By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Friday and Saturday, Tibbetts United Methodist Church (WSB sponsor) hosts a regional event that’s billed as a “revival.”
Not the old-school fire-and-brimstone preaching-style revival.
The “ordinary revival” Love Thy Neighbor is more about reinvention – and it’s right in line with what Tibbetts’s new pastor, Rev. Sarah Casey, believes.
Rev. Casey is certainly one of West Seattle’s youngest pastors, at 30. But this isn’t necessarily a generational thing. As the daughter of a pastor, she grew up steeped in tradition.
Oh, before we get too far down the road – we should mention she skates with Rat City Roller Derby.
More on that, and her, shortly. First, the Friday night/all-day Saturday event that Tibbetts is hosting: It’s born from a “network of churches,” Casey says, but it’s not just about churches and participation is by no means limited to them. “Trying to connect people who are working for God in the neighborhood … a lot of people in and outside church(es) are seeking to strengthen relationships in neighborhoods … some ministries that have started out of local businesses that don’t look like faith communities (and aren’t based in) a building … meetings in bars, community service, meetings in coffee shops.”
The “ordinary revival” is arriving at Tibbetts less than three months into Casey’s pastorship, featuring speakers and workshops, led by people from clergy to entrepreneurs to community members, “sharing stories about engaging with neighbors, responding to their communities, (including) dealing with culture of isolation, intercultural competency,” and more. You can register here if you’re interested in going.
It’s vital work, in the pastor’s view. “It’s not a secret that mainline Protestant denominations are rapidly declining. The church is pretty irrelevant in the day-to-day life of neighborhoods, disconnected from neighbors.” (In most references, we should note, she is referring to the wider institution of “church” rather than her church in particular.)
Tibbetts UMC, founded more than a century ago, has some involvement such as, Casey notes, renting part of its building to preschool and after-school programs. But that’s not the same as direct participation in neighborhood life – something Casey sees firsthand as she’s the first Tibbetts pastor in more than a decade to live in the house adjacent to the church.
“I really feel that the church is at a crossroads in terms of determining our purpose and presence in a neighborhood … especially in urban areas like this. My hope is that we will shift our focus from rigid expectations of what it means to engage in the life of a faith community and be more open to other expressions of faith and spiritual growth,” beyond centering your participation on, say, a Sabbath service. “Less on maintaining church structure and (the) institutions, (it’s about) what does it mean to live in and embody the gospel in our neighborhoods (now)?”
Soul-searching is particularly appropriate here in the Pacific Northwest, where, Rev. Casey notes, many describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” She observes that shows church has “ruined spirituality for a lot of people.”
She is relatively new to the PNW, having grown up, studied, been ordained, and started her service to the United Methodist Church in its Northern Illinois Conference. Before being appointed as pastor of Tibbetts after Rev. Dr. Joanne Brown‘s departure, she was “developing a new faith community” in north Seattle, enjoying “spending the majority of my time outside a conventional church.” But the UMC “wanted to use my gifts in an established church,” and sent her south to West Seattle.
“Spending that intentional time in the community has totally informed my ministry coming back into a traditional parish,” she declares.
“Traditional” – but in “a time of transition.” Casey elaborates, “I really value tradition, I love the old hymns, I grew up going to church three times a week … but if I read the gospel and ask what it’s like to embody Jesus’s values …what does it look like?” Maybe it looks like singing karaoke, she suggests, adding that “my personal understading of God is really, relationship. When you are building that with other people, that’s when you are growing spiritually … Christians believe God became human
to teach us how to be in relationship with each other.”
That also means forgiveness, growth, and understanding. The latter can be found in novel ways.
“One of the things that helped me get to know Seattle and Pacific Northwest culture is that I started skating with Rat City Roller Girls about a year ago. It was life-changing – it had a pretty profound impact on me. I found myself inhabiting this secular physical space.”
Her skating handle gives a nod to her vocation, though – “Pastor of Disaster.”
Skating “makes my life feel fully integrated, makes me feel more whole as a person, as a pastor.” No, it’s not a way to harvest more souls – she does it “never expecting that the folks I skate with are going to show up in church.”
But it’s on track with her ministry in other ways. She believes the UMC’s Pacific Northwest Conference is “more aware of the decline in church participation,” so “we have to ask these questions now” about relevance. “We can’t wait … churches are closing … right now the institution is really inefficient and ineffective at helping people engage their faith.”
A tough realization for someone who knew already at age 16 that she wanted to enter the ministry. The education, training, and provisional membership – a nine-year process – led Rev. Casey to ordination three years ago, not long after she “really started to become aware of how irrelevant the church is.”
She realized that in part via friends who are non-churchgoers and yet loving, kind, decent people – some of whom had left churches because they were told they were bound for hell, others who left because they “weren’t getting spiritual sustenance,” and yet others “who would never set foot in a church.”
Those are the ones who might be reached by a meeting in a bar.
Or maybe a roller rink.
But the next two days, you’ll find Rev. Casey and others at Tibbetts (3940 41st SW). Even if you’re not interested in the “revival,” you are invited to an afterparty Saturday afternoon/evening, a family-friendly neighborhood barbecue starting by 4:30 pm, continuing until 7 or so.