Christine’s Corner – April 2012:
“So You Want to Start a New Church ….”: An interview with Dr. Brad Braxton
For the past two years Dr. Brad Braxton has served at McCormick as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar. He has taught classes in homiletics and New Testament, offered leadership throughout the seminary as a preacher, workshop leader, public lecturer, and all around vital member of our community. Now, he is preparing to leave McCormick for TWO (count ‘em) positions: one at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology as the Lois Craddock Perkins Chair in Homiletics, and the second as the founding Senior Pastor of The Open Church, a new congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, where he served in his first pastorate nearly 20 years ago. As part of my ongoing exploration of the emerging church in the 21st century, I sat down with Brad in mid-March to talk with him about this exciting endeavor.
So what was the inspiration for a new church plant and what kind of church did Brad envision?
Brad had a vision nearly a decade ago; he dreamed of starting a church. His ministry has taken him from Emory and Oxford Universities to his first pastorate at an urban church in Baltimore, MD; from the faculty at Wake Forest and Vanderbilt Universities to the historic pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City. His Riverside pastorate was a difficult one, and he resigned after less than a year. Yet he continued to hold fast to a vision of a radically diverse church committed to creative spiritual inspiration and courageous social justice activism. In spite of the disappointment about his brief stay at Riverside Church, he knew in his heart that he had another pastorate in him; his tenure at McCormick has been a healing time that allowed him to reconnect with that vision.
The church dreamed of would be “a church of the broad open daylight;” that is, it would be open to radical diversity in its theological positions, would welcome both Christian and interfaith dialogue, and would be both prophetic and persistent in its advocacy of social justice issues, including GLBTQ issues. The church would possess “a dialectic that balanced spiritual enrichment with community formation, grounded in a basic organizational “trinity” which he named as: the Bible, the by-laws, and the budget.
Brad’s previous pastorates have taught him that many congregational disputes involve the by-laws and the budget. He says that pastors need to be more insistent on emphasizing the theological nature of by-laws and budgets. In a recent meeting with leaders at The Open Church, Brad remarked, “Many divine dreams are derailed by demonic ‘hijackings’ of congregational governance structures.” Thus, he is working collaboratively with the leaders of The Open Church to create governance structures that promote congregational and pastoral creativity as well as management and fiscal accountability.
What makes Brad’s vision for The Open Church unique?
Brad has always been a leading advocate of social justice issues; in fact, he is one of the most visible African American heterosexual advocates for GLBTQ issues and believes that advocacy and evangelism are critical pieces of his ministry. He says it’s no accident that his vision for The Open Church would value radically diverse religious contexts and promote and support both ecumenicity and inter-religious dialogue. He envisions a church that will be deeply committed to teaching, global ministry, advocacy and supporting diverse models of family life that promote abundance and wholeness.
What obstacles did you encounter? And what made “the rough places plain”; in other words, what smoothed the way for this vision to become reality?
In his mid-twenties, Brad’s first pastorate had been at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore. Over the years, he had maintained positive relationships with many of his former congregants. After his departure from Riverside, he rekindled the vision that came to him nearly a decade earlier and began to seriously consider the possibility of starting a new church. As part of the vision-casting process, he “cultivated conversations” with a number of his former congregants, many of whom still lived in Baltimore. While it seemed a long shot at the time, he “cast his bread upon the waters” hoping to find resources which would make the realization of his vision possible.
But where to begin? During his past two years at McCormick, as our Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Brad had continued to dream without having any financial assurance that the dream would become reality. He was almost ready to let the dream go when he was approached by Southern Methodist University and offered the endowed Lois Craddock Perkins Chair in Homiletics. The university was willing to work out a flexible commuting arrangement, which would allow Brad and his family to live in Baltimore while Brad carries a full-teaching load, mentors students, and works with faculty colleagues. What had seemed like an impossibility at the time began to take on the contours of reality because, in the words of Rev. Martha Simmons, one of Brad’s mentors, “God can always dream a bigger dream for us than we can dream for ourselves.”
In the interim before the offer from SMU came through, Brad called an October 2011 “interest meeting” in Baltimore for people interested in establishing a new, radically inclusive congregation. 55 people attended that three-hour meeting. The theological foundation for the meeting was a 10-page vision statement Brad wrote in March 2011. He first shared the statement with his most trusted confidante, his wife Lazetta. After she significantly enhanced the vision statement, he shared it with other key members in his wisdom circle, some of whom attended the October 2011 interest meeting.
During the interest meeting, they prayed, sang, read scripture, and assembled in small discussion groups. The positive spiritual energy in the meeting was palpable, according to Brad. He knew then that something special was about to happen.
Realizing that this meeting could be a watershed moment in the life of The Open Church, he made two intentional moves. First, he ensured that there was a video recording of the meeting. Second, he invited Heather Cronk, his long-time friend and former student at Wake Forest Divinity School, to read the first quotation on the meeting agenda (the quotation consisted of the famous words from the social justice activist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”). Heather is a white, lesbian GLBTQ social justice activist in Washington, DC, who has a Master of Divinity degree and at times has described herself as agnostic. Brad proudly declares, “The first voice other than mine to speak officially at The Open Church was a white, agnostic lesbian. When we say The Open Church is open, we mean open…to all!”
In the six months since the interest meeting, the group began to hold regular meetings. Since December 2011, fifteen leaders have been having weekly telephone conferences with Brad. Six leadership teams have been created to provide a basic structure and begin implementation of the vision of The Open Church: 1) steering team; 2) prayer and worship team; 3) congregational relations team;
4) stewardship team; 5) fiscal management team; and 6) social justice and civic engagement team. The mission of the church is clearly evident in the focus of each team. There are three dimensions that Brad considers essential in the establishing of this congregation. The Open Church will be: 1) progressive;
2) prophetic; and 3) pluralistic. He eagerly says it will be a place of “messy eclecticism.”
What’s your biggest dream for The Open Church?
Currently, the church meets once a month in a space rented from the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity in Baltimore; both worship and business take place at this meeting time. By July of this year, when Brad and his family are completely relocated and settled in Baltimore, the leadership team is planning to move to twice monthly Sunday worship. Brad envisions that this initial church plant in Baltimore will ultimately be the “mother church” of The Open Church. He dreams that the model developed there will be contagious and give birth to satellites across the United States and eventually across the world.
Brad’s ultimate dream is that The Open Church will make an indelible mark on progressive Christianity, all to the glory of God. And by the way: since Brad = Broad Meadow in Old English, it’s safe to say that Brad Braxton is, in his own words “living into my name!” Much peace and blessing to Brad and to the future of The Open Church.
Next time: “So You Want to Start a New Church…” Brad Braxton’s Pointers on what you need to know beforehand.