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Pastors are uniquely positioned to help people contemplating suicide

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Call, chat or text 988, a national, 24-hour service.

When psychologist Karen Mason managed the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention in the early 2000s, she wanted to engage faith leaders to help educate the public and respond to warning signs of crisis.

But her research since then has revealed a paradox. Though pastors are uniquely positioned to help prevent suicides, they’re often hesitant to embrace the role.

“Clergy are very reluctant to talk about the topic because they don’t know what to say and they’re afraid to say the wrong thing,” said Mason, now a professor of psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the author of “Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors.”

Faith leaders’ silence, no matter how well-intentioned, comes at a price. It can reinforce stigma associated with suicidal thinking, Mason said, including the assumption that contemplating suicide signals a weak faith. When people feel that their struggles can’t be disclosed, even at church, social isolation and risk of suicide can increase.

woman holds a man's hand
Honest and caring conversation is one aspect of effective suicide prevention.

Pastors have “a moral responsibility to help this person sort through, ‘What other options do [I] have besides death?’” Mason said.

Suicide is increasingly recognized as a prevalent and largely preventable problem. The U.S. suicide rate increased by 30% from 2000 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s now the nation’s 12th leading cause of death, responsible for the loss of almost 46,000 lives in 2020.

When clergy look out at the pews and see middle-aged faces, they’re looking at the group most likely to need help: 80% of suicide deaths occur among men and women ages 45 to 54. Rates across age groups are especially high for certain demographic groups, including men, Native Americans, LGBTQ folks, rural dwellers, farm workers, military service members and veterans.

Efforts are now proliferating to help pastors rethink assumptions, prepare for conversations about suicide, and recognize that they don’t have to be therapists in order to discuss people’s hopeless feelings and influence their life-and-death choices.

Many pastors express a feeling of powerlessness, said Michelle Snyder, the executive director of Soul Shop, a nonprofit that equips faith leaders to train congregations in ministering to those pondering suicide.

“To which I say ‘no’; I reject that. I think pastors have the power of persuasion,” she said. “So leverage your position for suicide prevention.”

Resources and training

Resources have been expanding to help pastors do that leveraging. For example, in October 2020, the LivingWorks company launched LivingWorks Faith, a self-paced online program that guides faith leaders in how to intervene, minister to the bereaved post-suicide and promote purposeful living.

Those seeking to go deeper can attend the company’s two-day in-person program in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), which has been used by the U.S. military for more than 20 years.

Soul Shop offers a one-day in-person workshop for faith leaders that covers how to help congregants have conversations about suicide and how to solicit testimonies from those who’ve been suicidal in the past.

In August, it announced a new one-day workshop specifically for pastors, church staffers and lay leaders in the Black church. The Soul Shop for Black Churches training works to address the recent rise in suicides among Black people. The suicide rate for non-Hispanic Black Americans jumped 3.5% from 2019 to 2020, even as the general population saw a 3% decline in the same period.

And in July, the national suicide prevention hotline got a new, easy-to-remember number: 988. This gives pastors another tool to use in crisis situations, Mason said. If someone calls expressing thoughts about suicide, a pastor can keep the person on the phone and they can call 988 together.

On what topics are you silent? What is the price of that silence?

hands holding a brochure
Procter shows materials used in the training.

In trainings, pastors learn to spot warning signs. Some are actions, such as giving away all of one’s personal possessions, not showing up for work or nonstop sobbing. Others might be comments such as, “I think the world would be better off without me.” Major setbacks in a person’s life, such as a divorce, bankruptcy or public humiliation, can also be associated with heightened suicidal risk.

Then what? When a pastor learns that someone is contemplating suicide, next steps could involve removing the intended means, connecting the person to mental health services and promising to follow up with a check-in call soon. All are doable by pastors with no specialized suicide prevention training, experts say.

When clergy hear someone say they’re considering suicide, they are not legally obligated to report the suicidal person or to take other preventative actions unless they live in a state that requires such steps, according to Mason. She added that she does not know of any states that require clergy such reporting.

How can you foster a sense of belonging in your congregation?

group demo
Procter, with Terresio Pope, Cynthia Beale and Dominic Romero, shows ways clergy can respond effectively in a crisis.

Guns and suicide

Removing the means that a suicidal person plans to use can be crucial, especially if the plan involves a gun. That’s because guns are so lethal.

They’re used in fewer than 5% of suicide attempts, yet they’re responsible for more than half of all suicide deaths, according to CDC data. And 54% of gun deaths are suicides, according to 2020 data from the National Safety Council, a nonprofit focused on eliminating causes of preventable death.

Mason points out that guns are different from other methods because they don’t allow a person to reconsider.

“If you were to swallow pills, you could say, ‘Gosh, this is not what I wanted to do,’ and you could call 911. But with guns, you don’t get a second chance, and your reasons to live don’t get a chance to emerge.”

This is an area where pastors can make a difference.

Do the questions you ask invite honest responses?

person standing in doorway
Procter at the entrance of her church, Ambassadors For Christ Worship Center.

Being effective starts with asking directly, “Are you considering suicide?” That’s a common question for the Rev. Kenya Procter to ask in her ministry as executive pastor at Ambassadors for Christ Worship Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Raising the topic doesn’t make suicidal thinking more likely, experts say, but rather creates a safe environment for people to express their desire for help. Procter also trains pastors in suicide prevention through the LivingWorks ASIST program, which emphasizes the need to be clear and direct.

The reason? If she were to ask something indirect, such as, “You’re not thinking about doing something crazy, right?” she’d be prejudging the response, she said. Because a person who answered “yes” would be admitting to lunacy, he or she is apt to say “no” instead, even if the answer isn’t sincere. Asking the question directly makes a clear and honest response more likely.

If a person answers “yes” and is a gun owner, Procter said, she might suggest storing the guns temporarily with the police department, which will return them when the person is ready. And for anyone possessing guns, whether presently in a crisis of suicidal thinking or not, she suggests keeping guns locked.

“The three seconds that it takes to unlock might be the three seconds that deter that person from using that firearm,” Procter said. “Because then you have to get the key. You have to put the key in the lock. And people with thoughts of suicide are not always thinking rationally. … So those three seconds could make the difference.”

Procter speaks as someone who’s felt the pain of suicide’s ripple effects. She and her husband, Fallon, had a mutual friend, Jay, whom they’d known when Fallon and Jay were soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg. Jay always seemed to have something about him that “never sat right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” she said. They later learned that Jay had been involved in another person’s death and eventually killed himself.

When she got an opportunity to work in suicide prevention, she embraced it as a chance to help others do what she had not been equipped to do for Jay, such as know which warning signs to look for.

In talking with congregants, it’s important to convey that God is near, according to Glen Bloomstrom, the director of faith community engagement for LivingWorks. Isolation can intensify thoughts of “My life is worthless; I don’t belong” and needs to be met with messages of love.

“The healthy way to talk about this is …, ‘We are here for you,’” Bloomstrom said. “‘Don’t isolate. Speak with us. We can get you help. You are very valuable to us. You are loved as part of our congregation.’”

group photo
Procter with her husband, Fallon Procter Sr., Dominic Romero and her son, Fallon Procter II demonstrate a suicide prevention training at her church .

In these situations, pastors don’t have to guess at what to say. The hotline can guide them in the moment as they speak with a suicidal person and conference in 988.

“Let 988 help the clergyperson or whoever is calling figure out the right thing to do next,” Mason said. “The situations differ so much. It is hard to give advice [for faith leaders] that’s going to blanket every situation.”

Pastors can be most effective when they aren’t acting as salvation agents but rather as equippers of a team effort to encourage life-affirming choices. For instance, a pastor who knows a responsible gun owner might ask, “If the situation arises, would you hold a gun for someone temporarily?”

Then if a crisis arises, the pastor can suggest to the suicidal gun owner, “How about if so-and-so, whom you know and trust, holds on to your guns for a while until you’re ready to have them back?”

Cultivating community and hope

In crisis situations, disabling a suicide plan sometimes happens by moving the person to a new environment, such as a hospital emergency department, where mental health resources are available and firearms are not.

How can you form and equip a team to encourage life-affirming choices in a crisis?

support group
Hope and community, as well as effective communication, can help people struggling with suicidal impulses.

That’s the approach used by the Rev. Leon Sampson, an Indigenous Episcopal priest at Good Shepherd Mission on the Navajo reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

When they say they want to hurt themselves, “they want help,” Sampson said.

“The first step we’ll do is take them to the emergency room. We tell them, ‘This person has said they want to hurt themselves.’ Through the Indian health system, they will receive counseling and be able to get the resources they need.”

But Sampson also knows that contributors to despair on the reservation are unfortunately common, including abuse, cyclical poverty and lingering effects from past traumas.

As an antidote, Good Shepherd hosts programs in which teens and young adults learn Navajo traditions, from agriculture and cooking to spiritual practices and the Navajo language. Sampson helps them proudly share their heritage and identity by inviting them to address church groups visiting on pilgrimage or mission trips.

As part of cultural pride building, Sampson lifts up appreciation for responsible gun ownership as a component of Navajo culture. He traces it to the tribe’s long history of sending men and women into military service and having guns for protection and hunting.

With this honorable gun-owning tradition comes a duty, Sampson tells young Navajos, to store firearms and ammunition responsibly.

“Gun education and gun safety have been part of the community,” Sampson said. “Very rarely do you hear of a teenager [here] self-inflicting harm with a gun. I think that’s because of the history of families. … They have a deep understanding of how to handle and keep guns.”

Theology, taboos and false assumptions

Shaping culture to support choosing life might look different on the reservation, on a Midwestern farm or in a coastal city. But in each setting, the pastor is drawing on a frequently used skill.

Pastors shape worlds by weaving narratives and elevating particular values in community life. In suicide prevention, that means grappling with how suicide has traditionally been viewed through a theological lens as well as parishioners’ deeply ingrained taboos and assumptions.

Suicide is complicated for pastors, because it’s loaded with theological baggage. It’s been understood as sin, self-murder, cause for exclusion from Christian cemeteries, even an automatic ticket to hell. Such concepts presume that the final act was a grave misdeed and left no margin for repentance or forgiveness.

Such ideas trace back in part to Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century African bishop who taught that life is a divine gift to be cherished and put to use, not something to extinguish in hopes of entering a better world in the hereafter.

New thinking about suicide and morality is needed to foster more compassion toward those struggling without hope, according to the Rev. Rhonda Mawhood Lee, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. With support from a Louisville Institute grant, Lee is writing a book that develops a new theology of suicide.

Lee has been touched by suicide directly. Going back generations, several members of her family have taken their own lives. Her mother made multiple attempts at suicide while Lee was growing up before dying by suicide in 1995, when Lee was in her 20s.

She’s careful with her terminology, using “died by” rather than “committed” suicide, because the latter connotes sin and crime.

“Saying that suicide and other complicated ills like substance use disorder reveal the fallen nature of our world does not have to mean assigning culpability to people who kill themselves, or sitting in judgment of them,” Lee said in an email.

“It does mean we can lament suicides, have a range of feelings about them, and do what we can to prevent them.”

In working through the repercussions of her mother’s suicide, Lee has spent years researching her family history and noticing patterns that help her understand it.

A number of theological ideas about suicide need reexamining, she said. The one who dies by suicide shouldn’t be seen as unsavable, she said, because that would “tie God’s hands” and leave no room for grace. Instead, suicide, while always lamentable, should be seen in light of conditions that might have driven the person to desperation.

Taboos around suicide are tenacious, and today’s work involves probing which ones, if any, still serve a useful purpose. The taboo describing suicide as self-murder is too harsh and diminishes compassion toward those struggling with suicidal ideation, Lee said. But the general cultural taboo against dying by suicide might help prevent suicide in some cases by marshaling social pressure to choose life instead, she said.

As pastors gain appreciation for how much they can do to prevent suicides, they’re discovering how much needs to be done on fronts ranging from pastoral care and preaching to theology. Wherever they begin, it’s with growing conviction that this is the church’s work to do.

“We’re trying to demystify the idea that [suicidal thinking] is somehow this untouchable thing that is so medical that it requires the professionals,” Soul Shop’s Snyder said. “In fact, what it requires is communities that can respond with community and with hope.”

What do your congregation’s theological ideas about suicide say about God?

Questions to consider

  • On what topics are you silent? What is the price of that silence?
  • How can you foster a sense of belonging in your congregation?
  • Do the questions you ask invite honest responses?
  • How can you form and equip a team to encourage life-affirming choices in a crisis?
  • What do your congregation’s theological ideas about suicide say about God?

A few months ago, I prayed with a congregant, a Black woman, who was suffering from months of torrential criticism and verbal abuse from her boss, a white woman not much older than she is. My congregant was hurting, and the company’s human resources department seemed content to look the other way.

At the end of the phone call, I asked her whether she was part of a union, following my standard set of questions for anyone dealing with workplace stress: Are you talking to your co-workers about what you’re experiencing? Are you part of a union with a representative who can advocate on your behalf?

As the executive director of my church in New York City, I pray with my congregants about work more than anything else. They often don’t have work, don’t receive enough money from work to pay bills, or are experiencing incredible stress because of an exploitative boss.

Last month, we had a sermon series called “Work & Capitalism,” which provoked an outpouring of stories from congregants about the difficulty of their jobs. Some told of being burned out by “mission-oriented” workplaces. Others had insecure bosses who made their jobs unbearable.

While I offer prayer to my congregants, I also recognize that their needs are material, not just spiritual and psychological.

Just as clergy rely on therapists and doctors to take care of our congregants’ health needs that we can’t address, so too we rely on labor organizers to meet their job-related needs that we can’t. And that’s why Christian leaders have a responsibility to support the efforts of those who help workers organize.

While our church does offer some financial assistance, I know that the most long-term solution for congregants with workplace issues is to ensure that they can organize with their co-workers to collectively pursue their demands. They might join a union that will help them advocate for their needs, and they might go on strike and withhold their labor to force management to listen to their needs.

The turning point for the congregant with whom I prayed came when she confided in a co-worker about her experiences. He assured her that she was not crazy. In fact, he had observed her boss treating other women of color similarly.

He was effectively operating as a labor organizer — connecting her to other co-workers with similar grievances so that they would know they were not alone and that they could take action together. He reinforced her dignity and sense of self in a way that I could not.

Clergy are sometimes reluctant to advocate for the interests of workers. It is partly practical: the bosses the clergy fear alienating are often the biggest contributors to a congregation’s budget. Clergy will never be fully free to advocate for workers unless they are willing to confront their wealthy donors about their labor practices and take the risk of watching them walk out the door.

Other clergy may legitimately feel that it is “unchristian” to go on strike, saying that it sows disunity and discord, urging instead “loving, reasonable dialogue” between “both sides.”

But calls for unity paper over the inequalities at play. Going on strike or speaking up against workplace abuses does not create disunity; it reveals it. Dialogue can only be successful when both sides wield equal power.

I do agree that even in an unequal situation, “both sides” are deserving of dignity; Jesus, after all, healed both the leper and the son of a Roman official. But that does not mean that as Christians we are called to treat each side equally. Rather, we are called to change the conditions of our world so that both sides are in fact equal.

Perhaps no one better exemplified that balance between treating all with dignity and advocating for equality than Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

In 1949, 240 unionized cemetery workers in the largest Catholic cemetery in New York City went on strike for better wages. They earned $59.40 per week for 48 hours of work, the same pay that other workers received for 40 hours of work.

When the archdiocese refused to negotiate, the workers went on strike. The strikers themselves were resolutely Catholic. They opened their union meetings with prayers, reciting the Our Father, the Hail Mary and a workers’ prayer that began, “Lord Jesus, Carpenter of Nazareth, you are a worker as I am.”

Day, along with staff at the Catholic Worker, supported the strikers by providing food for their families and joining the picket lines.

Seven weeks into the strike, Cardinal Francis Spellman broke the picket line with 100 seminarians, flanked by a robust police escort, and began digging graves. He accused the union of being influenced by foreign Communists.

Day wrote to Spellman following the events and urged him to consider the needs of the workers who merely wanted enough wages to raise and educate their children or even buy a home. In her letter, she appealed to his humanity, writing that she was “deeply grieved” to see that he had brought in seminarians to break the picket lines.

What was at stake for Day was not just material wages and hours, she wrote, but the strikers’ “dignity” as men and as workers.

As clergy, our tradition tells us that all have dignity in the image of God. We hold a mirror up to our congregants every Sunday and say, “Look, you are worthy of dignity.”

The question is whether the conditions in which our congregants work uphold the “dignity” of which we preach. If not, then following Day’s example, we must support the work of labor organizers and unions to affirm the dignity of our congregants throughout the week.

By now, no concept or idea is too off-the-wall for the Rev. Barry Randolph and his congregation at Church of the Messiah in Detroit.

More than 200 affordable housing units run by the church? Check. Free internet for residents who didn’t have access? Done. A growing list of incubated businesses with products ranging from tea to deodorant to a clothing line? No problem.

This innovative Episcopal church anchors the Islandview neighborhood on Detroit’s east side. In a city with an estimated poverty rate of 36%, more than three times the national average, Randolph is driven by a desire to foster an equitable community whose residents have a stake in its success.

Parishioners attend Sunday church service outside the Church of the Messiah. Photo by Rebecca Cook

“You can’t throw money at it. It’s not about just getting somebody a job. Now you have to teach people how to keep the job,” said 57-year-old Randolph. “And it’s not about just bringing people up. Sometimes you gotta bring up the whole community.”

What challenges does your congregation face that cannot be solved with money?

This approach helped Randolph transform the church, once on the verge of shuttering, to a community hub that’s now more than 300 members strong, racially diverse and majority young.

Randolph and his parishioners see the church as an incubation center. At the church, someone with a business idea can team up with accountants and attorneys to get it off the ground, and many have.

“You need your phone charged? Here’s a charging station,” said Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, referring to Church of the Messiah’s four solar-powered community charging stations. “The entrepreneurial spirit, that kind of spirit, is what our church longs for.”

2020 Traditioned Innovation Award Winner

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners received $10,000 to continue their work.

People returning home from prison can seek help getting a job from the church’s employment office. The church is also the home base for a marching band that secures college scholarships for teens who once thought they wouldn’t graduate from high school.

To Randolph, it all ties back to providing people a path out of poverty.

A relatable approach

Ask members at Church of the Messiah their impressions of Randolph and his leadership and they’ll likely say he’s the “realest” pastor they know.

Before he became a priest, Randolph was a businessman. He co-owned a distribution company, dabbled in catering and managed the deli at a local market for a decade.

He doesn’t write down his sermons. He doesn’t preach from the pulpit, because he doesn’t like to be elevated above his congregation.

He dresses casually, wearing a short-sleeved button-up and khakis during a recent outdoor service.

His congregation calls him Pastor Barry, not Father.

Randolph welcomes parishioners to the church’s outdoor Sunday service. Photo by Rebecca Cook

Of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan’s 90 active priests and deacons, he’s one of six Black clergypeople.

Bucking the trend of the majority-white denomination, 60% of Church of the Messiah’s members are Black men under 30. Randolph says 70% of his congregation is under age 35.

“It was kind of different for me seeing people exactly like me, the exact same mentality,” said 22-year-old Samijai Blanks, a Black man who has been involved with the church since he was a boy. “A lot of people my age wouldn’t even think about church.”

Randolph lives at the church and doesn’t take a salary. He has a large family — 11 brothers and sisters, and 31 adult nieces and nephews — who pitch in to support him financially. His relatives pay for his groceries and help with transportation, because he doesn’t own a car.

Foundation funding, philanthropic donations, and a mix of spiritual and secular collaboration sustain the church’s ministries. Over the years, the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and others have financed efforts such as the business incubation program and the employment office.

“We never do anything based on money. We do it, and then the money seems to follow,” Randolph said. “People see the work, and then they come in and they help us to be able to build.”

What could your church do if you pursued an idea first and trusted that the money would follow?

Church of the Messiah’s work in the community has drawn interest from as far as Latvia and Uganda. The church is spearheading what it calls The Master’s Plan, a coalition of 103 religious organizations seeking to rebuild communities and lift people out of poverty by drawing on the talents of their congregations. Randolph is leading churches in doing an asset assessment to identify members who work in the medical field, skilled trades, education and other professions to “help build the kingdom.”

“We’re trying to use other churches to be able to do it in their community and neighborhood with no excuses,” he said. “It’s worked for us.”

The hardest aspect of this type of community building is for churches to shift their mindset from focusing on what people are missing to realizing what they have, said the Rev. Michael Mather, the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Boulder, Colorado, and a faculty member at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University.

What would it take to shift your church’s focus from what’s missing to what assets are present?

Mather is a former pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, where he revamped the church’s approach to ministry by asking people what their gifts were and looking for opportunities around those talents.

“One of the rules that we followed and that we’ve tried to think about a lot was that money should always flow into the hands of the people who don’t have much,” Mather said. “In the past, what we’ve done is we would pay ourselves to run programs for people whose problem was they didn’t have money. But we didn’t see the irrationality of it when we were doing it.”

Making the word of God tangible

Randolph first came to Church of the Messiah in 1991. He attended a service to hear his mother, a member, speak about faith.

He hadn’t been to church in two years. Raised a Baptist, he’d always believed in God. “I just couldn’t stand organized religion,” he said.

He found the Episcopal service ritualistic and dry. He hated the chanting. The hymns reminded him of a funeral march. Bored by it all, he swore he’d never return.

But the church was looking for someone to tutor kids in reading, and Randolph agreed to it. The church’s commitment to the community, demonstrated through efforts like the Church of the Messiah Housing Corporation founded in 1978, and his respect for the people behind those efforts, including then-rector the Rev. Canon Ronald Spann, eased his skepticism. Randolph eventually became a member.

Affordable townhouses built by Church of the Messiah. Photo by Rebecca Cook

His relationship with the church deepened thanks to his love for working with kids. He became the Sunday school teacher, then the youth director, then the worship leader.

Randolph moved to the Islandview neighborhood in 1997 to be close to Church of the Messiah. He grew up six blocks away, but unlike Islandview, his childhood neighborhood had no concentrated poverty. When he moved there as an adult, he realized that while his upbringing had been more privileged, he felt more at home in tightknit Islandview. The residents were the jewels of the community — they just needed opportunity.

Becoming an Episcopal priest wasn’t in Randolph’s plans. But in 1998, God spoke to him and called him to bring more young people to Church of the Messiah as a priest.

The church’s numbers had plummeted to 40 members by the time Randolph became ordained in 2002. The situation only worsened over the following years. With Church of the Messiah in debt and the building in disrepair, Randolph knew he needed to do something different.

“Church of the Messiah was always a community church in the sense that people knew that we did housing or summer camps or after-school programs,” he said. “What they didn’t get was how we worshipped. They didn’t come to worship. They came to everything else.”

The traditional service didn’t resonate with the community, so Randolph redesigned it. He added a noon service to attract young parishioners. Mindful that some people might be illiterate, he got rid of the collective readings. The outline of the Episcopal service remained, but this new version was wrapped in a package that was accessible to first-time churchgoers.

“He attracted all these young people,” said Kenyon Reese, 48, who has been a member nearly all his life. Reese recalls the service dwindling to just eight or nine people before Randolph switched it up. “He just changed the energy,” he said.

Samijai Blanks holds his daughter Lyrie Blanks during a worship service. Photo by Rebecca Cook

Randolph geared the service toward bringing out parishioners’ greatness, with the church acting as the incubation center to help people realize their goals. Through the doors came formerly incarcerated people, former gang members and individuals who’d dropped out of school. These new parishioners wanted to know how to tap into the greatness Randolph preached about. What did greatness mean for them when they couldn’t find a job? Randolph directed them to the church’s employment office and entrepreneurship mentoring.

How might you make your church and its offerings more accessible to more people?

“We were putting things in place to where we were making the word of God tangible, regardless of your background,” Randolph said.

Word traveled in the neighborhood and beyond. The buzz attracted professionals, doctors and attorneys curious about the church’s growing reputation as a business incubator, an employer and a housing provider. The church’s membership grew to 100 people within six months, Randolph said. Then to 200 the next year. Within three years, Church of the Messiah was home to 300 members.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has forced changes, Church of the Messiah has been growing. Photo by Rebecca Cook

Investing in second chances

Some arrive at the church out of necessity and come to view it as a community center and a home.

That was 26-year-old Dwight Roston’s path.

At 16, Roston said, he was getting into trouble — skipping school, fighting and stealing cars — a product of being young and bored and unable to find a job. He showed up at Church of the Messiah to do community service as a condition of his probation. He wasn’t looking for guidance, but Randolph quickly noticed that Roston was artistically inclined.

How can you train your parishioners to notice and affirm the gifts of others?

Randolph asked him: Why was he stealing cars if he was this good at drawing?

So Roston stuck around. At the church, he learned to use a screen press to make and sell his own T-shirts. He recorded music. He worked for Nikki’s Ginger Tea, the longest-running business incubated by the church, which showed him the ins and outs of wholesale and retail. He learned to install free internet in the neighborhood through the church’s participation in the Equitable Internet Initiative. He learned video production, worked on a project with PBS and started his own company, I Am Productions.

The church service is only an hour on Sundays, but Roston finds himself at the church every day.

“It has all these different programs, and you can’t find that anywhere else,” he said. “They don’t care about what kind of past you have or anything like that. Are you willing to be a productive person? Everybody has something to bring to the table, like a bunch of puzzle pieces.”

Kimberly Woodson, 50, credits Randolph with helping her find a job and launch her own nonprofit after she served 29 years in prison for a murder conviction as a juvenile.

Woodson was pregnant and looking for housing when someone brought her to Church of the Messiah a few years ago. She shared her story with Randolph and later became a member.

Kimberly Woodson stands on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building after speaking at a rally organized by the National Lifers of America. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Woodson

Woodson told Randolph that she wanted to help others reenter society after incarceration. He introduced her to a woman who works in prison ministry and could walk Woodson through the process of starting a nonprofit. She helped Woodson fill out paperwork for articles of incorporation and apply for an employer identification number, steps that Woodson said would have been overwhelming without guidance.

The ministry of introduction can be a simple act with profound repercussions. Is there someone you know who needs to be introduced to someone else?

Now Woodson’s organization, Redeeming Kimberly, has been operating for a year and hosts events such as clothing drives and resource fairs at the church.

Randolph could help the community by simply giving away food and clothing, Woodson said, but instead, he chooses to invest in people and their ideas.

“He don’t just give you a fish. He’ll give you a fish and a fishing rod, tell you how to get to the water, the best methods to make the bait and how to catch the fish,” she said.

Randolph believes that people have been blessed with talents from God. And at Church of the Messiah, he invites them to grow those gifts.

“We’re created in the image of God,” he said. “So we need to bring it into fruition. We don’t want to waste that gift or talent.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • The Rev. Barry Randolph says that you can’t just throw money at a community in poverty to improve it. What challenges does your congregation face that cannot be solved with money?
  • Randolph’s funding has largely come after he’s pursued ideas. What could your church do if you pursued an idea first and trusted that the money would follow?
  • Changing from a scarcity mindset is difficult. What would it take to shift your church’s focus from what’s missing to what assets are present?
  • Randolph redesigned the service to allow the community to engage. How might you make your church and its offerings more accessible to more people?
  • Randolph saw how talented a parishioner was and encouraged that talent. How can you train your parishioners to notice and affirm the gifts of others?
  • The ministry of introduction can be a simple act with profound repercussions. Is there someone you know who needs to be introduced to someone else?

I have spent my entire ministry believing that disruption can be a good thing. Maybe that’s hard to accept in the midst of a pandemic. But when things are disrupted, something new can break in.

My ministry was born out of a frustration that too often we perpetuate models that no longer apply to the world in which we live, excluding and leaving people behind. To me, that is the antithesis of the hope of the gospel.

I have spent over 20 years pursuing alternatives, the last 15 alongside entrepreneurs faced with intractable challenges and systems that just aren’t working. I founded Matryoshka Haus, a nonprofit that was part incubator, part community, part training organization.

Yet after training entrepreneurs to tackle wicked problems and think in new ways, Matryoshka Haus found itself in a place where its model was no longer working. We had to do what we have advised others to do: we had to pivot.

Our organization has become three different nonprofits, including RootedGood, which empowers institutions, social enterprises and entrepreneurs to make good in the world. You’ll hear more about why we did this below.

From this experience, we have identified five distinct phases of a pivot — five stages you need to move through when the structures you’ve built no longer work.

In addition, RootedGood just released a tool called “What Now?” — a decision-making tool that helps leaders understand and map their changing needs and constraints, consider their resources and design new ways to respond to the challenges and opportunities they face.

I am sharing both our experience with the five stages and the free online tool because I believe they are relevant to all of us today.

The What Now? tool also can help congregations trying to decide whether to reopen.

The five stages of a pivot

1. Recognition

Recognition is often the hardest stage in the process. You have to see that something isn’t working.

Cognitive bias predisposes us to retell a narrative suggesting that something is working or that the outcome makes it all worth it.

To recognize that something isn’t working does not mean that nothing good has come of it — rather, that the good does not fully reflect the intended impact.

At Matryoshka Haus, by some metrics we entered our pivot year more successful than ever. We were winning awards and getting the work we wanted with the people we wanted to work with.

At the same time, the wheels were coming off internally. We were burning through volunteers, our team was overfunctioning, and our reserves were tapped out. We were working harder and harder but not able to come up for air.

We hired a managing partner, and when he held the mirror up to us, we had a come-to-Jesus moment. Something had to change.

We can extend this to the COVID-19 world around us as well. Can’t we recognize that there is something broken in our ecclesiology and in our economics when the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger? Can’t we see that our churches’ economic models are failing when the church looks as busy and stressed out as the business world?

It is time to recognize that we’ve been totally out of control and the way we’ve been living hasn’t been good for people or the planet.

2. Grief

Once you recognize that things have to change, you feel loss — and with it, a deep fear because of the uncertainty of what will replace it.

Christians are a people that believe in a gospel of death and resurrection. But too often, we rush from death to resurrection and don’t acknowledge the pain and the loss. The challenge here is not to rush or move on too quickly. We need to acknowledge the loss and make space for our feelings.

For me, the grief about Matryoshka Haus was as much about the lost ideal as anything else. For so long, I believed that if we just worked harder it would all be OK. I believed that we really could overcome any obstacle. We were smart, creative and tenacious, and we were in it together. One of the hardest things was acknowledging that we, as a team, couldn’t move into the future together, and that whatever came next would be different.

With the current pandemic crisis, we’ve lost some of our sense of security. We are separated from others. Our economy is crumbling around us. And one of the hardest things is that we aren’t comfortable with grief. If we cannot acknowledge what is being lost, it is impossible to move forward in a healthy way.

Grief needs a way to commemorate and memorialize. At Matryoshka Haus, we created a ritual to allow ourselves, our community and other stakeholders the space to mourn and celebrate. We held a service that allowed other people to mark the changes with us, celebrate the past and pray for the future.

3. Learning

You don’t want to sit in grief forever. In this step, we start to see the things we want to take with us and the things we need to leave behind. We need to find a way to sift through the rubble and pull out the essential and meaningful parts from the past, but we also need to identify the assumptions that were problematic.

At Matryoshka Haus, we had several faulty assumptions. Things that worked for us when we were young and small became part of our Achilles’ heel as we grew.

For instance, we believed that our complexity was a gift, being part incubator, part community, part training organization. And the truth is that when we were young and new and small, it was an asset. But as we grew, that asset became a liability; everything became messier and more entangled.

However, we still had a lot going on that was good and worth celebrating. One of the most beautiful and powerful things that happened at our commemorative service was hearing people who had worked with us in different seasons talk about how they had been affected.

Our work was having a lasting impact, and in more powerful ways than we knew. There was gold in that, and whatever we do next, we want to create more ripple effects!

In our new COVID-19 world, we are still learning, but some lessons are becoming clear: how fragile our economic and civil systems are, as well as our models of church.

If we really have the courage to be honest, people on the margins have been telling us this all along. The church has been measuring success by the number of people in the pews and the amount of money in the offering plate — as if that reflected authentic discipleship or the existence of beloved community.

Surely, we are realizing that individualism only gets us so far. We are interconnected. The opportunity here is to ask, What, then, is our path toward mutuality and interdependence, toward mercy and justice?

4. Renewed vision

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “knowing your why.” Your why is what helps you get back in the ring. When you truly grab hold of your why again, then the how you do your work and the what you do doesn’t matter.

What matters is the telos. To what end are you working? What is your desired impact? What transformation will you see in people, places, policies or systems? When you think through the lens of impact and purpose — the why — then you can more easily redesign the how and the what.

This is the step where hope can break back in. It’s where we can be more aware of both the opportunities and the challenges. We understand the reason we exist, and we can acknowledge our false assumptions.

At Matryoshka Haus, I had to go back to what got me into this work to begin with. Acts 17:6, which talks about “the ones that have turned the world upside down” with the gospel, has been a driving force for me.

It is the impulse of Christian innovation to demonstrate that another world is possible. So when Matryoshka Haus decided to restructure, we did it with our core intent in mind: whatever we did, we wanted it to be doing transformative work at a systems level.

In our infancy, we did that by incubating our own projects. In the next season, we will do that in partnerships.

I don’t know the why for America or the world in this time of crisis. But for Christians, surely our why takes us back to the fact that we are not meant to serve ourselves but the Lord. We are called to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Maybe that seems simplistic. But it is the answer Jesus gave when asked what is the heart of the gospel.

5. Re-imagined practice

Once you get clearer on your why and the impact you want to have, then you can re-imagine the how. This is where new practice can be developed.

In stage five, we hit the place where it is time to be brave again. But as we start again, we do it with our eyes wide open. Knowing more than we knew before, we get back in the ring.

Kenda Creasy Dean teaches practical theology and social innovation at Princeton Theological Seminary. She says that 90% of first-time entrepreneurial ventures fail but 80% of second-time ventures succeed — yet 90% of first-time entrepreneurs don’t try again.

Our pivot ended with a birth of new things. We decided to restructure all of our work into three new organizations, two in the U.K. and one in the U.S. In my new role, I am a co-founder and the lead cultivator of the U.S.-based RootedGood. The other spinoffs are Goodmakers Society and the Ti Group.

Rather than holding on to the complexity we once cherished, this restructuring allows each organization to focus on its mission and landscape and live out its prophetic imagination.

I have shared this five-stage process because I believe that the current disruption of a global pandemic is a moment in time where we, as Christian leaders and the church writ large, are being invited to pivot.

The world needs us to show up as a hopeful people and to be good news people. And this current crisis gives us the perfect opportunity to turn the world upside down with the gospel.