Duo creates model for training church leaders

By Abe Levy, Faith and Leadership…

SAN ANTONIO—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, historic United Methodist congregation here.

The new pastor shadowed him on hospital visits and pre-wedding talks with couples. Dr. 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 Rev. David McNitzky teaches at a session of the Quarry, a leadership program of Alamo Heights UMC in San Antonio. PHOTO BY KATIE CLEMENTSON

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 Dr. 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 Dr. McNitzky and Mr. Heare’s classroom instruction and participate in contemporary worship and soul-searching question-and-answer sessions. Throughout the week, Dr. McNitzky and Mr. 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.”

A place for everyone

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 bi-vocational 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.

“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.”

Scott Heare

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,” Dr. 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 Mr. 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.

Such communal, lay engagement is what the mission statement of the United Methodist denomination calls for, said the Rev. Gil Rendle, a retired UM pastor and 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.

“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,” Mr. Rendle said.

 ‘Let them be light’

Dr. McNitzky and Mr. 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.”

Participants in Alamo Heights UMC’s Quarry program study practical ministry, biblical theology and Christianity’s Jewish heritage.

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

Mr. 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.

Dr. 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.

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, Dr. 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 Dr. McNitzky, who gives most lectures.

At a recent Thursday night gathering, Dr. 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.”

‘Come, follow me’

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Principle of ‘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,” Dr. 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,” Dr. 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 Dr. 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,” Dr. 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.”

Mr. Levy is the religion writer for the San Antonio Express-News. This story first appeared at www.faithandleadership.com, a leadership education initiative of UMC-affiliated Duke Divinity School.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
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