Everything is possible

The Rev. David McNitzky teaches at a Thursday night session of the Quarry, a leadership program of Alamo Heights UMC in San Antonio. Katie Clementson

Two pastors at a UMC church in San Antonio have created a new model of training they call the Quarry, which has developed into a creative community of leaders.

The Rev. David McNitzky hired a young man 15 years ago to launch a contemporary service in the church gym -- a new option for worship at his large and historic United Methodist congregation in San Antonio.

The new pastor shadowed him on hospital visits and pre-wedding talks with couples. McNitzky went over the young man’s sermons and narrowed his seemingly endless ideas to one or two practical ones.

A seasoned veteran and an enthusiastic upstart, the two pastors saw their friendship deepen into a father-son bond that both regard as a rabbinical model for mentoring.

A few years ago, the protégé, the Rev. Scott Heare, challenged his spiritual father with a proposal: What if together they molded a handful of laypeople, building the same kind of close, honest relationships within a larger group? They’d teach practical ministry, biblical theology and Christianity’s Jewish heritage in an organic, group setting.

The idea would be to empower laypeople with clergy-level vision and skills, incubating their sense of calling prior to seminary training -- or possibly instead of it.

Three years ago, the idea took off.

Called the “Quarry,” it started with 16 people and grew without formal advertising to more than 50. They gather for Thursday-night sessions at Alamo Heights United Methodist Church, where McNitzky is the senior pastor. Some come from as far as an hour’s drive away. And some are on staff at one of Alamo Heights UMC’s three campuses -- a mix of contemporary, traditional and recovery-based congregations.

At the meetings, they listen to McNitzky and Heare’s classroom instruction and participate in contemporary worship and soul-searching question-and-answer sessions. Throughout the week, McNitzky and Heare meet in coffee shops and restaurants with Quarry members for regular one-on-one visits. The members have also bonded with one another, creating their own community of support in ministry.

The name Quarry arose partly because the main campus stands on a former rock mine. But it’s also a nod to the lineage Christians may claim in Isaiah 51:1-2: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you, for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (NRSV).

“We are of the same stuff as Abraham and Sarah,” McNitzky said. “God can use us, too. They were not superhuman.”

‘This is the best time to be a part of the church’

Church consultants and executive pastors come to observe the Quarry, struck by the rare scenario of a senior pastor from a large church investing in such a broad-based group, including non-church members.

The Quarry demands no pledge cards or fees. Instead, the two leaders view the training program as worth their time because they believe that bivocational lay ministry is the future of the church.

“In most churches, ‘leadership development’ means giving church members some basic training so that they can fill roles in the church’s existing ministries,” said Mike Bonem, a church consultant from Houston who recently visited the Quarry.

 

Questions to consider:

  • The Quarry includes a disciplined rhythm of community, content and practice. What is the rhythm of your preparation for ministry?
  • Who are you preparing for ministry? How do you encourage their development? What would it look like to invite them into community around their commitment to ministry?
  • David McNitzky has focused his ministry on developing leaders to pastor Alamo Heights. What is the most critical need in your community?
  • How might you reorganize your ministry to address that need and get everything else done?

“I think a key underlying belief [for the Quarry] is that you don’t have to be a vocational pastor or staff member to do ministry. In fact, they seem to believe that the church needs to have many volunteers who do the ministry.”

A few participants have gone on to seminary, but it’s not seen as an expected next step in the process. For most, the weekly two-to-three-hour gathering is their training for ministry, which takes many forms.

There are at-home moms befriending neighbors in suburbia. A chef keeping her cool in a frenzied, demanding kitchen serving downtown’s elite professionals. An engineer enriching his theology between trips to Africa to build water wells. And Jeff Wert, an oral surgeon who, along with his wife, is mentoring young married couples at Alamo Heights UMC.

“Because Scott and David are good leaders, if I’m trying to emulate what they’re doing, I’m automatically a better leader,” Wert said.

For those already in full-time ministry, the Quarry fosters confidence and passion, helping them avoid burnout while working in a culture that is gradually withdrawing from institutional Christianity.

“For a long time, it was, ‘Oh, this is a terrible time to be in the church,’” said Heare, now the lead pastor of Riverside Community Church, one of the outgrowth congregations of Alamo Heights UMC. “Everything’s falling apart. Now there’s a group of people saying, ‘This is the best time in the world to be a part of the church,’ because it’s wide open. Everything is possible.”

How it works

At a recent Thursday gathering, the lead singer in the worship band lifted her face, closed her eyes and belted out a song. Guitarist Chris Estus pumped out riffs with a mastery born of his years onstage in a praise band for a high-profile megachurch.

That experience was “plastic,” he said later of his past ministry.

A recovering alcoholic, he now leads recovery programs at Asbury Church, an urban congregation that last year became the third campus of Alamo Heights UMC.

Asbury was once on the brink of closure. Now, Quarry members make up the Asbury pastoral staff, inching their way toward revitalizing the congregation and using the church as a ministry lab. In fact, Quarry members from the three Alamo Heights campuses often visit one another’s services and mix and match in their worship bands and activities.

This is typical of Quarry members, who forge deep friendships that extend beyond the classroom. One group meets for dinner before class; others have coffee, visit each other’s homes or participate in Bible study together. These relationships continue after their training is complete.

“For me, it’s the connection,” Estus said. “The Quarry is not just a class in a classroom with someone getting up there and lecturing. It’s really a community of people who are all in ministry of one type or another. And we’re all in need of mentoring -- in addition to information.”

Such communal, lay engagement is what the mission statement of the United Methodist denomination calls for, said Gil Rendle, a senior consultant with the Texas Methodist Foundation in Austin who has visited the Quarry.

The Quarry is moving the seminary closer to the local church, he said, advancing the denomination’s goal of developing disciples and not just members, he said.

“This is a bridge to the academic world and formation of faith for people who don’t want to take on ordained leadership but sure do want the depth and discipline of the faith,” Rendle said. “This is one of those very rich experiments we need to be paying attention to.”

Two-man team

McNitzky and Heare share the mentoring duties for the Quarry, each complementing the other’s personality and teaching style. A former Army commander advised them as they created the program’s three central topics -- ministry calling, biblical theory and practical skills – which correspond to the leadership mantra “Be, know and do.”

In the five-semester, two-and-a-half-year program, this is the pair’s consistent focus.

Heare is a passionate storyteller, prone to using imagery in his talks and taking the class on outdoor exercises. An extrovert, he pulls from everyday experiences as a 41-year-old husband and father of young children. His 400-member congregation is in a budding yet rural community just north of San Antonio.

McNitzky is a 56-year-old veteran pastor whose 1,300-member congregation is in an established, well-to-do suburb near downtown. An introvert, he is a sage instructor who boils down his thorough research into memorable one-liners. And he readily cites from lessons learned in his 33-year ministry career.

While the curriculum started with clearly defined topics, the two have allowed the syllabus to be flexible. Baptism and communion took center stage once in the interest of members who were going before a Methodist review board. Often, while teaching conventional surveys of biblical books, McNitzky will linger on specific Scripture verses as the classroom expresses a spontaneous hunger for their deeper meaning.

“It’s another rabbinical method that you don’t teach a new lesson until they’ve grasped and lived out the old lesson,” said McNitzky, who gives most lectures.

At a recent Thursday night gathering, McNitzky dispensed 15 tips from his research into family system theory, sharing Scripture, theology and personal experiences with the group. He illustrated one point with a not particularly flattering personal story.

“Our marriage changed when I changed,” he said. “For 14 years, I had been waiting for her to change. When I was gone working six nights a week and I was leaving her with all these burdens, I kept waiting for her to change and appreciate my brilliance and how God was using me.”

He left them with a challenge to seek out their “leverage point” in situations -- the sweet spot where their effort produces the most good. For him, right now, it’s the Quarry, he said.

“Part of what I want to do is release obedient, discipled people into places of darkness and let them be light,” he said. “I have no great system for attracting people to church. No great system for retaining them. No great system for getting Austin or Washington, D.C., to respond in some other way.

“But I do think we have a number of folks like y’all who are released out into the streets.”

Teaching

Heare takes the group to the streets literally, employing a teaching method he has experienced on tours of Israel with the Rev. Ray Vander Laan, a Christian minister and expert on Jewish heritage.

Heare uses outdoor settings for teaching interactive lessons, both in downtown San Antonio and beyond.

“Come, follow me,” he said recently, kicking off a brisk journey along streets and sidewalks to downtown landmarks, stopping to tell short stories of their spiritually redemptive heritage.

The journey created a spontaneous forum. Many members of the group have traveled with Heare to Israel, so although they were clueless about the recent day’s agenda and itinerary, they trusted his guidance.

He challenged them to think about the familiar buildings in new ways. They stopped at the city’s theater district -- a symbol of the power of storytelling. A historic Catholic church surrounded by a modern mall spoke of persistent faith.

Heare also pointed out the city’s icon, the Alamo, cherished for its role in winning independence from Mexico. What began as an 18th-century church-based community, Heare said, can today evoke racial tensions between Anglo and Latino factions -- but it doesn’t have to be that way. “What if what we remembered at the Alamo was hope and joy and transformation and love and healing?” he said.

Submission and sonship

The two leaders are pastors, but they also consider themselves “rabbis.” Their students seek not just to absorb information from them but also to become like them.

“My whole theory of leadership is it’s who you are, not what you do,” McNitzky said. “What you do comes from who you are. So we spend time on our lives and talking about who we are. ... If that’s being shaped, then I know they’ve developed certain virtues and habits in their lives, and they’ll make decisions and take actions I wouldn’t necessarily do but I know will be appropriate. I spend little time having to go back to fix what they did.”

The Quarry’s lesson on sonship is the guiding principle in this approach.

Sonship stems from the biblical concept of adoption into the kingdom of God. Quarry members are taught not to try to earn value and acceptance but to embrace their existing identity as royal sons and daughters, forging a deep trust for their leaders to speak candidly into their lives.

“Too often people in the church act like God doesn’t love them,” McNitzky said. “And [they think] if they don’t grasp and strive and manipulate and come up with 10-year plans, they’re not going to be here in the future. To me, I tell people that’s more the method of King Herod than Jesus.”

This approach has influenced the rest of McNitzky’s ministry as well. For example, now when he leads staff meetings, instead of giving updates on programs, logistics and strategy, he prays and then teaches concepts from the Quarry.

In turn, Quarry members practice “submission,” which they describe not as blind obedience but rather as “coming under and pushing up” their leaders.

“You know yourself as a child when you are supported and live under a parent,” McNitzky said. “So it’s not because I say, ‘Here’s my robe, and here’s my degree on the wall.’ It’s more that we’re here. God’s gathered us. And we think, ‘[This] is the person God has put in this area to lead what God wants done.’ And we want to help.”

The future

The Quarry’s success with its first 30 alumni has prompted interest in expanding the program.

Heare and McNitzky are recruiting people to teach Quarry principles in Burundi. And the Quarry is being considered as a possible solution to train Spanish-speaking Methodist leaders.

Last year, a Hispanic Methodist body in South Texas merged with the larger Southwest Texas Conference. While the merger reduced duplication, it has presented the need for low-cost training for those unable to afford seminary and the toll of relocation.

UMC Bishop Jim Dorff said the Quarry will play a significant role in expanding the pool of leadership, hailing it as “plowing new ground for training and discipleship.”

“There’s a consistency and depth to it that’s unique and fresh,” he said. “It’s not hitting the surface. It’s really trying to assist people to drill down deep in terms of a theological and biblical understanding of their calling.”

While thrilled and hopeful that the Quarry can be replicated, Dorff has had the same question as other observers, wondering how much of the program relies on the two leaders’ chemistry and personal friendship.

McNitzky says replication is possible. “Hebraic roots, sonship and a heavy emphasis on learning and acting in community -- those are not unavailable ingredients to people,” he said.

And in some ways, the Quarry is already expanding.

As a Lenten experiment this year, Heare is practicing the Quarry principle of instructing students to learn as teachers.

He gathers seven members of his church for a lesson on the book of Jonah. He then challenges them to teach it to a few others and then urge those folks to continue the process.

“You don’t have to wait until you know something to share. Just share what you’ve got,” he tells them.

Heare talks to them as a teacher, mentor and rabbi -- just as McNitzky did to him 15 years ago.