Episode 36: “Think Big” featuring Joe Daniels

Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 36: "Think Big" featuring Joe Daniels

How can a congregation make an impact no matter its size? In this episode we speak with Joe Daniels, the pastor of Emory Fellowship in Washington, DC, and co-author of the new book Connecting for a Change: How to Engage People, Churches, and Partners to Inspire Hope in Your Community.

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How can a congregation make an impact, no matter its size? In this episode, we speak with Joe Daniels, the pastor of Emory Fellowship in Washington, DC and co-author of the new book Connecting for a Change: How to Engage People, Churches, and Partners to Inspire Hope in Your Community.

Doug Powe:  Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Rev. Dr. Joe Daniels, the pastor of Emory Fellowship in Washington, DC. He is the co-author of the new book Connecting for a Change: How to Engage People, Churches, and Partners to Inspire Hope in Your Community. Our focus for this podcast is “Think Big.” Joe, welcome to our podcast.

Joe Daniels: Thanks for having me, Doug. It’s good to see you.

Doug: It’s good to see you. I want to begin, Joe, with having you tell a little bit of the story of Emory Fellowship. Many have heard your story, but some have not. But Emory Fellowship has always been one to “think big.” So can you share just a little bit, briefly about Emory Fellowship and your time there over the past 20 years.

Joe: Sure, sure. Well, I came to Emory at a time when Emory was really struggling to stay alive. In its history, it was a very, very strong, white congregation. But it began to lose members in the 60’s, during the time of white flight that took place during the time of the 14th Street Riots, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. By the time Emory received its first black pastor in 1976, the church had dwindled to 30 members. It never got above 85 members between 1976 and the time I arrived. When I arrived there, I think we had, maybe, 50 people in worship, on average. And so, I inherited a church that had been threatened with closure on three occasions. It was almost sold on two occasions. So we were literally a rebuilding project. Yet, I found a remnant within the congregation that wanted to grow, that wanted to see this church be strong. I’ll never forget Mrs. Norma Vincent, who’s still with us in a profound way, saying to me at my first SPRC meeting, “I want to see my church revived. I want to see my church revived.” And so, we’ve been thinking big from that point. We started spending a lot of time with spiritual formation. There were no Bible studies when I arrived. We had one worship service for one hour and no one saw each other for the whole week until the next Sunday. So we literally had to build pieces. So we started with Bible study. We started with spiritual formation. We then went to worship, along with the Bible study pieces. And then we got to a point where we began to go out into the community.

Doug: And let me pause there for a second and interrupt you in going out to the community because I hear you talk about this all the time. That you’re the pastor of the community.

Joe: Yes.

Doug: And that’s an important phrase for you. You also say, “Claim your zip code.” So as you talk about the community, share a little bit about, what it means to be the pastor of the community? How can other people claim their zip code?

Joe: So, being the pastor of the community, to me, is simply being there for people when they need you and engaging, building relationships with people, and seeing where, together, you can connect assets and connect giftedness and connect a vision and possibility of the community to be the very best community it can possibly be. Specifically, it means that, if Mrs. Campbell is the director of the school across the street, whether she is a member of Emory or not, because I am in her neighborhood and she’s in mine, I see myself as her pastor. If Leo, down the street at Guapa cafe, even though he doesn’t come to our worship service, I still see Leo and his mother, and their business as part of our congregation. And therefore, I represent that pastorship. And so it’s not a matter of other pastors not being able to say the same thing that I’m saying. But what it says is “You’re in my community. I’m in your community. You’re in my zip code. I’m in your zip code. We’re in this community together. And I’m going to serve you as though you are my neighbor. Whether or not you show up on Sunday morning or pay tithes.”

Doug: Now, don’t you get complaints? You know church people. Don’t you get complaints? “Well pastor, you know they ain’t coming and paying any tithes or anything. How are they helping us out at the church?”

Joe: I have found, in my experience, that people outside the church, people in the community, tend to grasp big vision before folks in the pews do, for whatever reason that is. You would think otherwise. But often times, when people are close, they don’t always, are not always able to see what you see. Or to see the same things. But yet, people who are not necessarily engaged with you on a regular basis, when you project something and proclaim something and communicate something that is greater than yourself, that’s greater than any one person, that requires a collective in order to accomplish — it’s amazing how folks in the community see that faster than those in the church. And so, to directly answer your question from that, we have a lot of “members” of Emory who are in our community, who because of their influence in creative places, because of their influence in strategic and very critical places, their voices have been able to get us through some pinches when we needed them the most. Which, if you were to put a financial amount on that, could not ever be repaid.

Doug: Well, I think you’ve said a couple of interesting things. One is, I don’t think many think about people outside of the church actually getting a church vision before the people of the church do. That’s fascinating. You sort of said you don’t know why, but I’d be curious if you have any thoughts or hints about why that’s the case. And the second is that, a part of what has to take place in leadership is we have to help the people inside the church to see they are contributing, it may not be contributions in a way we often count them.

Joe: I grew up in church. A lot of people grew up in church. A lot of people didn’t. But, when you grow up in church, you get used to a particular church culture. You get used to a particular church language. You get used to almost a particular church expectation. And, depending on where you grew up in church, or where you went, or where you go, that expectation can be big or that expectation can be very small. And so, we always hear the phrase “We’ve never done it that way before.” Often times, within a congregation, vision may not be cast. Vision may not even be talked about. Possibilities and opportunities of what a church can do in its community aren’t regular conversations. A lot of times churches are just thinking about themselves. Or thinking insular. And so, whenever you think insular, your vision is going to be limited. And so, all of a sudden, when a vision is portrayed within a community that has historically just thought about itself, I’m talking about a church community that has historically just thought about itself, when a vision is portrayed within that congregation, and within that community, first of all, the congregation is like “Can we do that? Is that possible? We’ve not done that before. How can that be done? Where are we going to get the money? Where are the resources going to come from?” etc. etc. etc. And it’s easy to put a lid on what’s possible. You go out into the street, depending on who you talk to, particularly people in places where in government, where people are doing big things. In corporate America where big things are happening all the time, and they’re more used to hearing and talking this kind of language of trying new ideas, of trying new innovations. Of exploring, of taking risk in ways that have never been done before. And so, when a faith community then comes and says “we’ve got this big vision from God,” those who are used to big visions coming, and who see it, suddenly become engaged. And they’re like “Oh! We want to be a part of that!” And sometimes it takes a little longer for folks in church because they are used to a certain way to get on board. But once they get on board, folks in church can be, and are, and I have witnessed it myself at Emory, extremely giving and contributing.

Doug: Excellent! Now, you talked about that when you got to Emory, there were around 50 people in worship. Of course, Emory has grown. But Emory is not a megachurch with 10,000 people. So, I’m going to have you talk a little bit about how many you have in worship currently. But then say a little bit more about a part of the thinking big was, as Emory is a church in the community, you had this vision for how you can have affordable housing. And the collaboration that was necessary that gets a little bit into your book, but I’ll pick that up in a little bit.

Joe: Not a problem, not a problem. So as you said, we’ve never been a big church. We average somewhere around 400 people a Sunday. And that’s two services combined. And that’s up from the 50 some that we started with. But we’ve always had, as I’ve said to you and others, we’ve always had a megachurch vision. We’ve never been a megachurch. But we have big vision. And that big vision comes from our understanding of what salvation is. I really believe that the Church, with the big C, has limited, and really has cheated, people out of this gift of salvation. We have made salvation, in many cases, be something that somebody hears the word, the invitation is extended, someone walks the aisle, gives their life to Christ, and that’s it. You know. Game. Set. Match. And this gift of salvation, salvation coming from its original Greek word in the Bible, sozo (which means to be healed, to be made complete, to be made whole) is so much more. So for us, salvation is a spiritual reality. But it also encompasses every aspect of who we are as human beings that help us become whole. So it’s spiritual. It’s physical. It’s relational. It’s mental and emotional. It’s financial. With that kind of understanding of salvation, all of a sudden, this gift that Jesus has given us, and this gift of Jesus saying “I have come that they may have life and have it to the fullest.” He asked the man by the pool of Bethsaida, “Do you want to be made whole?” So all of a sudden, this wholeness, this salvation, takes on this huge, broad, incredible, expanse. That if a church really dives into that, it will never have enough to do. And so, that’s what I’ve hoped that we would be as a congregation. That, in the respective areas of wholeness that God has called us, that we would find that we would never have enough to do. And so that’s – that has taken us into the affordable housing realm, which began with us simply opening our doors and feeding the people on the street who were in our community but who weren’t engaged with our church. And, beginning to meet people and hear stories, and hear experiences and have experiences to share, building relationships, organizing people. And then, suddenly realizing that we were, in fact, a great asset that could make a difference in a community where people, more and more, were clamoring that they do not have an affordable place to live.

Doug: So, with this mega vision of an affordable place to live, a church — I’m not going to call you a big church, but 400 today is still a decent sized church — but, with 400 people, you took on a 50-plus million dollar project. Could you talk a little bit about this project?

Joe: So, it emerged. When we went to the street, we began seeing how affordable housing was a need. Homelessness was a need. At the time, just right up under the church’s nose was a corner that was plagued by heroin distribution and alcoholism and illegal prostitution. You name it. But at the root of some of that was the lack of housing. The lack of affordable housing. And we began to hear of seniors in the neighborhood who, because of rising property taxes, were being displaced from their homes. They couldn’t afford to keep their homes. And everywhere we would turn, affordable housing, affordable housing, affordable housing. So we started, literally, by housing people in our church building. By partnering with Capitol Hill Group Ministries, who was looking, at the time, for churches who would open their doors for families to stay. We were the first church with Capitol Hill Group Ministries that offered to open our doors. That then moved to us converting our parsonage into a transitional housing facility. That then led to us buying another house in the neighborhood to do transitional housing. That then led to us looking up and down Georgia Avenue for property where we could increase the number of units for affordable housing. And when we would get close to buying something, something would always happen. And it wouldn’t happen. And then one day, one of our members said “Hey, why don’t we build right here? Right on our own property?” Which we had never thought of. And when we started doing the surveys and other investigations of what we could do, we realized that we were sitting on a gold mine and that, through city zoning and laws and all that, that we could go as high as four stories above what we already had. We sit on the hill that was already two stories in and of itself. So we were able to build right where we were. So, initially, we wanted to build 114 units of affordable housing. It ended up being 99, because we had to negotiate with the powers that be in town. But that’s how it all got started. And so, suddenly, we started with something we thought would be $600,000. And that thing grew to $3 million. That thing grew to $6 million. That grew to $9 million. Then it went to $36 million. Then it was $56 million. And we were like “Whoa! Where are we going to get all this money from?” But it’s an amazing thing with vision. If you do your part in vision and cast vision, how there are others, again, within community, who see your vision, will embrace your vision, and want to come alongside your vision and even help fund your vision.

Doug: So, in the book, and I’m going to connect this to the book, you talk about collaboration and utilizing your assets. A lot of our listeners are going to say “$56 million! There’s no way. That’s not possible!” But you can go on the website and you can actually see it’s there. You can see it. But, how did you, without getting too technical, how did you put together and collaborate with individuals for 400 people to do something that typically we don’t even see megachurches do – create a 56 million dollar project?

Joe: Simply, and I’ll try to say it in a nutshell, but we cast a vision. And then we said to ourselves “We need to be a part of the vision.” And so we started a capital campaign. Ended up doing two of them. We ended up raising more money out of this capital campaign than we ever thought we would. We’re a working class congregation and yet, we raised $1.4 million from sacrificial giving. Which blew us all away. But it started there. We took our $1.4 million and our land, and we leveraged it. And we went to the city and essentially said “We have this collective problem in the city of affordable housing. We have this problem in our own neighborhood, Brightwood, of affordable housing. We have raised $1.4 million in cash. We are offering part of our land around the church to address this issue to build 114 units (at the time).” Okay. It was our workings with the Park Service that caused it to come down to 99. “But will you help us?” And the city had a need. The city had a need. Here’s a church that wants to help with the need. Here’s a church that has $1.4 million, and property, and site control. It was huge. Churches have site control. So from there, we began building assets that were coming. So the city had assets. The federal government had assets. Private entities had assets. All around the common vision. And that’s how we began to find money for all of this.

Doug: So, as you’re getting into this and putting this together, and people are excited, the community is excited, there’s always stumbling blocks that take place. Nothing ever goes according to plan.

Joe: Always obstacles.

Doug: In the book, you talk about being able to inspire hope as you’re meeting these challenges. And there were a couple of times, literally, where you were almost DOA — dead on arrival. I mean, how do you inspire a hope when, literally, you’re dying on the operating table?

Joe: I’ve come to learn that there’s something about divine vision. Divine visions always come to pass as you’re willing to follow God all the way through the process. And so, even when things look impossible, as you are willing to follow God all the way through, God makes a way out of no way. My mom, when I was a teenager, used to always tell me, “Son, never take ‘no’ for an answer. Unless God says ‘no’, the answer is ‘yes.’” And I have found that to be the case, in this project in particular. We believed that God wanted to use us to help folks become whole through having an affordable place to live. Particularly those in the margins. And so the vision was Biblically based. The vision was based in Christology. The vision was based in Jesus’ understanding of what the church should be. And all of that propelled us forward. And so, when you’re moving in that realm, there are always obstacles to try to kill it. And you know that a vision is a divine vision when, as soon as it’s cast, and as soon as you set out for it, obstacles come to kill it. Okay? And obstacles are still trying to come to kill our vision. So, there are obstacles like people in the city saying, “Your vision is too big.” What was the word they would use? “It’s too big. Your aspirations are so large. Or you’ve got great intentions, but man, I don’t see how it can happen. That’s a whole lot of money.” And so we would always hear “It’s too big.” But we would keep pressing. Obstacles would come like “You’re not going to get us to say ‘yes.’” And then ‘yes’ would come. Obstacles came. And I think I told you in one instance, our project died seven times and was resurrected at least seven times. We’ve gone into meetings where we’ve needed a commitment to funding in that meeting. Coming into the meeting, having people who were going to fund this say ‘no’, and by the time we got out, having them say ‘yes.’ We were landmarked by Historic Preservation. When Historic Preservation marks you, nine times out of ten, it’s a project killer. It cost us two years and $4 million. And still God made a way, sending resources we had no idea where they would come from. I could go on and on in regards to obstacles. But when one prepares to chase vision, and when one prepares to chase big vision that is of God, obstacles, problems, challenges, adversarial activity, enemy activity is a part of the process. And as we prepare ourselves and as we realize that and don’t let it stop us, we can achieve.

Doug: Do you think that you, sort of, unconsciously, or maybe consciously, actually prepared the people in the congregation, and the community, to say “we’re thinking big. We know something’s going to hit us, so when that happens, we’ve got to be ready for this. We can’t lose hope!” Or is it more you just had to react when the time came?

Joe: No. You’ve got to, particularly as a pastoral leader, and even as a lay leader, you have got to constantly preach and teach about vision and preach and teach about the process of seeing a vision to its completion and what comes. So you have to literally use the opportunities that come as you’re chasing the vision as preaching opportunities. So when obstacles would come, I would use those opportunities to teach. I would use the obstacles as a way of teaching. And the Bible is filled with stories of those who’ve been called by God to accomplish certain things and the landmarks, or the landmarks, the challenges that they’ve had to overcome. And so use those stories as a way to educate people, to speak to people, and even to encourage yourself as you’re encouraging people in the midst of the storm. There are three words that our congregation would constantly hear from me, to the point where they would recite them themselves whenever we were in adversarial activity. And they were persistence, patience, and prayer. If we persist, if we’re patient, and if we stay in prayer, the Lord’s going to make a way. And as we kept doing that, I think that is essential to the vision chasing process. That thing is essential to the thinking big process. You’ve got to expect opposition. I have a chapter in the book I wrote, Walking with Nehemiah, that literally is devoted to expecting opposition. And what to do when opposition comes. And opposition comes politically. It comes relationally. It comes financially. It comes all kind of ways.

Doug: Sometimes at the same time.

Joe: And sometimes at the same time.

Doug: I’m going to switch a little bit because now the building is complete. As I said earlier, it’s there. We have a tendency to worship our buildings. You know? That’s been one of the challenges of churches. You know. We become building worshipers. Now you have this wonderful, new, beautiful building — literally up on the hill. How do you prevent the people from becoming building worshipers? I mean, you’ve constructed a very relational congregation, very outward focused, always in the community, but now you’ve got the building.

Joe: Well, just as we emphasized through preaching, and teaching, and seeking to model while we were nomadic in the school for four and a half years — that we’re doing this not for the building, we are doing this for people. That same emphasis through preaching, and teaching, and modeling has been the case in the four Sundays that we’ve been in the new building thus far. But I’ve had to encourage people in sermons and in teachings, you know, “Don’t think we’ve arrived, because we haven’t. We can get lost up here on this hill and be insignificant.” And so, the work continues. The vision continues. This is one step of the vision, but the vision is broad. And so, you’ve got to teach it. You’ve got to preach it. You’ve got to model that God is not locked in a building. God is in the neighborhood. And if we don’t get in the neighborhood, the very thing we’ve been seeking to do will fall on our heads. And we’ve got money we still have to raise. We’ve got debt we still have to pay. Of the $56 million, we’ve got about $3.5 million in debt that we still have to pay. So there’s work to be done. There are people to meet. There are assets to find. There’s organizing that has to be done. All of that. And so, you don’t arrive. And I began talking and telling folks, “You know, the Beacon Center is not the end of the road. It’s going to get even crazier after we get to the building.” And so, that, in fact, is starting to come to pass.

Doug: I believe it. As we draw to an end, speak a little bit about when you are doing this for the project, and all the other responsibilities, I mean, this takes a lot of time. Time away from family, time away from taking care of yourself. How do you balance when you’re the pastor of the community? Where do you find peace because, literally, you can’t go out without everybody knowing who you are in this case? So where do you find your respite? Your get away? You were talking about Jesus. Jesus would get away and hide from everybody for a little bit. Where’s your respite?

Joe: Well I’m a constant work in progress. But I enjoy exercising. I have committed myself to exercise four times a week for at least an hour.

Doug: There may be a rumor that there’s a gym in the building?

Joe: There’s a half-court gymnasium, yes. Yes, there is. As a former ball player, I can’t wait to use it. I haven’t shot a hoop yet, but I intend to. So, for me, commitment to exercise is critical. Prayer partnerships are critical. I have two very close prayer partners and we pray. I actually have three prayer partners. We pray on four different occasions during the week. My wife is my primary one. In terms of wife and family, Friday night is date night. We schedule nothing on date night but us and whatever we want to do. I seek to practice Sabbath. Sabbath is on Monday. I seek not to do anything. To try and shut down on Monday. And then I try to conclude Saturday activities by 2 PM and have that time just to do. So you have to calendar things. And then, when I can get away. I like to get away. I love the beach. Me and the beach. The beach is the place I discover Jesus in a deeper way. And, if I can just sit on the ocean for days on end, I love it. Just watching the waves. I get refreshed that way. Vacation is very important. And so that’s what I do. I sneak away to Jazz clubs. My wife and I like standup comedy. Some folks are like “you go to standup comedy with all that cursing and swearing?” And I’m like “I love the atmosphere because I like to see, as a preacher, watching a comedian on stage perfect her or his craft.” It is very medicinal for me as a preacher who stands on a stage to be able to communicate to an audience in a way that connects.

Doug: That’s actually interesting. So now I have to ask one more question. When you do that, do you actually learn from watching a comedian in terms of the way they can tell when they’re losing an audience? So, do you see how they try? Do you take anything from them? How do I really start connecting again? Especially, if you’ve prepared a sermon and you think this is going to work, but it’s not. Does that help you to shift your thinking midstream?

Joe: Very much so. Not just with comedians but also with Jazz artists. Let me give one example. My wife and I went to see Ali Siddiq the year before last. She just went to see him again. I was out of town when he came, so she went with some friends. But I was enamored when I went to see Ali Siddiq that he had a glass of water on stage. And, he would tell jokes and then sip from the water. Tell jokes. Sip from the water. He was very poised, very calm. He was, I mean, he was engaged with the audience. He would engage the audience in some of his jokes. But I noticed that his glass of water was his timer. And he knew that his time was about up on the stage when he got to the end of the water in his glass. I also just paid attention to his poise. Because, in the middle of the show, a heckler came. The woman was drunk. And he just shut her down — so politely, but so directly — that she immediately went into a hangover and ended up leaving. And so, seeing how he managed distractions in the audience while he was perfecting his craft, was performing his craft, was phenomenal. And I’ve seen comedians who have gotten to a point in their presentation where they have gotten tired. And you can see they’re tired. And some have tried to press through the fatigue. Then others have recognized that “I’m tired, I need to bring it on down.” And so I’ve seen those who have been effective in bringing it down because they’re tired and those who’ve tried to push on and just completely lose the audience. Even jazz, I’ve seen those in the same kinds of ways. So not only do I relax when I go and hear comedians and laugh and have a great time, and go to jazz clubs and jazz venues and be blessed by the music, but I also like to pay attention to those who are on stage performing because it’s just what we do. We don’t perform, but we’re on stage.

Doug: So what advice would you give to other congregations trying to think big? So if you could name two or three things that you would say to them, obviously vision, but what is it that they concretely need to do to really think big?

Joe: Obviously vision. I would encourage the congregations to fall in love with vision. Secondly, I would encourage congregations to see that they have far more than they think they have. That they have far more assets than they think they have. And to begin looking more at assets, as not just financial assets, or property assets, but more so people assets. I can’t begin to tell you the number of people that God has had in positions around the city who are either Emory members, or who know Emory members. When we’ve needed something, that person has been in the right place at the right time. And that’s a people asset. So I would emphasize that. I would also emphasize that congregations have the courage to go deeper spiritually. And to grow spiritually. To get into the Word. To pray. To fast. To practice the spiritual disciplines. Because these are the things that when you’re journeying toward a big vision, these are the things that sustain you. That keep you and that help you get to the finish line and beyond.

Doug : Well thank you! This has been wonderful and I appreciate your taking the time to spend with us today.

Joe: You’re welcome. I hope it’s a blessing.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Carla Works, associate professor in New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, about leadership lessons from biblical women.

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About Author

Dr. Joseph W. Daniels is Lead Pastor at Emory United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, and the founder of the Emory Beacon of Light, Inc., the mission arm of The Emory Fellowship. Daniels was Pastor Daniels was a cofounder and cochair of Washington Interfaith Network, a social justice organization in the District of Columbia and is a former district superintendent. He teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary and his books include Connecting for a Change: How to Engage People, Churches, and Partners to Inspire Hope in Your Community (Abingdon, 2019) with Christie Latona, available at Cokesbury and Amazon; Walking with Nehemiah (Abingdon, 2014); and The Power of REAL (Not Just A Curtain Puller, 2011).

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.