This week I’d like to introduce to you a new series we’re calling New Tools for Ministry! Throughout this series, we will be interviewing church leaders who are practicing ministry in innovative ways, challenging the traditional pastoral model with creative and often financially fruitful ventures that bring the church into deeper relationship with the surrounding community. With each post, we will be exploring what the modern church can learn from these ministry leaders and how they see their ministerial role.
For our first post, I interviewed David Greenlund, pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Lauderdale, Minnesota, a tiny city of just 2,500 immediately surrounded by the rest of the Twin Cities metropolitan area with a unique, small-town feel. As part of his work as the solo, full-time pastor at Peace, Pastor Dave spends much of his time throughout the year working in the homes of the surrounding Lauderdale neighborhood doing home repair and remodeling. During Pastor Dave’s time at Peace, the church has also become well-known in the area for its Christmas in August program when church members provide free basic home-repair to any neighbors in need using materials purchased (and often found for free) by the church. Read on to find out more about why Pastor Dave considers home repair to be his ministry calling!
Maggie Andersen Peterson (MAP): Thanks for joining me today, Pastor Dave! I’d like to start off by asking what is your background in home repair/remodeling?
Dave Greenlund (DG): I grew up living with my grandparents in Chicago. My grandfather was supposed to repair the units in the apartment building we lived in, but he was an alcoholic and wanted to continue drinking. So instead he taught me how to fix outlets and switches and do some basic plumbing at about 10 so I could do his jobs for him.
I got most of my training from being taken off the streets in Chicago by a returned Peace Corps couple. They came back to Chicago after two stints in Columbia and bought apartment buildings in rundown neighborhoods and beautifully remodeled them and rented them out to low income people. They would use the income from one building to buy another building. They asked me to paint the units and I became their one-man painting crew. That soon turned into fixing electrical problems, plumbing issues, building floors, replacing walls. By the time I was 15, I was doing a lot of that stuff for them. They gave me a job and a place to live. I stayed in the apartments throughout high school.
I didn’t know my father growing up. He was a concrete guy who built concrete foundations, and I helped him for a few months the summer when I was 15. When I finally met him and his family, I knew I’d found my people. My father’s hands look exactly like my hands. His family is all like me. They like to build stuff and know how things work. They’re can-do people. They built an addition to the house all on their own just because they had the time and the wood. Part of me is wired this way.
I think I learned these survival instincts, these fix-it instincts because growing up, my mother’s family didn’t have those instincts. They weren’t interested in trying to fix things or make them better. In a way, I think I was trying to work out my childhood by fixing things, making my world better. And today I continue to do this to try to help make people’s lives a little more pleasant.
We’re not building the kingdom in this way. The toilets that we fix today are going to malfunction next year. It’s not like it’s one and done. The kingdom isn’t fixed by repairing the plumbing. The kingdom is built by the people sharing their lives together in the process of fixing that plumbing.
MAP: How did this develop for you as a ministry?
DG: When I first came to this church I was a little nervous. I started visiting the people in the neighboring homes and they would ask me to bring communion. Pretty soon I was bringing an electrical box too. I was never sure which box I would open that day.
I came to realize that being a pastor is to be present, and what can I do to be present? I can do this. I can fix homes. People have a need, and I have no problem showing up for that need.
MAP: And the Christmas in August program?
DG: The ministry really started at Peace. I was basically came to close this church. I was told to prepare it to close within 12 months. I lived blocks away, and I saw so much need here. I thought, why don’t we make contact here? Offer to fix people’s houses for them. Peace offers to buy materials as much as they can. The first year we did three houses. Some of the neighbors donated the materials. We even made a few hundred bucks. We didn’t need to spend any money. The next year we did eight houses and we made $1000.
MAP: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I think for me, one of the things I find so interesting about this ministry program is that well, first, it’s just a cool idea, but second, it’s a really new way of looking at financial solvency for the church. I think the traditional model of the members of the church tithing to raise costs for the church’s expenses isn’t working now, and it’s certainly not going to work in 20 years from now. And it’s turning people away from the church. I love the idea of these innovative forms of ministry because, like said, I think they are cool and interesting ways of looking at ministry, but also because it’s a new way for the church to operate with financial stability while also making it more relevant and connected with the neighboring community.
DG: About two years ago, my healthcare costs for the church went up. I started taking on more jobs to bolster the church’s budget. I never ask for money, but people would donate to the church in exchange for the work I do in their homes. So started doing bigger jobs. I put in some bathrooms and remodeled some kitchens in and around Lauderdale. Sometimes I put in 10 hours a week doing home repair, sometimes two. Coming up there will be some 30-hour weeks. That rare except for around Christmas in August. Sometimes I take people from the church with me.
The only way that I’m able to connect with some of these people is through these jobs. If it was just about getting money, I’d do it differently. You know, in the beginning I used to write a lot of grants. Now instead I’m going to meet someone and do work for them in their house.
MAP: And these people, for the most part, aren’t official listed church members, right? Because I think that’s one of the other really cool things about this program. That, through coming into these people’s homes, you’ve come to see this whole neighborhood as part of the church.
DG: That’s exactly right. Exactly right. We don’t have a list somewhere and I wouldn’t look at the numbers even if could, but these people are all part of our church even if they aren’t here in the building on Sundays.
I think the work I do going into people’s homes is building church with them. You know Janet*, the neighborhood atheist recluse who is in the last stages of cancer, I visit her three to four times week now. That never would have happened if I hadn’t built a bathroom for her.
I just got through about 16 houses today, blowing the snow. People will send donations to the church for blowing the snow. I don’t charge anybody, but they give. They know who I am. I don’t think we’ve gotten any direct members from services that we’ve done. We haven’t worked on any house that somebody said, “Thank you so much, I’m going to become a member.” It’s not about direct members, but al lot of our members came because they wanted to be involved in the work we were doing.
I don’t think it matters that they aren’t formal members. We are about service, about loving the neighbor, about sharing the good news. They are members of the flock of the church even if they aren’t numbered on a list somewhere. I don’t think that’s important to us.
MAP: Was anybody at the church ever opposed to you spending so much time doing these home repair services?
DG: No. Nobody was ever opposed to what I was doing. The biggest roadblock was me because I felt like fit with what my then idea of what it meant to be a pastor. It was too much fun!
Once, early on, there was a grumpy woman in the neighborhood who saw me in my driveway. She said she was surprised at how the church was growing. She told me, “You’ve been in all my neighbor’s houses and doing all this work, but some people are saying you’re nothing more than a social service agency and you aren’t really sharing the gospel at all.”
That really grated on me. But in the years following I’ve thought, wow, what a great compliment to be called a social service agency. Wouldn’t it be great if more churches could do that. Isn’t that how you spread the gospel?
St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” I can say that I’ve never worked in somebody’s house where a conversation doesn’t break out about people’s faith. People sit around and wait to talk about their childhood church experiences. For some people it takes a long time to come out of their skin. So this became a natural way to have a conversation with regular strangers that wasn’t threatening.
You are in their space. They are trusting you with their dirty laundry. Their literal crap if you are taking out their toilet. There is something about that that helps break barriers to human connection, and I personally think that is the Spirit coming before me. I don’t even have to pray for it anymore. When I show up at somebody’s house, I know that the Spirit is there first. People are just waiting for the opportunity.
Think about it. We are more comfortable letting plumbers and electricians in our homes than pastors. And it used to be the opposite. Now that’s gone. Pastors don’t have a way into anything. So in some ways you gotta show up with your gifts. I don’t think there is such a thing anymore as a “profession of ministry.” I think that’s just a thing the church used to do. Bring baptism. Bring communion. That’s what we were trained for. I remember there used to be a Lutheran Brotherhood ministry set. It came in a blue velvet box. Those were the tools of your trade. And I thought, weren’t the first disciples carpenters and fishers and tentmakers?
I think that’s why Paul was so successful. He was a tent maker. I’m sure as he sewed up tents, repaired tents, these conversations about Jesus and the Gospel broke out. Word about Paul and Jesus would spread, and the Word spread.
MAP: You told me once that you don’t consider yourself bi-vocational, right?
DG: You can’t really tear them apart anymore. There are other churches that do that better. Be bi-vocational. But I don’t see myself as bi-vocational. I think I’d be torn apart. How would I divide my time if 2.5 hours of my 8-hour day in someone’s home is spent answering questions about the church? I can’t just say, “Today, I’m carpenter.” The same is true of being a pastor. If I see a car alongside the highway, I don’t think, “Okay, am I an auto mechanic now?” I just do things. It’s a way to connect with people.
I think it’s appropriate that at this point in the interview, Pastor Dave had to stop to address a plumbing issue. A pastor’s work is never done. Thanks again, Pastor Dave! Stay turned for the next installment of New Tools for Ministry.