When Chris (MDiv, 2011) and Kelly Branigan arrived in Kansas City in 2007, Chris was fresh from launching a successful young adult ministry while still a theology student at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma.
Called to full-time ministry, studying at Nazarene Theological Seminary was the next logical step for Branigan’s preparation. But the most important thing he learned was not what he expected: that he had an ego and identity problem.
“I realized how much of my ego was attached in what I do on Sunday mornings … the unhealthy relationship between my identity and my church title or lack thereof,” he says. “One of the biggest educational pieces … was learning what it was like to be a lay member. I needed to make sure my identity was in the right place.”
Branigan drove a school bus and worked at Starbucks to support his family while he studied, taking four years at a steady pace to complete his degree.
“The opportunity to go at a slower pace, slowly digest my classes, and really let it get deep inside of me, while simultaneously letting God work on my restless heart, became formative for me,” he said. “I could have rushed through the academics to get out of there. But there was a whole other growth God wanted to do in me that was connected to NTS.”
Branigan says lasting spiritual re-formation is the most important thing NTS gave him during his studies from 2007 to 2011. Also, perseverance – a fruit of the Spirit that has served him well during his eight years as lead pastor of Renovation Community Church in Wedgwood, near Fort Worth, Texas.
Open doors to … difficulty
Re-entering pastoral ministry in Wedgwood was a stunning answer to Chris and Kelly’s prayers. Originally from Arlington, Texas, their hearts were calling them back after he graduated from seminary in 2011. But their prayer was very specific: a part-time pastoral position in Fort Worth within driving distance from a part-time ministry position at an apartment complex.
After seminary, Chris had become involved with Community Life, a nonprofit organization providing relational evangelism and ministry in apartment complexes around the United States. The couple wanted to continue that kind of work in Texas.
The miraculous way God opened double doors at Grace Tabernacle Church of the Nazarene, in Wedgwood, alongside an apartment complex less than two miles away, sustained the couple during periods of sickness, loneliness and difficulty over the next eight years.
Grace Tabernacle was originally founded in 1964 as Wedgwood Church of the Nazarene. After several years of decline, it was renamed Grace Tabernacle in 2011. But changing names was not enough. The decline continued. The neighborhood was drastically changing around the church and they’d lost touch with their new community. The congregation, which by then numbered under 30 people, was strapped with a large facility they could no longer afford.
In May 2013, the Branigans were visiting family in the area when they were called to interview at Grace Tabernacle.
That same week, Community Life signed a contract with an apartment complex less than two miles from the church. The Branigans accepted a part-time position at the apartments and a part-time pastoral role at Grace Tabernacle before they returned to Kansas City to pack up for the sudden move.
A renovating community
When they arrived at Grace Tabernacle, things got hard. Leaving behind their solid support system in Lee’s Summit, they made the cross-country move with a newborn in tow. The church they had embraced was demoralized; the building was crumbling, urgently needing expensive repairs. Chris and Kelly began to suffer from severe, stress-induced health problems.
But as the small congregation prayed for God’s leading, and tentatively reached out to their neighborhood, God blessed. Things started with a summer day camp for low-income families that quickly flourished. Over time they partnered with a local food bank, added a daily computer lab, brought in career speakers, and offered crafting classes and hot meals.
“We had become this place that transitioned from a predominantly white, older, financially stable church to a much more diverse, younger [group who are] not stable at all” in finances, housing, or mental health, he says. “We began to work with an immense level of brokenness in our community: Homelessness, addictions, and mental health crises.”
As families in the area suffer short-term housing loss, the church provides housing, loans out vehicles, and accepts used furniture and other donated household goods to share with those who are getting back on their feet into new apartments.
The church also provides services to the 15 or so chronically homeless who stay in the community.
In line with the significant changes in the congregation and its mission, in late 2018, Grace Tabernacle relaunched itself as Renovation Community. The name evokes not only a building in need of renovation but lives that are being spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically renovated by the power and love of Jesus Christ.
“As a people, we’re like that rundown house down the street in need of fixing up, and we need God to renovate our lives,” Chris says. “We also want to join God in renovating all that is broken in our world.”
The power of perseverance
“I think one reason I’m able to persevere in an incredibly difficult ministry is I didn’t suffer the deep psychological ministry wounds that I could have, had I gotten into vocational ministry too quickly, made terrible decisions, and been hurt because of my own youthful naivete,” Chris reflects. “My personal passion now is vocational ministry perseverance, because about half of my ministry colleagues are completely out of any kind of vocational ministry whatsoever. Some of them have left the church entirely.”
“It’s really, really tough, but God sustained us,” he continued. “It’s been a very difficult place for eight years, but He taught me many years ago not to quit. I think some of that perseverance, He started first teaching me that at NTS, when He helped me realize I have a restless heart, and that my identity should not be wrapped up in whether or not I have a title.”
Learn more about studying at NTS at www.nts.edu/info.