Having been at UBC for a decade, I assumed I had a firm understanding of what it meant to be a pastor there.
Or, rather, I didn’t know what it meant to be a pastor at UBC in 2010, fifteen years after the birth of the church, ten after I arrived, and five after Kyle died. At that point, each of those markers seemed to represent a particular dispensation in the life of the church, divided up, roughly, into five-year increments.* The first dispensation could be described as “UBC: The Baylor Church;” the next five years, “UBC: The Emerging Church;” then, “UBC: The Grieving Church.” We never stopped being what we were before, but each subsequent time period built on the other, adding a layer of identity with every passing period of time.
And if each five-year period added a new dimension to what it meant to be a church, it certainly did the same for what it meant to be a pastor at UBC. Change usually occurs after a time of crisis or discomfort, and this would prove to be the case as we entered a new era in the life of the church. (Whether the next few months could be described as “crisis,” “discomfort” or both, is dependent on which of the dispensations we most identified with.)
Between Toph and me, our jobs were to be similar. In fact, on paper we were given an identical job description, which was basically a mash-up of all the roles Ben and John Mark had filled in previous years. The idea (as I understood it) was that we would simultaneously, as a team, be responsible for the same tasks, but would be given a distinct demographic of congregants to be pastorally responsible for. Toph would be the pastor for most of the undergrad population, which at that point was still over three quarters of the church. I would be responsible for undergrads nearing the end of their degrees who were beginning to discern decisions about their future; grad students; and “Young Professionals,” which is code for “Singles.” Josh had already started connecting with young families, so between the three of us, most of the church was covered.
In addition to this, Toph and I both were to be responsible for all the activities where people gathered together, either for spiritual formation or simply to connect. This included Sunday School, Bible Studies, Community Groups and other church activities.
The first order of business, though, was summer.
For much of the lifespan of UBC, summers had been the most meaningful season for those of us in Waco year-round. The drop off in attendance was drastic, with over 90% of the congregation leaving town for summer jobs, internships, mission trips, or just to relax at home. Years before the HGTV phenomenon Fixer Upper made downtown a destination for tourists from around the country, Waco was a ghost town in the summer. Of those who remained at UBC during these times, most were looking to find deeper connection than was possible during the school year. It was also a time when many of us introverts came out of hiding.
For many summers in the earlier periods of the church, there was something to do almost every night of the week. Mondays we met at Mr. Snow, a Sno-Cone (or is it Snow Cone?) place in Beverly Hills, a town located within the borders of Waco, (think: the opposite of the Beverly Hills you think of when you hear the words “Beverly Hills); Tuesdays were “Taco Tuesdays” at Rosa’s Café; Wednesdays were Bible Studies on David’s front porch; Fridays were movie nights. In June we held a garage sale to help keep the church financially afloat during the leaner summer months. Many of the close friendship we had during the year were formed and nurtured during these summer months.
In the years leading up to 2010, though, summer activities began to diminish. Mr. Snow Mondays began to fade away, as did movie night Fridays. Times were changing. The typical UBC’er who stayed in Waco over the summer was becoming either a college student busy with school, a young professional busy with work, or a young family busy with children. On top of this, the need for connecting and forming community with others in the church was being met in other places, like small groups.
Churches for years, (actually, since the beginning,) have met in homes for fellowship and meals. It could be argued that aside from corporate worship together, this is the main function of the church. The “Church Growth Movement” of the 1980’s and 90’s encouraged congregations to use small groups to increase the size of their church. The idea is that people who feel more connected to the church through a small group of people are more likely to give themselves fully to the larger congregation.
UBC’s small groups, known as “Mi Casas,” didn’t necessarily exist to increase the size of the church. At 800-900 people every week, we had already reached maximum capacity. Rather, they were formed by the Leadership Team in the years after Kyle died to help students become more connected to older “members” of the church. Mi Casas were still in the early stages of development by the time Toph and I came on staff, but they were already changing the dynamic of how and where people were finding a sense of community at UBC. As they grew, the need for weekly, church-wide events diminished.
Regardless, as our first acts as pastors, the Leadership Team asked us to revive the wealth of summer activities to a level that existed years earlier. We also believed this would be a great opportunity for us to begin forming pastoral relationships with those we didn’t already know. Everything began well. At most of the nightly events there were good groups of people and a great amount of energy around what we were doing. It felt like we were moving into a new, exciting season for the church. Even though many of them seemed exhausted at the frenzy of the previous few years—Kyle’s death, John Mark and Ben leaving, Josh’s and then Toph and my hiring—the Leadership team seemed eager to begin a new chapter.
When we were both hired together, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Toph. We had known each other briefly as classmates, but other than that we had little opportunity to connect before coming onto staff. We formed a good camaraderie early on, and I think this was mostly due to the fact that we weren’t friends before. This made us approach our working relationship with more care, caution and empathy than had we known each other well going into it. In most things, we were polar opposites. Toph is an extrovert who can come across as an introvert, I’m an introvert who is comfortable in social situations. Toph is very good at sizing up a situation and determining the best words to say before speaking up in a conversation. I tend to open my mouth (and keyboard) way too quickly, using a frenzy of thoughts that have been brewing in my mind for a while, in an attempt to be in the driver’s seat of the conversation.
That Toph and I were working under a single job-description would eventually be a source of tension we would have to walk through. But in the early days we bonded over a shared frustration over what was expected of us, and how much agency we had with regards to deciding what we would and wouldn’t do. This all came to a head over Snow Cone Mondays.
It had been a few years since we had a full weekly slate of activities for people to attend, and the Leadership Team wanted to change that. So in addition to other added weekly events, they asked us to re-establish “Snow Cone Mondays.” It felt like we were trying to return to “the good old days” of UBC, a humorous proposition for a church only 15 years old. But were happy to oblige.
Week 1: Toph and I met with one other person who showed up to Mr. Snow.
Week 2: Toph and I, and no one else.
Week 3: See: Week 2.
All right, we thought. No big deal. You try things, sometimes they don’t work out, you move on. There was enough energy around everything else we were doing that it didn’t seem to matter that this one summer night activity was a flop. So as July approached, marking a split in Baylor’s summer semesters, Toph and I sent an email to the Leadership Team giving an update of what we thought was and wasn’t working, and proposing that we continue almost everything we were doing, but eliminate Monday Snow Cone night.
The replies we received were curiously jarring, making us wonder exactly what it was we were being asked to do. Or, rather, what we were being asked to be.
“You have to do Snow Cone night. It’s important to the life of the church.”
“We hired y’all to do things like this, and it seems a little strange that you are backing out of it now.”
“Why don’t you meet at another place on the same night, maybe that will get people there.”
The problem for Toph and I was that no one on Leadership seemed interested in participating in what they were asking us to do. In the past, these activities were collaborative efforts between the staff and Leadership Team, with at least one non-staff member of Leadership Team committing to spearheading one of the nightly activities. The idea was that those on Leadership Team, who ideally represent a particular constituency within the church, would bring those in their community along, creating synergy around the event. But to Toph and I, it now felt as if the Leadership Team was wiping the dust off their hands and wondering, “We hired two community pastors, why do we have to do this stuff now?”
Tension within churches usually indicates dissonance between what is happening, and what some believe needs to be happening. I think what was really at play in this dilemma was that we were a church feeling one way about ministry, but doing the things we thought we were supposed to do. We were wondering, “Who are we?” We were exhausted. Five years of dealing with grief and trying orchestrate our way out of it had moved us toward wanting a sense of stability. Many believed that stability would be found in returning to the identity we had as a congregation before Kyle’s death disoriented us. That identity, among other things, consisted of numerical growth and constant activity.
The Great Snow Cone Controversy of 2010 came to an end, essentially, when David and his wife replied to the email chain that Snow Cone Mondays were something we needed to do, so we were going to do it—confirming some of my earlier suspicions about how behind-the-scenes mechanics of UBC worked.