On today’s Imagine with Me, General Minister and President, Rev. Terri Hord Owens welcomes the Rev. Allen Harris, Regional Pastor and President of the Christian Church in Ohio, to share a bit about the transformation he’s seeing across the region and how the Covenant Curriculum has impact how Ohio is imagining its future.
Rev. Terri Hord Owens: Hello Disciples, welcome to another episode of Imagine with Me this is your General Minister and President Terri Hord Owens and I’m excited to bring you another conversation with an innovative and creative leader from across the church the Rev. Allen Harris who currently serves as the Regional Minister in our Ohio Region. I am delighted to have this conversation with Allen who many of you know and love and who is a dear friend and colleague so welcome to Imagine with Me, Allen. Thank you for making time.
Rev. Allen Harris: It’s great to be with you, Pastor Terri. Thank you so much for inviting me on to this wonderful presentation that I watch a lot of and really appreciate it.
THO: Well thank you. We’re enjoying doing it and I hope the church is learning a lot from hearing from all these exciting voices. Tell us a little bit about yourself. You’re not new to regional ministry but you currently serve in the Ohio Region so share a little bit about your ministry and then I want to ask you a few things about what’s happening in Ohio
AH: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well I’m proud and pleased and honored to be the Regional Pastor and President of the Christian Church in Ohio. I have been that since April of 2021 and so just about a year and a half into it and finding it to be an exciting and challenging time in the life of the church but that’s not a surprise to anybody and really finding a warm and almost a hungry receptivity to pastoral care and to ideas that are innovative and trying to move the church forward especially after the last couple of years that we’ve had.
THO: Yes, the last couple of years that we’ve had. Let’s talk about that a little bit. You know congregational ministry has really been a challenge in these last few years and one of the things that I always love hearing about are our stories of how our congregations are simply daring to imagine who we must be as I always say as a new church for a new world. So what’s happening in Ohio? What testimonies and stories can you share of what congregations are doing to reimagine their ministry and to meet the needs of their communities?
AH: Absolutely well if I could share a couple of things first it’s more on a regional level to help serve our congregations during this time. One is an expanded use and kind of a reauthorization of regional elders I know other regions use regional elders and Ohio has done it quite effectively but we’ve really expanded that and part of that’s the recognition that the regional church office is smaller and leaner with less resources than it’s had before and our congregations, our lay leaders as well as clergy are hungry for someone to know that they’re there to hear them when they have a concern about needing connections and networking in the church or their pastors getting ready to go into search and call and need help on their end as well as the church in in search and call. So we’ve really expanded our regional elders and I have to say I’m thrilled at the group that we have right now we have 12 regional elders they are more diverse and representative of this rich region than they have been before and that pleases me greatly. So that’s one thing we’ve done. And also we’re recognizing that more of our congregations are unable to have the resources for a full-time minister and so many of them are relying on part-time especially commission ministers, so we have partnered with the Christian Church in Illinois/ Wisconsin and the Christian Church in Michigan to be part of their school for ministry program. And what’s already in place is a comprehensive three-year program including mentorship for commissioned ministers and we are entering into that so that our commission ministers will have the kind of education and training and support that they need prior to going in or early on in their commission ministry. And I’m thrilled that we’re doing that but our vision the three regions vision is to expand that to also have ongoing clergy continuing education and also that much needed lay education for treasurers and moderators and elders and deacons so I’m really excited about that. So those are a couple of things we’re doing on a region-wide level.
THO: Yeah, I think now…go ahead, go ahead…I if you were going to tell another story I wanted you to do that.
AH: Well I have some congregational stories that I’m excited…you know we live in a time where when we sit around chatting about church so often it’s the difficulties but I want to talk about some of the exciting things that are happening. I want to tell you about First Community Church in Dublin, Ohio, which is a multi-campus church in the Columbus area led by Glen Miles who has an amazing staff. Well, one of the things that they have decided to do to move into the future you know particularly acknowledging the need for more conversations about racial justice is that they have called someone that was their intern to be their Minister for Community Justice. And one of the very first things he did was to invite an organization that is called From Guns to Gardens Program. And this artist takes guns and refashions them into artwork for gardens and Community Christian has quite a bit of public space and these artwork pieces now guns that will never be used on the streets again but beautify their sanctuary. So that’s a cool thing.
And I want to talk about a Fifth Christian Church here in my own Cleveland, Ohio, where Rev. Reggie Bunch has been called as the new pastor in the middle of Covid he recognized that the church needed to be a part of the solution and he invited the county health department to come and give Covid vaccines. But he didn’t just want that. He wanted more than that. So they created an outdoor festival in their parking lot and they had health care screenings for all kinds of health conditions. They asked their musicians and their neighborhood musicians to sing and it was it was a community festival all around the health of the community. And that’s you know particularly an African American community and it was wildly successful.
And then one more example go on and on and on. First Christian Church of Wilmington, Ohio, wanted to respond to what happened in Ukraine the war in Ukraine and they wanted to raise money for the Week of Compassion. They happened to have a world-class classical pianist. And he and another piano friend of his offered to do a concert for Ukraine and they raised a sizable chunk of change for Week of Compassion all in response to what was happening in the world. So those are just some examples of some local congregations in Ohio that are doing something to respond.
THO: My cup is full Allen with just so much goodness and excitement. Courageous creativity right the willingness to see things differently and to imagine that that a God can do through us more than we could ever ask or imagine. And so I’m really excited. Also really excited about even the collaboration that you lifted up between Ohio and Illinois Wisconsin and Michigan. People may or may not know Illinois Wisconsin was where I served for all of my ministry I was ordained to Indiana but lived and served in Illinois Wisconsin. So I know that region and know those people well and I’m excited about even the collaboration between Illinois Wisconsin and Michigan that’s present in a new covenant agreement that they have. And as a bi-vocational pastor I certainly understand that environment where congregations are not able to afford a full-time minister and people who have prepared for ministry in lots of different ways and supporting them and that ongoing education.
And I finally am really excited because I know how much congregations need that ongoing development for moderators and lay leaders in the church. I think that’s board development at the congregational, regional and even general level is one of the real challenges in our church that people come to those positions not really understanding not just fiduciary responsibility but things like managing executives and handling budgets but the human aspect of being faithful of fiduciaries in those environments. So lots of good stuff lots of good stuff there.
And at the heart of it all right isn’t it this covenant in design? In our design it says that we’re bound together by God’s covenant of love both to God and with one another you have in the Ohio region used our new covenant curriculum and we’ve been doing all these town halls to talk to the church and share with them what we call the Covenant Project about new ways in which we hope the church will be able to connect and congregations will be able to connect. And not just with the General Assembly but with the General Board and the ways in which we make make decisions together but tell us about how Ohio entered into using the Covenant Curriculum. How do you think it went what would you recommend about it and what benefits do you think it had for Ohio? Lots of questions there but tell us about that curriculum and how you used it and what the benefits were.
AH: let me begin with a huge thank you for making covenant such an important part of your ministry as our General Minister and President I’m a Christian educator I was tutored by Jay Cy Rowell at Brite Divinity School and I will forever be a teacher at heart and so when I saw one of the first things you did was to create a curriculum around covenant my heart leapt with joy so I knew we were going to offer it immediately and then when I looked at the curriculum and saw how he questions were framed in such a powerful way how the videos went so perfectly well with what you were trying to express. I knew we were going to use it. So the first thing I did was I needed it to be available to as many people as possible and I knew at that moment this was a year ago that that needed to be virtually.
So I asked one of my friends, yes, I went to a friend reverend Heidi Barham who is pastor of Ledgewood Christian Church in Novelty, Ohio. She also happens to be in charge of diversity equity inclusion at the Hospice of the Western Reserve. I ask her to teach with me and after about a millisecond she said yes. So we taught five sessions opened it to anyone and everyone in the region and I think we even had some folks from beyond the Christian Church in Ohio and we had some great sessions. Every night it was you know “oh, our time is up can’t we talk a little longer?” I felt people were hungry. I just think, Terri that people haven’t been given the language. We know, we know contracts. We know laws. We even know vows and promises but we don’t know covenant so well. And yet it is I like to say covenant is the glue that holds the church together so I just really appreciated that so that was one thing.
We did but then almost immediately Candace Wilson who is our moderator for the regional church council said “well, I think this ought to be required of our regional church council members.” Why would we gather Regional Church Council together if I don’t know what covenant means so she personally led a series of virtual gatherings, classes, workshops conversations for our council members. We are considering now making that a regular part of our orientation for regional church council. But wait there’s more so both of these things I mean you know you lead by uh example and so our congregations uh began to take it up and do and lead it in their own congregations. And I was so thrilled when I heard from Rev. Becky Lynn Gregory who is the Interim Pastor at Compass Christian Church in Mason, Ohio. She said “oh I’m going to do a sermon series on the Covenant Curriculum and include the curriculum” and the curriculum would be the basis for the sermon. They redesigned their sanctuary. They had movable space so they put round tables in for worship which was kind of you know revolutionary um bright colored tablecloths and they did the curriculum in the middle of worship. And she said it was wildly successful.
But then she invited me to preach the Sunday after the curriculum was concluded. And I tell you I could preach on covenant all day long and of course I preached on Jeremiah 31 particularly 33-34, you know. The covenant that I will make with the house of Israel I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be my people. And one of the things I talk about in that sermon is that I love covenant because it’s not forced on you it’s laid upon your heart. And there’s the ancient Jewish story that you know a rabbinical student asks the master “why lay it on the heart why not put it in the heart?” And the rabbi said well “you know my student that’s because when the heart is broken the covenant can fall in and that’s when you need covenant most is when your heart is broken.”
THO: oh wow
AH: So we, I love that curriculum it’s really well done and you got some great speakers so thank you know excellent
THO: I think you know as our committee of our general board began to we went to retreat in the desert in Arizona thinking about uh where God was leading the church and how could we be a more nimble church how could we learn these lessons and not only share stories of what we’re doing in ministry but enable our relationship across these three expressions of the church to be more robust and meaningful that people needed to be connected. And I think that you know even as I travel around there are people who are still I’m not as familiar with say the regional expression of the church or the general expression of the church. And that notion of covenant, as opposed to contract right we have an ecclesial polity where we don’t you as a regional minister don’t appoint pastors. I have uh very little operational authority over general ministries or regions this this doesn’t work by force of contract or by gavel it works because we all choose to be in this relationship and that we choose to live not only into that covenant that’s laid on our hearts but the covenant that Jesus institutes at the table, where we’re all welcome. So I think that is so important so there was a wonderful team of folks who helped write and put that together and I’m sure when this video is posted there will be a link to that curriculum. It’s free it’s all online there are no books to buy but videos there are study guides and I think there’s so much more that that we want to get that curriculum out to even more churches and congregations. So what’s been I think the thing I love is that you’ve seen it work at the regional level even for your regional council as well as your congregations. Have you had participation in our Covenant town halls the Covenant Project? How are people responding to that? This is sort of a follow-on we were preparing the soil if you will for the work that we believe we needed to do as a church, yes, starting with that theological foundation. To share in the time that we have left maybe share a little bit about how people are receiving the Covenant Projectwhich talks about how we’re going to be changing the way in which we relate to each other not restructuring ourselves but changing the way we make decisions together.
AH: well I so appreciate the Covenant Project because it does build on the theological work you’ve already done but it leads by example. I just love that because a covenant is about relationship more than it is anything. And the way that you all the general church is working with the larger church in the local congregations and regions to move through these pretty big changes is done in a relational way not a top-down way not you know some decree or fiat. And so it’s being very well received lots of people are talking about it and I’ve got all of my regional elders making sure that it’s talked about in our in our district so thank you for leading by example I think the changes that are to come will be needed and I will think will be much more received well received because of how it was rolled out
THO: Oh awesome. That blesses me to know and to hear that and that’s what we’re hearing in the town halls we’re actually taking little polls to see, are you excited? Are you understanding? Offering people a chance to ask questions or even to schedule we’ve scheduled some um town halls we did a town hall for the staff of one of our general ministries. We’re doing one at I’m doing one at Disciples Divinity House at University of Chicago for those students. We’re doing one for Disciples Seminary Foundation. Certain regions we’re doing them with clergy so if there’s an opportunity for more information and more engagement and people have said by and large we’re modeling this is what we’re doing. If it looks like this, if it looks like being able to engage and ask questions and really feel like the congregation is connected not only to the region but to the general church that the assembly basically could be called into session at any time and that the power really and the connection now that congregations understand that they too are directly engaged in that work that’s just been really, really exciting.
AH: amen and thank you. Amen.
THO: Thank you for that I received that on behalf of the General Board and the Governance Committee and all the folks who have worked so hard to make these things happen. Allen we could talk all day I’m so grateful for your collegiality and ministry for your friendship, for the vision and for the passion with which you lead. Ohio is blessed to have you and we’re just so grateful uh for your coming on today just to share how Ohio is leveraging this conversation about covenant. And what excites me more than anything is it is yielding connection, it is yielding excitement and God be praised. So we thank you for your time and thanks for being on with me today, I so appreciate it.
AH: It’s my honor.
THO: Well folks there you have it another episode of Imagine with Me. I tell you I’m blessed beyond words whenever I hear of how congregations are trusting God and daring to imagine who they must be in this new world, believing in God’s limitless love and trying to live inside God’s limitless imagination. How exciting and I’ll be eager to hear other stories from other regions as we move through this this journey to General Assembly 2023.
Look on the posting here for the link to that Covenant Curriculum your congregation, your Region, your General Ministry wherever you are um we can certainly even help you find facilitators to lead that curriculum if that’s the support that you need to do it and we want to hear your stories about the difference that this curriculum and the theological understanding of covenant is making in the lives of your congregation and your communities so thanks for watching and be sure to check us out next time when we’ll have another episode of Imagine with Me remember that God loves you and so do I God bless.