What does it take to turn a congregation around? Lewis Center Director Doug Powe interviews Ed Brandt, a long-serving pastor who recently retired as chief of chaplains for the U.S. National Guard. Brandt describes how success in ministry is grounded in the hard but essential work of reaching out to the community, forging new connections, getting to know people, listening, earning trust, taking risks, and learning from mistakes.
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Douglas Powe: Can you share a little of your story, so the audience can become acquainted with you and what you’ve done?
Ed Brandt: I was raised in the Churches of God General Conference, a fairly conservative denomination primarily located in eastern Pennsylvania. Eventually, I went to a church-affiliated college, went to a Presbyterian seminary, and went back to the Churches of God. And it was like a “round peg, square hole” kind of experience. In 1987, I made the jump to the Presbyterian Church USA as a pastor serving churches in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Southern California, and Michigan. And along the way, I joined the National Guard, where I served in Baghdad, Iraq, for about a year. So those experiences have been in both large churches and small churches, rural churches, suburban churches, urban churches. And no matter where you go, you’re caring for people. That’s all the matters — your care for people.
Douglas Powe: Can you also share a bit about your time in the National Guard?
Ed Brandt: I served my first church in the hills of Perry County, Pennsylvania. The local insurance agent came to me and said, “Ed, have you thought about the National Guard?” I said, “No, I’ve never thought about the National Guard.” And he replied, “We always need chaplains.” And so, I made the application process and eventually in 1989 was commissioned. I remember the state chaplain saying to me, “Don’t worry. You’ll never be deployed. Maybe a flood. Maybe a prison riot. But don’t worry, nothing will ever happen.” And, boy, have times changed since 1989. When I took a church in Delaware, I made the switch to the Delaware National Guard. Later, I took a church in southern California. And then I got deployed for a year to Baghdad, Iraq. Coming back from that deployment, I remained full time in the Guard up until May of 2020.
All along the way, I’ve had these incredible opportunities to meet people from various walks of life. And the joy is hearing their stories. Being raised in a very, very conservative county and a very conservative denomination, to meet people and hear their stories and their struggles, it really does open your eyes and open your spirit to how people have experienced the world in ways I haven’t. I think what happens in today’s society is that we live in such separate worlds, separate tribes, if you will. And we don’t even want to build a bridge of understanding. We want to say, “This is my world, and my world is right.” And that’s just not the way to live.
Douglas Powe: There seems to be today an uphill battle and climb towards vitality that congregations are really struggling with. Can you share why you think it’s such an uphill climb?
Ed Brandt: My answer may make some people angry. We have some lazy clergy out there. That’s the bottom line for me. They’re lazy. And they’re afraid of trying new things because they are afraid of failure. And sometimes I think there’s a leadership piece that is missing. If you want to be innovative, you have to be creative. That creativity requires a little bit of leadership, taking some risk, being willing to get your hands slapped a little bit.
A friend of mine at a church was interviewing for a new associate pastor. In the course of their conversation with one candidate, the person said, “We’ve been taught in seminary about boundaries. We were taught not to work more than 35 hours a week.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Name me one profession — the medical profession, the legal profession, the clergy — where you can succeed or make an impact in 35 hours a week?” Now, there’s always a danger of being a workaholic and being in it for yourself or your own reputation. But it takes a lot of effort. If you’re trying to revitalize a congregation it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. I look at it as like a new tech startup. By all means, do not sacrifice your family on the altar of service. But you have to make some compromises along the way of what’s important. You have to know in your own mind what the priorities are and if you are going to say “Yes” to them or “No” to them.
I’ve always found it valuable to get involved in the local community, to make connections with people, to make yourself available. At the first church I served in Perry County, Pennsylvania, I went to visit the local funeral director. I had just graduated from seminary. And he said to me, “Okay, Ed. Where’d you get your education.” And I said, “I went to Princeton Seminary.” And he said, “Wrong. You’re going to get your education here.” And those were probably the truest words he ever said. It’s getting to know people, the practical application of things, learning from mistakes. It’s like baptism by fire. But it was a great learning experience for me. You know, having those late-night meetings where you’re talking about what color to paint the restrooms. Those are the tattoos that will never be scraped off my body.
Douglas Powe: You said turning a congregation around involves hard work. How would you respond to someone who says, “I’m working 65, 70 hours a week? But I have individuals who just don’t want to do anything. It all falls on my shoulders.”
Ed Brandt: Find new individuals. Sometimes you reach a point where it’s about finding new people. It’s like Jesus’s parable of the Great Banquet. You’ve invited all these people and they’re not coming. So, go and find some other people. And sometimes you’ll be surprised at who will step up to the plate. For example, at Lely Presbyterian Church, we are now on the verge of going to two services and we’re just trying to figure out ways to incorporate people. But in the life of the church, this is how it’s looked at. “One new person is super. Two new people are great. Three new people and they’re taking over.” You have to prepare people. It’s mentoring people and engaging people. And it’s not being afraid to work really hard and know that some of your efforts will fail. Gore-Tex is located in Delaware. Some of the folks who work there were members of the church I served. And when they do an annual evaluation, one of the questions they ask is, “What did you fail at?” If you didn’t fail at anything, you didn’t try hard enough to do something new.
Douglas Powe: I think another question that individual would ask is, “So, what do I do?” What are some of these practical steps that lead to vitality?
Ed Brandt: The first involves how you communicate with people. Are you available to people? I make connections with people. For example, when I first started here at Lely Church, I got out the church directory and I just start calling people, A to Z. “Hey, how you doing? I’m your new pastor. I want to touch base. Any concerns? Looking forward to connecting with you on Sunday.” Second, you need buy-in from leadership. Meet the elders to say, “Are you okay with this plan?” You want the leadership to be “on your side,” so to speak. They need to be aware of what you plan to do. You need to communicate with them about that plan to get the necessary approvals, the necessary funding. You don’t want them saying, “Oh, look! There he or she goes again, getting no permission.” You can create and control, in some ways, the narrative. As you talk with people, share what your vision is for the life of the church. Talk to the people who have nothing else to do but to talk to people, and they will tell others. It’s like “whisper down the lane.”
I try to go to every single event I can possibly squeeze into my schedule. When I get a business card from somebody, I put that into my contact list. I send them a note thanking them — great to meet them. We started this thing called Minutes for Mission. It’s not just the missions we support. We have invited representatives of local businesses around our community. “What do you do? Who are you?” We’ve had a wine and cheese mixer on the first Thursday of each month to invite people from the neighborhood. It’s these connections. It takes some work. It takes some knocking on doors. It takes some cold calls. But I find that invigorating. If I get stuck, I usually go out and see people.
Douglas Powe: I’m fascinated by the inviting people from the community for these one-minute Minutes for Mission.
Ed Brandt: Everybody has a story. And, in today’s world, the way you tell your stories is either on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. You don’t know who’s reading it. But if you can tell your story on Sunday morning and it resonates or connects with the congregation and then there’s coffee hour afterwards and people engage — that goes so far. You’ve made a connection because there are people who have heard what you’re saying. Recently, we had a representative from Big Sisters/Big Brothers and it was well received. Afterwards, we got a picture. She got a picture. We sent her the clip that she can use for promo purposes. We take that clip and embed it in our Constant Contact, put it on our Facebook, our Twitter, our Instagram. But it’s just communicating what’s being done. People appreciate the chance to tell their story.
Douglas Powe: So how do you deal with the pushback and the people who aren’t happy with what’s going on? How do you try to help them to move and journey with you?
Ed Brandt: You have to make a choice of how much time to invest in people who will never get it. But you can make the case, “Here’s why we’re doing it.” It’s like prepping the battlefield — I hate to use that term in the church. But it’s prepping, preparing, plowing the ground, if you will, making it softer for people to understand what’s happening. It’s that communication piece. You create your own problem if you introduce something out of the blue and no knows what’s happening or why it’s happening. You lay the groundwork; you follow through. And there might be some people saying, “I just don’t get it.” “Well, I understand that. I hope you understand we’re doing it to reach out to community.” And there’s some people you will never please. You reach a point where you can spend 80% of your time with 20% of the people who just are not happy, never will be happy. So, you make a choice. That’s the leadership piece. You have to have some thick skin, believe in what you’re doing, and do your best to communicate it. And then say, “I’m really sorry, but here’s where the church has decided to go under my leadership.”
Douglas Powe: As you do this work, some things aren’t going to work, right? Can you talk about some of the missteps that have taken place as you’ve tried things and what you’ve learned from those and how you deal with them?
Ed Brandt: I think one thing is, we go to a congregation, and we may have in our own mind “Here’s what they need. I’m going to tell them what they need.” We forget that there are folks in that congregation who have been there for 20, 30, 40 years. So, I think there’s a need to listen. There’s a need to learn the culture, learn the people, understand them, and listen. And that’s why it’s so important to pick up a phone and call people and say, “Hey, I’m Ed Brandt. I’m your new pastor. It’s great to be here. I’d love to see you. Like to stop by for a chat.”
The second thing is making sure you don’t just go off on your own and implement them without running them by somebody. Every church has a governing body. They may be the elected board, but you need to identify the people who really, really run the place. They are not always elected. I had an idea one time at a church in Pennsylvania. They said, maybe you need to go see Mrs. Lincoln. I said, “She’s not on our board.” “They said, “You might want to go see Mrs. Lincoln.” And I did. And, you know, I got an earful about some concerns she had. But, once you listen, you build the trust.
It’s so important to build trust with people. Sometimes we want to be prophetic. But you can’t do that unless you have the trust of the congregation. And that trust is built over something as simple as being there when someone’s dying, being there when someone’s in the hospital, being there for a wedding, knowing that you as a pastor have their interest at heart. This isn’t just a meal ticket for you. This is something you’re called to do, that you’re committed to, and you’d give every fiber of your being to carry it through. And that’s the kind of trust that once you have it, you can do almost anything you want. But you’ve got to build and earn the trust.
Douglas Powe: What happens when you make a mistake and you break the trust? How do you gain that trust back?
Ed Brandt: It all depends on what the mistake is. You know, if you’re talking about financial malfeasance or sexual malfeasance, you’re not coming back. And for those who try to hold on because of the stature, the status, the paycheck, you’re doing more long-term damage to the congregation. The way we act, the way we behave, the decisions we make, the words we use, how we interact with people — it’s not just you. You are representing a group of people who profess to be called by God, to serve the people of God in a faithful way. And when you screw that up, it’s not just you. It is everybody. It’s a scar on that group of people who are trying to do faithful work. And when we try to do self-preservation, it does more damage than good sometimes. There’s a book by Jackson Carroll called As One with Authority. You may be familiar with it. Where do you get your sense of authority? Is that the sheepskins on the wall? Is it the titles? Or is it the fact that you’ve earned that authority? I think you need to earn that trust with people.
Douglas Powe: So, when you, Ed Brandt, walk into a new congregation, people know your background. And there’s a certain respect that is paid for the service that you have rendered. Someone who’s 27 and just walking out of seminary doesn’t necessarily have the same sort of pedigree. So, can that person do some of the things you’ve talked about without that pedigree or experience?
Ed Brandt: Absolutely. The pedigree is something that grows over time. People build reputations by what they do, not because of their last name or where they are from or their socio-economic status. I was that 27-year-old kid who entered the church out of seminary. I made the phone calls. I connected with people. I did the house calls. And those home calls may not be popular in 2022 like they were in 1985, 1986, 1987. But the fact that you’re reaching out to people, that you’re connected to people, makes a big, big difference. And so, I would say to any 27-year-old leaving seminary and entering into a congregation, “Jump into that big pond of water. Get soaking wet. Don’t be afraid. There’s a life vest there. And people want to see you succeed.”
Douglas Powe: Do you have some thoughts and insights about what we can do at the seminary level or even once somebody gets out of seminary to better help pastors build those leadership characteristics?
Ed Brandt: Number one, do not try to do things by yourself. Find a mentor, a trusted advisor that you can confide in, that you can bounce ideas off of and get some solid advice from, who has your best interests at heart. Number two, read the leadership stuff that’s out there. Read business manuals about how people make decisions, how they how they make priorities, how they care for people. There was a big thing years ago called “management by walking around.” I call it “ministry by walking around.” You walk around. You meet people. You sit down with people. It takes two minutes, I’m a big believer in two-minute phone calls with folks to find out how they’re doing. It’s touching base. They don’t want to have a long conversation. You don’t want a long conversation. But they want to know that you care for them. It takes two minutes to do that. The third thing is don’t be afraid to make decisions that you believe are right and suffer the consequences. It’s a growing opportunity. When we make mistakes, it’s not failure, it’s growing. Do not be defined by your failures. Be defined by how you recover from your failures.
- Clear Vision, Values, and Hope are Essential Leadership Tools by Major General Randy Manner, U.S. Army, Retired
- Failing Creatively by Eileen R. Campbell-Reed
- New Pastors Should Make Time to Listen by Sidney S. Williams
- The Right Start: Beginning Ministry in a New Setting Video Tool Kit