Dr. Brad Braxton is preparing to leave McCormick after serving for the past two years as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar. He is a scholar, a preacher, a tireless advocate for issues of social justice and an engaging human being. He’s been a dynamic presence in our community and will certainly be missed by many of us. He is starting a new position at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in the Lois Craddock Perkins Endowed Chair of Homiletics, the first African American to hold this position. His responsibilities include a full teaching load, mentoring students and working with his faculty colleagues. He will do all this while living with his family in Baltimore, Maryland where he has begun serving as the founding Senior Pastor of The Open Church, a new congregation located in the same city where he served in his first pastorate nearly 20 years ago.
Founding a new church was not something that happened overnight. Brad first envisioned The Open Church more than a decade ago (see CURE Blog post from April 17, 2012). Over the years, he has employed a great deal of thought, collaboration with others, frequent consultations with his family and the “wisdom circle” of clergy and other partners who have served as touchstones for him throughout his ministry. That, plus the serendipity of being called to SMC made it possible for him to launch the dream at this point in his life.
I asked Brad what advice and counsel he would offer someone who wanted to start a new church. What did he believe was at stake in such an undertaking? How does one begin at the beginning, and at the same time, begin with the end in mind? Brad believes you should know the goal of your leadership in starting a new church endeavor; you should he asserts, know “where you are going beyond your efforts to be ‘professionally holy.’ “ He reduced his advice to five essentials:
First, starting a church requires a sense of purpose. Brad believes you must “find that thing for which you are willing to die.” In other words, you have to be willing to take a risk and leave your old life behind you. It’s important, he adds, to have some knowledge of your own personality type and be comfortable in your own skin, and it helps to have a “questioning personality” that isn’t satisfied by the status quo or easy answers.
Second, don’t ignore the fact that structures of authority are being flattened and democratized; it’s important to recognize that you will continually need to hold democratization and collaboration in tension, along with your own understanding of pastoral authority. For Brad, pastoral authority is ultimately the bottom line; so he’s encouraging his leadership team at The Open Church to create a governing structure where there won’t ever be a need for him to break a tie vote. If that happens, he notes, his deciding vote will make it clear who’s in charge.
Third, you need to make certain that your family support system (in whatever configuration that takes) is part of your thinking and conversation from the start. The process of starting a new church (or revitalizing an old one) is time consuming, laborious and can be energy draining. It’s critical that your family be on board with you. It’s one of the reasons why he is adamant about supporting models of family life and church life that “promote fullness.”
Fourth, you need to ask yourself if this is the right time in your life and ministry to take this step. Where are you in your professional development that would make this the time to launch such an endeavor?
Fifth, and critically important: Ask yourself if you have the resources (or commitment from others for the resources) necessary to make this work. Give substantive and careful thought to what a start up budget for your dream church would look like. And don’t forget to take into account issues of space, necessary equipment, legal incorporation, liability insurance and salaries (for others, if not for yourself).
No one ever said that ministry was easy. Starting a new church is even less so. But if that leadership endeavor calls out to you, find a way to begin. As Brad said in a lecture he delivered last year atFourth Presbyterian Church: “Leadership is neutral; it doesn’t make any difference until you shift it into forward or reverse.” Could a new church start be the way your leadership is taking you forward?