In 1886 the tobacco magnate Washington Duke helped to found a new Methodist congregation in Durham, N.C. “We have Trinity Church; why do we need another?” a friend asked Duke, referencing the so-called mother church of Methodism in Durham.
“Yes, but we need one for the masses,” Duke replied.
By 1960 the church that started in a tobacco warehouse would indeed be a church for the masses in one respect—it was one of the largest churches in the North Carolina Conference, with over 600 people packing the beautiful sanctuary each Sunday.
In 2008 when my wife, Ginger Thomas, and I were appointed the co-pastors of Duke Memorial, people had been wondering for years where the masses had gone. The population of Durham had nearly tripled since 1960, but worship attendance at Duke Memorial had declined by 60 percent. Two traumatic staff reductions in the previous decade and five consecutive years of dipping into endowment funds to make up budget shortfalls had disheartened leaders. And one of the reasons two young, relatively inexperienced pastors were being appointed to share one position was that the senior pastor’s salary was being cut by $20,000. The church could no longer afford the older pastors they had been used to.
“Do your best,” one district superintendent told us. “But if you can’t turn the church around, don’t feel too bad. The inertia of decline may be too strong.”
Five years later members of the church are no longer using words like decline to describe their congregation. They are using words of life—revitalized, renewed, resurrected—to name the increase in worship attendance and the slowly growing diversity of the congregation, both racially and socioeconomically. They are using these words to describe four years of budget surpluses, the nearly 200 adults each spring and fall in small groups, new ministries that encourage members of the church to get to know their neighbors, and new ministry partnerships that cross the lines of race and class.
These words describe seeing for the first time in many years adults confessing faith in Jesus Christ and receiving baptism. They refer to the feeling that in worship people have encountered the living God who welcomes and forgives, sustains and sends them.
“We are so glad we lived long enough to see the rebirth of our church,” one couple wrote to us on our final Sunday. While they were implicitly giving us the credit, we know the factors producing revitalization are myriad and often unknown. As I reflect on what contributed to this renewal, however, three factors stand out: a theological vision, a bias for action, and plain good management.
A Theological Vision
Retired Harvard business professor John Kotter says in his classic book Leading Change that an organization needs a clear vision with specific, measurable outcomes that can be articulated in a short paragraph. But, for the church, vision is more than that. We discovered that our vision needed a wider context, something more like a landscape. And what we did for five years, together as leaders and as a congregation, is explore the landscape of God’s kingdom and imagine our place in it. Before we arrived, the church had adopted a vision statement that declared that the church aspires to be “a sign and foretaste of God’s kingdom in downtown Durham.” As the preacher, I took up the job as tour guide, leading weekly expeditions into the landscape of God’s kingdom so that we could inhabit its varied terrain.
Mainline churches have tended to use language of the kingdom of God as a way to avoid embarrassment about Jesus. The discovery that the preaching of Jesus consisted of announcing the kingdom of God gave us a way to look to something other than Jesus himself; his “kingdom” language could represent universal truths with which we all agree—justice, equality, and kindness. We didn’t have to get more specific than that.
The theological vision that contributed to Duke Memorial’s renewal, however, involved pointing again and again to the comforting, infuriating, and perplexing life and message of Jesus himself—the one who is the kingdom of God in his very person. If we are to be a sign of God’s kingdom, then we can’t ever stop exploring the landscape that is Jesus Christ, whose own life and mission is God’s kingdom among us. Only within that landscape will we find our own particular vocation, our own unique vision.
The great gift to this tour-guide preacher was that people were ready for an expedition. They were excited to discover that Jesus’ welcome is wide enough to include more than we might have imagined, and Jesus is interesting enough to pay attention to week after week.
A Bias for Action
Postliberal theology, the theological movement that has most influenced me, frequently speaks of “imaginatively entering the world of the biblical narrative.” I hope that’s what my preaching helped us to do.
But this language can imply that entering the world of the biblical narrative is something we do with our minds alone. The gospel does not proclaim that we enter the world of the biblical narrative but that we’ve been welcomed into the life of the Triune God so that the mission of the Triune God to redeem a fallen humanity and restore a broken creation—a mission made known to us through the stories, poems, and images that make up the Bible’s narrative landscape—can shape our living. As New Testament scholar Stephen Fowl notes, when Paul says to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), he didn’t mean “mind” in a narrow, rationalistic way. He meant, “Let the same way of thinking, feeling, and acting be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Duke Memorial, over the past five years, has been learning to have a bias for Christ-shaped action. That doesn’t mean, though, that we became aimless busy-bees.
About two years into our pastorate, I began to worry that we weren’t doing enough and that our ministries weren’t well focused. I started saying that we needed an annual mission theme to focus our action in the community, a theme the whole church could rally around. Since my gifts include thinking things up but don’t include making things happen, I went to our minister of adult discipleship and witness and said: “Make this happen. We’ve got to get the community’s attention; make a difference; do something. ”
He thought about that for a while, and then said, “Maybe we should do it the way Jesus did, by spending time with our neighbors, by learning to simply be with them.”
So we launched our first annual mission theme: “Who Is My Neighbor? Living, Learning, and Listening with Our City.” That theme moved us away from the paternalistic assumptions that we know the hopes and needs of our neighbors and that we are the ones who could show up and do for them—assumptions that drove so much of 20th-century mission work. Rather, we hosted dinners where we listened to the hopes and needs of our community. We sponsored a local Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope where we learned about the ongoing legacy of racism in Durham and our part in that. We had cookouts on the lawn to which we invited our neighbors so that we could begin living with them without an agenda. Our action was not simply a hubbub of activity but a response directed by God’s choice to be with us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
A story illustrates the effects of this new focus. One Christmas our men’s morning small group volunteered to give toys away at the rescue mission’s annual Christmas toy distribution. At the event, the men (all white) from our church stood behind a plastic orange fence handing toys to parents (mostly African-American and Hispanic) who couldn’t afford to buy Christmas presents for their children. The parents weren’t allowed to choose the toys; we distributed them according to each child’s gender and age. Many of us left feeling uneasy. Our “service” seemed to be replicating the divides of race and class that have plagued Durham, and we remained strangers to those we thought we were helping.
Six months later, Reynolds Chapman D’11, our adult discipleship minister, suggested an alternative to participation in this Christmas toy giveaway. He said we should host our own Christmas market. Members of the church and community could donate new toys, and we would set up a market at the church, selling them for very little so that our guests could have the dignity of choosing and purchasing toys for their children. Because we’d been listening for several months to the community and imagining a different way of mission, the congregation quickly embraced the idea. We collected thousands of gifts, and local agencies referred families to the market. Our youth played with children while parents shopped. Others helped to wrap the presents. Over 180 children had someone shopping for their presents, and members of the church had the chance to get to know some of the families. All the money raised was given back to the organizations that referred the families. And the agency and dignity of the parents was honored. Best of all, there were no orange fences.
A bias for action can easily devolve into what Parker Palmer calls “functional atheism”—the unstated belief that if anything good is going to happen around here, it’s up to us to do it. But this year of listening and learning created the space for us to discern how God’s Spirit was leading us to embrace actions that might, by God’s grace, become sacraments of the kingdom.
There’s nothing glamorous about management, and its being done well is rarely lauded. And yet management that focuses on small things makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity, health and dysfunction. Management is the necessary support for renewal. Maybe the leadership gurus are right when they say that most organizations are “over-managed and under-led,” but I doubt this is true for many declining congregations. They are likely under-led and under-managed, or at least poorly managed. Even with an inspiring vision, without someone offering day-to-day accountability to keep actions in line with that vision, conflict is inevitable and renewal unlikely.
If I was the theological tour-guide, Ginger was the primary manager, and the most important thing she did was to guide the staff into vision-centered action and to foster healthy teamwork. When we arrived, the staff lacked current job descriptions and had no mechanisms to ensure that they were working toward the same vision. We read old evaluations that suggested areas for improvement, yet there was no accountability to enable follow-through. Furthermore, as in most Methodist churches, since the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) was involved in the annual staff evaluations with the senior pastor, the staff were unclear about to whom they were accountable. When serious conflict erupted in our first year, we knew things had to change.
We needed two things: specific job descriptions and clear channels of accountability.
Ginger and the SPRC began to work with the staff to rewrite job descriptions to align with the church’s vision, for only with good job descriptions can useful evaluation happen. After that, the committee entrusted Ginger with the job of leading the staff. The staff needed one person for guidance and support—the same person who would be doing their annual evaluations. Ginger began to have twice-yearly meetings with each staff member, first to review goals for the year and then to ask how each goal fit into the church’s overall vision, what support was needed from her and others to accomplish that goal, and how they would know when the goal had been accomplished. At the end of the year, each staff person’s evaluation was based on progress toward these goals.
Clear lines of communication were established, ambiguity about expectations disappeared, and staff work began to align with the church’s vision to be a sign of God’s kingdom.
Much of this work happened behind the scenes. No one is going to sell books or pack seminars teaching how to rewrite staff manuals, update job descriptions, fill out goal-planning sheets, and conduct annual evaluations. Yet this work, hidden as it was, when coupled with a focus on creating healthy relationships among the staff (no more talking about one another at the water cooler!), was undoubtedly a key factor contributing to what those long-time members called Duke Memorial’s “rebirth.”
When Washington Duke and others began to advocate for a new congregation, they said Durham needed what they called a “mission chapel” in the western part of town. Eventually that chapel became something more like a cathedral—beautiful, large, important. Fifty years of decline gave that church the opportunity to rediscover who it is and why it’s here: to be a “mission chapel,” an outpost of God’s kingdom, acting in ways shaped by God’s own mission to be incarnate among the people. Duke Memorial should be a “church for the masses”; not just a church for a lot of people—the church is far from that—but a church for all kinds of people, where the dividing lines that have come to define cities like Durham are broken down and the landscape of God’s kingdom becomes visible.
What a gift to be a part of this rediscovery and the new life that has resulted.