The following is the fifth installment of our Profiles in Leadership series. We had the privilege of sitting down with the Rev. Andy Oliver, who is the pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church. Rev. Oliver was nominated by a ministerial colleague for the progressive leadership he and his congregation are engaging in St. Petersburg , Florida.
[Progressive Southern Theologians] Rev. Oliver, thank you for sitting down with us. You and your congregation [Allendale United Methodist Church] were featured recently in The Guardian about your progressive ministry in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Allendale neighborhood. What are things like in the city and how has your church found a unique way to engage the wider community?
[Pastor Andy Oliver] The history of the church goes back to 1924. It started as a bit of a family church. Since the 1960s, it’s seen a downward trend like congregations in most mainline denominations. In the last ten years before I arrived, it declined even more sharply. When I began as their pastor, there were about fifty people in worship, and we were slotted to be closed. I actually got that letter during the first week of my appointment. So, in a way, we had nothing to lose.
I spent the prior three years in Chicago at the Reconciling Ministries Network (an LGBTQ inclusion organization in the United Methodist Church [UMC]) seeing a very different atmosphere of ministry. In this previous position, I was working at the feet of those who were directly challenging the UMC and embodying a better, more inclusive way. I was learning from bishops that were outwardly doing that bold work, and doing all this in Chicago where UMC congregations and many others were responding to the violent summer when so many young black men were being shot by police.This type of advocacy, in other words, was a normal way of doing ministry there, and it gave me an imagination for what would be possible coming back here to St. Pete. So, as a congregation, we started to talk about a lot of those things.
There was an older gentleman during this time who gave his testimony and came out of the closet after forty years of being a member here. He was in his 80s. That immediately changed the discussion about human sexuality such that it was not about an issue but about an actual person in our church. It became a non-issue because they were all friends with him and they honored his full humanity.
This was really the start of the church moving to a new way of living out their faith. We lost some people as we moved in a more progressive direction, but we also started to gain a lot of people. Every year we’ve taken in somewhere between 60-90 individuals. Some long time church members never thought they’d see that kind of numerical growth again in their lifetime.
Since the Allendale neighborhood itself is kind of conservative, and given that there aren’t many other progressive congregations around, we became a bit of a destination or commuter church for people all over the county and even up to two counties over. This type of public advocacy and prophetic witness from a congregation is something that matches how our newer members want to live out their faith. Since many of them can’t find that where they are, they’re willing to drive over and be with us.
[PST] We’ve heard that your church sign has played a certain role in this. What’s going on there?
[AO] This goes back a bit to 2016 and the election of Donald Trump. This was a pivotal point for us. I decided to make a sign after the election that read, “We Choose Love.” Some other church folks and I went out in front of the church building and held up this sign and similar ones as people drove by on the street. Some folks actually would pull over and make their own signs and join us. We had a seminary intern at the time, and he said, “I want to do this every day.” So I responded, “Okay, your job is to go out there every day and just be present with people.” And he did.
He did a great job with that, and that led me to eventually ask him to go out and connect with any community organizer in the St. Pete area that was doing resistance work. So around Black Lives Matter, immigrant issues, etc., he connected with local leaders and invited them for a dinner at the church and all of them came because he had been showing up at their stuff.
Out of that, we decided that we’d provide free meeting space for any group that was doing social justice work. We went from having no one here on campus to the place being full every night. As a result, some of those people started coming to church because we were showing up at their events, and because we weren’t charging money. It wasn’t a transactional relationship; it was a transformational relationship.
I would show up when they were in the building. I shared our welcoming statement that we had written, welcoming all people. Some of those people responded by saying that this is a church that they’d want to be a part of. When we began communicating these types of progressive stances on our marquee in front, things just kept growing.
[PST] How do you think through the various facets of work like this – particularly, inviting groups to share space who are also working on political and social issues?
[AO] First, I don’t draw a distinction between the social and political and the spiritual. I’d say, we’re political, but we’re not partisan. I think for a lot of churches and a lot of my members, some of the growth that had to occur was moving toward a worldview that doesn’t neatly divide the sacred and the secular. We understand, in other words, that everything is spiritual and to show a separation between what is social and what is political isn’t helpful because the political is simply how we do life together. And how we do life together is always integrated with and inseparable from our spirituality, especially when we remember that spirituality encompasses our whole, embodied selves and the well-being of our communities.
We’d say, then, that Jesus was extremely political and didn’t shy away from it. Where a lot of people get hung up is not understanding the difference between what’s political and what’s partisan. We do focus on social issues and a lot of those happen to overlap with our politics and how we live our lives together, but that doesn’t mean we’re strictly partisan or uncritically aligned with a given political party.
Let’s say, for instance, that a Republican leaning group wanted to meet here and organize. They could, as long as their work and values matched our values and if they were willing to welcome everyone and not turn anyone away. In other words, we’ll work with and welcome people from any particular partisan background, but their values have to align with the theological convictions that we hold true as a congregation. It’s not a party (partisan) affiliation that we look to, but the moral and social values that undergird their and our own work.
[PST] Has there been any pushback from the UMC Florida Conference or the community?
[AO] There has been. With the sign and marquee in front of the church, we usually change that about twice a month, and it’s usually about something going on in the world. We’d say things like, “White supremacy is evil,” or we’d have a sign that expressed our unqualified support for LGBTQ individuals. White supremacy signs would get the most pushback. People would either not understand what white supremacy means or they would seem to think that we were talking about white people in general. We’d get a phone call almost once a day about a statement around white supremacy, compared to about one phone call a week for signs related to LGBTQ inclusion. That was early on. Now, we only get the occasional angry phone call. However, and more importantly, we get ten times the amount of positive phone calls for every angry one.
This also ties back into why the congregation started to grow. We’d have thirty new members join the church on a new member Sunday, for instance. I’d invite them to share why they’re joining, and 25 out of 30 would say we came because of the sign. Early on, the first sign we put up said, “LGBTQ discrimination is sin. All are welcome here.” I had a long time member who asked, “Are we allowed to say that?” To which I replied, “Yeah, we can. That’s within our discipline; that’s who we are.”
The good thing about our messages on the sign is that when people come here to visit, they know what to expect. I’ve heard from other people, from other pastors, that they think this is one of the benefits of doing ministry this way. A pastor colleague of mine told me recently that they had new members coming for over a year and that they still probably didn’t know what the congregation believed. If you come to church after seeing the marquee signs, and after walking through our courtyard where there’s a BLM flag, a Transgender flag, an LGBTQ flag, a COEXIST flag… if you walk in and don’t know what you’re getting into, then you haven’t been paying attention.
[PST] What would you identify as some of the formative influences that led you to this place in ministry? What has shaped you to be this type of leader?
[AO] Growing up, I was raised in a very apolitical home and a very apolitical church. The most controversial thing my dad ever preached about in the pulpit was the lottery, The Simpsons, or parents letting their kids drink before they turned twenty one. That was the nature of the 80s, perhaps, but he certainly didn’t preach against anyone and he wasn’t particularly judgmental. So, upon leaving home later in life, I came out as something of a blank slate – not religiously geared to be partisan in a particular way.
I felt a call into ministry around the summer after my seventh grade year in school. Later, in the eleventh grade, my Spanish teacher showed an Oscar Romero documentary in class and that was a pivotal experience for me. I didn’t understand everything it meant, but I knew I felt called to be that kind of pastor. A pastor of the people. Of course I didn’t understand all of that, but that’s been a point in my life that I’ve looked back on again and again and understand as a secondary call.
In undergrad I was part of the Methodist campus ministry, and the music director who was part of the ministry team identified as gay. At that time, I thought same sex relationships were sinful, but yet I saw the Holy Spirit at work in his life. I could tell that he was being used by God, and I also saw that his relationship with his partner was one that was of extreme love. So, I was beginning to reconcile these competing ideas during the first few years of my time in college. In my senior year, however, I saw a group of students come in and try to oust him, after thirty five years of ministry. I saw the hatred that he faced. All of this led me to decide that wherever I was in life in the future, that I would fight for people like him. I didn’t have the theological groundwork yet to understand how all of this could hold together, but I still felt those convictions shifting. The relationship came first, and I would work out the theology in time.
My experience in seminary proved to be a place where that theological groundwork could come together, especially when one of my friends came out during our second year. I watched him go from being “Mr. Methodist,” so to speak, to basically being shut out of the whole Methodist process. It was those influences that, by the time I was done with seminary, had led to a decisive shift in my thinking.
Even still, another experience nudged me further along in terms of how public or vocal I’ve felt called to be in my advocacy as a minister. During the second year of my first appointment, I got a letter from that same friend in seminary, and they basically said, “Why have you been silent? Why haven’t I heard your voice?” That letter definitely prompted me to greater levels of advocacy.
In my second appointment, I was trying to live that out but felt the pressure of the institution, and I was getting physically sick from trying to live into both my call to be in solidarity with the marginalized and also serving the institution. I had two stress related heart attacks, which led me to take leave from the ministry. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. This time was a dark night of the soul, but if I hadn’t gone through that then I don’t think I would’ve been able to mature in my faith and put the pieces together in the way they are now.
It was in that dark night of the soul and stepping away from a very secure job situation into one that had more questions than answers that a community organizer came into my life. He identified as queer and was also undocumented. He taught me about organizing and invited me into that work for a while. Although he wasn’t religious himself, he said that religious people often made great organizers, saying to look at Jesus of Nazareth and his work organizing twelve disciples and starting a movement.
It was from here that I got the invitation to go up to join the Reconciling Ministries Network. As a white, cisgender, straight guy, working in the belly of the LGBTQ community of the Methodist church, I had to do a lot of listening and learning about how to be a good ally and how to do this work and live faithfully and do it well. All of these experiences, all of them in their own way, led me down this path and to where I am now.
[PST] What sustains you in your ministry when times are hard? What gets you through, or what things do you hold onto when you face difficult challenges?
[AO] I continue to go back to the story of Oscar Romero and others like him and dig into readings that I can do by them or about them, about their difficult times and how they got through. It gives me a little bit of perspective, reminding me that no matter how difficult my life gets I don’t have a military government that has a death warrant out for me. And yet, I can see their perseverance and their boldness, which is very helpful for me. There’s a new biography of Oscar Romero that I’ve been diving into recently these past six months.
I also take time to get away. Any time I get away I can get some new perspective. Earlier in my ministry I traveled to South Africa and spent time with a pastor there who had been jailed in the past for officiating a funeral of a black man during apartheid. I remember standing on the edge of a cliff, and he was helping me process and think about how my time in South Africa could give me a new and sharper perspective of my ministry back home. Traveling like this and getting new vantage points are usually helpful.
I’ve also found a lot of strength and comfort in listening to people’s stories. For our liturgy each week, I pull from a service called Enfleshed, which is organized by two queer identifying clergy who are Methodist. A lot of our prayers and responsive readings come from the resources they provide. They often pull from commentaries that I wouldn’t think of, so that helps me stay tuned into voices and individuals who represent different walks of life than my own.
If I’m doing ministry alongside those at the margins, then I have to be in an attitude of listening, especially when I don’t occupy that space as marginalized. I also have to do a lot of giving up the mic. Typically on a Sunday morning, between 1/3 and 1/2 of them, there’s someone else in the pulpit coming from a marginalized place. I’ve found that to be very healthy for our community, and I’m looking forward to the day when there’s another co-pastor here and it’s not a white, cis, hetero male.
[PST] What message would you share with new pastors or people coming into ministry based on things you’ve learned and shared with us today?
[AO] One, showing up. Your calendar is a moral document. You hear that about budgets being moral documents, but your calendar is, too. Take a moral inventory of your calendar. Are you spending all of your time with your own people? I spend at least half of the time out in the community.
When a traumatic event happens, for instance, we’ve been able to pull off a prayer vigil in St. Pete pretty quickly and seamlessly because most of the people who had been organizing in the city had been meeting at our church. We knew each other and had relationships, in other words. Regardless of where they had been meeting, the fact was that we had all moved out of our silos a bit and were able to quickly communicate with each other and organize.
I remember being at one such event and recognizing or knowing the majority of the five hundred folks who were in attendance. A local pastor asked how I knew so many of the people, and I said it was because of this intentional work of being present in the community and in other spaces outside of our own church. So, I would say, my parish is definitely larger than the people who come on Sunday morning to attend our worship services. I couldn’t have said that before in other churches.
I’d say, then, to seek to have a parish that is larger than your own worshiping congregation. Seek to have an impact that is larger than the people who attend on Sunday mornings.
The other thing I said to a young pastor recently was that I hope – and it took me a while to learn this – that they would be able to lead like they had nothing to lose. Lead like any Sunday might be your last. If you can lead that way and be prophetic when God is calling you to be prophetic, even if it upsets some people and you have to do some deeper pastoral work later in the week, I hope a pastor can still have that courage and conviction. After getting to that place, I can say that I’ve never had more fun and I’ve never felt more fulfilled in the ministry. I hope others can know that same joy and freedom.