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Director of New Urban Evangelism School On Reaching People Where They Are


Tara VinCross shares her passion about her new job as director of a new kind of evangelism school. 

Question: You have recently been named director of the Columbia Union's REACH School of Urban Evangelism, a brand new project in Philadelphia. How will this school of evangelism be different than any other evangelism school? Why do you feel it is needed?

Answer: REACH Columbia Union Urban School of Evangelism is an exciting new kind of evangelism school that offers an immersive experience in urban ministry in the city of Philadelphia in direct cooperation with a vibrant young adult church plant. What makes REACH Columbia Union unique is that it offers a 12-month program that combines hands-on urban missionary experience with intentional discipleship and education. Students can earn 12 semester credits through Washington Adventist University, transferrable to other universities.  

With 80% of the population of the United States living in an urban center, it’s really important for young adults to equip themselves, understanding how to partner with urban communities and share the gospel for a lasting impact.  

Question: When will the program start? Who will the students be?

Answer: The program will start in early June 2015 and run through May 2016. We hope to draw young adults from all educational and career pursuits.  Though it will be a wonderful experience for those called to be pastors and/or administrators, the value of this experience is not limited to those desiring to be in full time vocational ministry.  Nurses, graphic designers, plumbers, or attorneys can all benefit from this urban missionary and education experience.

Question: What are your goals for the school?

Answer: My primary goal is to intentionally disciple the students who join the program.  We offer cohort-based instruction, meaning the group is intentionally intimate which provides for a wonderful environment for growth.  My greatest desire is for young adults to experience transformation in their own lives, understand the gospel by experience, and learn how to be in relationship with God and join Him in His work in the world.  

My second goal is that we would witness an even greater and more lasting change in the lives of those who live in our Philadelphia neighborhood of West Oak Lane as we live the gospel message there.  As we partner together, my desire is that as our own lives are being changed, this will lead to the saving of many lives!

Question: How closely involved will the Columbia Union administration be in the day-to-day running of the school? What support are they providing?

Answer: The Columbia Union administration has been a wonderful support to the vision of the school!  They are investing significant financial resources, and have been very generous in their time to work out the systems and policies for this new start up (a lot goes into a start up!).  I’m particularly blessed to be able to work with Frank Bondurant, Ministries Development Director, and the President who hired me years ago in Washington Conference, Union President Dave Weigley.  Due to the distance between Philadelphia and Columbia, involvement in the day-to-day operations are entrusted to me, as an employee of the union, and my staff — however I do anticipate continued proactive support of the vision of the school.

Question: What ingredients do you think are needed to ensure the project is a success?

Answer: An active and intentional partnership among the organizations involved in this endeavor is essential for success: the eight conferences of the Columbia Union, administrative teams, Washington Adventist University administration and Religion Department, as well as local churches and pastors, are all vital to the school’s success.  We need help recruiting and referring students to the program who are ready to be equipped to benefit and bless the church in years to come.  It is this network of relationships that will allow for the school’s success: the devotion of young adult students, commitment of administrators, active sharing by local churches and schools, and even grandparents talking to their grandkids about the program.      

Also indispensable for success is maintaining the unique focus of this school.  Our training will include a diverse, hands-on experience for young adult students in the areas of discipleship, community development, urban agriculture, and various aspects of evangelism. Students will develop a working understanding of the cycle of transformational evangelism through experience in personal, public, and literature evangelism. Through these experiences they will learn valuable leadership and life skills as they connect meaningfully with their neighbors in Philadelphia.  

This knowledge gained through hands-on learning will lead to applicability of these principles in other contexts wherever God leads them to settle.

Question: How did you get the job as director? Was the REACH evangelism school your idea? How are you qualified to direct such a project?

Answer: God has been so gracious in leading this way in my life.  Around five years ago, at the beginning of my Doctor of Ministry program, we were instructed to write a Ministry development plan, discussing where God would lead in the next five years of ministry.  As I prayed over this, I sensed God unfolding a vision for a young adult church plant, a ministry internship, incarnational housing in the neighborhood we would be seeking to reach, and young adults being trained in ministry in the urban context through a wholistic evangelism school.  Over the last five years I have been amazed to watch how God has unfolded His vision, as I have been open and willing to go where He wanted me to go.  I praise God that by the Spring of 2014 I had seen all of the things He had unfolded take place, with the exception of the evangelism school.

Meanwhile the Columbia Union felt the burden to disciple young adults through an evangelism school and began a process of searching for a director.  Over the course of nine months of conversations and the unfolding vision, God brought this together in beautiful collaboration!  For myself, the location of the school was essential, because though we have been in Philadelphia for close to seven years, we do not yet feel God calling us to leave this mission field.  I was eager to direct a school, if it could be located in Philadelphia.  Miraculously, the administration, the Columbia Union Conference presidents, and the Executive Committee were all supportive of the location here in Philadelphia and we began moving forward together!  I am very grateful for the Columbia Union Conference and the incredible team synergy that exists in the leadership of the Union and each of the eight Conferences that make up our union.

God’s timing was also perfect in the completion of my Doctor of Ministry degree.  In August 2014 I graduated from Andrews with a DMin in Discipleship and Biblical Spirituality, a degree that fits not only with the discipleship focus of the school, but makes it far easier to teach university level courses here at our school.  In so many ways I have seen again that God prepares us for that which He calls us to do.

Question: So you will continue to pastor the REACH Philadelphia church that you and your husband planted three years ago? How many members does the church have, and what kind of profile does the membership have?

Answer: Yes, for the next few years I will continue as Lead Pastor of REACH Philadelphia Church, though this is only possible due to the two amazing association pastors who are serving at REACH: Pastor Tiffany Brown and Pastor William Bonilla.  

REACH is made up of predominantly young adults, young professionals, young families, and college/graduate school students.  The average age of the congregation is 27!  (I’ve considered putting out a “WANTED” ad for older adults, as we’ve been praying for older people to join the congregation!)  

I am inspired again and again by the REACH young adults and young professionals who are sacrificially giving for the sake of the mission here in Philadelphia.  

Currently, REACH has 40 members.  We are still a mobile church, temporarily renting a storefront on Ogonz Avenue, but we are eager to get into the Ministry Center we are remodeling, and know that will bring more stability to our church ministries.  We recently purchased a bar and nightclub building, which we are transforming into a center of hope and ministry!  It’s amazing to watch the change.

Question: A few months ago you were given the Excellence in Doctor of Ministry Research Award from the seminary at Andrews University for your project "Discipleship Process as a Catalyst for Mission Orientation in the Chestnut Hill SDA Church." Congratulations. It sounds like this all ties into the bigger plan. Can you explain a little bit more about your project and what set it apart for those who judged the award?

Answer: Thank you so much!  The five years spent pursuing this degree were really formative for me, and I am grateful to the Seminary and specifically Dr. Allan Walshe for the amazing journey.

The focus of my project was on developing a discipleship process which intentionally assisted members in their formation as disciples of Jesus: how to love God with all their hearts and love others as themselves.  A lack of discipleship of members in the local church contributes to insufficient spiritual vitality for missional involvement.  

So I created and introduced a 12-week discipleship process during the spring of 2011. Its purpose was twofold: to increase (1) devotional life and (2) missional involvement of a diverse set of participants. An experiential learning model was used, which allowed for participants to actively engage growth in their relationship with God on the levels of knowing, being, and doing. The use of one-on-one peer mentoring, small groups, and group instruction fostered relationships and formed a really close knit, spiritual community. The discipleship process began with an all-day spiritual retreat in a beautiful natural setting, continued with 10 sessions meeting once per week for two hours, and concluded with a second all-day spiritual retreat at the same location. Sessions focused on the following four categories: Relationship with God; Living in Community; Ministry and Mission; and the Cost of Discipleship (Suffering). Curriculum success was assessed through a focus group at the end of the process.  

The goal of the discipleship process was to structure space for the Holy Spirit to bring about transformation in the lives of individuals. This transformation of the Holy Spirit was witnessed in the participants’ lives as a result of the implementation of this discipleship curriculum. 

This project demonstrates that when local church leaders intentionally disciple members, devotional life and participation in the mission of Christ increases. As members learned how to follow Christ, they also learned how to disciple others in the same way. 

My cohort was made up of amazing people who were implementing wonderful projects.  I am honored to have been chosen, yet I know that there were many others who could have been chosen as well. 

Question: When did you know that you were called to ministry?

Answer: On the joyful day I surrendered my entire life to Jesus in the summer of 1995, I began to realize not only how much He loves me, but that in His love He invites me to be a part of telling others about this love!  Prior to this moment, even as a 7 or 8-year-old, I remember knowing I would be a lawyer, planning to speak up front and work for justice — helping people in their challenging situations. 

When I got involved in ministry through Washington Conference’s Youth Challenge program, under the leadership of Pastor Cindy Tutsch, I saw God using me in ministry day after day.  With an increasing awareness each summer, I knew where I was supposed to be: in pastoral ministry.  I felt the joy of my calling to ministry and this was confirmed by others in my life.  I knew I didn’t want to do anything else.

I didn’t grow up in the church, but fortunately I grew up being told by my parents that I could do anything — whatever I was put together to do.  I am grateful to my parents for this.  Due to this understanding, and because of my love for Jesus and desire to serve Him, I never considered resisting God’s call when He started moving on my heart to be a pastor.

Question: What do you love the most about being a pastor? What do you find the most difficult?

Answer: My greatest joys are seeing people come to Christ, discipling them in developing a relationship with Him, and mentoring them in finding their purpose and place in God’s work in the world.  I especially love mentoring young adults, urban evangelism, and preaching.  I love the meaning and purpose on someone’s face as they realize that God loves them no matter what, and God desires to use them — even their weakness and brokenness — to bring healing to the world.  I love the relationships developed in pastoral ministry, as well as the administrative and visionary part of the role.  Praying and asking God where we should go, collaborating with a team of leaders through the process of discernment, and then being willing to step out in faith to respond to God’s call to us and seeing Him work miracles to bring the good news to many, is an amazing part of ministry.  Especially as God leads us to see lives saved through the efforts that He leads us to.  God is so incredible!  

The most difficult part of ministry is that its never complete or finished.  There are never-ending demands on my time.  There are needs in the world, and specifically in our city, that we don’t have solutions to.  There is widespread brokenness and sin that affects humanity and leaves me feeling powerless on my own to make a difference.  I go back to God, weak and dependent on the Holy Spirit for any lasting change that will take place in my life and through this ministry.  When I feel I am not enough and do not have enough, I go back to the One who is Enough for everyone.  God keeps me going in this hope of what He is doing in the world.  

Question: Is it a challenge to do a job that has traditionally been reserved for men in the Adventist church? Do you feel there is a lot of prejudice to overcome?

Answer: Ministry is a challenge, whether you are male or female.  The enemy seeks to tear down those who are seeking to bring the love, light, and hope of the Kingdom of God to the world.  Jesus even said that if it was hard for him here, that it will be equally hard for us (Matthew 10:24-25).  

That being said, I believe that there are some unique challenges to being a woman in pastoral ministry in the Adventist church.  One of the primary challenges is placement in ministry.  People have a prejudice against women serving in the role of pastor because they are accustomed to a man serving in this role, so it’s hard for them to be open to something different.  As a woman in pastoral ministry I have experienced those prejudices, some more extreme than others.  My calling is to be true to who God designed me to be and the call of God on my life.  If I am faithful to God, that is what counts. 

When I share that I am a pastor, the reception that I receive from the general public (those outside of the Adventist Church) is overwhelmingly positive.  Those who are not connected with the church are excited, specifically because they view the church as backwards in their view of women in leadership, and view my presence in the clergy as hopeful and exciting.  Most of the time I sense immediate respect and openness. By contrast, when I share that I am a pastor with those who are in the Adventist Church, usually what comes up are questions about whether our church can accept women pastors, whether God can call women, or what I view about a particular Bible text, etc.  My hope for the church is that we would accept and affirm all those exhibit the Spirit’s call.  Though there is prejudice to overcome, I have seen more courage, faith, and affirmation in recent years than ever before, I believe.  We have so many reasons for hope!  

Question: I understand you have a four-month-old son, Josiah. Is parenting a baby making it more difficult to pastor a congregation? Are there things you are learning that are helping you in your ministry?

Answer: We are so excited to be parents — it has been such a joy! — and it certainly does change the demands on my time from home and ministry.  I am blessed to have a life companion Caleb, my husband of 11 years, who is an able co-parent and ministry partner.   

Josiah is a wonderful bridge to connecting with anyone when we go out (people love babies!), so for community connections he’s a wonderful ministry partner as well.  Through these first months of parenting, there are so many things I am learning, specifically about the tenderness of God as parent and his attentiveness to my cry, which has allowed me to speak and live from a deeper understanding of the unconditional love of God.  I am grateful for our son and for this journey.

See also this video of Tara VinCross talking about her rejection and acceptance as a woman pastor.

Photo Credit: Bradley Austin Photography.

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