April 29, 2015

A New Thing | Jane Gerdsen

For background on this series, read this. This was inspired by the How I Work series over at Lifehacker. If there are planters, creators, innovators, entrepreneurs–ministry leaders that are working on new enterprises that you know and think I should profile, fill out this form or leave me a note on Twitter or Facebook.
About Jane: This week, for the A New Thing series, I'm happy to have The Rev. Jane Gerdsen. Jane is an Episcopal priest who served for five years at St. Andrew’s, an inner city church in Dayton, OH. She is currently working as Missioner for Fresh Expressions for the Diocese of Southern Ohio, exploring new forms of Christian community. She works predominantly with young adults and those who have been disenfranchised from the church in some way. She has a heart for those on the margins. She is also a wife and mother to two young children and loves yoga, gardening, and planning dinner parties..
The Series: Colby Martin | Jane Gerdsen | Jeya and Dan So | Sara Shisler Goff | Katie Nakamura Rengers
Can you describe your new thing?
I believe that God is always doing a new thing – and maybe my particular part of that is a deep curiosity to find out what God is up to in our own time. I have been part of creating what we are calling Praxis Communities – a collective of fresh expressions communities in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. We are building a network of people who are experimenting with new forms of Christian community. In practice, this probably looks a lot like chaos! We have a variety of new worshipping communities, immigrant communities, intentional communities, experiments with art and music, gardens and moveable feasts. We meet in art galleries, pubs, people’s homes, churches, and parks. We are united by our practice, our desire to put our faith into practice. We hope that we don’t have to do this alone, so we work to cultivate communities of faith and practice so we have partners in this work. These small groups and communities commit to walking the spiritual path together and sharing how faith practices transform their lives. We believe that there are no experts, only practitioners. We try to share what we are learning as practitioners on our blog.

Why you? What drew you to do this?
I was on maternity leave with my oldest child, and my husband says I birthed more than a baby that summer! Something about stepping away from regular ministry and wondering what life would be like for this child so new to the world, led me to read and think and talk to people about things that I wasn’t normally talking about while working in a traditional parish.

There were two specific things that happened – one, I spent a lot of time with young adults in college and those who had recently graduated and I heard their stories of feeling like there was no place for them in the church as it currently existed. Even those who loved God, and Christian community often found it hard to find a church where they were welcomed and felt like they belonged there and so they would attend less and less or not at all. The second thing was that I had been working with a community of Rwandan refugees who loved the church but told me that they “missed singing songs in our own language.” As I began to reflect on what church looks like in the language of the people, I was invited to help them form a prayer fellowship gathering for their friends and family members. They began to worship on Saturday nights in Kiryarwanda (the native language of Rwanda) and today have about 70 people who regularly worship together. I realized that we had to be willing to explore new forms of Christian community that met people where they were. This led me to learn more about what people in the UK were calling fresh expressions of church. Eventually, I realized God was calling me away from serving as a priest in an established church and to start building new communities of faith.

Originally, I thought that would be one community, but in consultation with our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Breidenthal and diocesan staff members – we decided it would be better to start a movement of people beginning new communities than to put all our resources into starting just one. We knew that these fledgling communities often fail (or only last a season or two), and we thought if we started several across our diocese we might find that some would survive the initial start-up phase and begin to move towards sustainability.

How would you describe yourself?
I’m an introvert but moving closer and closer towards being an extrovert – I love being with people and creating community. On the Meyers-Briggs, I am an INTJ – which means I love learning, am deeply curious, imaginative and yet decisive, focused and strategic in how I approach things. Maybe simpler, I love systems and am curious about how to create change. I have an intuitive sense about what needs to happen and then like to see dreams put into practice.

I’m a 2 on the Enneagram – a helper. So I care about relationships, love being a host, listening, holding space for other people, and empowering people to move towards their passions and dreams. At heart, I want to be a hostess who gathers people around the table and makes them feel loved and cared for.

Where and when are you most productive?
I think I am most productive when I am listening to others and encouraging them to move towards their goals. I have been working on hosting conversations that matter, so I think I often see the most change when I am bringing together a diverse group of people to share what they have to offer and take what they need from the community. In holding space for others, I find that my own sense of what I long to create happens. I like to be the convener and then see what emerges. I think great liturgy should feel like that.

As far as getting done every day things, crafting liturgies, writing sermons, email, finally sending out blog posts – I am most productive sitting in bed with my laptop on my lap or locked in a room with no one around, I suppose that is the introvert part of me. I love to work in coffee shops and third places but get less done because I always end up in conversation with people. But that is the real work – so most of the time, I am out and about meeting up with people.

What inspires you to create?
Frankly, everything – beauty, nature, people, art, suffering, love, children. Doing things that feel challenging or that I’m not good at – trying to make art for instance. I recently have begun to practice soul collage and have found that an amazing creative process. Mostly though, I am inspired to create from listening to what others find inspiring. I am most creative when I can help cross-pollinate ideas. So taking something I heard from an artist friend, something my son shared with me and an experience at yoga and I find an idea for a spiritual community begins to emerge. We did a Lenten Series last year at a local yoga studio where we combined Christian contemplative practices (like Ignatian Contemplation) and yoga kriyas and music. It was amazing and an incredibly inspiring and transformative experience.

What are you currently reading or listening to that inspires you?
I love Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast and blogs and have often found inspiration there. I have been reading and researching about play – I have been reading Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. I think the church is so overwhelmingly anxious right now and am fascinated by the idea that play – things we do that seem purposeless and just for fun, might be a new spiritual practice that could open us up to new possibilities, creativity, and joy. I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s newest book, The Gifts of Imperfection and I also recently read Matthew Fox’s book Creativity and have a book about the Catholic Worker movement that I have been reading through as well. I’m also really interested in how to host community, so am always buying books on group facilitation practices.

Start-up’s can be spirit-draining work. What nourishes your soul?
I love to do yoga – specifically Kundalini yoga, a more spiritual form of yoga. I like that practice of meditating with my body. I also am drawn to centering prayer, silence, and contemplative practices in general. I love to garden – having my hands in the dirt restores my soul. Playing with my children, mimosas with friends, going for a walk with the dog. Paying attention to what is happening around me.

Starting something new requires knowing who will be served by the thing you are creating. What method(s) have you employed to understand your context (or market)?
I think mostly just talking to people. I wish I had a better answer…I do have a spiritual practice of trying to meet new people. So if someone says, you should meet someone, I try to get their number and meet them for coffee. I find I know more about the people and context, the more they want me to know.

The funny thing about our “new thing” is that it is so diverse – we have communities all over the southern part of Ohio. So, there are a variety of different kinds of contexts and communities. The best I can do at this point is meet the people my praxis leaders invite me to know, follow where those relationships lead, try to love and serve the people that we meet and finding out how to draw these diverse communities together. Inevitably, I meet new people and just through conversation, time, showing up to things they care about I am able to foster new relationships and new communities. The hardest part about this work, is that as it has grown – I have less time to go deeply into relationships in each context. There are days, I really miss having one community to know and love. But I am beginning to realize that my community is a “community of communities.” So my work is to love and serve the leaders of those communities, to meet them where they are and find out how I can support them and partner with them. Ask them what they need – mostly the answer is one another. And find opportunities to host gatherings where we can all be together.

Typically, there are fewer people available to get work done in new endeavors. What do you use to manage your time, get things done and/or delegate to your team?
I am learning to delegate. It is not something I am naturally good at – but I have amazing friends and partners in this work, who all bring so many different gifts. Claiming what I do well and then letting other people do what they do well has helped this grow. For me, I often talk about apprenticing people – which actually takes longer in the beginning, but in the end you have people who can do things better than you and you have both grown together in working together. So I invite people to do things with me all the time, we co-host Moveable Feasts (dinner church), or I have a team of people that organized our Flash Compline gatherings. We just hosted our annual fresh expressions conference, I was so grateful for all of the people who took different parts of planning and just made it happen. It felt almost effortless at the end, because everyone just stepped in and shared the work that needed to be done from cleaning to setting up chairs to organizing food and hospitality. I think cultivating leaders who see what has to be done and just do it is the only way I get things done. I believe in people, in their capacity, and in their ideas. Likewise, I find people believe in me.

Time and resources are often limited during start-up’s. What time-savers have you found useful? What have you found is worth splurging on and what can you skimp on?
Splurge on a great website, and great design work – these will help you tell your story better than anything else. Pay people what they are worth. In the meantime, borrow spaces, have potluck dinners, and invite people to share their craziest ideas with you. I don’t know if I have a lot of time-savers – most of what I do feels high maintenance. I cart a car full of stuff around to make a borrowed space feel like home. I always buy flowers and make something good to eat. I pay for great coffee – including renting or borrowing espresso machines for our gatherings. The best advice I have that saves time is to invite people to help you and to show up ready – not just the space or event, but yourself. If you are ready, if you have done your inner work, everything else seems to fall into place. Prepare yourself and I try to let the Holy Spirit do most everything else.

Where do you find affirmation that you are doing what you were meant to do?
People say thank you. That feels like enough. I see that my yes, helps them say yes and follow a dream or a call. I know that in this kind of pioneering work, it is really helpful to not feel alone. So I try to stand next to people who are doing things a little differently. I try to build bridges, connecting people starting new communities to people in existing communities.

I ask people what they really need and try to find a way to help them get it. Sometimes it’s a keyboard, other times it help finding a fiduciary agent, or money for a beehive. Finding and connecting partners is part of the fun of what I get to do. So I find churches, people, and organizations that will benefit from knowing each other. This kind of mixed economy of sharing resources is what makes the church an amazing place to work.

On days that you go to bed with a deep sense of satisfaction, what happened? What was accomplished?
People felt listened to, loved, and part of something bigger than themselves. People felt cared for enough to be vulnerable, to take a risk, to whisper a dream. I think offering ourselves in this way gives glory to God. It is a way of honoring the immensity and incredible uniqueness of God’s creation. I like feeling like I have bowed down to the Christ in another person. I love that Henri Nouwen quote about presence:
"More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn't be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them."
What advice would you offer to others starting something new?
Don’t be afraid. Tell people about your idea. Give permission to other’s great ideas by sharing yours. Accept messiness as a state of being – new things feel chaotic. Learn to find your center in the midst of the chaos. Play – it is the best way to alleviate anxiety and to remain creative! Have a community of practice or at least one other friend who is doing something new and meet regularly to support each other.

I don’t know if these might be helpful to others who are setting out but we have some core tenets for our praxis communities that have helped us reflect on our core values. These are things we hold in common. You can see the whole list of tenets here.

But this is a summary of what we are learning as we walk the praxis path:

Know People By Name – value relationships above everything else.
Give Permission – say yes and bless.
Respect the Seasons – there is a time for creation and time to let things go. Both are holy.
Accept the Beautiful Mess – messes are how God’s Spirit creates something new.
Participate in the Church Beyond Our Church – remember you are not alone.

If there are leaders you think I should profile, fill out this form or leave me a note on Twitter or Facebook.

The Series: Colby Martin | Jane Gerdsen | Jeya and Dan So | Sara Shisler Goff | Katie Nakamura Rengers