Rumors of the Church’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated: An Interview with Nate Phillips

 coverEvery so often I have the fun opportunity to highlight some great writing, or a good book I think people need to know about. Today we talk to Nate Phillips, a pastor and the author of Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church. This post is primarily addressed to people in the church, especially mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA). But I hope others will read on—especially if you think the culture has “moved on” from Christianity and religion in general. There’s life and transformation in the old girl yet.

In our interview, Nate also talks about the vulnerability and courage required in writing a book like this–or any book, really. I resonate with that so much and thank him for naming it.

1. What inspired you to write this book?

On the one hand, it was personal. I’m about to wind up my first decade of ministry and I have so much gratitude for the privilege of being a pastor. As a kid, I never could’ve dreamed that I would have the honor to do what I am doing today. I take some time to write about that in the first chapter of the book.

That said, there is a part of me that finds the preconceived expectations of ministry, and church leadership in general, a tad misleading. In the book I say,

I long to rediscover a real, maybe even cosmic, purpose in my work. Did I really take those ordination vows to referee squabbles over Styrofoam cups, worship service times, and the color of the carpet? Did I take on seminary and the clerical robe so that I could take out the old sound system and the grumpy antagonist? Did I master the theological and exegetical so that I could manage the janitorial and administrivial? That is where so many of us are.

On the other hand, I had a corporate reason for writing the book. Mainline denominations are coming off a pretty difficult season of disruption and schism. Several of my friends are included among those who left my denomination – PC(USA) – and took their church with them.  Maybe it is me, but it seemed as if some did so while looking down their nose at those who stayed, in a sort of delegitimizing way.  

That agitated me. 

Writing the book was a way for me to say, “No, you’re wrong.  We are doing good work in our churches. We are shaped by the gospel. We profess Jesus as Lord, albeit clumsily at times. Here’s proof.”

2. What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?

People are going to get to know some really great characters in mainline church leadership – a healthy hodgepodge of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians.  As I put it in the book,    

I went on a journey, for all of our sakes. It was a treasure hunt, of sorts. Along the way, I met the most fascinating people. They have bright faces. They are taking risks, building favor, listening well, and creating community in ways that remind me, and will remind you, of why we got into all of this in the first place. 

But, more than that, they are going to read about what makes their ministry tick.  I really tried to balance the inspirational and the practical.  I want people to read the book and say, “You know, I think Becca is great AND I see how she got things started.”  Ultimately, I want church leaders to feel like they can use this book to leverage their own ideas.  My hope is that people will run to their governing boards and say, “Here, look at how Mike is doing this in Texas!” or “Jessica is pulling this off in New Jersey, why can’t we?”

Finally, you are going to get a glimpse of my story, one of growing up as a church-kid in the woods of rural Maine.  Mission at the Eastward (a nine-church cooperative parish) shaped me in a profound way and, so, this book is a love note to that expression of the church.  

A love note to the church?  I’m not sure you get much of that anywhere else these days!

Nate Phillips

Nate Phillips

3. Your book is chock full of encouraging stories about real people doing incredible ministry. How did you find connect with all of these folks?

Several of the folks that I profile in the book I knew personally, so asking them to be part of the project was a way for me to affirm them and for them to support me.  That was the easy part.

After that, things were a bit more work.  I was really committed to making this a book for the mainline – not just my little corner of the Presbyterian Church – and so I reached out to a handful of networked leaders.  This is where Bruce Reyes-Chow (Presbyterian), Ian Markham (Episcopal), Tom Dickelman (Presbyterian), Drew Dyson (Methodist), and Jessicah Duckworth (Lutheran) were especially helpful in suggesting names to reach out to.

Then it was just a matter of sticking my neck out and asking.  This whole process has been a battle with my fear of rejection and waiting on return phone calls and emails was  nerve-wracking. I thought that people (especially these brilliant people) would be more skeptical of my idea, but I only had one person turn me down.  When you think about it, most of these people are doing what they are doing because they are willing to put themselves out there, so taking an interview with me wasn’t a huge stretch.  I am really grateful for their trust in me and I hope readers will appreciate them as much as I do.

4. Share one story, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.

You are going to make me pick!?

Each chapter shares pretty much the same format.  I begin with an open-ended illustrative story, do three or four profiles, and then close with the ending of the opening story.

Each one of my little profiles has its own identity and I allowed myself a lot of creative license in building them. That is, I want people to be able to pick up the book and not feel like they need to read the whole thing or even a whole chapter to get something out of it.  It might even be best to just read one profile at a time and chew on it for awhile.

Here is a taster for the profile on The Slate Project out of Baltimore, Maryland:

With a flick of her wand, the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio a mouth to speak and hinges on his wooden limbs so that he can dance. In his great excitement at this gift, Pinocchio makes the mistake of believing he is real. 

“To become a real boy,” the Blue Fairy corrects Pinocchio, “you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish.” 

She knows that a little puppet can be alive without being real and, to be real, there are certain, specific conditions that Pinocchio must meet. Sometimes the church falls into “Blue Fairy Syndrome” when it assesses new creations in ministry. Does it meet our standards for legitimacy? Can we measure it in the way we always measure things? Yes, it is “alive,” but is it “real”? Jason Chesnut, the Gepetto of the online ministry The Slate Project, hears the “Blue Fairy” interview regularly and he’s surprising her with his answers.

Jason’s work began through a generous investment by an ELCA  …

5. Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered? (Krista Tippett? Colbert?)

Maybe it is because this is my first book project, but there is part of me that is terrified that it could be covered in a super-public way. I’m not sure I want to trust my vulnerabilities and half-formed notions with an audience outside of the (hopefully) forgiving church world. I suppose that is no longer in my control!

I would LOVE to hear that this book is being used by people I admire – like George Anderson who is doing amazing work with the Trent Symposium or Landon Whitsitt who always seems to be discovering a new way of inspiring the church. If, for instance, Kenda Dean, used this book in the innovative work she is doing at Princeton Seminary, I would be over the moon. When I read her endorsement of the book I thought I might pass out.

~

Best of luck to Nate on the release of this book! I hope you’ll check it out.

2 thoughts on “Rumors of the Church’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated: An Interview with Nate Phillips

  1. Ted Chadeayne

    It is my true pleasure to call Jason Chestnut’s co-conspirator, Jennifer DiFrancesco, a genuine friend. Their work at the Slate Project deserves attention from others in the PCUSA. A hope Mr. Phillips book helps encourage the Body of Christ with stories of such wonderful, active people as these!

    Reply

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