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Bill McKinneyWe’ve asked Bill McKinney, PSR’s President Emeritus, to write a regular blog for this website, and we’re delighted that he’s agreed. Bill’s academic training in Sociology of Religion, his long tenure as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and his many years in theological education make him one of the keenest observers we know of American churches and the public voice of American religion. In his new position as Senior Consultant for the Center for Progressive Renewal, Bill continues his work toward greater vitality for both “historic and emerging faith communities.”

Bill will post regularly in this space. He speaks for himself, of course—not on behalf of PSR or the PSR faculty—but we think you’ll find his words insightful and provocative as always. You’re welcome to post comments, but Bill also welcomes your e-mail to him directly, at wmckinney@psr.edu.

The Latest from Bill's Blog

New Spirit Community Church: An Appreciation

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An e-mail letter arrived in my mailbox this week from the board of directors of New Spirit Community Church in Berkeley, California. The board has come to the conclusion the congregation is in a time of transition and that the most appropriate response is to bring its ministry to a close. It brought back memories of the early days of this church and the many happy times my wife Linda and I enjoyed with this bridge-building congregation called to be “a church that is gay and straight together, questioning and fully open to a wide range of self-expression.”

Early in 1999 I had a call from my friend Jim Mitulski, who was then co-pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCCSF) in San Francisco. Jim wanted to come by my office to share what he called a “truly crazy” idea. Not long after the call I met with Jim and his MCCSF colleague Karen Foster in my office at Pacific School of Religion (PSR). MCCSF’s staff had been noticing that its members who lived in the East Bay were quite different demographically from members who lived in the city. East Bay members were more often in long-term relationships and many were raising children. While they wanted a congregation with strong roots in the LGBT community, they were less interested in a church that was all-gay. Did I think it made any sense to think about starting a new church with an LGBT sensibility but that did not define itself narrowly as a “gay church?”

I didn’t think the idea was crazy at all and in fact offered them temporary space at PSR if they went ahead with their plan.

Later that year, MCCSF took a risk and released Karen Foster to be the founding minister of a new church in Berkeley to be known as Community Church of the East Bay . Karen was a recent graduate of PSR with previous work experience in marketing. MCCSF would pay her salary for one year, after which the new church would be on its own. A former Southern Baptist, she is left of center theologically but retains an appreciation for Texas-style evangelism.

The new church began with a business plan that grew out of eight months of interviews with prospective members. Karen was determined to have at least 100 worshipers present for the initial service. PSR made available temporary office and worship space in our chapel. The first service took place August 13, 2000 with over 100 persons in attendance.

The plan was very specific about the character and ethos of the new church. It would be rooted in the LGBT community but would also work hard to attract straight members. In addition to membership in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, it would also seek affiliation with the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) . Karen Foster would be the founding and senior minister but other volunteer clergy would serve as members of a pastoral team. Music was central to the plan and an outstanding pianist from the San Francisco Conservatory was the first staff hire.

New Spirit quickly became known in the wider community for its music programs, with public concerts featuring Bay Area musicians held every 4-6 weeks. One was as likely to experience an oboe as an electric guitar in its Sunday services.

New Spirit began with two major worship times each week. Sunday morning’s “celebration” ran about 90 minutes and presented a wide variety of experiences. A space design team worked with worship leaders to create an appropriate worship environment. The music was a blend of classical and contemporary. As is customary in the MCC, each service began with congregational singing (mostly praise choruses) and ended with communion, including prayers for each person attending. The preaching was very strong, with Karen Foster in the pulpit about two-thirds of the time.

On Wednesday evenings a smaller congregation of 25-50 gathered for a smaller Taize candlelight service. Members joined the PSR residential community for dinner before services and PSR students often attended the services.

Women and men were represented in roughly equal numbers. Ten to twenty percent were of racial minority backgrounds and a number of members came with wheelchairs. Ten to twenty percent were straight couples.

The most noteworthy thing about worship at New Spirit was how carefully each service was planned. There was lots of room for spontaneity but very little was left to chance. On a typical Sunday five to ten people might be involved in service leadership but one sensed that one would not show up unprepared very often without being taken aside by the pastor.

The church’s business plan committed the congregation to social justice ministries. Beginning on the first Sunday and continuing every week since, members gather after services to prepare meals for the homeless. Considerable attention was given to issues facing the LGBT community but New Spirit could be counted on to deliver members and funds on other issues as well. One early mission priority was homeless youth.

The youth program was small but active. Children and youth were quite visible on Sunday mornings and the congregation took pride in the fact that young people were involved and welcomed. Adult education was a priority and generally included Bible study and group discussions of popular theological and self-help literature.

New Spirit took advantage of all of the gimmicks developed to help “grow” churches. First-time visitors got a packet of information about the church by mail within a week of their visit and receive a personal call from a pastor or trained volunteer after a second visit. New Spirit published a weekly newsletter via e-mail that included information about upcoming events, theological reflections from the staff and news of the congregation. This newsletter reached several hundred persons around the world.

For many years Sunday attendance ran close to 140 each week and at one point New Spirit began looking for a new location to accommodate its growing membership. In 2002 the church’s challenge budget of $115,000 was oversubscribed by nearly $30,000 and the next year’s goal was $150,000.

New Spirit Community Church was always hard to pin down theologically. If pressed to give it a label I would call it “Liberation Pentecostal.” I knew of no speaking in tongues at New Spirit but experience was taken very seriously. This includes individual religious experience and the collective experience of the LGBT community.

Members knew from the beginning that they were doing a “new thing” among LGBT people. The community often views religion as contributing to its oppression so those who identify as “Gay and Christian” are viewed with skepticism by many. Karen Foster identified with theologies of liberation and wove liberation themes though her preaching along with attention to healing and recovery.

In 2006, Karen Foster left New Spirit. Some wondered what would happen with her departure. Following a lengthy interim period, Jim Mitulski returned to the Bay Area after serving in several staff positions with the MCC. He became New Spirit’s pastor in 2008. Mitulski was able to restore some of the momentum that had been lost after Karen Foster’s departure and New Spirit continued to serve as a resource to the PSR community and an important Field Education site for students preparing for ministry. He introduced greater variety to the Wednesday evening worship program and pressed the congregation to deal with issues of economic and racial justice. Jim Mitulski resigned his position in 2013 and now serves as Interim Senior Minster at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas.

I lost touch with New Spirit Community Church after leaving PSR and Berkeley in 2010 but continued to enjoy the church’s weekly newsletter and Facebook postings. In the past couple of years it has been apparent that New Spirit has been experiencing financial difficulties. Since Jim Mitulski left the congregation has been served by a part-time interim minister, aided by volunteer clergy. I was nonetheless surprised to receive the e-mail from the New Spirit board concluding that “the most appropriate thing to do at this point is find a loving way to bring our ministry in its current form to a close with grace and integrity, to do our best to help some of our members find a suitable community of faith, and to continue to hold each other in deep prayer as we each follow our own faith journey.”

I always feel a sense of loss when a congregation decides it is time to end its ministry but I am especially sad to hear this news from New Spirit. Linda and I were not members of New Spirit but we were frequent attenders and financial supporters. I preached there at least once a year while I served as PSR’s president and was aware that New Spirit was ahead of its time in providing safe social and spiritual space for people who at the time were not welcome in many congregations, even in the Bay Area.

I hope someone is giving serious thought to the significance of New Spirit’s 14 years of life in the East Bay. On hearing the news I find myself pondering a number of questions: What might have been done differently over the years? What has happened to the hundreds of persons whose lives were touched by New Spirit? Have they found congregations that address their religious and spiritual needs? Should we celebrate the fact that more congregations are more open and safer than when New Spirit began its journey in 2000? Why is it so darned difficult for us left-leaning folks to sustain our institutions?

New Spirit Community Church was a grand experiment. I miss you already.

“Pilgrims on a Journey,” A Sermon Preached for the Installation of Rev. Susan Brecht as Pastor and Teacher of Eliot Church, UCC

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Pilgrims on a Journey

William McKinney

Sermon for the Installation of Rev. Susan Brecht
Eliot Church, UCC, Newton, MA,

December 8, 2013

Text: Romans 12

A few years ago I read a book by my friend and former colleague, Jackson Carroll. Its title is God’s Potters and it is a reflection on lessons from Duke Divinity School’s “Pulpit and Pew” project – a multi-year, multi-dimensional, multi-million dollar study of excellence in pastoral ministry.

The book is full of facts and insights, some of which are hopeful. Carroll is encouraged by the fact that most clergy are happy with their work. Sure, there’s burnout, frustration and stress (and Carroll does a good job of pointing to their sources) but most clergy feel a strong sense of call and of commitment to the places they are called to serve.

There were some surprises in the book. We learn a lot about how parish clergy spend their time. For example, in a typical week clergy spend 14 hours preparing for preaching and worship leadership (out of a 48 hour work week). A full day goes to administration and committee meetings. Teaching and visitation get four hours apiece and counseling gets another three. Involvement in community affairs gets an average of two hours a week, which is less than half the time such activities received in a 1954 study. That’s disturbing to me.

Carroll also documented the growing crisis facing clergy families due to low wages, especially in small churches. In the year 2000 the average salary and housing for Mainline Protestant clergy serving as senior or solo pastors in churches of under 100 members was $35,400. Carroll shows that dissatisfaction with clergy compensation is the single largest correlate of doubting one’s call to ministry and considering leaving for another church or secular job. Contrast this with a report in The New York Times the same year that starting salaries for attorneys in New York firms had reached $145,000. That, of course, is in New York. It’s “only” $135,000 in the rest of the country. That’s disturbing to me.

Carroll’s book is worth reading for the results of his survey research, but it’s worth reading for other reasons as well. He has some important things to say about pastoral excellence. In focus groups around the country, researchers asked people to reflect on questions like these:

What is your impression when you hear the words “good ministry?”

What is the core work of a congregation?

If you visited with the dean of a seminary, what one thing would you suggest she change to help foster good pastoral leadership?

These are good questions that we ought to be asking all the time.

The week I read Carroll’s book one of my students dropped by my office to talk about his M.A. thesis project and we talked about books he ought to read to develop his argument. He wanted to look at lay and clergy expectations for pastoral ministry. As we talked I was reminded of an important multi-denominational study published several years ago that surveyed members of churches served by ministers in their first pastorate. It talked about expectations laity have in preaching, counseling, teaching, church growth, social justice leadership and other areas. The authors were surprised to discover that while some of these were more important to members of some denominations than to others they weren’t the main thing people were looking for from recent seminary graduates. More than anything they were looking for persons of character.

Carroll reported a similar finding. Excellence in pastoral ministry involves several dimensions. It is shaped normatively and contextually. Christians cannot speak of excellence without speaking first of Jesus and of what Gregory Jones and Kevin Armstrong call “resurrecting excellence.” It is also contextual. An effective leader in one place can be a disaster in another. Pastoral excellence involves both normative and contextual dimensions.

The marks of pastoral excellence, for Jack Carroll, are Resilience and Spiritual Discipline, Agility and Reflective Leadership, Staying Connected, Self-directed Lifelong Learning and Trust and Personal Authority. Excellence implies trust.Pastoral excellence takes us to questions of character and trust.

I suspect many of us might disagree with what many people in these two studies mean by these words. At the same time, I think they make an important point: ministry (and, I would be quick to add, other professions) involves more than the accumulation of knowledge and skills. These are important, but insufficient.

For a long time faculties of Protestant theological schools followed a traditional pattern in thinking of curriculum as a collection of courses that would pour into students’ brains the information the faculty thought they ought to have. For some very good reasons, and in contrast to seminaries in more liturgical traditions, Protestant seminaries didn’t talk much about issues of formation.

I’m pleased to say that this is changing. Formation is very much on the mind of seminaries these days. I hope it is on your mind as well.

It is clearly on the mind of the Apostle Paul in our text today from Romans 12. This was the principal text of one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous sermons. It is included in his book Strength to Love. Christians, Dr. King said, are called to lives of “transformed nonconformity.” That notion shaped his ministry. It reshaped a slumbering church. It propelled a movement that in turn transformed a nation.

The People’s New Testament Commentary reminds us that Paul is not writing to individuals but to the church community at Rome. When he appeals to his brothers and sisters to present their bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God,” he is not talking about what they put into or do with their physical bodies but to the nature of the church as a community. “You” really means y’all. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is not a message to individual members, but a message to the church itself.

I’ve probably heard 50 sermons on this text (and I’ve preached a couple myself!). Almost all of these sermons have read this text incorrectly as a call to you and me to clean up our acts by living piously and taking our work seriously. Those aren’t bad things, but Paul’s point here is very different. The “transformed” community – the church that refuses to conform to the ways of the world – is the church that is free to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This is a good word to Eliot Church and to Susan as we gather to celebrate your new ministry together. What might it look like if you were to do what Paul was asking the Romans to do? What would it look like for Eliot Church to take seriously its formation as a community? To ask questions about trust and character? To recognize that pastoral excellence is less about the performance of the pastor than about the transformation of your life together as a congregation?

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching for the installation of another MBA pastor who had been a student of my friend Carl Dudley and dedicated the service to his memory.

Carl Dudley was a pastor and teacher and consultant to local churches.
But Carl Dudley was fundamentally a pastor. His happiest moments were as a storyteller. He had the ability to find great meaning in the simplest incident, usually in a local church.

In that sermon I told a story that is worth repeating today as a reminder of what pastoral excellence can look like in a congregation when we focus on qualities of character and trust.

Early in his career, Carl was called to serve a small black Presbyterian church in St. Louis. One day he had a visit from a young woman in the congregation who had recently had a baby and wanted to have her child baptized. The pregnancy had been something of a scandal as the teenager was unmarried. Carl’s response was “Of course. We’ll do it next Sunday.”

When Carl reported this to the church’s session a huge fight broke out. The matriarch of the congregation, a woman who was related to just about everybody in the church, was fiercely opposed. “Over my dead body,” she said. “Think of the message that will send to all the other young girls in the congregation.”

In telling the story Carl would point out that in the Presbyterian system the pastor has the ultimate say when it comes to the administration of the sacraments. He also knew that in most congregations there are people who control the destiny of the pastor.

The session meeting went long into the night and no-one changed their views.

Sunday morning arrived and the time in the service came for the baptism. Carl called the young woman forward with her baby. You could feel the tension in the air as the pastor turned to the congregation and asked, “And who will stand with this young woman and her child?”

There was silence in the sanctuary until the matriarch of the congregation stood up. “I will stand with her,” said the woman, “and so will everyone else who is here this morning.” And the entire congregation rose and came forward to surround the mother and her child.

We are gathered this afternoon for what we call an installation, but that strikes me as the wrong word for what we are doing. I don’t know about you but when I think of “installing” something I think of furnaces or carpeting. I don’t think of installations as something we do to people. What we are doing today is more like a baptism or a marriage. We are blessing the coming together of a pastor and her people.

I suspect none of you knows exactly what lies ahead in your relationship. You have hopes and dreams but probably also some fears and anxieties. That’s what happens when you do a new thing. In this sense you are no different from Jesus and the disciples and the Apostle Paul from ancient times or from that little black church in St. Louis or the founders of this congregation back in 1845. You know that something knew is being born. And you know that this new thing is good. Savor that feeling. Enjoy that transformed nonconformity that comes with breaking ground.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.