By Rev. Shalom Agtarap
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup…You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.” – Bruce Lee
This classic line: “be like water” reverberated in my mind days after visiting Dennis Paschke, the pastor at Orting United Methodist Church and executive director of the Orting Recovery Cafe, which celebrated its grand opening on Saturday, November 17. After a quick tour of the new facility, our conversation turned to deeper questions about formation: Where did he get the skills to get this ministry up and running? What told him to move into the community, seeking out their needs and competencies? What lived experience emphasized relationships over programming in revitalizing Orting UMC?
Embedded deep in Dennis’ calling is John Wesley’s credo personal faith leads to social justice and transformation. He says, “We have a presence in many communities as United Methodists, but we don’t always have credibility because we simply aren’t the change for Christ we profess to be. Never underestimate that a small group of committed disciples, together with Christ, can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. We already have what we need to change the world for the better.”
Learning from the Community
Just over a year ago, soon after a training on asset-based community development (ABCD) entitled Church for All People, Dennis was appointed to Orting UMC. The funding from the Board of Congregational Development (BOCD) enabled him to give his full time and attention to the people of Orting. In place. In his own flesh. Incarnate in the neighborhood.
Dennis broke the mold, fully engaging as a leader in the community by attending city council meetings and serving as a City Commissioner. What Dennis uncovered was that within every community, people are looking for leadership and for answers.
The opioid crisis had hit this community hard – in the Spring of 2017, the city reached its breaking point, dealing with a huge number of overdoses and three youth deaths. City Council meetings were packed and social media was bursting with emotion – some were angry, some deeply sorrowful, some felt hopeless, others helpless. The heart of the community was broken, but out of that brokenness, says Dennis, “comes transformation. It was exactly the time for the church to take a lead in the community.”
In that moment of brokenness, Dennis quickly learned that people in Orting and adjacent communities were desperate for “a different tomorrow” – a tomorrow without the senseless death and broken families that opioid addiction inevitably brings – a tomorrow that reached out to those suffering and to their families – a tomorrow where ‘the least of these’ had a place of hope and healing.
Dennis’ deep understanding of the communities’ needs led him and his congregation on a year-long collaboration with others desperate for answers. Along with the City, Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, various healthcare providers and organizations focused on families’ and children’s wellness, they studied models for for those wrestling with addiction and chose Seattle-based Recovery Cafe. Dennis, the church and their community partners quickly got to work planning and fundraising to make the Cafe a reality.
As the launch of the Cafe became a reality, Dennis wondered aloud about The United Methodist Church’s role saying, “Honestly, I wrestle and pray for us to be an institution that is willing to change – to be the change our communities are hungry for.” According to Dennis, this is the “spiritual DNA of Methodists”. Dennis believes that while the church often struggles to be relevant and credible in our communities, all it would take to change is “a willingness to actively listen to the people and events happening in the communities we serve.” The good news, he says, “is if you ask and listen, people will tell you how to be credible again in their communities.”
Leadership Lessons Learned
During our time together, Dennis shared the lessons of one who is willing to challenge the way we have lived and moved in the world as a church; lessons that are helpful in being like water and fully embracing the people God asks us to love.
- Credibility: Every pastor and every congregation should be wrestling with the question, “Am I credible? Are we credible?” How can we represent both Jesus and the Church within a community, and also be a credible witness and a convincing voice of transformation? Spending all of our time inside the church building can communicate to the world that the community’s problems are bigger than our God. John Wesley said, ‘The world is my parish’. Wesley also said this: ‘personal holiness (or our pursuit), leads to ‘social holiness’. You really can’t have one without the other.
- Leading with grace: Leaders must be willing to enter into tough discussions with emotional intelligence and gain the respect of those they are entrusted to lead. If we are not willing to overturn every stone in our communities, with grace and compassion, to know every aspect of what our community wrestles with, to see all sides of each issue, then we can’t expect to be trusted as a leader. Jesus was always on the move throughout His ministry, deeply listening and rooting out systemic (social) evil.
- Church must give up the mindset that got us where we are. We must give up being all things to all people. We can ﬁnd one or two things we are deeply passionate about and become known again for standing for something. Recall our heritage: Wesley Medical Centers, schools, universities, orphanages. These established our credibility – showing we were willing to go to the wall for what we believed – and do it convincingly well.
Dennis desires none of the spotlight, but we highlight these lessons learned in the hope that followers of Jesus throughout our Conference will be inspired to engage imaginative solutions to community problems and find success, find life, when we flow like water, rather than stand like a stone.
Rev. Shalom Agtarap serves as Associate Director of Innovation for a New Church and as a member of the Greater Northwest Area’s Innovation Vitality Team.