Full Interview with Paul Liepelt, candidate for Moderator-elect

Paul shared thoughtfully and extensively with Anna Lisa Gross. Here are most of his words.

Paul Liepelt

Candidate for Moderator-elect

Paul Liepelt

We’re not done with churches leaving yet. This whole time I’ve been looking for a good way to bless the churches and their ministry, to say “we want you to prosper. We want you to grow even if we can’t be together.” How do we do that? We might not be mad at each other but just realize that we can’t walk together anymore.

Anna Lisa Gross: The position of moderator means intense leadership for a year with three years of influence. What do you believe are the most critical leadership needs within the denomination over the next three years?

Paul Liepelt: I’ve been surprised over the past couple of years. I have friends all over the spectrum in Church of the Brethren and it seems like nobody is feeling like their voices are heard right now. It’s from all sides of every question, which is kind of astounding to me. So for me, it’s helping people that don’t feel heard to be heard. To be intentional about seeking out those that really haven’t been sought out before and really been listened to. And then trying to help to give them a voice in the broader body.

What is the role of the moderator’s voice and action in responding to that need for listening?

One of the things that I would love to do–and this is not to be critical to previous moderators–but one of the things that I’ve seen is that typically, moderators go to the big churches in each district, because that’s sort of what’s easiest. And that’s what’s been done. And typically, the bigger churches have more influence. If it were me, I love to go to the smaller churches, I’d love to listen to those who really don’t get a lot of attention, normally, and might be feeling on the outskirts. And then hopefully helping to guide some of the conversations of the Mission & Ministry Board and all the different organizations, in a way that reflects how people are feeling and I think ultimately, that’s sort of what the moderator should be.

What resources do you bring to this work? What additional leadership resources are needed for the denomination to fulfill its mission?

I love hearing people’s stories, that’s why I’m in ministry. I love just getting to know people, getting to know their stories. I think that a lot of those pastoral skills play into that. I get along better with the people that aren’t like “churchy” people, that are kind of feeling like they’re already on the outskirts. Hopefully being somebody that’s approachable and not “up here” that people don’t feel that they can talk to.

And additional resources for the broader church right now? That’s a really hard question. That’s probably the hardest question you’ve asked. I would hope that all staff members would be doing some kind of intentional listening and David Steele did have a listening tour as part of the first couple of years as General Secretary. But keeping that going is critically important right now. And also, one of the things we’ve seen in the past couple years in the Mission & Ministry Board was a lot of churches have just stopped giving. There’s a lot of assumptions about why. But really, it’s a combination of churches that are just not financially viable anymore and can’t contribute, to churches that don’t feel like they’re being heard. So now they’re withholding funds from the whole denomination, as kind of a last-ditch effort to get some attention to say, “Hey, we need you to listen.” So I would love to see the church do more about reaching out to those churches that don’t contribute anymore, and aren’t really participating anymore. Just to hear why and what we can do to help. You know, if they’re struggling financially, what can we do to help them, what resources we could bring them.

Tell us more about being part of subcultures, such as bikers.

I love when people’s faith and their passions collide, and I think that makes some pretty interesting people. I love the biker community. They make fun of me at work [motorcycle dealership is one of Paul’s jobs]–when the old crusty bikers, you know, who have skin like leather and have been riding in the sun for 40 years–I just love them. I love these people. For me at work, it’s interesting: a lot of people didn’t know that I was a pastor at first. It wasn’t something that I advertised, and I intentionally did not really let them know that. And then an opportunity came up: we had somebody that worked with the dealership pass away. And I was able to do his funeral. Everybody figured out real quick, I was a pastor. And these old crusty bikers, when something is going on in their life, they’re not going to go to a church, they’re not going to ask a pastor for prayer, but they want me to pray for them. And I have permission at the dealership to go to the backroom and pray for them. It makes for some really interesting interactions.

But subculture in general is just these groups of people that are passionate about something–gardening or quilting or anything. And it gives you an opportunity to speak to somebody in their own language. And when you can do that, you have a really powerful opportunity.

My wife and I were missionaries in Nigeria. I was involved in the motorcycle culture in Nigeria and had a motorcycle there. But we got to know the achaba drivers at the time. Now achabas are illegal because of Boko Haram and there’s different elements to that. But the achabas were like the motorcycle taxis and elsewhere in Nigeria, there was a lot of Christian-Muslim divide. But within the achaba community, the Muslims and Christians were just both achaba drivers and like achaba was achaba. And they would talk to each other. They’re interacting because of this common thing that they did together. A friend and I started a ministry working on motorcycles, we could build relationships within the achaba community.

Tell us about a time you have lived as a minority, not a week-long workcamp, something more significant than that.

Nigeria would be like the best example of that, because for quite a portion of time, my wife and I were the only people who had white skin for like 10 hours around us. But that’s a hard question to answer because, yes, we were in the minority. But we were in the minority with privilege, which is a very different minority experience. I can’t think of too many occasions when I have been in the minority that has denied me privilege. So it’s two very different conversations. We got married in Nigeria, we had these major life events there and doing all of that in a different culture that you’re not used to…there was a big learning curve and there was also a lot of mistakes in that so it kind of helps to breed humility because you’re going to mess up, you’re going to say things wrong. You’re going to hurt people’s feelings and have to go and apologize. It’s definitely a humbling experience.

Tell us about your decision to resign from Mission & Ministry Board and how you intend to return to MMB if elected moderator.

It’s hard to explain and it’s and it’s and it’s winding to explain. I’m speaking for myself. I’m not speaking for the board, I’m speaking from my perspective. I feel like Mission & Ministry Board made a mistake when they adopted the new Strategic Plan. The new Strategic Plan is built on the Compelling Vision, which is exactly how they should have done it. But…and I also did not realize it at the time so I have as much as anybody…we adopted the new Strategic Plan before Annual Conference ever had any discussion about Compelling Vision. Mission & Ministry Board is supposed to help the staff to implement decision of Annual Conference: funding, program, etc, helping the staff to do that. So here we are essentially, on a denominational scale implementing a decision of Annual Conference before the decision ever got made. So that was the first part of it [my resignation].

One of the parts of the new strategic plan was to have a serious conversation around racial reconciliation and systemic racism within our own denomination, and how do we navigate that. Which I also completely agree–we have to. And any church that isn’t doing that right now is not doing it right.

One of the things that we did within that though was using the language of repenting of our whiteness. On an academic level I understand what the meaning was. They mean talking about the privileges that we get simply by our skin color. I went to get a loan for my house and I was able to get a loan easily. A friend that has darker skin might go in and not be able to get that same loan. I get academically where it’s coming from, but in a lot of our rural churches, they did not hear that at all how that was intended. I don’t want to bash anybody that listens to Fox News but because of the influence of Fox News and stuff like that, they heard that in a very different way, to repent of our whiteness. And so they automatically tuned out; they were gone.

And they reached out to Mission & Ministry Board like “what on earth are you talking about? What’s going on here? We’re not going to do that.” So we identified that language was giving us the complete opposite of what we were hoping. What we were hoping was that we could bring people into conversation and really with this language we’re stopping a conversation. So it was just incredibly frustrating to me. We were essentially shutting down a conversation before it ever got off the ground. We were inadvertently putting another stumbling block to try to keep churches that are on the fence in our denomination. So it was just kind of one more thing that they were able to point to to say, “see, they don’t represent us. Anytime that any person’s voice is excluded I’m having trouble with that. If it’s the most progressive voice, if it was conservative voice.

I didn’t grow up Church of the Brethren. Part of what I love about it is that you have this multitude of voices at Annual Conference that are working to discern the Holy Spirit together and decide what’s going to be our path forward as a denomination. So anytime we cut off a voice from anywhere that drives me nuts. I finally ended up resigning because I just didn’t feel like I could be part of that anymore, if we weren’t trying to bring people into that conversation and essentially going against what we had said was one of our intentions to do.

So if I go back again….We’ll see how the Holy Spirit sorts all that. As a member of Mission & Ministry Board we work on a consensus model. So as the decision gets made you can either say, I agree with this; I’m not okay with it, but it can go forward; or I don’t like this at all. You can even ask that your objection be noted in the final decision. Or if it gets extreme enough, you can say I just can’t be part of this.

Going back as moderator in an ex-officio role, I feel like there’s an opportunity there to be able to speak some truth overtop of the conversation and help guide the conversation in a way that maybe you can’t do as a member of Mission & Ministry Board, if you’re supposed to be part of part of this body.

I guess there’s a distinction there – but maybe there’s not a distinction and I’m trying to make that up from the outside but either way it’s gonna be weird if I had to go back I’m not gonna lie! I’m not mad at anybody. I love everybody that’s on it, there are good people on it. So it will be weird! Just own it and roll it, I guess, how else do you do it?

And that is often where growth or transformation begins: in the weird.

So the point that you’re making about the language used in the strategic plan became a stumbling block for churches who were already on the fence about racial reconciliation or racial justice. I wonder if there are words that work for a denomination with this much diversity and this much conflict. As we were saying earlier, before we started the recording, our culture is as fractured as many of us can imagine, and we see that reflected in the denomination. And so is there “good enough” language possible? Could anyone create a phrase that would speak something faithful and true, and also resonate in the minds of people across our spectrum?

I think that would be a great conversation to have with churches that have raised an objection to say, number one: do you really understand the emphasis of this goal? And then if you do, what kind of language would you suggest that we use to get to this conversation? I think it might be an interesting conversation to hear how they would reply to that. Honestly, there are some churches that I think could be authentic and have that conversation. There are some churches that I think. honestly, they’re probably looking for anything to point to, to say, “see they did it again.” And for those churches, I think, yes, they might be on the fence, but really, there may not be a way to invite them in, in a way that’s going to make them happy and be faithful to the calling to have this conversation.

When we passed that Strategic Plan, I didn’t hear it as being offensive. I was one of the ones that voted to accept it. I didn’t raise any objections. It never occurred to me that it would be offensive. But once we identify that it is, can we work at it, can we try to make it better so we can all agree on it. I’m kind of surprised that Mission & Ministry Board hasn’t hasn’t gotten there yet, to say, “is there a way we can do this better?”

A challenge can be placed on the congregations who have complained about the phrasing. They can be given the challenge to come up with better language that…I don’t want to say comfortable because none of this is comfortable for any of us. But say “come up with language that you can live with, that you could be convicted by.” So does each member of MMB go back to their area and somehow talk to all those churches? I’m just wondering on a practical level, how does M&MB do that? And how do we call people back into such a hard conversation, who, like you said, are already looking for a reason to walk out the door?

And we’re not done with churches leaving yet. This whole time I’ve been looking for a good way to bless the churches and their ministry, to say “we want you to prosper. We want you to grow even if we can’t be together.” How do we do that? We might not be mad at each other but just realize that we can’t walk together anymore. I do wonder at the next Annual Conference, you know, a lot of those conservative voices now won’t be there. I think there are going to be some progressive voices that won’t be there either, and then what does that mean for our church and we start losing those voices. That’s part of what makes us cool; it’s part of what I like. At times that brings tension but I really appreciate different people and the perspectives they bring.

Read Paul’s profile.

Full Interview with Tim McElwee, candidate for Moderator-elect

Tim shared thoughtfully and extensively with Anna Lisa Gross. Here are most of his words.

Tim McElwee

Candidate for Moderator-elect

Tim McElwee

If we faithfully and courageously apply the directives of the compelling vision, we might very well be labeled troublemakers. We’re charged to live and share the radical transformation of the holistic peace of Jesus Christ.

Anna Lisa Gross: The position of moderator means serious leadership for a year, with three years of influence. What do you believe are the most critical leadership within many nominations for the next three years?

Tim McElwee: These are great questions, and it really helped me center in and try to make sense our of what this would mean if what I don’t expect to happen actually does happen with the vote. My instinct is, my supposition is that if in fact the delegate body affirms a compelling vision statement, as is expected, it’s been a long time coming. So I tried to answer these questions within that context of the compelling vision. As I read it through the first time, second time, third time, one word stuck out to me and that is mutuality. Mutuality is used several times, but the tone doesn’t feel all that mutual. There’s a lot in there that I affirm. My hesitations or concerns are based on my sense that there’s a bit of a top-down tone in some of the strategies as they described.

I think we need to proceed in trying to live out our compelling vision with as much eagerness to learn from others as we have eagerness to share our traditions with others. I was raised Roman Catholic, I joined the Church of the Brethren because of the traditions, the emphases, the values, the interpretation of the gospel that resonates with me all these many years. For me, our traditions of service and history of peace with justice are among the most important that I would love for us to try to share, better and more broadly with the neighborhood or world. We need to be wary of imposing or self assuredly proclaiming our faith tradition among others. We’re called to offer. We have to offer our witness and hope that might be received. As I pondered on that I recall a wonderful sermon that my pastor Kurt preached last summer.

What does it mean to be welcomed as we seek to live out our vision of Jesus in the neighborhood? Kurt focused on a passage from Matthew 10, and the title of the sermon is “May I come in?” Kurt emphasized that this passage of Scripture is not about the disciples welcoming others into their communities, into their churches, but disciples seeking to be welcomed by others while bringing Jesus’ message to the world. So, the difference here is when we welcome others into our world, into our community, we’re the ones in charge. We’re the ones with power. But in this passage the disciples (and us, I think) are called to vulnerably stand at the door and knock. Not knowing what to expect, not knowing if we will be received and if we’re received, not knowing whether or not our desire for mutuality will in fact be granted, not knowing whether the message we bring will be accepted or rejected. That’s why I think we’re called to pursue our vision with an equal and steadfast commitment to mutuality and prophetic witness.

The Compelling Vision statement for example, says that we’re to call and equip fearless disciples. I agree. I think if there is integrity to the message we bring as Kurt mentioned again in this same sermon, we should probably expect some rejection. Because the good news that we’re gonna bring from the Church of the Brethren, in the best of our tradition, is that we aren’t going to be upholding the status quo. We’re going to be advocating for those on the margins of society. For example, if we faithfully and courageously apply the directives of the compelling vision, we might very well be labeled troublemakers. We’re charged to live and share the radical transformation of the holistic peace of Jesus Christ, describing not the absence of conflict, but rather deep shalom of being in right relationship across differences. So I hear that we’re called both the name societal conflicts, and the systemic injustice that lies at the core of so many of those conflicts. Doing so demands courage and conviction, and this practice is in keeping with the very best of our Brethren tradition. And it reminded me of this statement that I got to help work on years ago, the 1996 Annual Conference statement Nonviolence and Humanitarian Intervention, which says passivity in the presence of injury or injustice is not an option for Christians. It’s not an option to put on blinders and pretend that injustice isn’t there. We’re called to boldly confront it. 

The Compelling Vision statement goes on to explain that to grow the body of Christ we must “break down racial barriers and hierarchies that keep us from a body of Beloved Community.” That’s a wonderful statement. I mean, Martin Luther King would stand and applaud that statement. But I think doing so means we will directly confront societal injustices, particularly systemic racism and sexism, wherever we encounter them. This means we’ll pursue our vision by setting aside the protections of power and privilege that we know all too well in the Church of the Brethren. It means we’ll humbly work with and among our sisters and brothers, living lives of uncertainty on the periphery of society. It means relinquishing or pursuing our self sufficiency and vulnerably asking for hospitality, while sharing the good news of this upside-down Kingdom we proclaim. 

Dale Brown used to say, “we Brethren have a strong prejudice against pride.” I think of Philippians 2, which proclaims, in humility, regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others. This is one of the reasons that the footwashing ordinance was such a powerful experience during my first few years in the church and while it’s still so moving. This reminds me of another one of my favorite passages from Psalm 51 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, put a new and right spirit within me.” I think what I’m yearning for is the right spirit to pursue the Compelling Vision. So leadership needs of the church in the next several years? An effort to try to inspire the church to reclaim our tradition of humility, to reassert our prophetic witness, and to rejuvenate our culture of service. 

What’s the role of the moderator’s voice and actions in responding to these needs?

The Church of the Brethren can be described as living out our faith through what we call the communitarian ecclesiology. Community is at the heart of who we are. And that means we’re called to take relationships seriously. The word ecclesia means called out. Wilbur Hoover, in a tract, defined the word church as people grouped together so they can live their faith better than they could alone. I emphasize relationships when trying to answer your question about the voice of the moderator because the approach to moderating matters. What is said, how it’s said, the values that we lift up, for example when we’re engaged in difficult conversations (and we certainly have had plenty of those in the church I expect those to continue on). But when we’re engaged in those difficult conversations I think we serve the church well, and we honor each other more fully, when we strive not to be right, but when we strive to understand or to learn from one another. I don’t remember the author, but there’s a phrase that I love that says there’s something about being heard that enables people to listen. So much more important than the moderator’s voice is her or his commitment to engage in compassionate listening.

What resources will you bring to this work? And what additional leadership resources are needed for the denomination to fulfill its mission?

It’s very clear to me that I don’t bring nearly enough resources to this work. I do bring some experiences from serving within the church for 50 years.

Let me try to answer by thinking back to some of those wonderful mentors who have taught me along the way. My father was a college professor. I remember walking with him on campus one time and a student came up to him and education student, and said “I have to write what they call my philosophy of education paper, and you’ve taught for all these years, what’s your philosophy of education?” My dad said, “Education is nothing more than hanging around the right people long enough for you to catch on.” Now, I probably will never really catch on. But it’s not due to a lack of mentors or teachers that I have had the pleasure of hanging around with.

In 1974, I was blessed to be a part of the 110th BVS unit. Dale Auckerman was the project manager; he was a really important person in my life, but so were the people that Dale brought to that orientation: Anna Mow, Art Gish, M.R. Ziegler, grounded me in what it means to be a member of this church. And then at Manchester and Bethany I had the great opportunity to learn with Bob Johansen, Tim Brown, T Wayne Rieman, Paul Keller. Dale Brown, Don Durnbaugh. Even though I’m not sure what resources I bring I would hope that some of the wisdom from some of these tremendous leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with would be a part of what I was trying to bring to the work.

The work I’ve done may be helpful as well. It’s encouraged me, for example, not to understand conflict as something to be feared, but as an opportunity to transform relationships and structures. 

In terms of additional layers of resource the church needs to fulfill its mission: In the Strategic Plan, strategy number four includes an expansive, and, I think, extremely ambitious call to economic justice, charging the church with transforming our collective culture and giving practices to reflect the just and equitable distribution of God’s resources to eradicate needs as embodied by the early church, as we read in the Book of Acts. It’s a radical, beautiful vision. So I agree that’s at the very heart of our mission, no question. Reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer where he said the church is the church only when it exists for others, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell people in every colony what it means to live for Christ, what it means to exist for others. To achieve the vision we’re going to need more than additional leadership resources, I think we’re going to need more resources of every kind.

Tell us about a time you have lived as a minority, not a week-long workcamp, something more significant than that.

My quick answer is: I have never lived as a minority, which is a confessional statement but it’s also an indictment. We need to take more seriously our charge, our calling, to lift up minority leadership in the church.

When I first read the question my first recollection was my first year in college when I was going to a state university, and I was on the track team and probably 85% of the guys on the track team were African American/Black guys, so all my friends my first year of college were Black guys and some Black women, because that was the community that I knew, and I was so deeply honored that I was actually asked to pledge Omega Psi Phi, a Black fraternity at that university. I don’t mean to say that that’s an example of a time I lived as a minority. But I do cherish that. Those guys were wonderful, beautiful, dear friends of mine.

I have had some short term experiences. One of them was a month-long experience of living in a Colombian family’s home during a January session [in college] for a course with Ken Brown. And the last question about compassionate listening also takes me back to my time in Colombia. And one of the ways that I came back changed was not taking for granted blessings and gifts that have been showered upon me, in so many ways, in my privilege life.

The course was called The Conscientization of North Americans to the reality of South America. Here’s a vignette: One day a Catholic lay worker who had devoted her life to working with the poorest of the poor, met our group on a long hike up in the mountains just outside Bogota. It was a very hot and humid day as we climbed the narrow mountain pathway. Eventually we arrived at a small settlement of 8 to 10 families. They lived in very small shacks built mostly out of cardboard. We gathered in a small clearing, with logs as our chairs. A married couple in the community operated a small general store, really small, with simple basic provisions. They had no electricity, so of course nothing was refrigerated, but they managed to keep some essentials on their shelves, and when the members of their community found a way to earn some money, they bought food from the store. So we’re about to begin to hear their stories. But before the members of the community began to share their stories, the woman who ran the small store gave each of us from the United States a bottle of soda pop. [tears] These sisters and brothers had nothing, but they selflessly gave these amazing gifts. We were hot and thirsty but it was so hard to accept those gifts. I remember the children, for whom a bottle of pop would have been an enormous luxury, watching, and smiling at us, as we drank that warm, sweet, thirst-quenching pop. [tears] That’s why that experience is so transformative.

Sounds like a unique communion, and it also comes back to what you were saying, in the very first response about hosts and guests, and the experience you had is one you could only have had as a guest.

The importance of us wholly and vulnerably asking, “can we come in?” and whether our desire for mutuality will be granted: those are really important questions for us if we’re going to pursue this compelling vision with the right spirit. Thanks.

Read Tim’s profile.