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Married pastors tag-team to serve two churches

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Posted at 1:07 PM, Jan 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-30 13:07:29-05

CINCINNATI -- Do you think you couldn't work outside the home and on a daily basis with your spouse?

You’re not alone. Colleagues say that all the time to Doug and Cathy Johns, the co-senior pastors at Hyde Park United Methodist Church. But they say it works great for them.

“Our gift sets are different and complement one another,” Doug said.

The two met in October 1983 when Cathy was in her third and final year at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and Doug was in his first year. Doug asked her to marry him two months later, and they tied the knot the next July.

Since then, they have worked 32 years in ministry, 27 of them at the same churches at the same time. In June 2014, the local bishop sent them to Hyde Park UMC.

There, they preach on alternate Sundays, and Doug handles the administrative duties while Caty handles staff and leadership development. She is the visionary, he is the pragmatist.

“He (Doug) is the person who asks really practical questions like, ‘How are we going to fund this? How are we going to accomplish this?’ ” Cathy said.

Together, they oversee a congregation of about 600 weekend attendees and a full-time staff of 24. Cathy believes that churches are transformed by leadership, so she makes the staff’s spiritual development a priority. Staff meetings begin with hymns or worship songs, she said, and so do church board meetings.

This kind of worship-influenced meeting creates a better culture than your standard business meeting, she said. “I could not go back (to that). It would be quite painful to sit in a room full of people who are not remembering why they are there.”

When they first came to the church, the Johnses thought it might be a wealthy, mainline denomination church – staid and set in its ways. Built in 1927, the church has a huge, stone-covered exterior reminiscent of Hogwarts School from the Harry Potter tales, but its sanctuary is an architectural gem brightened by stained glass windows.

The Johnses found that members were more open to change than they expected.

Cathy, who loves change, formed a task force to look at the worship services. After nine months of study, the task force decided to change one of the church's three identical weekend services to a contemporary worship service, which began Jan. 24.

Most contemporary worship services consist of half an hour of contemporary Christian music, then a message, then everyone goes home. But this one includes prayer, Scripture readings and a variety of music, Cathy said.

“Churches that refuse to change, they will find themselves graying and aging, and we know what happens after that,” Cathy said.

It’s what happened to Nast Trinity United Methodist Church in Over-the-Rhine. It was down to six members when it became part of Hyde Park UMC in 2012.

Founded in 1835, Nast was the first German Methodist Episcopal congregation in the United States. Its sanctuary was built in 1842, across from Washington Park in an area now frequented by young professionals and savvy entrepreneurs.

Hyde Park UMC leadership had originally planned to make Nast a second campus, but now the plan is to support it until it can become a separate, self-sustaining congregation again.

To that end, the church hired Ian Strickland, 28, a 2012 Duke Divinity School graduate who had been doing prison ministry in Durham, N.C. He became pastor of the newly named Over-the-Rhine Community Church in March.

His plan to revive the former Nast congregation, he said, is to build a community among worshippers there and create a place where Over-the-Rhine residents can participate regardless of their socio-economic status.

That means changing things, such as the free, before-worship breakfast and after-worship dinner held at the church for the past 30-odd years. It was a great help to the homeless in the neighborhood, Strickland said, but it didn’t create community. Churches from the suburbs, such as Hyde Park UMC, would send members who would serve the Over-the-Rhine residents and leave.

The church plans to resume the breakfasts on Feb. 7, Strickland said, with volunteers and residents alike eating and cleaning up together so that all encounter one another as peers.

 “Food is not the end anymore, but the means to build relationships,” Strickland said.

The multi-ethnic worship service now attracts about 50 people to Sunday services, with its mix of African-American gospel music, communion and congregants telling stories that relate to the sermon. A big goal for Strickland is for worshippers to recognize that “we live in a world where some are more socially valued than others,” and to be dedicated to stopping that.

Until the former Nast church can support itself, Hyde Park UMC will provide financial and administrative support, including oversight and mentoring of Strickland by the Johnses.

 “We encourage him to create his own unique vision for the church,” Doug said. “We just provide guidance.”

The former Nast church isn’t the only ministry Hyde Park UMC supports in Over-the-Rhine, especially in the northeast corner of the neighborhood that hasn’t been gentrified. Efforts include supplying 45 mentors for Rothenberg Preparatory Academy for the past several years.

It’s in the very DNA of Hyde Park UMC to get involved, and stay involved, in the inner city, Doug said. “We’re not a church that swoops in and does a food drive and swoops out,” he said. “It’s a priority to be a presence in the urban core.”