Crater Lake District enters new, innovative experiment in community engagement

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Sometimes being church in the 21st century requires going outside the traditional formula that makes up the structure of The United Methodist Church, which is why the Crater Lake District has hired Naphtali Renshaw to serve as the new Eugene-area innovator to engage the community with the church – and vice versa – in new and experimental ways.

“It’s pretty much my dream job,” said Renshaw, who currently serves as an administrative assistant on the Greater Northwest Area Innovation and Vitality (IV) Team.

The first-of-its-kind position is being funded by the Crater Lake District Extension Society on a three-year basis. Renshaw will be supervised by a team from the extension society as well as Crater Lake District Superintendent, Rev. John Tucker, with the IV team providing consulting help, but not oversight of the position.

Tucker said the uniqueness of this position means the job will be developed as Renshaw moves into the position beginning Sept. 1. But there is a starting point for what the Crater Lake District is hoping to accomplish.

“The goal is to focus on community engagement, build networks with communities not currently represented in our congregations, partner with local churches, and scheme with current pastors about how to move into new expressions of faith,” Tucker said. “We created this position as a district hire so we could have someone who could focus their full attention on areas of ministry and engagement and not have responsibilities for an existing church. Naphtali is exactly what we’re looking for.”

Lynn Egli, chair of the Crater Lake District Society for Ministry, Location and Building, said the district is fully supportive of this project and is looking forward to collaborating with Renshaw to move into new faith expressions.

“This will be a bold, new journey for us. The path forward will emerge as we explore what is possible and trust God will open doors and guide us on our way,” he said.

Renshaw sees the position as someone who exists in the space between the church and the community.

“I often naturally find myself in that type of setting,” she said.

Renshaw was raised in an evangelical church setting, splitting her growing up years between Oregon and Texas. She attended a Baptist college and earned a degree in cross cultural studies and English. Over the years, her faith evolved into one based on the principal emphasis in scripture on Jesus’ ministry being solely about love and bringing everyone to the table. In her eyes, the church needs to bring more people to the table.

It’s a practice she takes seriously after studying in places like Egypt and visiting Bedouin tribes. She was on a mission trip as a white, evangelical woman and she and her friends were invited to the home of a Muslim family for tea and food.

They sat on the floor with a large metal pan in the middle and the Muslim patriarch of the family dipped his hands into the same plate Christian women were eating from.

“Most of the people I knew wouldn’t sit down for a meal with a Muslim, let alone share a plate with them,” she said. “It was such a generous outpouring of hospitality. It definitely set a table for me.”

Since then, she’s tried to embody the spirit of bringing people to the table in many aspects of her life, including as a post-graduate student hospitality volunteer at Multnomah University. It was there that she earned her master’s degree in global development and justice with an emphasis in peace building.

She started bringing weekly meals of soup and homemade bread to the students in her same program; offering an opportunity to sit down together and talk amidst the studies. She had hoped to do more of this before the pandemic hit.

Renshaw knows that the church is being called to step forward in a new way and is being “held accountable by society” as it moves forward.

“We have to be very intentional with the way we’re demonstrating Christ’s love and critically examine ourselves,” she said. “My role is to engage with the communities that are outside of the traditional purview of the church. Communities that maybe don’t feel comfortable walking into a church building.”

Once settled in Eugene with her family, she might just literally set up a table somewhere in town and extend an invitation for people to join her in conversation and fellowship.

“I love the church. I love what Jesus called the church to be. For me, I’m more comfortable existing outside of the polity,” Renshaw said. “I get to walk into those communities and talk about Jesus – or talk about baseball and eventually get to talk about Jesus.”

Ria Galo, lay leader for the Crater Lake District, said it is important that the church move with the current climate and adjust its methods to fit the needs of the community.

“Our cultural climate is changing. Historical trauma exists. People are no longer seeing the church as safe and open because they are no longer tolerating the ‘traditional’ way that we have addressed issues like racism, colorism, ageism, homophobia and more – which is to not address them,” Galo said. “In talking with Naphtali, her commitment to this position was obvious. She speaks of herself as part of the community and not above or beneath the issues that we all know exist. I am so excited to see her spirit shine through this position and see the ways that community-building will be transformed by her presence.”

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