Harnessing entrepreneurial energy inside the PC(USA)’s worshiping communities

Ann Steigerwald shares her wisdom from decades of assessing and equipping church planters

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Ann Steigerwald (Contributed photo)

DECATUR, Georgia — As 1001 New Worshiping Communities celebrates 10 years of equipping spiritual entrepreneurs and church planters, the Rev. Nikki Collins, coordinator, and the Rev. Michael Gehrling, Associate for the Northeast Region and Assessments for 1001 New Worshiping Communities recognize the impact that their Discerning Missional Leadership (DML) assessments have had on the program’s evolution and successes. Both lifted up the impact that their lead assessor, Ann Steigerwald, has had.

Ten years ago, Steigerwald customized the DML assessments for the PC(USA) and integrated these into the longer-term development of new leaders. “Ann has a great perspective on the role of assessments in starting new worshiping communities and the shifting shape of planting new churches in general,” Collins said. Gehrling echoed this appraisal and added that as Steigerwald shifts out of her role as lead assessor and solely into training others to continue her work, there is much for mid councils and the larger PC(USA) to learn from Steigerwald’s career as a church planter and coach.

Presbyterian News Service interviewed Ann Steigerwald as she wrapped up her work in 2022 as the lead assessor for 1001 New Worshiping Communities and asked her to reflect on what she has learned about the changing landscape of church contexts and leaders.

Presbyterian News Service: Your career began through church planting and consulting throughout Europe for almost 18 years. How did ministry in the context of post-Christian Europe prepare you for coaching church planters in twenty-first century America?

Steigerwald: Our experience in Europe brought us in touch with culture that had deep Christian heritage but little expression in modern day life. We were living in a country that regularly observed religious holidays (like Ascension Day and Pentecost) but frequently met people who had almost no knowledge of the Christian faith. Less than 3 % of the populations in Western Europe attend church of any kind. There was a great deal of apathy regarding religious practice, but at the same time a beautiful curiosity toward the spiritual life. We saw this as an opportunity to engage people around meaningful spiritual practice, with the freedom to create community in places and ways that made sense to them.

Coming to North America, particularly the Pacific Northwest where we relocated our family, we recognized the same cultural shifts at work. This led us to helping church planters to engage people outside the church in ways that were meaningful to them first. We helped church people lay down our preconceived ideas of what ‘church’ looked like. Ministry in this way involves a great deal of humility, of listening, and curiosity about what people experience in their workplaces, homes and communities.

PNS: When you began working with PC(USA)’s 1001 Worshiping Communities initiative, you had assessment tools already available. Why did you work with the team to design a unique one for the PC(USA) when others were available?

Steigerwald: Looking around at the assessment landscape, it was very apparent that most, if not all, of them were designed to find a church planter prototype that was a strong charismatic personality, with excellent communication skills, big vision and was primarily white, young and male. There were so many people left out! I wanted to create a process that was going to value other skills and competencies, as well as being open to women, to queer people, people of color and other marginalized communities. Many of those assessments are run as a kind of ‘boot camp,’ with the idea being that it will test your resolve and your resilience as a church planter. They simply did not value the kind of people that the PC(USA) wants to see in leadership.

PNS: The agency you and your husband, Dan, run is ecumenical. What unique strengths does the PC(USA) show that may differ from other traditions?

Steigerwald: Certainly, the polity of the PC(USA) is one of its strengths. In a world where we have seen prominent church leaders abuse power and fail morally in a very public way, having a system that forces the sharing of power and decision- making is critical. I also think that PC(USA) and 1001 NWC do a great job in keeping its definition of church simple, which allows for a great deal of diversity in expression.

PNS: The assessment looks at disposition as well as strengths and weaknesses. What are some characteristics that might surprise us about leaders of new communities?

Steigerwald: There are some things that are obvious and core to all church planters — a deep sense of personal call, a willingness to take risks, a capacity to gather people toward a shared vision and a certain entrepreneurial spirit. Things that may surprise you are that about 25% of the leaders coming into the Discerning Missional Leadership process are not ordained. Of those who are ordained, many (30%) are seeking church planting as a first call. Some of the niche communities they engage are not ones we typically see on Sunday mornings — for example, an online gaming community, or the travelers in an RV park, artists of all kinds, and people experiencing housing insecurity. Another trend is the growing desire to work bi-vocationally — not out of necessity but by choice. Future pastors want to be able to combine their spiritual leadership with something that engages them in the community around them.

PNS: Give an example of how the assessment process changed the course of a potential leader’s vision or ministry.

Steigerwald:  I’ve seen two things happen in this process. One is being able to strongly encourage people who come with a great idea but low confidence that they can make it happen. Sometimes just saying, ‘we believe in you’ gives them the boost they need to take the risk. Another dynamic I see is the relief on some of the faces of those being told, ‘this is not a good fit’ for you, and to then hear them say, ‘I thought so but the presbytery, my mentor, my friend, et cetera was so sure I should do it.’ Our goal is to see people flourish in the church roles that best suit their temperament, skills and passions. That could be pastoral leadership in a traditional setting or church planting.

PNS: Over the decade you have worked with 1001 Worshiping Communities, how have you seen the landscape of church planting and leaders of new communities evolve?

Steigerwald: One of the things I have noticed is more imagination about what church could look like. In the early years, most people were still committed to the goal of a weekly Sunday service. Now, that gathering could be anytime that makes sense to their group. There is growing acknowledgement that churches of the future are likely locally situated, small in size, nimble and participatory. We are not going back to large congregations who attend the ‘Sunday show.’ Leaders for these new communities must be willing to lead collaboratively, to develop leadership in others, and above all remain curious and responsive to the neighborhood around them. Church planters are increasingly coming up with creative solutions for sustainability that do not require a large, stable giving base.

A Discerning Missional Leadership event held this year in Austin, Texas, included Ann Steigerwald, seated second from the right in the front row. (Photo by Gach Gatkouth Kur)

Another trend that encourages me is the rising number of people who were previously marginalized initiating church planting — queer leaders, people of color, lay leaders and the engagement of immigrant pastors.

PNS: What is something you recommend churches do to cultivate innovators or innovative leadership?

 Steigerwald: If innovators are not acknowledged and given some room to experiment, they will leave the church. It’s that simple. Church leadership can support innovators by not dismissing their ideas, by providing some simple resources (facility space, for example, or a small seed grant) and by offering support and mentoring to those who want to try something new. Don’t wait for them to have the education, the experience, et cetera. Become comfortable with experiments and failures. It has surprised me that when I ask people for stories of starting something new, many stories are outside the church — a small business, a community group, a justice initiative. What if that entrepreneurial energy was harnessed inside the church?

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