Jorge Acevedo: We have all we need

In Wesleyan Christianity the UMC has all it needs to be faithful and fruitful in today’s world, says Jorge Acevedo. The challenge is to ‘turbo-charge’ the tradition, claim it and live into it.

Editor's note: Jorge Acevedo will be a featured lecturer during Renewing the Church, Duke Divinity School's 2013 Convocation & Pastors' School, Oct. 14-15. Register online.

With its emphasis on personal piety and social holiness, Wesleyan Christianity is ideally suited to speak to the concerns of our age, says the Rev. Jorge Acevedo.

“The 20-somethings that I have conversations with want a church that has a vital piety but is making a difference in the world,” said Acevedo, lead pastor at Grace Church, a multi-site United Methodist church centered in Cape Coral, Fla. That is precisely the genius of the UMC’s Wesleyan tradition, he said: a church at once committed to Jesus and the kingdom and hands-on ministry in the world.

Setting aside those things that keep the church from remaining true to its Wesleyan heritage is the biggest challenge for United Methodism, Acevedo said. If the UMC can do that, it will have a future of hope, he said.

Acevedo was appointed pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral in 1996. Under his leadership, the church has grown from one to four campus locations and now has more than 2,600 people who attend weekly worship. Grace Church is recognized as having one of the largest and most effective ministries for people recovering from addiction in America.

Acevedo has a B.A. from Asbury College and an M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary. He previously served several congregations in Florida and Kentucky. The Foundation for Evangelism named Acevedo the 2009 Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church.

Recently Acevedo spoke with Faith & Leadership about Grace Church, the UMC and pastoral leadership. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: How did Grace Church become the church it is today?

In 1996 I was appointed as the third pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., down in southwest Florida. Cape Coral was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. The church was like a lot of United Methodist churches. It had peaked about five years before I got there and was on a serious decline. It was a church that had lost its way. There was not a compelling mission that drove our ministry.

I had been mentored under the kind of heroic, solo “Moses, go off to the mountain, come back with the tablets, announce it to the people and good things happen” model of ministry. At several churches my senior pastors were men and women who had this capacity to create a compelling vision and get people engaged in that vision, and the church would do well. So that’s what I did, following after the models I’d seen. I wrote down a few things on a piece of paper that said, “Hey, this sounds like a compelling vision for our future.” It was pretty simple: it was to partner with God in transforming people from unbelievers to fully devoted disciples of Jesus to the glory of God.

For 10 years we worked hard at living into that vision in our ministry. In that period, our church grew from about 400 to about 2,000 in worship attendance. We adopted a declining, closing United Methodist church, sent about 25 or 30 folks out there who lived in that community. That second campus of Grace Church began to thrive, and we got in the multi-site business.

We decided that instead of building bigger buildings at the original campus, we would rent, lease or buy -- or then another option, adopt -- closing United Methodists churches, harness the resources there and start a new faith community. We’ve done that a third time, and then about eight weeks ago a fourth time, an urban campus.

Now we have four campuses: three of them look like traditional United Methodist churches, and one of them is a grocery store that houses our Grace Community Center, a separate 501(c)(3), where we do compassion and holistic ministry. We have a thrift store, a food bank, a clothing bank. We do medical ministry, music and arts for children, homeless ministry.

Q: You said Grace UMC had lost its way. How did people react when you came forward with this vision?

Behind the scenes was a group of 30 laypeople who had been on the Walk to Emmaus and wanted God to do in their church what God had done in their lives. They didn’t want it to be a three-times-a-year experience like Walk to Emmaus. They wanted it to be a daily and weekly experience, and so they began to pray that God would do a new thing in their church.

I was 36 years old, one of the youngest people at the church; that group of 30 people surrounded my leadership. Those are the untold stories of places like ours, people who said, “Let’s give the young preacher a try; let’s let this thing play out.” There were some people who, when I announced the vision, said, “Thanks but no thanks,” and some of them hung around to see what would happen, some of them left.

Q: As you look back, what were the biggest challenges?

We really weren’t a Christ-centered community. We weren’t about “What is it God is asking us to do?” Clearly, there were barriers. But because the vision was compelling, people engaged in it, and because there was this core group, we created the turnaround of an existing congregation. The genius of it was to create parallel universes and parallel experiences. Instead of tearing down, create a new kind of corollary system.

For example, I didn’t do away with the United Methodist Men. There was a little group of guys that met on Saturdays and complained that no young men would come. I said, “I’m a young man. My wife’s a teacher, she works five days a week; my boys are in school five days a week. If I get a Saturday where I don’t have a funeral or wedding, I want to be with my family.” So I said, “Hey guys, you continue to do that,” but I started a Tuesday morning young men’s Bible study. And that group birthed the second group and a third group and a fourth group. Now we have 1,700 men and women in weekly small groups that meet in homes, restaurants and at church. That Methodist Men’s group eventually said, “Hey, let’s become a small group. Instead of meeting monthly, let’s meet every week at Perkins.” That group still meets.

So part of what you do in a turnaround setting, which is different than in a new church start, is you create parallel universes without dismantling a lot of the old things. They will eventually go away by attrition or lack of attention, or they’ll become converted as that men’s group did and became a part of the mainstream of the new reality, which was small groups.

Q: What spiritual development practices do you engage in or recommend for religious leaders?

I have had three important mentors in my life: Dr. Howard Olds, who’s now deceased; Dr. Barbara Riddle, who was my first senior pastor right out of seminary; and Bishop Dick Wills, who I served with at Christ Church in Fort Lauderdale. One of the common denominators in all three was that they were lifelong learners. They instilled in me to be an avid reader, to expose myself to learning both inside our tradition and outside our tradition.

I have the personal disciplines of daily Bible reading and journaling, of self-care, Sabbath keeping and those kinds of deals. I’ve been in a pastors’ group for 18 years. We meet twice a year. For three and a half days we play and pray. We do life together richly and deeply. A day does not go by where I don’t get a phone call or an e-mail from one of those guys. You can’t do ministry on your own; you’ve got to do it in community.

Q: How do you find time for everything?

It’s about ordering. It’s simply about ordering our life well. I believe that the most important thing I lead is my life. A number of years ago I listened to Bill Hybels give a leadership talk about the most important life that you lead is your own. There’s an art to it. It means I get up early; I go to sleep pretty early. I’ve worked pretty hard at 50 to make sure my relationship with my wife is important. We have date night every week. And I have some relationships that are important.

The ministry continues to do well because we’ve gotten clear about the mechanisms that make our faith community healthy and holy. We have a playbook that defines how ministry is done at all of our settings. It’s not heroic, solo leadership.

What happens in heroic, solo leadership is that your church does well while you’re there. You either move, die or retire, and if another heroic leader is sent there, the church might continue to do well. But if somebody not as gifted is sent there, the church begins to decline. So we’ve worked hard at creating healthy processes that aren’t contingent upon the leader.

Q: Where do you hope to see Grace Church in five years?

The vision of our congregation is 20 campuses, which I believe is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal that will live on after I’m gone. I don’t believe I’ll see 20 campuses, maybe, but we want to have a compelling vision that’s bigger than the leader and that is accomplished by the team, the church, the campuses. Five years from now, I would envision we’d have several more campuses and campus pastors.

Our next generation of communities of faith will probably look different. We’re already starting to get some traction in planting campuses in gated communities, in retirement communities, in nursing homes, in prisons and globally. We just had a team return from Nicaragua; we’re working there with the United Methodist Church in Estelí.

Q: What are the core theological convictions that give life to your work as a pastor and as a leader?

Simple: Jesus is Lord. The kingdom of God is here. It’s not about you. The local church is the hope of the world. You can’t separate personal piety and social holiness; they work together. That’s part of our Wesleyan genius. The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is about making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. It is that beautiful tension that we live in.

Q: What are your core theological convictions about leadership?

There’s a phrase that Paul gives to Timothy, where he says, “Keep close watch over yourself and your teaching, or your doctrine.” There is, again, this tension in leadership, where it is keeping close watch over yourself: I can’t take people to places I’ve never been; the most important life I lead is my own. Keep close watch over yourself, your own personal discipleship and your teaching and doctrine.

Jesus said it this way: “Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit.” I’m charged with asking myself two questions: How is it with my soul? -- “Abide in me” -- and how is it with my ministry? -- “bear much fruit.” Those two tensions work together in community to get to the place where there is much fruit that lasts.

It’s oppositional thinking, because we tend to either do really well at the abiding stuff or we tend to do really well at the bear-much-fruit stuff, but Jesus invited us to live that together.

Q: You’re a member of the UMC’s Call to Action steering team. What are the biggest challenges facing the UMC and the church broadly?

I think the challenges that we have as the United Methodist Church are figuring out ways to turbo-charge our tradition. I think we have in our stream of Wesleyan Christianity all that we need to be faithful and fruitful in our current age. As a matter of fact, I’m convinced this personal-piety/social-holiness message -- which is, I think, pretty unique to our Wesleyan tradition -- is the angst of our age. The 20-somethings that I have conversations with want a church that has a vital piety but is making a difference in the world.

And so I think getting rid of -- jettisoning -- anything that keeps us from practicing ministry in that way is going to be our biggest challenge. Have we become so monolithic in our systems, both at the local-church level and beyond it -- the districts and conferences, jurisdictions and general church -- and so encrusted and so hardened that we’re unwilling to put those things aside so that we can claim the very core identity of who we are and live into that?

I mean, what we’re doing in our multi-site is nothing more than what Wesley did in the 1700s. We’re raising up our lay leadership, we’re getting them credentialed and trained and vetted in our mission, vision, value, strategy and structure and sending them out, keeping them accountable to abide in Christ and to be fruitful in their ministry. And so the system has enough latitude to do that, even now. It’s do we have enough courage to let that go? Do we have enough trust to let that happen in the life of our church? And if we can do that, we will have a future with hope. If we don’t, we’ll go by the way of the dinosaur -- and please hear me, I don’t believe the kingdom of God will stop if the United Methodist Church goes away. I mean, God’s church will prevail till the end of time. So I do think that God will just have a whole new resurrection of the message. It’s already out there; I mean, it’s happening.

Q: What kind of leadership does the church need today from bishops and comparable denominational leaders?

We need courageous leaders who are at their core committed to Jesus and his kingdom and who see that at the bull’s-eye of our denominational life is the health of vital local churches -- that on the corner of Main and Maple is where it really matters. What happens at our boards and agencies, at our jurisdictional headquarters, and even at our district and episcopal headquarters is all aimed at helping local churches be vital, because that’s where the game is won or lost.

If we can have episcopal leadership that has the courage to aim all our resources as a movement at the local church -- for the local church to be faithful and fruitful -- I think we’ve got some good days in front of us. All of the rumblings in the life of our general church are saying, “We recognize that things are not well.” Those rumblings are the rumblings of the Spirit, stirring us to say, “Hey gang, business as usual won’t cut it. There’s a new day.”