great grandfather—the Reverend Charles Thorp—left Noke, Oxfordshire, England, to serve as a missionary, first in Canada, then in the frontiers of America. The challenges and obstacles during his ministry were great, yet the records indicate he never lost his zeal for the gospel or Christ’s church.

Charles lost the companionship of his beloved older brother, who took off to pursue the Australian gold rush of 1851—never to be heard from again. Charles found his oldest child and namesake, at the age of 3, dead in the home’s cistern, which someone tragically had left open. Years later, and four more children later, Charles lost his first wife to death.

Despite these dreadful setbacks, Charles raised a total of ten children, remarried a parishioner four months after conducting her father’s funeral, built three church buildings and a school on the wooded frontiers of Jacksonport, Wisc.; Tampa, Fla., and Mansfield, La. All this time, records show that his highest salary was $800 a year. He got two days of vacation after Christmas, and two Sundays away from his church for mission work. Described in letters as the “indefatigable missionary,” Charles never let a challenge get in the way of the gospel.

115 years later (and just 38 years ago), Bart Hess and Andy Jumper locked arms with Ed Davis, George Scotchmer, and Jim Van Dyke and launched out on their own journey. They dared to explore a frontier where Christ’s church could be both Reformed and evangelical.

They had to minster and creatively lead the church through the issues of their day:

The 20th century rise of evangelicalism;
The impact of the long awaited civil rights movement on society;
The explosion of the church in the global south;
Progressive theology undermining the authority of Scripture and uniqueness of the gospel; and
Social revolutions in America for women and human sexuality;

Our founding fathers, even some here in this room today, began this experiment in theology, polity, church culture, and missional effectiveness that we inherit.

If you were present 38 years ago at the first General Assembly of the EPC, would you please now stand.

Friends, we have our challenges.

The Greatest Generation increasingly join the great General Assembly in glory. Baby Boomers retire at the rate of 10,000 a day, and corporations are preparing for three out of four top executives and management leaders to be gone in the next five to seven years. Gen-Xers and Millennials find themselves taking the reigns of leadership presented with both missional challenges and evangelistic opportunity. Such as:

Adult conversions have bottomed out for us, and we recognize the paltry discipleship we’ve offered our people the past 50 years;
Post-modernism has redefined the meaning of a man, a woman, a child, even the in-utero child, such that a Christian anthropology seems like a foreign, political threat to our neighbors;
Many churches in America today give us Presbyterians a run for our money reaching the masses while perpetuating the false gospel of prosperity, starry-eyed pastors seeking fame, and worship-tainment dislocated from her historic moorings; and
We are only beginning to taste and see the impact of technology and a connected world on our own politics, economics, interpersonal relations, and ministry.

The challenges are great; the horizon darkens.

And yet, we are here. We are here.

We are here because we know our God is sovereign. Amen? Amen.

We are here because we know the gospel of Jesus Christ works, brings salvation, change, and restoration. Amen? Amen.

We are here because we know that the Bible tells our story, the story of our God, and the story of God’s mission to the world!

We are here because we know the words of our confession to be true: “The primary and highest purpose of human beings is to glorify God and to enjoy Him completely forever.”

We are here because we know our mission as Reformed, Evangelical, Missional, and Presbyterian is the best expression of church as illustrated in Scripture.

Oh, we have challenges, but if we didn’t we’d already be in the New Jerusalem beholding the beatific vision.

As Moderator, I stand with you; here. I pledge to serve you well and with humility. I pledge to face the horizons ahead of us arm in arm because with the Holy Spirit as the wind in your sails, Christ’s church will shine.

Case Thorp is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. He serves as Senior Associate Pastor of Evangelism for First Presbyterian Church in Orlando.

Richard Alberta dies at 71

 
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Richard Alberta, 1947-2019

Richard Jeffrey Alberta, longtime pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Mich., died July 29 following a heart attack. He was 71.

Alberta was Pastor of Cornerstone EPC from 1992 until his retirement in December 2018. He also served as chaplain at the Woodland Village assisted living community in Brighton, where he provided comfort and companionship to its residents.

Under Alberta’s leadership, Cornerstone grew from about 350 members to more than 2,000, and hosted the 23rd (2003) and 29th (2009) EPC General Assemblies. He previously served as Associate Pastor for Ward Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Mich., from 1988 to 1992. He also served churches in Oklahoma, New York, and Massachusetts during his 40-year ministry career.

Born in Passaic, N.J., he was the fourth of five children to Frank Alberta, a Sicilian immigrant and restauranteur, and Betty Tillack. While playing football for Mahwah High School in Mahwah, N.J., he met a spunky cheerleader named Donna Pastor.

Following an honorable discharge from the United States Marine Corps, Alberta studied finance, pre-law, and political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He and Donna, who was also attending Rutgers, married in 1969 and graduated in 1970. Yet he was an avowed atheist, having abandoned Christianity in the 1960s in response to Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

By 1977, he was enjoying a successful career, a happy marriage, and their first son (born that year). In a 2018 interview, Alberta said that at the time, he was struggling with depression and anxiety, but agreed to attend a church service with his niece where he found unexpected comfort in the gospel message.

Both he and Donna accepted Christ in the succeeding months, and he sensed a call to become a minister to strengthen and support the faith of others. They soon moved to Massachusetts, where he received a Master of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1982. He later earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa.

He is survived by his wife, Donna; son Christopher; son and daughter-in-law Jonathan and Kristi; son and daughter-in-law Brian and Stephanie; son and daughter-in-law Tim and Sweta; 11 grandchildren; a sister, Betty Lynn; and three brothers: Frank, Ted, and Jack.

A memorial service will be held on August 2 at Cornerstone EPC in Brighton. At the family’s request, memorial donations can be made to the Livingston County Right to Life or the Pregnancy Help Clinic in Brighton.

Click here for a full memorial notice.

 

Nine churches join EPC, three church plants become local churches in 2018–2019

 

A total of 12 churches joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as local churches in the reporting period of May 31, 2018, through June 1, 2019. Of the nine new congregations, eight transferred from the Presbyterian Church (USA). One was previously an independent Presbyterian church. In addition, four church plants attained local church status.

These newest members of the EPC family of churches are:

Antioch Presbyterian Church (Jacksonville, N.C.)
Pastor currently vacant
www.antiochpresbyterian.weebly.com
Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic

Church of the Redeemer (Maryville, Tenn.)
Dave Strunk, Pastor
www.churchotr.com
Presbytery of the Southeast

Deerfield EPC (Bridgeton, N.J.)
Kenneth Larter, Pastor
www.deerfieldpres.org
Presbytery of the East

First Presbyterian Church (Martinsburg, W.Va.)
Rufus Burton, Pastor
www.fpcmartinsbgwv.org
Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic

First Presbyterian Church of Stanton (Stanton, Ky.)
Lucas Waters, Pastor
www.fpcstanton.com
Presbytery of the Southeast

Grace Brevard EPC (Brevard, N.C.)
Brian Land, Pastor
www.gracebrevardchurch.org
Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic

Grove Presbyterian Church EPC (Dunn, N.C.)
Michael Weaver, Pastor
www.grovechurchofdunn.com
Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic

Langhorne Presbyterian Church (Langhorne, Pa.)
Bill Teague, Pastor
www.langhornepres.org
Presbytery of the East

Nación Santa (Haines City, Fla.)
Luis Quiñones, Pastor
www.nacionsantaflorida.com
Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean

New Albany EPC (New Albany, Ohio)
David Milroy, Pastor
www.newalbanypresbyterian.org
Presbytery of the Alleghenies

Stow Presbyterian Church (Stow, Ohio)
Bob Stanley, Pastor
www.stowpres.church
Presbytery of the Alleghenies

The Table (San Francisco, Calif.)
Troy Wilson, Pastor
www.thetablesf.com
Presbytery of the Pacific Southwest

Woodlands Presbyterian Church (Hot Springs Village, Ark.)
Randy Carstens, Pastor
www.woodlandschurchhsv.org
Presbytery of the Central South

#epc2019ga

Case Thorp elected Moderator of 39th General Assembly

 
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Former EPC General Assembly Moderators lay hands on Case Thorp, newly installed Moderator of the 39th General Assembly, as Thorp’s father, Chuck, (left) offers the prayer.

Case Thorp, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean, was elected Moderator of the EPC’s 39th General Assembly on June 19 at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colo. Thorp serves as Senior Associate Pastor for Evangelism at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

In his opening remarks, Thorp acknowledged that believers—and the Church—will face adversity.

“Oh, we have challenges,” he said. “If we didn’t, we’d already be in the New Jerusalem. But these challenges, friends, are opportunities. So I am honored to serve you, to stand here arm-in-arm with you, and to face the horizons knowing we have the Holy Spirit in our sails and Jesus calling us forward.”

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Thorp receives the the traditional stole and Moderator’s cross from Tom Werner, Moderator of the 38th General Assembly.

In his role in Orlando, Thorp combines his passion for teaching with his interest in the confluence of faith and work. He founded and leads The Collaborative for Cultural and Economic Renewal (a faith, work, economics outreach in Orlando), and also serves as a city network leader for the Made to Flourish Network (a faith and work network for pastors). He also helped found IDignity, a social enterprise that assists the underprivileged obtain essential government identification.

He serves as adjunct faculty for Palm Beach Atlantic University and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, and has preached in Madagascar, Tajikistan, and Brazil. In addition, his writings have been published in the Wall Street Journal, The Green Room Blog and the Orlando Sentinel.

A native of Atlanta, Ga., Thorp is a graduate of Oxford College, Emory University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Fuller Theological Seminary (from which he earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in Missional Ecclesiology).

He and his wife, Jodi, have three children: Alexandra, 13; Charles, 11; and Brooks, 6.

#epc2019ga

Chris Piehl: Ephesians 3:14-19 is a prayer for today’s church

 

GA2019Worship-PiehlIn the Wednesday afternoon worship service of the 39th General Assembly, Chris Piehl noted three components of the Apostle Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus as recorded in Ephesians 3:14-19. Piehl serves as Pastor of Students and Families for Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colo., the host church for the Assembly.

“Paul prays for God’s power for them, for Christ to dwell in their hearts, and for them to experience God’s fullness,” Piehl said.

Regarding the prayer for God’s power for the church, Piehl said that it was not physical strength that Paul was praying for them, but rather it was for their spiritual being.

“They needed the strength of someone who could step into the brokenness and aloneness they were experiencing in their lives,” he said. “My question for you is this: Are you struggling with loneliness? Uncertainty? Doubt? Fatigue? Then this prayer is for you.”

Concerning the prayer for Christ to “dwell in their hearts,” Piehl said the word Paul uses is “that Christ would dwell deeply in their lives—that Christ would be the master of their house with full and complete control of them,” he said. “Do you desire that Christ might dwell deeply in your heart? Do you desire to chase after him with everything you have?”

Finally, Piehl explained the portion of the prayer in which Paul prayer for the Ephesian church to experience God’s fullness.

“Paul is saying that to be full of the fullness of God is to understand this vast, unmeasured, deep, deep love of Jesus,” he said. “That is what Paul is praying for his church. My question for you is: If you are honest, would you say your love has grown cold or maybe callous? Do you long to comprehend the love of Christ for you and those you serve? Do you desire to be filled with this love?”

Piehl also noted that Paul’s prayer is based on the work that Christ has already accomplished. “So Paul can pray this prayer with confidence, knowing that it will be fulfilled because it has already been fulfilled in Christ,” he concluded.

#epc2019ga

39th General Assembly check-in underway

 

GA2019CheckInUnderwayThe check-in disk at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in suburban Denver, Colo., is a busy place as commissioners and guests arrive for the 39th General Assembly. Among those checking in on June 18 are (from right) Lisa and Gary O’Keefe from Fellowship Evangelical Presbyterian Church in South Lyon, Mich., where he serves as a Ruling Elder, and (left) Dean Weaver, Moderator of the 37th General Assembly and current Chairman of the National Leadership Team.

#epc39ga

EPC Chaplain Graham Baily awarded USAF Global Strike Command ‘outstanding officer chaplain’

 

GrahamBailyCapt. Graham Baily, an EPC-ordained chaplain assigned to the U.S. Air Force 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., has received the annual Edwin R. Chess Award as the outstanding Company Grade Officer Chaplain within the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC).

The award is not the first for Baily and his ministry team. Past recognition includes the Charles R. Meier Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of an Air Force Chaplain Assistant, and an Outstanding Religious Support Team award.

“Graham is a tremendous example of a chaplain who goes far above and beyond in his ministry to the Airmen and many others he supports at Whiteman,” said Mark Ingles, EPC Chaplain Endorser. “A few months ago I went to Whiteman to visit Graham and experience his ministry firsthand. He was the project officer for the National Prayer Luncheon, and was hosting the Air Force Chief of Chaplains as their guest speaker. The event received rave reviews from all corners—including the Chief. That is just another example of the impact Graham is having.”

Baily and his religious support team provide and accommodate for the first amendment right of the Airmen and families of Whiteman AFB to freely exercise their faith and receive pastoral care. Baily said that that is their official mission, but he has a second variation in mind as well.

“The way it works itself out in my life and in my work is that we are here to love Airmen,” he said. “Coming alongside them in good times and bad to partner with them in their own perseverance as they strive to become the best versions of themselves.”

After separating from the Air Force as a Senior Airman in 2000, Baily attended college and then graduate school. He then became a pastor. While working on a sermon in 2006, he paused to reflect on some of the difficulties in his own life as a young pastor, husband, and father.

“I just sat and talked with God for a while,” Baily said. “I asked Him, ‘Where is this journey of ministry taking me and my family? Is this the right place for me to continue serving?’”

While reaching into a desk drawer to retrieve a notebook, he found an Air Force coin that had been given to him by a chaplain before he left the Air Force.

“Holding it in my hand, there was just this moment of clarity,” Baily recalled. “When it became very clear to me that this community—the community of people in the United States Air Force—was the community that I wanted to serve in some way.”

He said he did not know what that service would look like at first, but that it eventually began to take shape.

Baily earned a Master of Divinity degree and began to serve as an USAF Reserve chaplain in 2009. He also continued to work as a civilian pastor in local congregations. In 2012, he rejoined the active-duty Air Force to serve Airmen and their families.

Since joining team Whiteman, Baily has made a lasting impact in the areas of leadership, base and community involvement, and in his strides to continually self-improve.

In the last year alone, he piloted a $135,000 renovation to the base ministry center. He also volunteered more than 220 hours within the community as an athletic coach/mentor and academic lead for resilience outreach at Gordon College.

Baily became only the second Air Force Chaplain to be admitted to the Clinical Pastoral Education program, through which he learned to respond as a minister to traumatic emergencies and engage in spiritual triage in a hospital setting. He recalled the first trauma he responded to—a severe burn victim who had survived a house fire.

“I’ll tell you,” he said. “The time spent at the hospital has really transformed the way that I engage with people.”

He described his approach now as trauma-informed ministry.

“When I engage with people now, I am far more mindful of what they’ve been through and what they might be going through,” he said. “I have a better sense of how to help them recover from traumatic events.”

He described how that knowledge applies to his work as a chaplain within the Air Force.

“More people than we realize have experienced some type of traumatic event in their lives and they carry that around with them. Sometimes they experience that before they join the military and bring all of that with them.”

As examples, Baily cited abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, car accidents, and natural disasters. Since completing the CPE program, he has invested more than 200 hours responding to Team Whiteman during various traumatic crises.

“People who have experienced trauma need to feel safe,” he said. “They need to be able to mourn and they need to be able to reconnect in ways that are meaningful. Being mindful of that process toward recovery is important.”

Baily said the Chess Award, while a great honor, pales in comparison to the reward he takes from his work helping the people around him heal.

“There’s no way to briefly sum up what it’s like to journey with an Airman as they become their best selves,” he said. “As I guide them, I am also becoming my best self. I have been refined by the community that I care so deeply for.”

Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean celebrates ‘firsts’ at spring meeting

 
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Juan Rivera, Pastor of Iglesia Presbiteriana Westminster in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, leads the 87th stated meeting of the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean in prayer.

The EPC’s Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean held its first-ever meeting in Puerto Rico May 17-18, 2019. The 87th stated meeting of the presbytery was held at Iglesia Presbiteriana Westminster (Westminster Presbyterian Church) in Bayamón, a suburb of San Juan.

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Carlos Sierra Pou (right) was received by the Presbytery of Florida and Caribbean as the first Candidate Under Care from an EPC congregation in Puerto Rico.

In addition to being the first EPC presbytery meeting held in Puerto Rico, attendees celebrated another first. The presbytery received Carlos Sierra Pou as the first Candidate Under Care from one of the EPC’s three Puerto Rican congregations. A member of Westminster Bayamón and a Master of Divinity student at Seminario Teológico de Puerto Rico, he is pursuing ordination as a Teaching Elder.

“Our three EPC congregations on the island poured out rich and sincere Puerto Rican hospitality,” said Case Thorp, EPC Moderator-Elect. “We toured Westminster’s recently acquired property that will one day be their new home, and had a prayer of dedication. What a great weekend!”

Thorp is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean, and serves as Senior Associate Pastor for First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fla.

Attendees also heard reports from Presbytery Stated Clerk Bob Garment, Ministerial Chair Rick Gerhardt, Treasurer Don Mason, and Church Development Chair Greg Gunn. EPC Assistant Stated Clerk Jerry Iamurri presented a report on church planting efforts in the presbytery.

In addition, Marc de Jeu, a member of the EPC’s Revelation 7:9 Task Force, provided an update on the group’s work. The Task Force will make a full report on the first year of their work at the 39th General Assembly, June 18-21 at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in suburban Denver, Colo.

GA worship speakers include Andrew Brunson, Léonce Crump, Brad Strait

 

GA2019ThemeArt-WebBannerThe EPC’s 39th General Assembly features a dynamic slate of worship service speakers. This year’s Assembly will be held June 18-21 at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in suburban Denver, Colo.

  • Chris Piehl, Cherry Creek Pastor of Students and Families, will speak prior to the opening business session at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 19.
  • Léonce Crump Jr., Senior Pastor of Renovation Church in Atlanta, Ga., will preach on Wednesday evening, June 19.
  • Brad Strait, Cherry Creek Senior Pastor, will deliver the message at the Morning Worship Service at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 20.
  • Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey from October 2016 until his release in October 2018, will preach in the Global Worker Commissioning Service on Thursday evening, June 20.
  • Tom Werner, Moderator of the 38th General Assembly, will lead the Moderator’s Service of Communion and Prayer at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, June 21.

“Every year, people who attend GA thank me for making sure that vibrant preaching and worship are so well integrated into our Assembly,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “Pastors especially—even though they regularly and deeply study God’s Word—tell me how much they are refreshed and refueled through the GA worship services. I am excited about how God will speak to all of us through this year’s speakers.”

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Brad Strait

Brad Strait is the Senior Pastor of this year’s General Assembly host church. He has served as Chaplain for the Colorado House of Representatives, several fire and police departments, and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Denver Rescue Mission. He holds several advanced degrees and teaches Leadership, Spiritual Formation, and Pastoral Counseling at Denver Seminary. He co-authored the EPC’s Leadership Training Guide: A Resource for Pastors, Elders, and Churches. He and his wife, Cathy, have been married for more than 35 years and have three adult daughters.

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Chris Piehl

Chris Piehl serves as Pastor of Students and Families for Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church.

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Léonce Crump Jr.

Léonce Crump Jr. is an author, international speaker, and the founder and Senior Pastor of Renovation Church in Atlanta, Ga. He has been in ordained ministry for nine years and holds graduate degrees from the University of Tennessee and Resurgence Theological Training Center. He is currently a Master of Divinity student at Reformed Theological Seminary and a member of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network. He was an All-American wrestler and defensive end for the University of Oklahoma Sooners, and went on to play professional football for the New Orleans Saints. He and his wife, Breanna, have two daughters and one son.

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Andrew Brunson

Andrew Brunson and his wife, Norine, were appointed as missionaries to Turkey by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) in 1993. He transferred his ordination to the EPC’s Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic in 2010.

The Brunsons, who were applying for Turkish permanent residency, were detained on October 7, 2016, in the coastal city of Izmir (biblical Smyrna). Norine was released on October 19 but Andrew remained imprisoned. At the time of his arrest, he was serving as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church.

On December 8, 2016, (after being detained for 63 days), Andrew was formally charged with “membership in an armed terrorist organization” and sent to prison. On August 24, 2017, a Turkish court added three new charges, including gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government, and trying to change the constitutional order. On March 21, 2018, the Turkish court accepted a 62-page indictment against Andrew and scheduled his first hearing for April 16, 2018.

Following each of the first three hearings in his trial (on April 16, May 7, and July 18, 2018), Andrew was returned to prison. Under consistent public and private pressure from the United States and others, the Turkish court released Andrew to house arrest on July 25, 2018, until the fourth hearing on October 12, 2018.

Following testimony in the fourth phase of his trial on October 12, 2018, the prosecution requested and received lifting of Andrew’s house arrest and travel ban. The judge issued a conviction, and imposed a sentence of 3 years, 1 month, and 15 days but released Andrew on the equivalent of time served. Andrew and Norine left Turkey later the same day.

On October 13, 2018, Andrew and Norine arrived in the United States. They and their family met with the President, Administration staff, lawmakers, and others in the Oval Office.

The Brunsons are currently serving in a recuperating capacity as Missionaries-in-Residence for their home church, Christ Community Church in Montreat, N.C.

TomWerner

Tom Werner

Tom Werner is a Ruling Elder for Greentree Community Church in Kirkwood, Mo. A graduate of Depauw University, St. Louis University Law School, and Washington University Law School, he worked in law firms in St. Louis, followed by serving a St. Louis technology company as General Counsel and in various business capacities.

Werner served on the EPC Theology Committee and contributed to the EPC Leadership Training Guide. He has also served on the Ministerial Committee and as Moderator for the Presbytery of Mid-America, and has participated in mission projects to Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Honduras, and Albania. He and his wife, Susan, have been married for more than 40 years and have two adult children and three grandchildren.

Click here for more information about the 39th General Assembly, including daily schedules, links to online registration, and more.

Revelation 7:9 Task Force evaluate “listening tour” input

 

Revelation79TaskForce201904At its second in-person meeting of 2019, the EPC’s Revelation 7:9 Task Force evaluated input and feedback received during its “listening tour” over the past seven months. Input came from a variety of sources, including an online survey of EPC pastors and individuals and organizations outside the EPC.

The group is tasked with studying how the EPC can better become a denomination that fulfills the great commandment and the great commission, and faithfully embraces and serves its neighbors from every nation, tribe, people, and language. (Revelation 7:9). The group met at the Office of the General Assembly in Orlando, April 23-24.

The Task Force is co-chaired by TE Dean Weaver, Chair of the National Leadership Team, and TE Rufus Smith, Senior Pastor of Hope Church in Cordova, Tenn. Members are TE Tom Clymer, Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic; TE Marc de Jeu, Presbytery of the Alleghenies; TE David Dwight, Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic; RE Enid Flores, Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean; Phyllis Le Peau, Presbytery of the Rivers and Lakes; TE Soon Pak, Presbytery of the Midwest; Beth Paz, Presbytery of the Pacific Southwest; Brandon Queen, Presbytery of the Gulf South; TE Tim Russell, Presbytery of the Central South; RE Tom Werner, Presbytery of Mid-America; and Ted Winters, Presbytery of Mid-America.

Hope Church: Building a Multiethnic Church in Memphis

 

Reprinted courtesy of Outreach magazine. ©2019 Outreach Inc.

HopeChurch

From left, Rufus Smith (Senior Pastor), Eli Morris (Senior Associate Pastor), Craig Strickland (Founding Pastor). 

The prevailing wisdom is simple: If you want to grow a church, your watchword is “same.”

Choose a demographic. Age, skin color, wealth, recreational interest, education, or preferred coffee brewing method—like cleaves to like. In the last part of the 20th century, this observation was given a seminary worthy name (“the homogenous unit principle”) and taught nearly as gospel in pastoral classes. It’s hard to think of any concept (besides the parking lot) that did more for church growth between the 1980s and now.

By many metrics, this sameness is understandable. It is pragmatic, efficient, predictable, and, in many ways, sustainable. But how are we to understand church models of homogeneity in light of the still-haunting lament of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that Sunday at 11:00 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America? Put more directly, what does one do if one believes the gospel of reconciliation runs counter to “same”?

Memphis, Tenn., is no stranger to racial tensions. The very city, remember, is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Memphis is still fraught with divisions. They may rarely boil over. But they simmer.

So consider this: The largest white Presbyterian church in the country, Hope Church, has transitioned over the past eight years from an overwhelmingly white congregation to one that is thoroughly multiethnic—and continuing to diversify in genuine, long-term, and heartfelt ways. The catalyst in this change? A remarkable succession from founding pastor Craig Strickland, who is white, to Rufus Smith, an African-American, brought on as senior pastor in 2010. While the years since Smith’s hiring haven’t necessarily been easy, Hope’s transition has been one of remarkable beauty and success, into a multiethnic congregation that Hope calls a “mosaic,” reminiscent of art made from many small and colorful individual pieces.

Outreach Magazine editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor spoke with three of Hope’s key staff for this unique story: Smith, Senior Pastor; Strickland, Founding Pastor; and Eli Morris, Senior Associate Pastor. Believing that their only hope to live the gospel in a changing neighborhood was to change with it, Hope’s story is one of honesty, collaboration, patience, and vision.

Craig, let’s start with you. Tell us the story of Hope’s founding and early years.

Craig: I had been on staff at another church here in Memphis for about 10 years, and began to feel the call of God to start a new church specifically for the unchurched. Here in the South, I’d noticed a trend: Christians bounced between churches frequently, but it seemed the unchurched simply weren’t being reached. Few new fish were being added to the bowl. Our best efforts of outreach weren’t working. So with my home church’s financial and spiritual support, my wife and I struck out to plant a new church along with two other couples.

That was in 1988. Back then, the hot new thing was to use a telemarketing campaign and mass mailings to get the word out about a church plant. So we did it, sending thousands of pieces of mail, ending in an invite to our launch. We targeted only those responders who weren’t already members of a local church.

All that to say we started Hope distinctly for people who had given up on church, but not on God, and that’s helpful to remember as we begin the story.

The plant was successful, and grew. I was friends with Eli, who was working on the urban staff of Young Life at the time, and he soon joined our staff, bringing his skill and passion for urban ministry to our suburban context. As the years began to pass, we went through most of the markers of a thriving young church: outgrowing our rented spaces, eventually finding our own building, which allowed for a whole new season of growth.

Eli, what about Hope’s early vision caught your eye?

Eli: Well, my passion for urban ministry and Young Life meant I was already passionate about many kids who were holding the faith at arm’s length—young people who didn’t know about or think much of church.

I’d grown up in pretty conservative Bible church circles, and had never really seen a church that reached out to unchurched people. But at Hope, I saw much of what I was doing in a secular context of a high school with Young Life playing out in a local church.

From the beginning, it was clear that we needed to connect Hope with the city, though. And one of the reasons that we’ve been successful with this move to mosaic multiethnic ministry is that our church DNA was bigger than the confines of just “our neighborhood” or “our church.” For all our limitations in terms of demographics in those early days, there was a connection to something bigger. If you have those values from the beginning, you’ll have a much easier transition. That doesn’t mean that you’re stuck if you don’t—but that openness helped our process to multiethnic ministry.

Pastor Rufus, where were you in 1988 as Hope was being founded?

Rufus: Houston, Texas. I was in the last couple years of working in the business world, and beginning to move toward full time pastoral ministry. I took my first senior pastor role in 1990. It ended in disaster a year and a half later—I think from my youthful arrogance. I left pastoral ministry after that to return to business.

But every step along the way would prove to be important in my ministry. In 1996, I got into nonprofit sector ministry, then in 1998 took a church in Houston called City of Refuge. It was an Evangelical Presbyterian church that wanted to look like their neighborhood, a group of people who had originally formed out of a rather conservative congregation, with an eye to be a church that reached people on the margins. They also wanted to become multiethnic but didn’t know how to do that.

By the time I met them in 1998, the church was on life support—about 40 people, 39 of them white. “We don’t know what we’re doing,” they said, “but we have a heart for more. Before we give up, would you consider being our pastor?”

Now something was going on in me between ’92 and ’98. The painful separation from my first congregation—a middle-class, African-American Baptist church—had been used by the Lord to move my heart toward mosaic ministry and thinking about the beauty and possibilities of church as a multiethnic community. I had been primed to want this, partly through some pain.

Ironically, the church I’d had that painful separation from extended me a call to return as pastor at the same time City of Refuge invited me. But by that point, even though the other church was much larger, I knew that the multiethnic ministry I had begun to feel called to would be better if I started with a smaller group. I also felt that it would be easier for a majority Caucasian church to transition to a mosaic than for a majority African-American church. (Based on my study at the time, I knew that the most difficult churches to integrate were African-American or Korean congregations.) City of Refuge it was.

During that time, what were some of your influences or learning experiences?

Rufus: Well, God had been leading me since I was young toward understanding the dynamics of integrated racial settings. Starting in the fifth grade, I was bussed for three years to a nearly all-white school as a sort of test case for our school district, which was my first exposure to an all-white environment. In sixth grade I was elected as student body president, and the whole experience taught me a lot about white culture and about racial relationships. From eighth grade on, I was back in an all-black school in a poorer district of Houston, so I had both of those experiences to help shape me. I had a new frame of reference.

As I moved into business, many formative experiences there shaped my thinking too. I simply had to become comfortable walking across demographic divides.

In addition, my pastor and mentor would frequently preach cross-culturally. One week he sent me to a preaching opportunity that slowly led to many other invitations to speak in both African-American and Caucasian churches. All these dynamics contributed.

Let’s talk about Memphis. What’s the specific context that Hope was planted in?

Craig: Eli and I both grew up in Memphis and know the city well. Racism in Memphis never went away, it just went underground. Every now and then it pops its ugly head up. Invariably politicians or the sheriff are blamed when it does, or an industry or a similar institution. And all of them have responsibilities of course. But racial reconciliation, I believe, is the responsibility of the local church. I have preached that here for 40 years.

There are great divides in Memphis, and always have been. Some shifts are happening, but in general the city breaks down into neighborhoods based on race and income. The “haves” are stereotypically white and suburban. The “have-nots” are stereotypically African-American and urban. So from the beginning, Eli’s work in the city helped connect our white, suburban church to people and needs different than what we encountered on a daily basis out in the community we had planted Hope in.

Eli: Church leaders have a remarkable opportunity to impact culture, don’t they? You can encourage a culture of service, compassion, and acceptance, or a culture of rigidity and all sorts of things that are negative. Involving people throughout the city for years helped lay the groundwork for what God had in mind for our church to become.

It sounds like even though Hope was essentially all white at that point, you were cultivating an open church.

Eli: Yes. But the problem was that we were operating under a church-growth model that was a philosophy of being homogeneous. Birds of a feather, right? The strategy was really clear: Find a neighborhood that is booming (which probably means “all white”) and get in there and grow. There was never a serious discussion of being multiracial in that traditional church-growth model.

Craig: Yes, that tug to be diverse complicated things for us. It’s so much easier not to seek community with people who are different than you are. Part of the complication was that we had this incredible urban ministry with hundreds of volunteers. We were known for it in the city. Still are. But that did not translate into any of those people we were serving coming to our church. Largely, that was because of access—they were in other parts of town. If you’re from urban Memphis, getting out of the city center to go to a thriving, white, rich suburb doesn’t feel accessible.

So what changed?

Craig: The neighborhood. [Laughs] Over the years, the demographics around us changed. It had been virtually all-white when we planted Hope. But within 10 years that wasn’t as true anymore, and after 15? We recognized that we no longer were reflecting our physical neighborhood on a Sunday morning.

Eli: Today, our neighborhood is about one-third African-American.

Craig: So Eli and I had to do some real soul-searching. We had said that we were a church for our community. But what were we really doing to accomplish that? MLK’s famous quote still rang true: Our Sunday morning at 11:00 was part of the most segregated hour in America.

We began to slowly make intentional steps toward a more diverse staff and leadership. We brought on a youth pastor, worship staff, and eventually deacons and elders who were African-American. We began to find ways to integrate the church to better reflect our neighborhood. For us, those decisions felt very slow to implement but very strategic. We had to remind ourselves that this was not going to be an easy overnight change. It was too important for that.

In the middle of that, our staff committee came to the realization that our church, like many large churches, was very vulnerable to something happening to me as pastor. If I went down for any reason—health, moral failing, or what have you—the church likely would not survive. We realized that we needed to act early to plan for me to retire one day and to build resilience in now for our congregation. They came to me and asked me to put together a succession plan.

After about six months of reading, studying, and praying, I had one. My plan was to bring someone on gradually to replace me, allowing me to ease them in, and then for me to remain as a member of the church once they were the senior pastor. I would be out of his hair, with no formal responsibilities, but if there’s a crisis or he needs me, I could help. They thought that this was a brilliant idea. But the clincher was yet to come.

“One other thing,” I said. “He needs to be African-American.”

Now this is Memphis, Tennessee. This is where Dr. King was assassinated. Man, their eyes got big.

“Just pray about it,” I said. And they did.

A couple months later we revisited it, and to the person, they decided it was the right direction for the church. Then we took it to our session, which also unanimously agreed, and so we began to search for the right fit.

Rufus, when the invitation from Hope came, you weren’t eager to leave City of Refuge, were you?

Rufus: Not at all! It was unimaginable. I had been there just shy of 12 years, and the church was doing very well. We were growing, having created a strong culture. We had ups and downs like any congregation, but those 40 people bought into the vision of being a community that looked like our neighborhood in Houston. We were meeting in a homeless shelter, which lent itself to ministry on the margins, and then bought a piece of property in a slightly more affluent neighborhood. Over time, the church grew to about 400, and we were very active in the community, including through a Christian school for low-income kids and a community development center.

So connect the dots between City of Refuge and Hope.

Rufus: Craig, Eli, and I had a relationship since 1998, when I was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor. About 2003, I asked Craig to come down and visit in a consulting role with our staff and leaders. I considered him to be an excellent exegete of a community. His insights on our building and development plans were important.

But when Craig first called with the invitation, things were going well. I was not interested in leaving. The church was growing in size, diversity, and impact. I was just seeing the fruit of hard work—I didn’t want to have to start over again! There was no way I was going to say yes.

… Until you did.

Rufus: [Laughs] Exactly. Craig was persistent. He called back and stayed in touch, at one point asking, “Rufus, why is it that we only consider the call of God when we’re either failing or burnt out? Why can’t we consider the call of God when things are going well?” That convicted me.

I didn’t even tell my wife about the invitation until a few months after Craig’s first call—I wasn’t going anywhere, right? But finally I did, and she reminded me that this was my second invitation to a church in Memphis. I’d completely forgotten, but another church had reached out a few years earlier, also with an invitation that had multiethnic ministry as its heartbeat. “Maybe we ought to pray about it,” she said. And so we did.

I was impressed during conversations with Craig and Eli, with the fact that they stayed in the conversation with me. Since I didn’t plan on seriously considering the opportunity, I asked the hard heart questions with complete freedom—didn’t try to soften or talk around anything. My goal at that point was to try to help them think of everything that could go wrong with that kind of transition in leadership, and of all the possibilities. One of those questions threw the whole conversation into sharp relief.

“Why would you, the largest Presbyterian church in the country, want to take this risk?” I asked. And Eli replied, hardly skipping a beat, “It would be a worse risk if we didn’t do this.”

Making a long story short, the rest was history. By September 2010, I was here in Memphis.

Eli, what specifically was that “worse risk” you referred to?

Eli: Well, besides the gospel heartbeat at the core of mosaic ministry, the truth was that the neighborhood was changing. Our church would survive for a while out of its current health, but it could not survive long-term as the demographics changed in the neighborhood. So anything less than a strategic transition was just stalling an eventual decision to either move or close the church. You can see churches all through the United States destroyed by demographic changes that could be bringing them new life. I’m 63—so I wouldn’t have to live through the church’s demise. But my kids would. My grandkids would. The smart thing, we saw, was to make the transition now. There would never be a better time. We’d be idiots not to do this.

Fast-forward to now—give us a snapshot of where Hope is today.

Rufus: We’re a congregation that is about 70 percent Caucasian and about 26 percent African-American, and about 4 percent other. We are a church that has started to move from acculturation to assimilation. We use the 20 percent model that sociologists point to as a tipping point for a group: Get past 20 percent and you won’t just have African-Americans coming to Hope and acculturating to the existing culture, but you have real assimilation, which is much more reciprocal. They aren’t just adapting to the culture—they are changing it.

You’ll feel that during the musical worship—sometimes you will even feel tension in the room as we sing, because there is nearly always someone in the room who is encountering something culturally unfamiliar in a given song. If you visit, you’ll feel that we’re a congregation finding a third way. We’re struggling to be a third way—not white, not black, but something bigger than both. That’s a tension. It’s also a joy.

We think of this as a three-step process. Congregations moving toward integration go through three stages: toleration → appreciation → celebration.

We are at the stage of genuine appreciation. But we’re not at that third one of celebration yet. It takes time. But we have definitely moved from toleration to appreciation in our church.

Eli: Rufus is right in saying that about 26 percent of our worship gathering is African-American. But if you go to our new members classes to see what our future is going to look like, they are at least 50 percent African-American. The numbers are moving more rapidly than I ever thought they would.

And that is a remarkable victory. This transition, in terms of the work and care involved, is about as difficult as church planting—more so, in some ways. It is one complicated thing. You need more than token faces on stage. You need leaders at every level of the staff and team.

It requires so much awareness and intentionality. You must be open-minded. You must set aside a lot of preferences that you didn’t know you had.

That difficulty undoubtedly holds many congregations back. Craig, what did it take behind the scenes to ensure that Rufus would be welcomed?

Craig: In my experience, the single biggest factor that indicates any succession is the outgoing pastor’s ability to set their ego aside. We made this transition slowly—it took over two-and-a-half years. Our goal was to eventually have shifted every single thing to Rufus so that when we finally made the announcement that I was stepping back and he was stepping in, we could enthusiastically reply, “Nothing!” when people asked, “What’s going to change?” The change, in terms of leadership, had been incremental and was essentially completed by the time awareness about it was really surfacing.

So we phased everything to Rufus—slowly. Meetings held in my office gradually shifted to his. One by one, I quietly stepped down from leading various committees and he stepped up.

One moment that stands out as a tipping point was when we were trying to figure out the logistics of our office, having brought on a new staff member, and the layout just wasn’t working. A group of us spent about three hours brainstorming, until it finally dawned on me. “I need to move out of my office and give it to Rufus,” I said. We all knew that we weren’t just talking about a building at that point. Rufus looked at me, and said, “Craig, do you think that you can make that move OK?” “I think I can,” I replied. “But we’ll just have to see.” So we found a great little space for me, and I moved out. That symbolized to all the staff that I wasn’t in charge anymore.

That thought—I think I can do this, but we’ll have to see—came to me probably 20 times throughout the transition. I think I can preach less. I think I can go to fewer key meetings. I think I can yield to Rufus’ authority when we have a disagreement.

For senior pastors, that will always be the most important factor for success or failure in a succession. It took incredible trust on Rufus’ part, and it took incredible trust on my part. We only have had a few times where we seriously disagreed on an important issue. Most of those times, I swallowed hard, and said, “OK. This is your decision. I’ll live with it. I won’t be a baby about it. I’ll accept it like any staff member should.” There was only one exception to that, one hill that I was not willing to let go. In that case, Rufus let it go, proving that this was a two-way street.

That mutual humility and care has been what has allowed this to get a strong start. The spirit of compromise is essential for this to ever work. I continue to preach a couple times a year, at Rufus’ request. I’m still available should he need me. But we have entered a new season.

Rufus, anything to add to that?

Rufus: It helped that we knew each other and had very frank conversations before I got here. It also helped to get a range of perspectives. We did study, talked to people who went through similar transitions, and paid special attention to dissect models that had failed to not repeat the mistakes of others.

I especially appreciated Craig’s humility in giving me key decisions—such as staff hiring—from Day 1, knowing that they would affect me, and for his openness to my leadership style, which was much more collaborative. (As a church planter you need more directive leadership, but my style is very collaborative.)

Let’s talk about the tensions present as a church searches for the “third way” you mentioned earlier. Rufus, what does it demand of a pastor to lead a church toward mosaic ministry?

Rufus: Well, many of the lessons that I learned through previous ministry paid off after coming to Hope. God had been gracious in letting me learn through some mistakes.

What kind of mistakes?

Rufus: The first mistake that I’d made was not having patience with people. The biblical principle of being a mosaic congregation like the first church in antiquity is a gospel imperative. But that doesn’t mean that people will automatically accept it.

In my previous church leadership, I see now that I did not give people time to digest the principles that we needed to live out. You can’t assume that a church, even if they’re open to becoming a mosaic congregation, is going to automatically accept anything. It takes a lot of time and a lot of incremental changes. In Houston, I pushed the envelope too quickly.

I also learned the importance of giving people a voice even if they don’t have ultimate choice. It’s hard to get people to buy into a change if they don’t feel heard. One example of this in Houston had been in our children’s classes. There was a sharp divide between kids with strong biblical knowledge and those without. It just happened that the breakdown there was between more privileged, largely white families (who’d attended church and often private Christian schools) and the newer African-American families who’d begun attending. Understandably, those with more biblical knowledge felt that Sunday school was being “dumbed down,” and there was frustration. I made certain decisions to keep the teaching friendly to those hearing the stories for the first time. What I should have done sooner was simply get everyone in the room and talk about it. Even if we’d ended in the same ultimate strategy, there would have been greater consensus and a sense of unity. That’s just respecting people.

How did you teach to encourage this third way?

Rufus: I learned in Houston to keep the biblical example of Jews and Gentiles foremost in people’s minds. Ethnic divisions in the church are not a new problem. The Holy Spirit has tackled this issue before, right? And he won. Frustration forced me to seek out that biblical blueprint. The Jewish Christians, who were exclusive, “chosen,” arrogant and stuck in their thinking were used to reach out to a Gentile world quite different than they were. How in the world did they make that work?

I decided to teach Scripture on this point, without making any explicit reference to the brown/white racial tensions of our day. I was just teaching on the Jews and Gentiles, right? We saw the spirit of reconciliation at work in them, without ever overtly connecting it to our setting. That gave people the necessary distance to ease into thinking about how they were being exclusive without directly threatening their social context.

I remember going to a large Barna convention in Houston in 1998. At the end, I went up to George Barna with a question. “Dr. Barna,” I said, “I am leading a church that wants to become multiethnic. Can you give me information on models?”

I’ll never forget his reply: “Young man, when you find out what works, you let me know. It’s not even a blip on our radar.” That was just over 20 years ago.

I simply didn’t have a blueprint. I’m sure there was one somewhere, but I didn’t know where to look. Eventually I discovered The Brooklyn Tabernacle and went in 1999 to spend four days with that church behind the scenes. But that was the first model of a church like that that I’d seen in practice, and even then there were many gaps that I had to fill in for our context.

But it’s the biblical example presented carefully that breaks down walls. When people really hear what Paul taught—that there is neither Jew nor Greek (race), bond nor free (class), male or female (gender)—when they really see that and how the Spirit of God led the church in the Bible 2,000 years ago—it’s different than them feeling accused. They begin to see the joy and hope of it.

What other principles about the transition can you share?

Rufus: Well, let me just be totally transparent about everything that feels relevant here.

It took about two-and-a-half years to complete the succession plan, and about six-and-a-half to go from 1 percent African-American to that tipping point of 20 percent. We did suffer a total membership loss of about 700 people, and a financial loss of about a $1 million. We have not made it a habit over the last eight years to discuss race except during one short sermon series per year. We believe that more is caught than taught. It’s also important to state that we do not deify or idolize multiethnicity.

Go deeper here. Talk to us about the reconciliation aspect of this kind of ministry.

Rufus: Language is important for us here. We think the biblical approach starts with spiritual reconciliation rather than racial reconciliation. The term “racial reconciliation” is great, but it draws our attention to the surface issue of skin whereas the term “spiritual reconciliation” calls us to focus on the deeper issue of sin, which lies at the roots of our racial history and pain. Go to the root—spiritual reconciliation (harmony between God and humankind) must address racial inequity, but racial reconciliation (harmony between human being and human being) does not usually address spiritual reconciliation.

Racial reconciliation is often driven by law and guilt. Spiritual reconciliation, while encompassing all that racial reconciliation does, is motivated by love and sincerity of heart. Racial reconciliation looks to the greater good and what is seen, which is wonderful, but spiritual reconciliation looks to the Kingdom and the unseen soul. Racial reconciliation is empowered by the human will, which will weary over time, but spiritual reconciliation is emboldened by the Holy Spirit, whose power never wanes. Racial reconciliation is important, but spiritual reconciliation is indispensable if a divided people want to go beyond mere coexistence to enriched living. Government policies have gone as far as they can go; only when spiritual reconciliation is practiced can we perfect our churches, cities, or our country’s union.

Let’s return to your earlier triad: toleration → appreciation → celebration. You say that Hope is at the “appreciation” phase. What did it take to get from toleration to appreciation?

Rufus: Well, besides simple visibility—diverse faces sharing the stage and social media, that kind of thing—there are three principles that we’ve learned that have gotten us to appreciation: conviction, conversation, and community.

First, it takes a conviction that mosaic ministry is a gospel imperative. It’s not extra. It’s related to the core of the faith.

The second principle is conversation. Fellowship is how you move forward. You get people together to converse, centered on the Word of God.

Finally, community. Get people together. Create spaces for civil, candid, Christ-centered conversations. Make it about the Bible, not just cultural or political views.

We do this through a program called Ethnos, which is our multigenerational, multiethnic small group ministry. We get people together—six people to a table, 24 people in a room. They spend 10 weeks together, eating meals together and studying the Bible. Then the group does three “spiritual adventures” together, which takes them outside. Friendships grow there, and we conclude the time by having people invite people they know to take part in the next cohort. We now have about 400 graduates of this, and the impact has been incredible. Those people have become the grassroots culture of diverse friendships.

What will it take to get to celebration?

Rufus: A growing culture of diverse relationships. We want our congregation to all be able to name at least two real friends who are different from them, generationally or racially. As well, we look forward to the day when our music is a real symbol of who we are—when no one is complaining about their preferences, but our mixed mosaic congregation can worship freely together in all sorts of styles. We’re getting closer and closer to that. But it’s not complete celebration yet.

We’re just now getting to the place where we don’t need quotas any more. In the past, we have had to count key volunteers—“How many elders or deacons are white? How many are brown?” We don’t like that and are glad to be past that stage.

One interesting dynamic is that moving to be more multiethnic has side benefits—for example, we are more multigenerational now. We are addressing that formally in our mission statement to reach our unchurched neighbors of every age or ethnicity. Mosaic encourages the mosaic.

Younger people are the ones who must get this. They are realizing that they are not part of the post-racial society that they thought they were, and they understand that every generation must work hard for unity. But they want to sustain it. All of this plays into the celebration of the differences that God’s made us with.

We learned a long time ago that this is the Lord’s church. He gave us the example of what a worshiping community is supposed to be. We just have to be faithful to that vision and the hard work of preserving it in a culture that works to separate us according to human divisions of age, gender, race, and class. The true gospel of Jesus creates a community that’s more like a salad bowl than a melting pot. I use that example all the time. We maintain our distinctions and celebrate them. We don’t leave all our cultural differences behind to become homogenous. Our individual differences and identities contribute beautifully to the larger whole that God is building.

That’s not easy. But it is so worth it.

 

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National Leadership Team holds final meeting before annual General Assembly

 

NLT201904At its April 2019 meeting, the EPC National Leadership Team (NLT) addressed a variety of topics related to its scope of overseeing the continuing work of the General Assembly between stated meetings. The spring meeting—held April 9-10 at the Office of the General Assembly in Orlando—is one of four in-person gatherings each year.

Among the items finalized at the meeting were several recommendations for the 39th General Assembly to act on in June. The Assembly will be held June 19-21 at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in suburban Denver, Colo. Also approved for consideration by the Assembly were the 2019-2020 Special Projects and a preliminary FY2020 EPC operating budget.

“The NLT is proposing some revisions to the Book of Order and Rules for Assembly that should help clarify some questions that have arisen over the years,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “These include the office of Pastor and Candidates Under Care, as well as language in the Rules that address the membership of the Nominating Committee and creating separate Church Planting and Revitalization committees to convene at our GA.”

The group also heard reports from Jeremiah on the state of the EPC; Assistant Stated Clerk Jerry Iamurri on the Candidates Educational Equivalency Program (CEEP); Phil Linton, Director of EPC World Outreach; Phil VanValkenburg, Chief Operating Officer; the Nominating Committee; and the Revelation 7:9 Task Force. The members of the NLT also expressed their appreciation to outgoing chair Dean Weaver from the Presbytery of the Alleghenies and Sabra Carman from the Presbytery of the Midwest.

In addition to Weaver and Carman, members of the National Leadership Team are Chris Danusiar, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Rivers and Lakes; Nancy Duff, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Pacific Southwest; Phil Fanara, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the East; Michael Gibson, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Great Plains; Rob Liddon, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Central South; Rosemary Lukens, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest; Glenn Meyers, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Alleghenies; Luder Whitlock, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean; and Moderator-Elect Case Thorp, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean.

The next meeting of the National Leadership Team is scheduled for August 20-21.

Westminster Presbyterian Church (Enid, Okla.) merges with local congregation to form new Westminster Church

 
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Westminster Presbyterian Church in Enid, Okla., purchased the building and grounds of West Willow Community Church. The two congregations merged to form the new Westminster Church. (Photo credit: Bonnie Vculek / Enid News & Eagle)

Westminster Presbyterian Church of Enid, Okla., recently purchased the building and grounds of West Willow Community Church in Enid, providing a new home to the Westminster members and joining both congregations into the newly formed Westminster Church. Westminster pastor Tim Palmer said his congregation completed the purchase in March, and has moved into the West Willow Community Church location.

Since joining the EPC in October 2011, Westminster has been held its worship services in the sanctuary of the Enid Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Palmer said his congregants are looking forward to having a permanent church home.

“They’re excited,” Palmer said with a laugh. “They like to talk about how they’ve spent time wandering in the wilderness.”

But, they’re not simply buying a church building. It’s more a merger of the two congregations, said Don Tines, pastor of West Willow, who is staying on as administrative pastor. Palmer will be lead pastor of the new congregation, and Tines said the majority of the approximately 60 members of West Willow are joining the 130 members of Westminster Presbyterian to form the new, larger congregation of Westminster Church.

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Tim Palmer (right) is Lead Pastor of Westminster Church. Don Tines (left) is the former pastor of West Willow Community Church and now is Westminster’s Associate Pastor.

Tines, originally from Detroit, has been the pastor at West Willow since he came to Enid in 1983. Palmer, originally from Franklin, Tenn., graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., in 2013. He came to Enid last July to pastor Westminster.

The newly-formed congregation has deep roots in Enid, going back to 1921, when the West Willow congregation formed as the Frisco Mission Church. The congregation incorporated as an independent Bible church in 1935, and in 1992 relocated to its current location and took its new name on West Willow.

Palmer said the Westminster members want to build on that history and continue to build on two strong congregations that can be stronger together.

“We’re two churches that have different strengths and great people,” Palmer said, “and our two churches are much more powerful working together.”

Tines said it was a natural fit for Palmer to take the lead role in Westminster Church.

“I’m much closer to the end of my career than he is,” Tines said, “and we’re hoping and praying he will have a long and successful ministry here.”

Tines said he’s served as a consultant with Westminster since its split from First Presbyterian, and the merger of the two congregations has been a work long in progress. “This is like a marriage that is taking place after a long courtship,” he said.

That new “marriage” has advantages for both congregations, Tines said.

“This is the greatest opportunity, for both congregations, I think we could have imagined,” Tines said. “They get a very nice facility, turn-key, and we get a boost in influence and opportunity.”

Tines said the desire to sell the West Willow church building and merge with Westminster wasn’t born of finances or size of their congregation. “The motive is to do something bigger for the gospel,” Tines said.

He cited the number and size of Enid churches—more than 130 churches, with about 100 of them having congregations smaller than 50 people—as evidence of the need to merge like-minded congregations to effect greater Christian impact in the community.

“The message and the influence wanes because of how many churches we’ve split into,” Tines said, “and it breaks my heart that this community is so splintered.”

Tines said many congregations are split more by personality than by doctrine or denomination. He said those lines were no impediment to joining West Willow and Westminster.

“We don’t have to change much of anything, because we’re both of the same persuasion,” Tines said. “Obviously, we’re very excited about it.”

Palmer said Westminster Church still will be aligned with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, but will serve as a congregation open to varied backgrounds.

“We have a Presbyterian heritage that we’re proud of,” Palmer said. “We’ll always be proud of our background and heritage, but we’re a place where people can come from all different backgrounds to experience the grace of God.”

Palmer said he wants people to view Westminster not as a church for a certain denomination, but as a neighborhood church.

“We want to be the neighborhood church for all the people who live within the circle of this church, and it doesn’t matter if they grew up Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Methodist, or whatever,” Palmer said. “All that matters is that they love Jesus, they want to be a part of a great church family and spread the gospel. We want people to feel like this church is for everybody, and it’s just right down the street.”

Palmer said the new congregation is looking forward to moving forward as one, made possible by strong lay leaders that have been brought into both congregations over the last year.

“God has put the perfect people in place, and we feel like this is the next step God has for us,” Palmer said. “There’s no telling what’s in store with the path we’re on. We have a very bright future.”

Reprinted courtesy of Enid News & Eagle.

https://www.enidnews.com/news/local_news/westminster-west-willow-community-churches-merge-to-form-new-congregation/article_356619fe-e568-5554-838e-bcc1e6cbdd1d.html