Not for the Faint of Heart

May 29, 2003 10:36 AM EDT

DENVER - Church redevelopment work is paradoxical - awful and wonderful, painful and exhilarating - says the Rev. Steve Smith, who offered a whimsical take on a tough ministry at the Network for Churchwide Transformation Luncheon. Calling on his experiences at the Collingwood Presbyterian Church in Toledo, OH, and in his years with the Network, Smith said redevelopment work isn't for the faint-hearted, nor for anyone who can't hold seemingly contradictory ideas in his head at the same time.

"You need to try new things. And you need to be doing fewer things, but doing them well. You need to be gentle and compassionate with those on your doorstep and you need to stop pacifying disgruntled parishioners and let them go," he said. "You need to act like it all depends on you, and trust that it all depends on God."

The Network, created in 1995, is a covenantal organization with a mailing list of more than 1,200 people interested in church redevelopment, or "transformation." The organization gathers every year for a Churchwide Transformation Conference, which attracts four times as many now as in the early years of the Network, according to the Rev. Kenny Davis of Ruidoso, NM, a Network board member.

The next gathering, whose theme is "Extreme Boldness," starts Jan. 22 in Charlotte, NC. For more information, call board member Debra Lanham at 1-888-728-7228.

Reflecting on his experience at Collingwood, Smith is quick to say that change comes hard. "Church people," he said with a laugh, "want things to be different - but they don't want anything to change. And they want more members, but not new people."

He said he has watched volunteers tackle work once done by paid staff, had members take on tithing as a spiritual practice, and seen an almost-vacant church building become an active community center open seven days a week that draws 31,000 visits a year.

Smith said Collingwood's transition has been "stressful, messy and yucky," but transformation is like cocooning, in which a caterpillar - tucked away in the dark - turns into a butterfly. "Transformation is messy and when a caterpillar is becoming a butterfly, you don't want to see inside the cocoon," he said.

"This is not for the faint of heart."

By Alexa Smith