Community Focused Ministry

May 28th, 2013
Old Hickory United Methodist Church

Jay Voorhees is the pastor of Old Hickory United Methodist Church. Jay believes to be effective he needs to be involved in his community and believes you should too.

You came to Old Hickory United Methodist Church when?

The summer of 2010, in the midst of the Nashville floods, where I was leading flood relief efforts in South Nashville.

You’ve been involved with the Chamber of Commerce (actually the president now correct?) What on earth possessed you to get involved with the Chamber?

Part of my calling involves a belief that I am not called simply to a congregation, but also into the community where that congregation is located, thus I am always looking for those places where neighbors are coming together for the betterment of the community. I somewhat stumbled into becoming involved with the Chamber through attending a meeting and being asked if (based on some previous experience) I might help them in planning an event. Eight months later the board asked me to assume the role of president.

Why the chamber? Partially because it was and is an organization in our community that is concerned with the economic well being of the area. While that may not seem connected to the local congregation on the surface, it is generally true that the well being of a congregation is often connected to the well being of the surrounding community, and so getting involved in helping the community has an indirect impact on the climate for doing ministry. Additionally, it allows me as the pastor to be more visible and present in the broader community, which helps the congregation to be more visible and present as well.

What do you enjoy about your service outside the church and in the community?

One of the great joys of being community focused is that it puts me in direct relationships with people who don’t have a regular relationship with a faith community or God. Pastor’s who remain focused on the congregation alone can find themselves isolated from the questions and concerns of folks outside the church—folks with whom we are supposed to be offering Christ. Being involved in community activities allows me the privilege of expanding our reach outside of our walls, and in doing so, inviting those folks to come join us in the community of faith.

Most ministers wouldn’t agree to do anything extra in the community with all the responsibilities of the church, plus you are married to a minister and have kids? Why?

Do I have a choice? Seriously, part of ministry in any place is understanding the context in which your community functions. Our church is located in an historic area that was a company town for much of it’s history, and the church itself was rooted in the culture. Part of engaging in the community is the work of understanding the local culture so as to design how to speak the word of God most effectively within that culture. That involves being in conversation with people in the neighborhood, which I believe is part of the job.

Part of the problem I think many of my colleagues face is the belief that we are hired by the local church (after all, they sign the check each month) and thus all of our ministry should be focused inside that church. However, in our system we aren’t hired by a congregation, but rather are appointed to an area (a parish, so to speak) by the bishop, charged with making disciples of Jesus Christ within that area. Disciple making requires building relationships with all sorts of people in order to help them “connect to God, each other, and the world in profound ways” (to quote the Call To Action report). Yes, we have a calling to order the life of the church, but that doesn’t trump the calling to preaching the word and offering the presence of Christ (sacramentally) to others. I work in the community because I believe that is how Christ is offered to my neighbors, who I am commanded to love sacrificially by Christ.

You recently helped get a coffee house started? And last summer you worked with First Baptist Church Old Hickory to offer an Arts Camp for kids? What are you dreaming about for your community now?

Both of those projects originated out of the desires and needs of the local community at a particular moment. The VIVID program was based in an awareness of the needs of kids in the community, which was shared with the broader community beyond the church. When the community members, some of whom attended other congregations or no congregation at all got excited, we moved forward to connect the need with those resources. Jacob’s Well was solely a community based effort to create a space for community members to gather via a coffee shop. It has become a music venue and art gallery as well, simply because neighbors were willing to give their time, money, and attention to making it happen. In many ways it reflects how Christian community is supposed to work, where people respond to a common vision and give of themselves toward making that vision a reality.

My gifts and skills, if I have any, are in networking and creating connections between needs and available resources. God has called me to be a facilitator of God’s kingdom work in the community, and I am able to use my position as pastor (as well as the efforts of our members) to bridge the gap and allow folks to create opportunities for connection.

The dream I have in constantly changing as the surrounding community changes. That may be a reflection of a short attention span on my part, but I think that it represents my desire to be responsive to the needs around us as they evolve.

Currently those needs are focused around the issues of addiction and recovery, and especially the mental health issues of middle school kids. Part of that is driven out of my own experience of having a child in the local middle school who continues to come in contact with friends who are cutting, who are dealing with anxiety and depression in a severe way, and who live with alcoholic parents. One great place of success for us over the past couple of years has been the creation of two AA based recovery groups which are well attended and growing each week. We are looking at starting the only Alanon group in our area as well as an Alateen group for children of alcoholics, and while we aren’t doing VIVID again this year, we are looking at the possibility of starting some sort of group for middle schoolers to deal with the issues they face this summer.

What do you wish you had been taught in seminary?

Heating and Air Conditioning repair? Honestly, my seminary education at Candler School of Theology prepared me well for the type of ministry that I do. Tom Frank helped a lot through his insights into congregational and cultural analysis (documented in his book, “The Soul of the Congregation”) and John Freeman’s class on Town and Country Ministries taught me to understand that understanding one’s context of ministry is as important as the practice of ministry.

One thing that would be helpful would be helping congregations to deal with changing demographics and creating new identities to reflect those changes. Both my last church and my current one are old, established congregations who found themselves in rapidly transitioning communities and were struggling to keep up with the changes around them. In one case, many of those changes were related to racial/ethnic transitions in the community, and I confess that I had very little training in how to create, promote, and maintain multicultural ministry. In my current community, the transitions are generational and the struggle is how to honor the elders while making the changes necessary to appeal to a new younger generation. Training on how to facilitate these transitions would be helpful.

The other lack in my education was the work of training others for leadership. There was quite a bit in my education on leadership—what it meant to be a leader, how to cast a vision, etc. While having a strong leader is important, part of that work goes beyond vision to the actual work of training and mobilizing people to carry out that mission.

What do you for fun? To relax?

I love music and if I wasn’t a pastor and had a modicum of talent I would love to be a lead guitar player. As it is, I play music when I can (primarily bluegrass and old-time fiddle music). I also become involved many years ago in a form of folk dancing called contra dancing, and Friday nights are my dance night, which allows me to connect with others and is great exercise. I’ve even worked as a contra dance caller along the way, and it’s been an important teacher for me in what it means to lead others in the dance that we call the church.

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