Before Rev. Bentley Stewart was a church planter, he was a hospital chaplain. In that ministry, he regularly worked with people with no interest in religious conversations. Stewart would press on, developing relationships with patients and families. He felt it was his job to “bear witness to a God of love and redemption who meets us where we are.”
When people did ask about churches, he wished he knew of a community having the same kinds of deep discussions he was having with families.
The desire for a church focused on conversation began to settle in Stewart’s heart. Though he’d always felt called to ministry, he never thought he was called to be a pastor. As he reflected on this desire, he realized, “I was meant to be a pastor – the right church just didn’t exist yet.”
Time passed, and Stewart moved to the San Francisco area to return to seminary.
Upon his arrival, Stewart learned from the Northern California-Nevada region that there were no Disciples churches in Marin County. He knew his new home was the perfect opportunity to start that right church.
Before this move, his plans were focused on a coffee house-based church, but he quickly learned that this community didn’t need another coffee house.
Stewart realized that he was drawn to that idea because what he really wanted was a gathering space. “I really tried to live into that tension,” Stewart says, “And that’s how we got to the name Gathering-Desire.”
This new church broke away from existing models Stewart saw. They didn’t have a building; instead, they borrowed space on the Disciples Seminary Foundation campus. They didn’t have a full-time leader; instead, participants took turns sharing messages and leading prayers.
Although Stewart was developing an original idea, he wasn’t doing it alone. Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation staff helped him consider community demographics to discern what he uniquely could offer. He participated in DSF’s Seed Planters program, meeting with other students interested in starting and transforming churches.
A few years have passed since Stewart started Gathering-Desire, and partnerships still make the church thrive. Many attendees are DSF seminary students, which is exciting, Bentley says, because “these are folks who will go out, whether they go into established congregations or start their own, and already in their DNA is asking questions: what is the Spirit doing here, what tradition is something to preserve, and what do we want to change?”
Stewart also works as a Director of Student Life at DSF, and as interim minister at another congregation. Over time, Stewart realized that church planting and interim ministry have important similarities.
“Doing new church allows me to do interim work from a more innovative posture,” Stewart says. In both contexts, groups are asking comparable questions, innovating, and re-evaluating traditions.
“We’re inviting people to think in different ways,” Stewart says, “so the new and traditional cross-pollinate. The innovation and life of new churches can inspire traditional churches to reinvent themselves. There are opportunities for rich partnerships here…because growing in different ways feels more Spirit-lead.”
To support church planters like Rev. Stewart in your region, and across our church through Hope Partnership’s New Church Ministry, you’re invited to give to the 2018 Pentecost special offering, received in many congregations on May 20 and 27.