reviews

A Review by Richard E. Sturm
Professor of Christianity and the Arts, New Brunswick Theological Seminary

Reading this book is to be in lively conversation with the author, Gordon Dragt. Like original hearers of the parables of Jesus, you will not leave his words unchanged: some cannot hear the gospel gladly, but I trust you will find his narrative as compelling and uplifting as I did. Even if you have never met Gordon, by the end of the book you will consider him a friend and mentor in faith and ministry.

Revitalizing dysfunctional or dying congregations is a major concern of churches throughout this country, and Dragt’s twenty years as pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan yield excellent suggestions for positive transformation. His guidelines are practical, like building trust before making big changes; transforming the worship services into worship celebrations; "traveling light," unburdened by heavy theology, liturgy, or spirituality; or urging the use of the arts, not only because it’s biblical but also because it works. Dragt’s testimony is also imaginative and inspiring, witnessing to his profound calling to Christian ministry, his gifts and talents ready to take flight and to see others soar as well, and a faith that celebrates God’s grace and love for all God’s children. His wise but simple counsel to those in society today troubled or bewildered by diversity of culture, ethnic background, and sexual orientation: "Get used to it."

In this book Gordon Dragt demonstrates that Jesus’ spirit still works wonders.

A Review by Bridget Wingert, Editor, Bucks County Herald

Gordon Dragt’s book is based on church leadership but his sage observations are useful in any endeavor. He writes about leadership in "One Foot Planted in the Center, the Other Dangling Off the Edge: How Intentional Leadership Can Transform Your Church."

His book is about the Middle Collegiate Church in New York’s East Village. Dragt was living happily in Chapel Hill, N.C., as the senior minister of an active inter-denominational church when he met with a committee that was searching for a minister. His wife, Gayle, had a successful business in "the southern part of Heaven," their son Duke was a high school senior and daughter Cassie was a high school sophomore who enjoyed the friends she had in Chapel Hill.

"I had always felt if I was ever invited to serve a church in New York City, it was my obligation or calling to go, no matter where or what my current ministry was," Dragt says in the book. "Many people who contributed to the development and growth of our nation came through New York City. The city is a welcoming home for people who would find acceptance and support difficult in other towns and cities in our country .... New York City churches should never be considered the last choice of clergy who would rather be in the suburbs or elsewhere, but the first choice of clergy who want to make a difference in a city that has made a big difference in the life of our entire nation."

But this church was hardly a place to reach a large number of people. It was nearly dead. In 1985, it had not made the transition from a stable middle class community church to a vital institution in the community that included abandoned buildings and drug dealers. The congregation had dwindled to "mostly elderly women, a few men and a couple of younger adults, along with a handful of persons from the arts community whose participation seemed focused mostly upon protecting their free use of East Village space." The building was deteriorating rapidly.

A member of the church’s search committee asked Dragt during one of many interviews, "What makes you think you can come here and transform Middle into a vibrant and growing congregation?" "I guarantee it," Dragt answered. He felt called to the job, convinced that it was right for him. He set out to understand Middle Church’s road to decline and find ways to turn it around. "A transformational leader," he said, "needs to understand that the commitment to turn a church around is not a short-term commitment." He would glean from all of his life experiences to resurrect Middle Church.

The family moved to Manhattan, excited to be going to the big city. But the challenge was enormous. Stuyvesant Town, the development where they lived, had more residents than entire town of Chapel Hill. Attendance at the first two worship celebrations was 27 – Dragt shed a few tears of self-pity then picked himself up. "We needed more entry points," he said. "We were not broad, diverse, inclusive and welcoming enough." He knew he had to become a "doorman and a schmoozer." And he had to include a mosaic of immigrants, artists, people of color, gays and lesbians, men and women, and children and families, to accomplish the welcoming. Everything had to change.

A big advantage for Middle Church was its location in the arts community. Slowly the arts connection helped to change Middle Church. A professional performer asked if he could start a gospel choir. Seeing arts programs cut from local public schools, residents started an after-school arts program. A photographer created a photo gallery and a dark room.

It took seven years to reach the point of a fresh start to offer Sunday celebrations, not "worship services." "Sunday worship celebration is intended by design, not by accident, to be a weekly festive, creative visual Easter celebration for the purpose of raising up people’s spirits, lives and commitments," Dragt wrote. "The arts work," he said, recommending the easiest first step as music – build a choir, add instruments, ask a dancer to dance a prayer. Eventually at Middle Church dancers "danced on the pews, in the pews, and up and down the aisles. They danced on top of railings, on the steps leading to the pulpit, on the worship leaders’ chairs and even on the pulpit." Creative persons were drawn to Middle Church and they placed their own artistic touch on the community, drawing more people to the center. An interior decorator built a puppet stage and well planned puppet shows became a centerpiece of celebrations for both children and adults. The New York Times ran a feature story about Middle Collegiate Church’s revival in 1996 – it had not just survived but thrived. Dragt had used his leadership principles to hold to his guarantee. He retired in 2005 after 40 years in church ministry, 20 at Middle Church. "One Foot Planted in the Center" is published by American Book Publishing with the Millenial Mind Publishing imprint.

Reviewed by Scott Cocking for Middle Notes.

One Foot Planted in the Center the Other Dangling Off the Edge is a deeply personal reflection by Rev. Gordon Dragt, Minister Emeritus at Middle Collegiate Church. It is the story of Gordon’s work to transform Middle Church into a growing, multicultural ministry.

In this book you will recognize many facets of Middle Church and its history, and several facts may surprise you. What you will discover in these pages is that much of what we do in our ministry is a logical continuation and expansion of Gordon’s vision. Gordon stresses the need for continued re-invention so Middle is not static; but rather evolves to serve this neighborhood and beyond.

While Gordon does not explicitly state it, the theme is the need for a living ministry that speaks to everyone. Inherent in that theme is the tension of juggling Middle’s history, its congregational needs, and responding anew to the culture that surrounds it.

Through Gordon’s description of his ministry here at Middle Church, we get a window into some of the external and internal challenges that Gordon faced to create what we know as Middle Church. From the theatrical troupe housed at Middle Church that exercised its power to keep Gordon from taking over “their” space, to a late night foray to cover up the removal of church pews, Gordon playfully retells the trials of his transformational ministry at Middle Church.

In looking back at Middle Church’s history, this book helps us to understand that we are part of a dynamic and shifting ministry that is living and breathing. The dynamics we experience now are part of what it means to continually evolve to be faithful to God’s call. This evolution honors our history, even as we boldly live out the reign of God. This book is a great historic read and serves as a guidepost as we continue our efforts, led by Jacqui, to move forward with one foot planted solidly in our history and one foot stepping out boldly into the future.

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