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Engaging with neighbors draws people to church

The Rev. Deb Conklin is helping two small churches discern their passions for ministry in their neighborhoods, East and West Central Spokane, which are among the poorest in the state.

Deb Conklin

The Rev. Deb Conklin guides two small congregations.

She has served Liberty Park United Methodist Church (UMC) since 2007, half time along with Deer Park UMC.  In July, she was shifted from Deer Park to serve St. Paul’s UMC, which recently sold its building at 1620 N. Monroe.

Two years after she came to Liberty Park, Deb was aware that the 15 people over 60 who worship in the 200-seat Liberty Park sanctuary had “a sense of being the last remnant.” 

So she shifted from efforts to grow the Sunday morning congregation.

Last year, knowing young people are drawn by other young people and not by worship in a traditional setting with older people, she started “Faith Conversations,” a discussion group for people in their 20s and 30s, offering another time and experience for connecting with church.

Thursday evenings, they meet for conversations on how faith affects their involvement in the community and world.  They recently explored what is happening to labor in Washington when the governor of Wisconsin was trying to drive out unions.

“Young adults wonder why churches aren’t speaking out as they did in the 1960s, leading the civil rights and anti-war movements,” she said.  “They ask:  Why aren’t churches taking leadership on living wages?  Why do people accept blaming unions, when unions won the 40-hour workweek and health care, and protect us from the power of multinational corporations.

“With small groups we can have conversations on controversial issues and our values,” Deb said.

In contrast to sermons that nudge people’s thinking, small groups push each other harder, she said.

The idea for the group came from her 26-year-old son, Chris, when she asked what it would take for him to be part of a church, given that he believes in God and still holds values he grew up with.

After St. Paul’s UMC’s previous pastors helped members, who were unable to maintain their building, discuss its future, mission and core values, the church sold its building in May to Christ Our Hope Bible Church.  It began sharing space at Salem Lutheran Church, 1428 W. Broadway, to stay in the neighborhood.

As I gain a sense of where they are in their faith journeys and build a pastoral relationship with them, I will give leadership to help them sort out their call to ministry free from the yoke of caring for an old building,” she said.

Now the congregation is joining Salem Lutheran and Holy Trinity Episcopal in beginning steps to form The Oak Tree, as a new ministry in West Central Spokane seeking alternative ways for unchurched people in their 20s to 40s to enter denominational churches. 

Organizers envision small groups to discuss contemporary issues, coffee-house conversations, door-to-door relationship building led by a community organizer, using internet tools, offering community events and involving people in social justice and community service.

Deb believes churches in the 21st century need to offer more than attractive buildings and quality Sunday worship to draw people.  Today, what church members are doing in the community and world is more likely to draw people to come alongside people who are doing the work of Jesus, Deb said.

She welcomes the Worldwide United Methodists’ recent decision to include “transformation” in the mission for congregations, who are now called “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

“Our future is to reclaim our United Methodist traditions of small covenant-discipleship groups and of social justice ministries,” she said.

“The covenant-discipleship group tradition involves commitment to join in acts of worship, devotion, mercy and justice to make a difference in the world,” she explained.  “Ministry is caring about, leading and challenging people, and holding them accountable in love.

“A church that takes ministry seriously is integrated into its neighborhood, is involved in social justice issues and spends time with people who are struggling with issues of the day,” she said.  “The church’s role is to nurture members so they go out to nurture others.”

Deb, who earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1977 and a law degree there in 1981, clerked at a firm in Colorado, and was deputy prosecutor for Clallam County from 1983 to 1987.

Although she burned out on sexual assault and child abuse cases, she liked standing in front of people—a jury—to talk about values and liked listening to victims and helping them deal with the trauma of their experiences.

“I grew up Methodist and left for college tired of the hypocrisy of church people focused solely on piety.  In the 1960s, however, I found many courageous church people serving people and trying to change the world,” she said, drawn back by the United Methodist commitment to justice, helping at an inner-city Philadelphia church’s shelter in college.

She was attending an Episcopal church in Port Angeles when she said yes to her call to ministry in 1987.  Deb returned to the United Methodist Church, which has ordained women since the 1930s.In 1994, she entered Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia.

She was drawn by Methodist founder John Wesley’s theology of social justice, aware Methodists in England were key to ending abuses of the Industrial Revolution—child labor, sweatshops and dawn-to-dusk workdays. 

Wesley started small covenant groups to help people experience personal piety and do something about the poor, prisoners, and oppressed and powerless people.

After earning her master of divinity degree in 1997, Deb was ordained and served in Rosalia for three years, at Ocean Shores three years, and then Davenport Edwall until 2007.

Deb described Liberty Park and St. Paul as having been healthy, successful churches for more than 100 years, and both becoming victims of an inability to adapt to cultural changes after the 1950s.  The ethos for many, she said, became maintaining the institution.

“As long as the cultural norm was to go to church on Sunday, we did well with a church in nearly every town and neighborhood,” she said, “but we forgot how to do evangelism.  People died and were not replaced.  Older people had less to give.  Budget problems led many churches to focus inward rather than asking where God was calling them to serve the world,” she said.

Deb Conklin in Sanctuary
Deb Conklin in Liberty Park United Methodist Church

Deb said Liberty Park is a “true” neighborhood church, because there is no parking lot.  People walked to church.

Its long-term rental agreements with a Montessori preschool and the Spokane Alliance—which helps congregations serve their neighborhoods—gave it partners to help support the building.

More than two years ago, the church replaced its furnace through Sustainable Works, a program of the alliance, setting up four heating zones, so unused areas can be closed off. 

That cut the heating bill from nearly $2,000 a month to less than $800 a month, she said.

St. Paul’s UMC, which started the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant, spun it off as a separate nonprofit, Deb said.  They also prepare a monthly dinner for Crosswalk, a downtown drop-in center and shelter for teens on the streets.  Both churches rented a plot in the Grant Park Community Garden for the Crosswalk teens.

St. Paul’s large building had one heating system, so when the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant was open, the whole building had to be heated.  It cost thousands of dollars a month.

She finds St. Paul’s members, which include two families with children and some in their 90s, more optimistic now that they no longer are a few people sitting in front of a sanctuary that seats 350.  They fit in the fireside room of Salem.

“They feel they are in a community with a future,” she said, noting that they are open to The Oak Tree ministry proposal as they explore to discern their passion for ministry.

“Today Christians in post-Christian America are like the Jews in exile in Babylon,” Deb said.  “We need to heed the prophet Jeremiah’s instruction to care for the communities where we live because our welfare is tied to the welfare of our communities.  Young adults want to be involved.” 

For information, call 251-4332 or email


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