New Spirit Community Church: An Appreciation

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.