Trish Ryan – My Leadership Journey

Trish Ryan – My Leadership Journey

My Christian leadership journey began deep in the trenches of the New Age movement. I worked with a bestselling author and planned my life via Feng Shui and Astrology. God was like a kindly grandfather I checked in with most days, who had (it seemed) left a series of complex, esoteric roadmaps for how to make life work.

As I learned different spiritual techniques, I taught others. Were you to walk into a happy hour in Philadelphia in the mid-90s, you’d have likely seen me at the bar, sketching plans on a cocktail napkin to help a friend Feng Shui their apartment. My mentor was a woman, as were most of the authors and speakers I admired. It never occurred to me I couldn’t follow in their footsteps. I led workshops at yoga studios with titles like “Feminine Magnetic Power.”

But I was a bit disappointed: that my mentors, as I got to know them, seemed to have even worse relationship struggles than I did; that the men in those circles seemed so decidedly feminine; that the results of my hours of spiritual practice weren’t what I expected. For example, I’d declare to the universe that I was ready to receive a boyfriend, or a job, or a new apartment. Eventually, these things showed up. But there was a decided lack of quality control.

One day in my early 30s, I was driving down the street, sad about how my life was going. As I pulled up to a light, I heard a voice that sounded like James Earl Jones: I have a husband for you, He said. A family. Everything you want. But you need to take Jesus seriously…

I thought it might be God. It was the strangest thing I’d ever heard. I laughed and said something like, “Sure… But you’ll have to show me what that means….”

To which He replied, You know don’t you, this means no more sex until you get married?

I went home and told the guy I was living with what had happened, expecting him to propose. Instead, he said, “Um. Okay.” And that was the end of that.

Soon after that, a friend told me there was a Christian church right here in Cambridge – something called a Vineyard – where people gathered in a school gym to study the Bible, eat bagels, and drink coffee.

That next Sunday, I showed up fifteen minutes early wearing the most conservative clothes I could find. I didn’t talk to anyone; I was afraid they’d force me to take a knee and give my life to Jesus. I thought, “I’ll stay here until they say something ridiculous.”

Two weeks later I attended my first life group. I’d heard it involved Bible study, but I was ready for that. I’d gone to Barnes & Noble, where they had a chart that gave a grade level for each different translation. I selected the NRSV because it was for people who had gone beyond grade 12. I wondered what the Apocrypha was.

Five months later, I was co-leading a life group of my own. I’d stopped doing my new age lectures after a friend suggested I “Just do Jesus” for a bit, so I had some time. My co-leader was one of the most eligible bachelors of the church, which was every bit as complicated as it sounds. Our group quickly grew to 25-30 people squashed into a living room talking about prophecy and deliverance. I didn’t know what to say when my old friends asked me what I was doing with my free time, so I’d blurt things like, “Well last night, we prayed for a guy’s kidney stone to be dissolved, and then watched a demon come out of a girl who’s in nursing school.” People started avoiding me.

It was the most alive I’d ever felt, watching God knit this group of people from all over the world into a family…and the most miserable I’d ever been, as I wrestled with nightmares of snakes and the challenge of “co-parenting” thirty people in a faith I barely understood myself.

That first year was messy. And powerful. Impossibly hard. And yet so good. I trace so much of the success I’ve had as a Christian leader back to this early understanding that this is what it looks like when the Kingdom of God breaks in.

About a year into that life group, a new guy showed up. His name was Steve. He was the husband God had promised. We began dating in November and were married the following June.

From the beginning, our lives were immersed in the church. Steve led a men’s group. I was on the Alpha team that created Seek. We spoke at inner healing retreats. I wrote a memoir about searching for the right guy and finding the right God, and went on a national book tour. Our lives were filled with an ever-growing circle of friendships, each based on the transformational power of Jesus. At one point, my picture was on the wall of the church as the poster child for Seek. (It was an awkward picture, which kept me humble.) Steve was on the team that ran Sunday mornings. It was a heady time.

When the losses came, they were quick and bloody.

We moved to Central New York for Steve to take a staff position at a smaller Vineyard church. It was a disaster. Four months later, we moved back to Cambridge, homeless, jobless, and chased by a trail of accusation. (We now call that, “The year we summered in the Finger Lakes region…”)

I had multiple miscarriages. I shared about this struggle in my second memoir, which prompted random Christian strangers to grab my stomach in spontaneous fertility prayers, and then ask questions like, “Does your husband wear boxers or briefs?”

Our church had a series of crises: One couple on staff were accused of defrauding multiple church members out of thousands of dollars. A beloved associate pastor was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and died two years later, leaving a wife and three young sons. Our senior pastor began announcing significant changes to his theological stances in his sermons, making every Sunday an exercise in listening extra closely for all the wrong reasons. He purged the staff and leadership team of naysayers.

In the midst of this, Jeff and Le Que Heidkamp invited Steve and me out to Mercy Vineyard to speak at their leaders retreat. We’d met through my involvement in Seek, and he challenged us to speak on evangelism. We were beginning to realize that having come to faith as adults, we had something to share about how Jesus is still drawing people to Himself even in the most unlikely circumstances.

At the end of that weekend, Jeff took us aside. “You guys are pastors,” he said. “What are you going to do about that?”

We flew back to Cambridge filled with excitement. We’d been approached about church planting before, but never felt any call to it. Now we were filled with a vision that seemed to come out of nowhere: we wanted to plant a church in Boston’s Back Bay, to pastor the wealthy people who lived there, a group Christianity Today called the least-reached people group in one of the least-reached cities in America.

We went through the assessment process. We were approved…at which point our senior pastor stepped in and shut us down. There was a long email chain that ended with something like, “I don’t trust you and I withdraw my support from this church plant.”

After prayer, and seeking wise counsel (by which I mean sobbing at God, and then asking a few trusted friends, “What the hell is happening?”) we withdrew our membership from the church. We were spinning. We weren’t the only ones experiencing this sort of banishment; the wounded were thick on the ground. We had no idea what to do next.

Two years later, the pastor was gone, leaving a bombed-out shell of a church where a vibrant, Holy Spirit-filled community had once been. Eventually, that church left the Vineyard movement. We took in a young foster daughter during that time. The church was near our apartment, and one day as we drove by she asked, “Why is that church dead?” Tears filled my eyes and it was all I could do to keep my car on the road.

We went five years without a church. We tried several, even invested in a few. Our most fruitful season was at a Charismatic Catholic church north of the city, where the priest spoke stealthy words of deliverance at the end of every Mass. I attended Mass daily, soaking up the presence of Jesus and relieved by the lack of pressure. (No one asks about your church plant plans when you’re hanging with the Catholics.) After several months, Father Ron asked if we’d help lead the confirmation class. “You know we haven’t really been Catholics for years?” we asked. “That’s okay,” he said. “These kids know Catholic doctrine. I need you to teach them how to follow Jesus.”

We adopted two children from foster care. Brother and sister, twelve and ten. We became a multiracial family. We integrated our neighborhood.

The on-ramp to Catholicism was too steep for us to take on in the middle of learning how to be a family, and we didn’t feel great about sorting out all the aspects we didn’t ascribe to. So we visited evangelical churches.

One was stunningly diverse for the northern suburbs – but the kid’s program was like a circus combined with a candy store mixed with a trip to Disney. We didn’t want to teach our kids that that God had to work that hard to be worth their attention.

Another called all the kids up to the front in the middle of service and told them to dance to a worship song to “show us how to dance in the Spirit!” My kids had never been to VBS, had never heard that song, and did not know the special dance moves. My son, always game for a challenge, tried to mimic the moves. My daughter stood in the center of the group and did not move. Not a muscle. For the entire song. Steve leaned over to me when it was over and said, “We’re never coming back here.”

We did home church after that, realizing that older kids can’t just jump into most kids church programs. There’s too much-assumed knowledge for them to fit in. We talked about Jesus and spiritual gifts. We slipped in some of the Bible stories about kids raised by parents other than then ones they were born to. We used sparkling juice for communion because it took over a year for the adoption to finalize and we couldn’t risk giving the kids alcohol.

One day that summer, I was in my small office scrolling through Facebook as the kids and their new friends played Wii in the next room. Cindy Nicholson posted from the Vineyard Global Leadership Conference. The picture was of Rich Nathan, speaking on something like, “What it means to be a Vineyard Leader.” The screen behind him read, YOU WILL BE BETRAYED.

I clicked on the link out of pure snark, expecting Rich to dish on how our former pastor had just led several churches out of the Vineyard. That’s not what he talked about, though. He talked about that thing I experienced all those years ago in the first life group I helped lead: how the miracles co-exist with the heartbreaks, how we never know quite what God is doing, but we’re first in line to be astonished as He comes through. The truth is, I don’t even know what Rich said in that talk because I was wiping away tears and thinking, “THIS is what we’re trying to teach our kids!” I’d forgotten that we weren’t alone in this approach to faith. I felt like there was a family reunion going on in Columbus, and that we should be there. I sensed God say, “Reach out – ask if you can come back…”

We had a series of amazing conversations after that. Don and Nancy Andreson. John Elmer. Phil Strout. Realizing we weren’t the only ones from our former church in need of healing and a way back, we organized a reconciliation gathering for people who had left our former church and needed to feel that the Vineyard still welcomed them. Before the meeting, Don and Nancy Andreson said, “There should be a place for people to go after the meeting. You guys are already assessed. Are you willing to plant a church?”

And once again, we had a vision that seemed to come out of nowhere. I heard a Bill Johnson talk about greenhouses, how they are places where small seeds are given optimum conditions to grow, and the name Greenhouse Mission seemed like it had always been part of who we are. We’d plant in Kendall Square, the hub of biotech in Cambridge (and the new wealthiest area in greater Boston). Steve grew up in Cambridge and had worked in Kendall Square for over seventeen years. We’d spent most of our married life in that city. We sensed God saying, Plant here. I’ll bless it.

We had no sending church, and our “team” was us, our kids, and my best friend. A couple we had known a little bit in our old church volunteered to lead worship. We dragged Steve’s parents along to our first few meetings. They thought we were nuts but wanted to be supportive. I did all the preaching and freaked out about what it means to be a woman in leadership for the first time in my life. Steve told me (lovingly, with great care) to get over myself and keep preaching. So I did.

That was a year and a half ago. Now, our church is about the size of that first life group where Steve and I met. Each week we pray, “Thank you God, that everyone who is supposed to be here gets here.” Each week we see people healed, delivered, transformed by Jesus, and coming back to see what He will do. He’s all we have in common, really. Beyond that, it makes no sense that we’re all friends.

Which is the best description I can think of for life in the Kingdom of God.

 

Trish Ryan and her husband Steve are the lead pastors of Greenhouse Mission Vineyard, a church plant in Cambridge, MA. They recently adopted two older children from foster care, jumping into parenting at the middle school level. A former litigation attorney, Trish is the author of two books about her faith journey: He Loves Me He Loves Me Not, and A Maze of Grace. Connect with Trish at Greenhousemissionchurch.org and Trishryanauthor.com.