April 16, 2020, Washington D.C. The Center for Public Justice spotlighted Victory Church as a Sacred Sector Partner. The Sacred Sector is a learning community for faith-based organizations and emerging leaders within the faith-based nonprofit sector to integrate and fully embody their sacred mission in every area of organizational life. The original article is located here.
COVID-19 & Public Justice
BY JAMÉ BOLDS AND CHELSEA LANGSTON BOMBINO
Victory Church in Yorktown, Virginia is a congregation within the Assemblies of God fellowship whose mission is to “invite people to discover Jesus in everyday life.” This church emphasizes a holistic, incarnational gospel in its organizational core values to:
Victory Church is a 2018-2019 Sacred Sector Community participant, and has long shared a mutually beneficial relationship with the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), started through Victory Church Pastor Jamé Bolds. Through a mutually beneficial collaboration, Victory Church and Sacred Sector (an initiative of CPJ) strengthen each other as they seek, in community with other congregations and faith-based organizations, to live out their sacred animating beliefs, in every area of their organizational lives - even amid the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Lead Pastor Jamé Bolds, along with Missions Pastor Mark Shanks, approaches this current pandemic as an opportunity to live into his congregation’s faith-based commitments in everything they do, fulfilling their God-given responsibilities with respect to how they engage their own faith community, how they serve their broader Virginia community, how they coordinate with other congregations and community-serving organizations, and how they interact with government.
I (Chelsea Langston Bombino) first met Pastor Bolds a decade ago when we were both participants in the Center for Public Justice’s 2010 Civitas summer program. Civitas was a leadership program CPJ provided for a number of years, offered to graduate students, Ph.D. students and other young adults interested in civil political engagement. At the heart of the program, academics and future church, policy and government leaders came together in community to learn how a public justice framework in the Kuyperian principled pluralist tradition shapes every area of life. Civitas provided a philosophical and theological framework for living out a public justice framework for how Christian citizens could engage in political community, and offered participants the opportunity to apply this framework to their own academic research or distinct roles in the varied vocational offices in civil society.
Sacred Sector is also a learning community within CPJ which empowers participants, in this case faith-based organizational leaders, to apply a public justice perspective to their specific context. Sacred Sector uses a holistic framework to empower faith-based organizations and their leaders to integrate their faith into everything they do: 1.) how to understand and respond to public policies that impact their faith-based work, 2.) how to implement organizational best practices to advance their faith-based missions, and 3.) how to publicly position their faith-based impact. Sacred Sector calls this framework the “Three P’s,” empowering its participants to incarnate their sacred institutional identities (both their freedom and their responsibilities) in six key areas: religious staffing, government partnerships, positive engagement in the public square, sexual orientation and gender identity nondiscrimination laws, advocacy and lobbying, and family-supportive workplaces.
This “Three P’s” framework and Sacred Sector’s resources are especially relevant in this moment of living into our faith during COVID-19, as Pastor Bolds highlights in our interview below. He emphasizes that while religious freedom is a foundational value, it is a false appropriation of religious freedom when churches claim that following public health guidance meant to protect all of our communities, especially the most vulnerable, is somehow a violation of that freedom. To the contrary, Pastor Bolds encourages us to use “Spirit-filled logic” in navigating when we ought to prudentially claim our religious freedom has been limited. Rather, he suggests that public policy, organizational practices and public positioning can all work together to strengthen an organization’s capacities to live out it’s religious responsibilities in this moment.
Pastor Bolds now is the lead pastor of Victory and a Ph.D. candidate at Stellenbosch University. I interviewed Pastor Bolds (abbreviated as “JB”) and Victory Church Mission Pastor Mark Shanks (abbreviated as “MS”), to reflect on how Sacred Sector and Victory Church are helping each other to mutually grow in their capacities to advance their ministry’s mission:
Chelsea Langston Bombino (CLB): Pastor Bolds and Pastor Shanks, tell me a bit about how you view your vocational office in this church.
Jamé Bolds (JB): I do three things: I envision; I teach; I form leaders (networking). I love my Victors (those who call Victory Church home) and I’m consumed with helping you discover Jesus in five areas of your life: Discover Jesus (Spiritual Formation), Discover Myself (Personal Wholeness), Discover Others (Healthy Relationships), Discover Purpose (Vocational Clarity) and Discover Work (Economics). We have a way to help you discover those things; we call it the Victory Way. In 2020, we’ll be driving down this discipleship path which will help you grow in every aspect of your life.
Mark Shanks (MS): I was in a Guatemalan jungle when God revealed to me that I was called to pastor missionaries and expose people to the global God of Acts 1:8.
Here at Victory, I’m the outreach champion, responsible for having our church act as a "neighborhood to nations" as we support the work of our missionaries. My heart is to spread the good news globally, caring for missionaries that may feel isolated or discouraged.
In this moment of COVID-19, we are exercising what we call "Spirit logic,” or being led by the Holy Spirit, to navigate our church-based roles and responsibilities. Our congregation has moved to remote work, but that is a (metaphorical) floor, not a ceiling. Our childcare is also suspended for now, for the health and safety of our families. But it is not enough for churches to stop at practicing public health guidelines. We are called as the body of Christ to carefully consider how we can offer spiritual, physical, and relational resources to our communities, in coordination with others. Our spiritual calling, and our freedom to serve, during COVID-19, does not change; what changes is how we are called to innovate in how we exercise our religious freedom in a way that helps and does not harm our communities.
CLB: Can you give a picture of what Victory’s past, present and future hold? How does this relate to how it continues to be a congregation that seeks to embody its sacred purposes in everything it does?
JB: We are a fifty-year-old Assemblies of God congregation who has moved in three different locations over the past fifty years. My predecessor was here for the past twenty-five years. Our previous pastor had a vision for what church life would look like in twenty years and I really believe God gave him the bigger vision of this ministry. I often feel like Joshua finishing Moses' work. Just in terms of numbers when [Mark and I] came in, we had 28 people. We were losing $100,000 a year, and the church's preschool was basically broke. The building was pretty much in disrepair. The church had $1 million in debt. When I started, my main resources available to me were spiritual resources: the Holy Spirit, God’s word, God’s grace, and a bunch of prayer! I knew when Pastor Jennifer and I came to Victory that God had called us to pastor a city, not just a church. Understanding your spiritual identity and foundational sacred beliefs are crucial. You can’t live out what you don’t understand and articulate. We had very little technique, but by God's grace five years later the building is completely rebuilt, we are at capacity in the preschool, we are 100% debt free, the congregation has grown by 300 percent and Pastor Mark has come on board as our Missions Pastor.
The theological and practical turning point to church revitalization was when we started to tithe to missions. We wanted to be a church that was embedded in our community. We now have a foundation that will keep the church going in perpetuity.
At a Christmas party, Mark walked up to me and said: "I want to be a Missions Pastor." So Mark came into a residency for two years and then became a Missions Pastor. The model of giving that Victory has undertaken is based on God’s word. We seek to embody the same values Sacred Sector espouses when you talk about incarnating your sacred texts and beliefs into your institutional practices. We think what we have could really be a national model for giving.
Acts 1:8 states: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is the vision of how we tithe, we believe our missions work must be investing in Jerusalem (local community), Judea (our larger region) and throughout the world. When we were putting this together, Mark and I came to the conclusion that it was really a team effort. Most churches would only give between $20-$50 a month per missionary. We know that it costs missionaries a multiplier by three to raise the money -- so it will cost a missionary 50 to 75 dollars to raise 20 dollars. We look at two things: (1) Do we have a relationship with you, and (2) are you effective? We want to build a relationship with you if you are effective. So we started to give a substantial amount of money to fewer missionaries who are doing what no one else does, and who know how to measure their effectiveness. We want to plant good seeds in the ground and it is not just going to help anyone just sitting at the church - the simple concept of sowing and reaping. We started applying sound neo-liberal economic theories to missions and developed a sustainable economic model.
During COVID-19, principled pluralism is a very powerful framework, and it guides everything I do, including how we prioritize missions during this time. If our congregation and our missionaries can understand the normative framework and the nomenclature of principled pluralism, they will be able to see why it is so vital during COVID-19 that they not just evaluate their own distinct God-given gifts and way they can serve in this moment as individuals, whether they are local, national, or throughout the world, but it is essential that they can have a vision for the institutions and communities of which they are a part, and those around them. Principled pluralism requires that missionaries navigating COVID-19, no matter where they are, think about how they can help their institutions develop and innovate new means and norms to live out their God-given roles.
Mark Shanks (MS): It was a walk of faith. It was a marriage basically. I had been in three different churches and I saw things that could have been improved about the outlook. Jamé started his career at a think tank, so he brings those economic and philanthropic ideas and things just started joining together. And then when I started really talking with missionaries and other churches, there was this difference that says "oh yeah, we give to missions." The radical element of change was Malachi 3:10 (NASB): “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,' says the LORD of hosts, 'if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.” We started seeking the Lord to help us incarnate this vision of this verse in our congregational missions practices. We started asking, what does it look like to tithe your income to missions according to this verse? Why doesn't the church tithe to missions? They have an income coming in, don't they? Giving is a benevolence thing to do. Tithing is a faith thing.
JB: We look for creative innovation. We look to be strategic thought partners with the missionaries we support. We love missionaries who allow us to come to the table in thought leadership and strategic input. Our heart goes before the checkbook. With our missionaries, it is a culture of yes.
CLB: Besides Victory’s missions work, can you discuss how your congregation has lived out its faith-based mission?
JB: Especially with respect to COVID-19, there is a distinction between fear and caution. Fear is real, but we believe our Victors (congregants) don't give into a level of fear. And we certainly don't want to get into this whole "Well the government cannot tell me what to do because we are a church we can do what we want this is a religious freedom problem." Well, that is not accurate. This is not a religious freedom problem, unless the government singles out faith-based institutions. This is how the government is advising every institution in society. Christians should recommend their congregants be good citizens by following public health guidance and government recommendations.
For example, the local Baptist church is handing out lunches where we live. I called them up and asked, "how can we help?" The Baptist church told us what they were doing was unsustainable, that they could only serve the local kids for two weeks without community partners. They had not necessarily thought through how to coordinate with local government or with other congregations and community-serving organizations. We suggested, what if each congregational community and faith-based organization and local government agency could bring their distinct assets to the table, the things they are most strong in, and coordinate together to serve the community holistically? Our Baptist friends did an amazing job filling the gap between the private and public sector now the local schools were caught up in there lunch program.
Even before COVID-19, our congregational leadership has tried to live into this vision of coordinating institutions to live out their God-given roles. We have grown; we own over 20 acres, we have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the YMCA. We are talking about a second site for preschool, and are in negotiation with an elderly care organization. As we have grown, CPJ’s philosophy has helped us navigate the interconnectedness between our ministry and the public square. We are living that out. We lost a deacon who said that churches should not have any community partnerships, and they simply did not support our collaboration with the YMCA. It was sad and we mourned the loss. The perceived sacred and secular divide is real and we simply believe that all of the created order is sacred. Every square inch.
CLB: By engaging in mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with groups like Victory, and with the strategic input you both bring, Sacred Sector will be able to more clearly integrate a biblically rooted framework into everything we do. Victory and CPJ share a vision of mutually refining one another through our collaboration with one another. We are engaging as co-investors and as co-laborers in catalyzing institutions and individuals with the capacity to engage in policy-shaping aligned with a principled pluralist framework. Through the process of shaping Sacred Sector’s resources to reflect a biblically rooted, principled pluralist framework, leaders will in turn be strengthened to engage more fully in both their own scholarship and citizenship in the support of a robust and diverse faith-based social sector. What can Sacred Sector keep doing to deepen our partnership with you and other congregational communities like yours?
JB: I would like to see more legal templates and case studies. I think we could develop more practical language for how churches can navigate this space. We really valued CPJ’s eldercare resource in 2019. We just launched an opportunity for a $31 million retirement community. CPJ's research, principles, and case studies on eldercare have really inspired us to keep pursuing this work.
The book of Habakkuk speaks all about disease and pestilence. And Habakkuk asks in the first two chapters: "Why does this happen, why?" And in chapter three God tells him he is going to write the vision for peace and redemption down, in the midst of peace. Principled pluralism gives us public language to speak to people. As a local church, what can we do to advance the common good? What is the common good? As Christians, that is a beautiful place to be, because you can't have the common good without the Good News. You can't have the Great Commission without the Great Compassion, it doesn't exist; it is contrary to the Christian faith.
Jamé Bolds, Ph.D. Candidate (Universiteit Stellenbosch) is the lead pastor of Victory Church (Yorktown, VA).
Chelsea Langston Bombino is the director of Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice.