Ministry upside down

My heart is pounding its way up my throat. My hands are sweaty enough that I’m glad we still have communion to celebrate before the end of the service and the inevitable line of people waiting for a vigorous handshake. My knees are trembling so badly that I’m positive everyone can see it.

When I first started preaching, this was a familiar feeling – it happened every week just before the end of our second Scripture reading. But today there is no sermon in my hands. Today the pulpit will remain empty.

A couple of minutes later, I’m hanging upside down over the congregation. One foot is locked in the fabric of the aerial silks, the other is hooked at the knee to keep me from plummeting down to the aisle below. After a couple of moments, I’m spinning my way out of the pose and climbing back down to the floor as another aerialist steps into another fabric at the front of the sanctuary. By the end of this act of proclamation, six of us have taken to the silks – and just a few months ago, five of us would never have dreamed we’d be doing such a thing.

After the service I greet people at the door, feeling only slightly ridiculous in a long-sleeve leotard and leggings under my clerical robe. The feedback is unanimous – everyone is moved by the aerial work. It communicates something of the divine that touches them at a deep level. When are we doing it again? July, I say. They’ll put it on their calendars, they tell me. I’m used to people making such statements and then never showing up again. But this time they pull up their calendars right there and then, and they mark the date carefully. They’ll be back, they assure me. And I believe them.

This all started just eight months ago. A young woman named Tonya moved into our neighborhood, and she started attending church shortly thereafter. At the time, all that I knew about her was that she was a medical resident in preventative medicine, which just so happened to be a field that I badly needed to understand in order to further the community organizing work that Dickey Memorial Church was doing. When I asked her if we could meet to discuss it, she was eager. For a long time we talked about community health workers and insurance. And then she mentioned that medicine was not her first career.

“What did you do before?” I asked.

“I spent 10 years as a professional aerialist,” she said. And then came the words that set all of this in motion. “You know, the exposed beams in the church are perfect for hanging the equipment – I’d love to start an aerial arts ministry.”

If you aren’t familiar with the aerial arts, think Cirque Du Soleil. Aerialists are the ones on the rope, the hoop, the static trapeze and the silks that come down from the ceiling. What Tonya had in mind was teaching a group of people – church members, neighbors, friends – how to express something of the divine through work on this equipment. She said that she could train anyone, no matter what their age, flexibility, athletic level or strength, so long has they had the functional use of one limb. I was at once both eager and skeptical – I’d always wanted to try the aerial arts, and I could already imagine a moving interpretation of the annunciation or crucifixion, but what if I was the only one? And what would session say?

Clearly, neither wound up being a concern. Session wasn’t sure what to expect, but they gave Tonya the green light to give it a try. And after a couple of months of testing the waters, we had a solid group of women who were committed to practicing together every week. Which was how we wound up in worship – first on Easter, then on a baptism Sunday in June.

The results of this new ministry (the Religious Aerial Performing Troupe, or RAPT, as it’s now known) have far surpassed my expectations. We have new people showing up to participate – and because of the relationships built during aerial rehearsal, those new people are finding a home among us. We also have new people showing up for worship, which is a huge deal for a small church that’s well enough off the beaten path that we rarely have folks who just wander in. But the other unexpected outcome is the new opportunities the RAPT has opened for us to move outside our walls.

Three years ago, Dickey Memorial called me to walk with them through the process of redevelopment. For the last three years, they’ve made an incredible commitment to get out into the neighborhood through community organizing and missional relationship building. It’s been powerful. Now RAPT is leading us to different ways of being present in the community – through artistic proclamation. And what’s remarkable is that this is bringing us into conversation with a different set of neighbors. We’re being invited to offer these pieces in other churches, in local nonprofits and at other events. And we are working towards performance in a neighboring green space. New relationships are forming around conversations of art and spirituality. Not insignificantly – some of these opportunities also have a financial benefit.

As pastor, these last eight months have been both exhilarating and eye opening. But more than anything, I’ve learned a great deal about the kind of entrepreneurial ministry that everyone talked about (and that terrified me) in seminary. I always thought that kind of ministry would require more business drive than I have ever had. But RAPT has proven me wrong. It’s certainly an entrepreneurial ministry (it’s creative, a worshipping community in its own right and on the path to bring in income), but it required little interest in business on the part of any of us. It really only required three things – the talent of one member, the passion of a group and the permissiveness of session. It took Tonya’s particular gifts, the commitment and joy of those of us who have joined the ministry, and the willingness of our elders to say yes to new ways of living out the Christian faith (a culture that they’ve worked hard to cultivate for years).

This is what I’m thinking about as the last people file out of the sanctuary at the end of the service: I worry about a lot of things as a pastor – and not being well-equipped for the kind of entrepreneurship that my ministry professors talked about over and over is high on that list. But worship on this day has proven yet again that God provides in the place of my weakness, and God provides in the most unexpected ways. Perhaps we do not all need to be savvy business-people, as I was led to believe. Perhaps we need merely be curious about the gifts in our midst, cultivate passion in our people and encourage a permission-giving culture in our leadership. The witness of this day – the witness of this ministry – is that these three things bear incredible fruit that is leading our congregation into surprising spaces and conversations.

Jennifer Barchi is serving as the solo pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.