DOUG LEONARD HELPS A SMALL CHURCH COME BACK FROM THE BRINK
BY HEATHER ROOTE FALLER
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In the fall of 2003, Doug Leonard (M.Div., 2001) was ready to accept a call as pastor at a large church. But before he could accept, his synod executive asked him to interview with the Reformed Church of Cortlandtown, in Montrose, New York. “The church was down to thirty-five left on member rolls, and the twenty who came to worship weren’t talking to each other,” said Leonard. The church building dated to 1970 and had deferred maintenance, and the church had been without a pastor for years; if it didn’t find one soon, it would be closed. “Like any sane person, I thought, I’m not coming here,” said Leonard.
But then the church’s leaders took him out to dinner, and Leonard said he “was impressed by the committee’s honesty.” “We’ve got trouble,” they told him. “We’ve bungled through our conflicts.” Leonard was just as direct in return about his vision for the church. That first, honest dialogue would change the course of Leonard’s ministry, and of the church’s.
Leonard accepted the call. First, he needed the church members to stop talking among themselves and start talking, and listening, to the community around them. A survey revealed that one underserved group was at-risk youth, many of whom were involved in substance abuse. “Stupidly, we formed a youth committee made up of adults and decided to promote a movie and pizza night,” said Leonard. One young person showed up, who was already a member of the church.
The following week, Leonard pulled up at the dry cleaners to pick up his suit, and he saw nearly fifty kids loitering. “These were kids with tattoos and black eyes, a rough group, and I’m thinking, this is the group we want to reach out to,” said Leonard. He also noticed some kids talking to the woman behind the counter. “Don’t forget you have court Wednesday,” she said to one boy. She seemed to know all the kids’ names and to care about them.
Leonard remembered the lectionary text for the week was about Jesus telling his disciples to go fishing and lower their nets. They bring up more than the nets can hold; they have to call other boats to help them. In that moment in the dry cleaners, “I felt this sense that we should put our nets down here,” said Leonard. Forget the movie and pizza night at church. Leonard introduced himself to the woman as the new pastor in town, and the woman teared up. Her name was June, and she was an estranged member of the church. “This is my partner in ministry,” Leonard thought to himself. She knew how to listen to and talk to the kids, his mission field.
June offered to introduce Leonard to the kids. “I was a little intimidated,” said Leonard. He was not reassured when the toughest-looking kid glared at him and said to June, “I don’t know who the $#@! this dweeb is, but we’ll give him two seconds, because we love you, June.” Leonard just wanted to get out of there. But he told the kids he was the local pastor, and that his door was always open to talk. He was backing out of the dry cleaners when one girl asked, “Can we talk now?”
So the dialogue began.
The group adjourned to the bagel shop next door, and two state troopers showed up; someone had apparently called them to report the gathering. Leonard invited the troopers to join the conversation, and they sat down to listen. At one point, the discussion got pretty rowdy. As Leonard described it, “The same kid who had given me two seconds stood up and said, ‘Everybody shut up! See this saltshaker? If you have the saltshaker you can talk. I’m going to hand this to Mindy, ‘cause she was trying to talk.’”
That saltshaker at that first meeting became the most important part of the youth “program”: using the Native American device called the “talking stick,” whereby the person holding the stick gets to speak, and the stick is passed around until each person has had a turn to speak. “The kids said that was the only time anyone ever listened to them and that they felt connected to other people,” said Leonard.
None of these kids had grown up in a religious home, and Leonard was unsure at first how to introduce faith into the conversations. He didn’t want to scare the kids off. But the kids knew he was a pastor and that all of the volunteers who helped with the program were church members; when the kids were in crisis, they asked Leonard to pray with them, and they learned to pray as a group. Some of them asked to be baptized. “From time to time I’d look up on a Sunday morning while preaching and see a couple of them sneaking in to sit slouched in the back pews with their hoodies on,” said Leonard.
Leonard and the kids continued to meet at the bagel shop for the next seven years. The state police came to every meeting. The same police who had to arrest the kids when they were selling drugs were now building relationships with them, and the kids were gaining respect for the officers as human beings.
Those relationships were transformative.
The kid who had challenged Leonard that first day at the dry cleaners was homeless, a local drug dealer, and a dropout. Eventually he was taken in by a member of the congregation, who parented him through two years of high school. The young man is now—what else?—a state police officer. “He’s a dynamic leader,” said Leonard. “Our society is not good at realizing kids grow up. We criminalize them. These kids are going to be teachers, firefighters, police officers.”
The work with the youth “energized our entire church and brought us alive,” said Leonard. “We brought ten new people into the church the next year and when I asked the people what interested them in joining, they all said, ‘This church is doing the work of Christ.’” He saw this revitalization as a side benefit. “We never entered into this ministry for the sake of getting the kids to come to church or growing our church; it wasn’t a strategy,” he said. “It was simply an attempt to be faithful to Christ’s call to reach out to those who were the most troubled.”
Leonard acknowledged that the church never boomed the way he wanted it to. But he said attendance got up to eighty on Sunday mornings, and within the first year the church paid off its bills and then launched a capital campaign and raised enough money to update the facility. Pastoring a small church, he explained, “is easier than planting a church. You’re starting with leaders who are more committed than you are.” His church had twelve core leaders out of the twenty in worship. “What they desired was to follow Christ,” added Leonard. “Jesus started with twelve people; I knew we could do this,” he said.
Leonard’s enthusiasm doesn’t gloss over the difficulty of taking on a dysfunctional congregation. “You can’t do it if you’re depressed,” he said. He credited a support group of local clergy with keeping him going through the darkest times.
And just as in the lectionary text, Leonard said the key to success was to call other boats in to help. “We called in the fire department, the Lion’s Club, the Catholic church, the Methodist church, the public school, and we worked in partnership,” he said. “Churches make a big mistake when they try to own a program. We worked with about three hundred youth in the community over the course of seven years, and there is no way our tiny church could have done it alone.” Bringing other voices into the dialogue extended the church’s reach far beyond what the small congregation could do by itself.
Leonard also called in local mosques. He served as president of an interfaith council in northern Westchester County, a group of 100 houses of worship. During his presidency, he reached out to the local mosques to help run a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen serving 30,000 meals per year.
Now the dialogue Leonard sparked in the Reformed Church of Cortlandtown and in the local community has a new reach—halfway around the world to the Middle Eastern nation of Oman. In January 2010, Leonard was called to be the director of the Al Amana Center in Muscat. Once again, it wasn’t a role he was looking for. Nonetheless, the Reformed Church of America asked him to consider the position, and, after some soul-searching, Leonard agreed to go.
Leonard now runs a semester immersion program for seminary students, teaches a course about the theology of religions, and partners with the Omani government to bring Christian scholars to the region. Leonard will also foster a partnership with the Institute of Sharia Studies in Muscat, a reputable Islamic seminary in the Gulf region that draws imams in training from Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Somalia, Iraq, and Iran.
Can the dialogue and relationship-building that happened in Montrose, New York, happen in the Middle East? For Leonard, the theme of his ministry is bridge building. “I’d like to build bridges collaboratively and creatively with as many as want to join me. That was the nature of the call I felt to come to Oman.”
Time will tell what bridges Leonard will build in his new role. In the end, though, he doesn’t define success in terms of numbers, but in terms of keeping the doors open, of relationships formed through deep, open listening and deep, open sharing. “I really think the greatest opportunity for ministry is in the tiny struggling churches,” said Leonard. “Consistently, the most important thing to the kids was not the expensive outings like rafting trips, it wasn’t community service, it was open discussion and handing around the talking stick and just sharing, talking as long as they wanted to and everyone else had to listen. And it was praying together.”
Heather Roote Faller is a PTS alumna, Class of 2002, and was a former writer in the Communications/Publications Office.