New Campus and Saturday Morning Service Draws 400

Date Posted: 1/23/2014

Those leading during times of change must grapple with the reality of rejoicing with those who rejoice, and mourning with those that mourn.  In the same moment that some experience hope, others may be experiencing loss.  Rev. Rudy Rasmus reflects with Rev. Hannah Bonner on the challenge of leading through that kind of change as the congregation at St. John's receives the gift of a satellite campus and begins a Saturday morning worship service.

Rudy, what past experiences of change prepared you for this next step in the journey of St. John's?
Change is hard.  Changing the church is harder.  Churches are like a body made up of a lot of bodies; in order for the body to change, there has to be agreement among those many bodies.  Rarely do you get agreement when tradition is threatened with extinction.

You are in the early stages of a new satellite campus and worship service, how do you believe God has been preparing you for this?
Three years ago, I was approached by Conference leadership to consider merging St. John's with a nearby congregation. I can honestly say, I wasn't ready. There was something I had to learn in order for this next step to be successful. I learned the lesson in the attempt to merge these two congregations: one very traditional, and one very different.

I went into that situation with no regard for the loss that congregation was experiencing as a result of the thought of losing its history to a church down the street.  You could even say I was cavalier about the notion of expanding. It never really dawned on me that this group of people, however small of a group I may have thought they were, were still family and community. I did not have enough regard for their history to be responsible for their future.  So when the time came for a vote, the merger was defeated and the two churches went their separate ways.  For a couple of years following, I processed that moment as a lesson; it wasn't supposed to happen then.

How did that experience impact your approach to this new satellite?
Several months ago, I was approached once again by Conference leadership, this time to expand to a church campus on the other side of town from our original location, as a satellite.  I learned of the 50+year history of this congregation and that the church had been in decline for a number of years because of a changing neighborhood.  After the initial conversation, I took a ride to take a look at the campus with great apprehension, remembering my last encounter with a possible merger. 

I remember the day I drove around the potential new campus, amazed at the physical evidence of a great legacy. I saw a worship center that had been expanded at some point in the past.  I saw the remnants of baseball fields that had obviously been gathering places for many young people over the years. I saw a gymnasium that was impeccably designed to impact the lives of families in that community. I saw 13 acres that a visionary congregation risked and purchased years earlier with the thought of future expansion. I saw a parsonage that had been converted to a Faith House, and housed outreach ministries. I saw the signage of a school that occupies the campus during the school day. I saw the sign of a Hispanic congregation that meets on the campus throughout the week. I saw signs of past vision, past vitality, and oddly the hope for a future.  While driving around that campus, I began to feel strangely warm.  But I had many questions, because I think I still embodied the trauma of the past attempt that ended in rejection.  People that know me know that I don't deal with rejection well, therefore, it took me a while to move past the fear of more rejection to the possibilities of this new opportunity held for the kingdom.

What was different this time from that first attempt?
In the days following that visit, I was extended an opportunity to meet with the church's leadership.  I met some incredibly warm people who were exhausted from the struggle of maintaining a substantial campus with a few committed members. In our first meeting the lessons from our previous attempt became crystal clear. The primary learning from that moment was an acute awareness of the loss this faith community was experiencing in the thought of closing.  That night I acknowledged their loss, shared their grief, and promised to honor their legacy.

We walked through Kübler-Ross's stages of grief. I realized that the closure conversation was one this congregation had been having for several years; they had clearly moved beyond denial and even anger.  Bargaining appeared in our conversations around memorabilia, because they wanted to make sure that those mementos were honored. We agreed to establish a space for those items.  Depression was apparent; I learned it is depressing to lose the place you call home. This place had been a home for many over the years, and to this committed few in its final days.  Acceptance occurred on the day of the final vote to close and transfer its assets to St John's UMC. 

In the midst of mourning, how did you see hope emerging?
Immediately following the transfer, renovations began on campus. Occasionally a lifelong member would walk through the building bewildered at the signs of obvious change; the bewilderment would morph into hopefulness or dismay. I honestly can say that everything changed, from the pews being removed in the first week of renovations to the Methodist symbol on the front of the building being turned into a work of art by a local artist. Everything changed.  Over a two-month period, the past splendor of this once vibrant faith community began to reemerge.  The ball fields were manicured; fallen trees were removed; the location of an organic garden was staked out; the building was painted.  It slowly began to take on signs of new life. Clean up activities involved members of the previous congregation and members of the new congregation coming together on work days, creating the picture of a new community.

How has the worship service itself changed?
Today, it is a new world. The former fellowship hall is now The Lounge, housing an emerging coffee shop. The worship center is now a multi-sensory experience, with the speakers' platform jetting into the center of the room. Individual seats have replaced rows. The choir stand has been replaced with band equipment. The choir has been replaced with five singers. The room is once again alive with the presence of Jesus in every seat.

What do you see as the most unique aspect of this new worship community so far?
The most unique aspect of this new church start is the day we decided to have worship at this location - Saturday morning at 11am. I have been asked many times why Saturday and the answer is still the same.  It is the best day with the least competition. So every Saturday morning at 11am, since we began on January 4th, there are hundreds in attendance. This place comes alive!

Apart from the worship service, how else do you plan to engage the community?
We have formed a partnership with the K-8th grade charter school on the campus and are researching ways in which this faith community can come around the students and families.  We have added a food fair location in partnership with the Houston Area Food Bank where hungry families in this community will receive food (we currently distribute nine tons of food weekly at our downtown location).

We are launching a ministry to senior adults in that part of town; it will include fun, information, fellowship and lunch. We are beginning a collaborative garden with the students of the charter school being trained as gardeners. We are developing partnerships to fully utilize the sports facilities on the campus. The Faith House is being renovated for use as a healing center where we will offer family and individual counseling, financial counseling, and resources for well-being. support groups are being established as well.

What do you see out on the horizon for this community?
We are beginning to think about Sunday morning at 11am as an experience focused on the Hispanic community surrounding the church. We are looking for a young, innovative, Hispanic pastor, to reach the the Spanish-speaking group, which represents 50% of the community’s demographics. 

The Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner contributed to this article.  Rev. Bonner is also a contributor at RethinkBishop.com, and reflects on life and ministry at thatshowthelightgetsin.wordpress.com