Okay. Not really. It was a Skype call with a friend from seminary: the Rev. Jerry McKinney. I interviewed him for a class I teach on forms of Christian community.
But I’m telling you, the story of Jerry’s pastoral ministry is like a page out of John Calvin’s playbook.
Jerry started at Princeton Seminary the same year I did. Rather than pressing on to ordination, he left for three years to work in Nicaragua with Witness for Peace. So he finished around 1990.
You are probably gathering that Jerry does not do things the easy way. But he does do things the blessed way — I mean, hey, he’s a peacemaker.
So when he graduated he took his call.
Usually you would say he took his “first” call. Most pastors move on about every three years.
Jerry is still there.
It started out as two little churches in upstate New York, and the Presbytery’s summer camp. Nothing cushy. Nothing flashy. Nothing emerging, or emergence, or emergent. Nothing megachurchy. They still don’t even have a website.
He’s spent those decades helping normal struggling mainliners find life and faith and community and mission by studying the Bible.
He’s done what Calvin did, over the very long haul.
is the only word that comes to mind.
Here’s the short version:
Those two little churches grew out of different branches of Presbyterian history. They didn’t share a common mission. They just had a shared dilemma: They each needed a minister, and neither could afford one. Enter Rev. McKinney.
So Jerry saw one root problem very clearly: they didn’t know much of anything about the Bible. (No surprise there: it is pretty typical these days.)
He was one pastor in a complicated charge. He only had time for one Bible study.
He invited both churches. A few came from each side. Jerry taught. He poured his energy into it, teaching them with all his heart.
For three years it was all Jerry. They were passive recipients.
After three years they started asking questions.
(That’s right: if Jerry had a pastorate of average length, he would have left before they were ready to even ask questions. It takes time to build trust, to feel confident enough to risk looking foolish.)
Eventually they began to share the leadership. Eventually they began to share their own faith stories, their experience of the Christian life.
And (of course) it all made more sense because they were so invested in the Scriptures.
After all those years, the Bible become their common language.
After a few more years the members of the Bible study realized something: They loved each other and shared this common life in Scripture. Maybe they could do more than study together.
Somebody said something like
Hey, why don’t we have a joint Thanksgiving service?
After ten years (when Jerry had been there longer than three average pastorates) they said something like
Isn’t it kind of silly that we are two separate churches?
Christian community had been growing organically for a long time. The old lines of separation had been melting. Without Jerry suggesting it, the move toward union began. It wasn’t painless, but merger followed with strong support.
In 2008 they became Bethel Peniel Presbyterian Church.
I know of churches that were steered toward merger only to find it a very rocky shore. It took almost 20 years for the idea of union to grow out of real Christian community.
Jerry never pushed it. They were one church now, but they still had two buildings. Nobody was ready to sell their building.
Let’s just pause and note that what Jerry did was classic Calvin.
In Geneva Calvin set up a system where books of Scripture were taught, beginning to end, from the pulpit, in the lecture hall, and among the clergy.
Ongoing biblical education was the lifeblood of the reform in Geneva–the transformation that Scottish reformer John Knox called
the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.
With all that investment in exploring Scripture and becoming community, compassion grew.
One elderly member began to see systemic injustice around her. She went into the local police station and said
We need to talk. I think what you are doing is ‘racial profiling.’
Which is more effective? Protests and pickets? Or a little old lady giving the local police a talking to?
It wasn’t just one person. As a group they decided to feed the hungry. All the hungry.
They didn’t want to start a “soup kitchen” where the rich feed the poor. They wanted to have a weekly meal for everybody. At their meal the poor would be fed right alongside those who just wanted the good fellowship.
They’d only made a short-term commitment to feeding the hungry. Soon they realized it was their mission. It was what God called them to do. They knew it. (It’s one of those ideas you find in–wait for it–the Bible.)
To take on this mission, though, they would need a professional kitchen.
Now where would a congregation in a small town get enough money to remodel a kitchen to engage in that kind of ministry? To do that they would need a windfall.
The community’s shared mission became the catalyst for selling one of the buildings. No territorial squabbling. Just moving to the future together as a community that lives the biblical faith.
Just one more thing.
They spent some more years of studying the Bible together. They worshipped and served together and shared their experience of faith together.
There was also a little Methodist church in town. They too had a hard time supporting a pastor on their own. They said something like
Jerry would you be our pastor too?
Community continued to grow. Now three churches are one: Granville United Church.
Jerry’s work bears continued witness to new life in Christ–new life in new community built by serious ongoing exploration of Scripture.
Want a way to engage with the Bible for life and faith over the long haul? Let me send you a free copy of my book Love Your Bible: Finding Your Way to the Presence of God with a 12th Century Monk. Just click here.