By Pastor Evan McClanahan
This brief essay will serve as a pastoral reflection and a concluding write-up on an experiment in Christian community, beginning properly in 2014 and concluding in 2018. In 2013, First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Houston approved a plan to financially invest in the restoration of the former parsonage on First Lutheran’s campus for the purpose of hosting a “house of studies”. At that time, First Lutheran had recently joined the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), a small collection of mostly “breakaway” ELCA congregations, and plans for a formal NALC seminary were still in process. Our plans was to offer our brick and mortar and vision to the NALC so that this house, named the “Bonhoeffer House”, might be a part or component of that seminary.
The vision was largely guided by Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. As the orthodox Lutheran church found itself in a precarious and outcast position in 1930s Germany, so too, did many orthodox (depending on your view of women’s ordination) Lutheran congregations in America find themselves in a theological wilderness. As the largest Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) drifted so far left it went past Genesis and right out of the Bible, some Lutherans lost resources they had come to rely on: structure, seminaries, leadership, etc. Therefore, there was both the need and the opportunity to rethink these resources. I was most interested in the seminary, and like Bonhoeffer, thought the time had come to rethink seminary training. Perhaps a little experimentation was in order.
The plan was relatively simple: students (or a mixture of students and others simply interested in Christian community), would live by a rule in the home and adjacent apartment. Men and women would live separately. The rule asked that participants (not “tenants!”) would pay a reasonable fee to participate in the ministry, live in the home for free, pray daily, do one hour of evangelism per week and have a weekly dinner/teaching time. I also expected that all who lived in the home would be active members of a local congregation, if not First Lutheran. Seminary students would carry on with their academic studies either at a local seminary (of which Houston has four) or online. It made no difference to me where a student studied for their Th.M or M.Div. A degree is a degree and the importance of said degree is up to church bodies, candidacy committees, etc.
To make it easy for folks to move in (and out!), the house was furnished by either commissioned, hand-made, or IKEA furniture. It was all stained and finished to match and the aesthetic aim was, in a word, monastic. The furniture was all simple, sturdy and made of real-wood. Nothing artificial would do. It was important to communicate to those who lived in the house that it was a common home or shared home, and the aesthetics were a big part of that. If everyone moved in all of their own belongings, the house would become an eyesore and it would not communicate the unity we hoped to achieve.
What I hoped to accomplish was to offer all of those things that seminaries either usually didn’t offer or couldn’t offer: intentional fellowship, opportunities to practice interpersonal skills vital to successful ministry, accountability, oversight in congregational involvement and leadership, opportunities to experiment with evangelism and apologetics outreach, and security in community. The reality is that not only have seminaries largely come to be academic institutions first and perhaps foremost, but they were also beginning a move towards online education. Neither an academic institution nor an online “school” would offer the kinds of things that an intimate community could offer. And again, the echoes of Life Together should be heard now, for Bonhoeffer sought not only to provide emergency seminary training for the Confessing Church (Protestants who refused to participate with the “State Church” in Germany) but also to dramatically rethink the process. As he saw external troubles providing an opportunity to rethink seminary, so did I, though without his incredible mind or clout, and obviously noting differences between leaving a liberal denomination and being persecuted to the point of death by Nazis!
For a variety of good reasons, this model was not one that found a partnership with a larger church body. There were other visions and relationships, arrangements with other existing seminaries, and the difficulties of starting a seminary off the ground. Our vision also had limitations, notably that it really could only work with single students and many students were either second career or already married. And it would still require students to move to Houston, and if they were going to move, they might as well move to the seminary the NALC had begun to work most closely with, Trinity School for Ministry in Abridge, PA, which seems to be as good as it gets in terms of brick and mortar seminaries. As Lutheran faculty were already there, that certainly made sense. And as online instruction was not denied as a possibility, even those who might benefit from this kind of community simply could not justify such a move.
That is the “official” part of the story. That lack of partnership took four years to materialize (or not), and I do not mean to sound upset that that partnership never got off the ground. It would have, admittedly, required a lot of flexibility in how we think about our new seminary, and it would have absolutely required a mandate that seminary students participate in a brick and mortar seminary experience. Given how many students were already enrolled elsewhere and how many students could and would take advantage of online offerings, our offer, in retrospect, was about as antiquated as 1940s Lutheranism. The world of seminary education was quickly changing and there was simply little practical need (to say nothing of spiritual) for this kind of community among the seminary landscape. I wonder if such a need will ever develop, shy of dramatic legal or social or financial challenges to American church as it currently exists.
All of that said, the story of the Bonhoeffer House is not at all marked by the beginning vision of partnering with a church body or the lack of such a formal partnership four years in. The story of the House is of the people who were involved in the House for those four years while we hoped for a larger church relationship. For we did not wait on approval from “higher ups” to form a community; we began a community with who we could. Seminary students or not, we advertised within and without our congregation via Craigslist, meetings with local (obviously non-Lutheran) seminaries, and word of mouth. We handed out flyers to students at the community college across the street.
A number of folks found us through the Craigslist ad, which was probably not even legal given that it limited our housing availability to those committed to a Christian creed. Whoops! Many wonderful Christians who were in need of affordable housing (an increasing rarity in urban America) and who wanted to grow in their faith joined the House. Over four years, many moved in and out. Some stayed for a few days, some a few months, and some several years. Most of the move ins and outs were pleasant, but some were close to traumatic. Most move outs were disappointing and took an emotional toll on those involved one way or another. Welcome to ministry!
Our commitment to a weekly meal and Bible study was probably the strongest part of the rule that was adhered to. Many laughs and much learning took place around our monastic-style table with benches. Participants cooked for each other (everything from gourmet meals to frozen pizza) and the participants either did or should have learned how to host a proper dinner party from beginning to end, an important part of Christian hospitality. Many wonderful Bible studies, teachings and worship took place afterwards. When that Sunday night time came to an end, some stayed to talk football (of the global and American varieties) or other more “ordinary” topics, and some went straight to bed.
Some evangelism happened, but not as much as I hoped. Evangelism is hard! We spent some time at local pubs or coffee houses as a group with our “Ask me about Jesus” t-shirts proudly worn. We reached out to college students with flyers and lunches. Some guests would join us on Sunday night, including non-believers. We hosted and funded several formal debates as well as two podcasts. We even evangelized participants in the House as the reality became that some participants were dishonest about their faith commitment moving in and/or their seriousness about growing in faith.
The worst occurrences in the home involved that type of dishonesty. Because the housing was so affordable, we became a great option for those looking to escape homelessness or other bad environments. One participant moved in and was unable to hide his alcoholism for more than a few days. After lying about it and proving to be in denial, he was asked to leave and I waited in the living room for two hours while he packed up and moved on. I have no idea what happened to him. One gentleman moved in on an urgent basis (he was living in a motel and had to move to Houston to be near his children), and after “going to bat” for him, he only stayed in the House for three months. He found a better deal elsewhere and proved to be, frankly, a user. Others moved in and remarkably didn’t get involved in any local congregation! They eventually moved out on their own. At least one participant was a recreational drug user, and after not paying his fee and being shown a considerable grace period, he was asked to leave.
The saddest tale from the home involved a young man who seemed to temporarily overcome a decade-plus long addiction to drugs. He went from being homeless, to being baptized, getting his GED, and getting very involved in the House and congregation. But after a solid year of growth, sobriety and working towards a career, he experienced a demonic attack of shame over past actions. He voluntarily left the House, believing, he was a kind of stain upon it, no matter how much I encouraged him not to believe those lies. I assume he is back on the streets and perhaps has returned to a life of addiction, though I hope not.
Still, most participants enjoyed their time in the House and faithfully lived by the rule, or at least did their best to do so. Friendships were made, and even one marriage was arranged through past and present participation in the House. Thanksgivings and Easters often included folks from the House and at least three massive dinner parties were hosted at the House. The longest-running participant did begin attending seminary while in the House and is currently on the path towards ordination. I know that many authentic belly laughs and warm glows from true Christian fellowship took place in that home during those years.
Alas, the trends were against the idea in principle, and the work load to offset less-than-dedicated Christians in the home became too much. An outside group offered to pay more for easier usage of the property, and the time just seemed right. I trust God “appreciated” our effort at community and there will be implementable lessons from the experiment.
But my main takeaway is that a community like this (in close quarters, with shared space, living by a rule) will not fully be desired until our society experiences significant upheaval and we once again see the need for intentional Christian communities like this, at least for a time, or at least for future pastors. We can either afford to be on our own, we desire to be on our own, or the Internet offers more flexibility than we even need. There is, perhaps, a ministry waiting to be done in the home which co-mingles people of all walks of life and disciples them intentionally. But that is a full-time role with someone especially gifted to handle that chaotic beauty. More likely, the home will be a parsonage once again, as housing costs soar in urban Houston and pastoral wages can’t possibly keep up. At least it will be considerably updated and ready for that as a result of that initial 2013 investment and many more investments since then.
As is the case with all Christian ministry, there were successes, failures, and changes, as the world changes around us. So be it. I have no doubt God did bless and will bless an experiment in Christian community, so long as it is ventured in good faith.